Day of Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.

This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.

After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:

John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.

There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.

But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.

Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.

That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.

The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.

Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.

And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:

Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. 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. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:

Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.

Thanks be to God!

* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.

(Click here to return to the reflection.)

May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 22, Year B

Genesis 2:18-24 - link to NRSV text
Mark 10:2-9 - link NRSV text

I want to say this up front about this Sunday's gospel:

A lot of conservatives point to this as containing the heart of what Jesus had to say about God's creative intent for human sexuality. I agree with them completely on that point -- but Jesus' word to us, I believe, challenges idolatry of American "traditional family values" as much as it undermines our culture's worship of every romantic impulse. In other words, this Sunday a lot of us are going to find ourselves pushed to think beyond cultural myths of marriage to ask ourselves what God really wants for us in relationship with one another.

It's a question posed in this Sunday's gospel, some Pharisees come to Jesus as a fellow teacher to ask his opinion on a subject that was in many ways just as "hot" of a topic in first-century Jewish communities as it is in many twenty-first century cultures -- namely marriage.

They ask Jesus a question that a lot of teachers were asked: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? They didn't see need to ask whether a woman could divorce her husband -- there weren't all that many women who would want to do such a thing. In the first-century Mediterranean world, a woman's honor is embedded in that of her father until she's married, and her husband when she is married. A woman who for whatever reason needed to leave her husband had better hope that her father would take her back. Otherwise, without a male attachment, she would be perceived as a "loose woman" on more than one dimension. Most women in such a situation had few options for making a living, and as "damaged goods," little prospect of remarriage. If their fathers would not take them back, many would have no option to survive aside from prostitution. Still, a lot of debate about marriage and divorce didn't treat it so much as a question about what would happen to the women as a question of contract law related to the agreement between the fathers who arranged the marriage.

Many teachers saw the question in more explicitly theological terms, though, insisting that the central question to ask is what it means to be the people of the God of Israel. Among other things, that meant thinking of he survival of Israel, of ensuring that there would be future generations to honor God. With Jewish people being a tiny minority in the Roman Empire, under threat as a distinct people not only by oppression from without, but also, in the eyes of many, by slow attrition, as Greek culture continued to deepen its influence. Especially under such circumstances, it's not hard to understand how many rabbis would respond to a question about God's purpose for human sexuality by pointing to Genesis 1, and in particular to God's command -- it wasn't just an idle suggestion! -- to "be fruitful and multiply."

Men wanted heirs to pass along the family name and honor, and that certainly played a role in thinking about marriage and divorce, but it was also an issue of God's imperative. God commanded us to "be fruitful and multiply." If a marriage wasn't going to be "fruitful" with children, that was more than rotten luck; it was taken by some as a sign that the relationship wasn't blessed by God. And (how unusual!) it was often assumed that the fault for a "barren" marriage was with the woman.

For all of these reasons, the most common reason for men wanting a divorce in the ancient world was that the marriage wasn't "fruitful" -- wasn't producing children, and to all indications, wasn't going to later either. And if, as many thought, God's purpose for marriage was to "be fruitful and multiply," building up future generations who would carry on not only the family name, but the name of the God of Israel, why should anyone stay in a "fruitless" marriage? Why not divorce?

All that's to say that few would be surprised to hear that when Jesus was asked about divorce, he quoted from the book of Genesis to ask what is God's purpose of marriage and what kinds of behavior best uphold that.

But then Jesus quoted from the wrong chapter.

Jesus starts with an affirmation from Genesis 1: that all people, women and men, are made in God's image. That deep truth of who we are as God's children must be upheld in whatever else we say about human relationships. But when Jesus wants to say more about God's intention for marriage, he doesn't go to Genesis 1; he goes to Genesis 2. As Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg points out, Genesis 1 is a story in which humans aren't at all distinct from animals in terms of what God says to them about sexuality; humans and animals are told to "be fruitful and multiply" in precisely the same terms. It's in Genesis 2 that God's creative intent for <i>human</i> sexuality as something potentially distinct from animals' is hinted at. As Greenberg argues, we see it in the first mention of Genesis, after God's repeatedly looking at Creation and proclaiming its goodness, that something is "not good":

"It is not good that the human should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).

God creates us for community. To become more fully who we are, who God made us to be, we need to walk alongside another who will be with us for the long haul, who sees us at our best and our worst and will tell us the truth about both, who knows us deeply and loves us unconditionally. Theologians (who always love coming up with impressive-sounding words) like to call this dimension of marriage the "unitive dimension." I prefer over that technical phrase the description from the rock band U2: "We're one/but we're not the same/we get to carry each other" ("One"). But perhaps the best description -- certainly one of the oldest, and also the one to which Jesus pointed -- is the one of Genesis 2: the two become one flesh, and are naked, and not ashamed. With people made in God's image and created for self-giving love, that's an amazing experience of God's glory, God's creativity, and God's goodness.

So in Jesus' eyes, what we say about marriage must be guided by two points. First, it's got to recognize that God created humankind, both male and female, in God's image (and if I may digress, I have to underscore that the point here is that all humankind is made in God's image, rather than that a man without a woman or a woman without a man does NOT reflect God's image; the phrasing makes that clear enough, but the sheer ridiculousness of suggesting, for example, that single people -- such as Jesus of Nazareth, or St. Paul, for example! -- don't reflect God's image as well as any given heterosexual couple makes the suggestion unfathomable beyond its apparent usefulness for grinding contemporary theopolitical axes). Second, it's got to uphold that "unitive" dimension of relationship -- the "it is not good for a human to be alone" of Genesis 2.

As to the third point that people often bring up when discussing God's intention for marriage -- namely the command to "be fruitful and multiply" -- I have to say not just that Jesus was completely silent with respect to it, but that he seems to have rejected it.

His teaching regarding remarriage after divorce makes that clear. The most common reason a man in Jesus' culture would have wanted a divorce was if the marriage wasn't going to do what many men and women thought all marriages were for -- namely to produce children who could serve as heirs. Jesus' word on marriage pulls the rug out from under that. Jesus says, in effect, that a man who leaves his wife in hope of finding another marriage "fruitful" with children shouldn't have children at all. Women and men, Jesus teaches, aren't for use as baby factories or tickets to respectability, and a relationship isn't to be taken up or put aside with those things in mind.

Put positively, Jesus is saying that a marriage, like any other relationship, shouldn't be evaluated based on its perceived "fruitfulness" in terms of children, but based what St. Paul would call its fruitfulness in the Spirit. A relationship between two people that helps both live more fully in the world their identity and vocation as human beings made in God's image is blessed by God. Other considerations are peripheral.

In the first-century Mediterranean world, this word from Jesus was a profoundly liberating word. It may be that some of what Jesus had to say about divorce is less directly applicable to our culture, in which many women can and do make a living -- and one in accordance with their vocation as a daughter of God -- without having to rely on a father's whim or a husband's name, a woman's chances for remarriage are often not lower than a man's, and childlessness is far from the top reason for divorce. Conservatives are right, I think, in underscoring most the points that Jesus took from the beginning, from Genesis.

These points still constitute a profoundly challenging word to us, to be sure. Upholding marriage as the journey of two who have become "one flesh" challenges our culture's idolatry of romance, in which any powerful current of emotion or sexual attraction is interpreted as an entitlement to take up or set aside another human being like a toy or a prop. Understanding that we were created from the beginning for community, for deep communion, means that Christian communities must help to meet that need, recognizing that "it is not good for a human being to be alone" and committing to journey with one another intentionally, not leaving fulfillment of that basic and universal human need to romantic accident. Recognizing that all humankind -- all women and men -- are made in God's image and blessed by their Creator challenges us to overcome our culture's insistence that pairing up and parenthood are a universal call or at the very least a necessary component of "success" as a human being; it calls us to affirm the vocations and wholeness of those who are called, in Jesus' shocking terms, "eunuchs for God's kingdom" -- wholly available to a vocation as a "single" person in terms of marriage and children, but not at all alone when Christian community is "fruitful" in the Spirit. Those challenges can be daunting, but taking them up has the potential to set us free for authentic right relationship with one another -- each loved uniquely as God's child, each challenged and supported to grow in community.

Thanks be to God!

October 5, 2006 in Genesis, Kinship/Family, Mark, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (10)

Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mark 8:31-38 - link to NRSV text

I once heard a sermon suggesting that Jesus' command to deny self, take up the cross, and follow him could involve something as simple as picking up a beer can on the beach and throwing it away.

I don't agree.

I don't think such a thing could even be said in Jesus' time or Mark's. In their time, a cross wasn't a pattern for jewelry, but an instrument of terror as well as torture and death. Here's what I said about it last time I preached on Good Friday:

... the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.

And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.

In short, crucifixion was state-sponsored terror meant to keep the populace in line. It made one person suffer unspeakably, obscenely, excruciatingly, and made that suffering a sign for all to see that Rome was the ultimate power, able to bring hell on earth or peace and order.

Is that what the Cross signifies for us, then?

As St. Paul would say, by no means!

We can't realize (a word I'm using intentionally) the meaning of the Cross without taking a moment at least to look at what it meant to the empire that occupied Palestine in Jesus' day. If our heart skips a beat, if there's a sharp intake of breath, that's a good sign. The crosses along the roads of the Roman Empire weren't bits of litter that could be picked up and put away by anyone who “gives a hoot.” They formed a long, terrible gash, an open wound in human freedom, in the human imagination, in God's dream for humanity.

And yet it has become a sign of our freedom, our healing, the reconciliation of all Creation with one another and with God.

How is this? How can it be?

It can -- it is -- in Christ Jesus.

Across the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of power -- the power of empire, the power of armies, the power to dominate. As Christians, it still is the case that realizing the Cross' meaning has to involve us looking hard and talking honestly about power.

That's because the Cross isn't just about how Christ died. If the only thing we knew about Jesus was that he died on a cross, we would have no clue that Jesus was special. The Passover season was a time when the people of Israel were called to celebrate their liberation from oppression, and thousands upon thousands of people made their way to Jerusalem each way to do precisely that. Imagine for a moment those crowds on every street corner, and imagine the mood among those gathered to celebrate liberation. The combination made Roman authorities in Judea very nervous, and when Roman authorities got nervous, they tended to crucify first and ask questions later, or never. So in all likelihood, when Jesus died on a cross just outside Jerusalem's walls during the Passover season, he was surrounded not just by two men, but by dozens. In that sense, Jesus' death was nothing special. Even Jesus' resurrection would just be an item for “news of the weird” or grist for an episode of The X-Files or Smallville if all we knew about Jesus was that he died and then was alive again. If I told you that some guy named Jim Gundersen in MInnesota had been executed by the state, certified as dead, but was alive again three days later, Imost of us would be saying, “Huh, That's really weird,” not “Where is he? Tell me, so I can go worship him!”

The Cross isn't just about how Jesus died, nor is it simply a precursor to Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' death and resurrection have meaning for us because of the manner in which Jesus LIVED.

This, by the way, is why one of the most overused Christmas sermon titles is also one of the worst: “Born to Die.” Jesus was born to die, I suppose, in the sense that all of us are. St. Benedict teaches us to remember our mortality daily, much as we remind one another of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. But even that isn't really about death so much as it is about LIFE -- abundant life, a life of wholeness.

Jesus' manner of life, the way around which he gathered women and men and children to journey, infused his death with profound meaning. The Cross is about how Jesus LIVED. It's what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote this in his letter to the Christians gathered in Philippi:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself
 and became obedient to the point of death—
 even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
 that is above every name, 
so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue should confess
 that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:1-11)

Doing my lectionary weblog this year, I've noticed anew something about the Gospel According to Mark that I find significant as I think about Jesus' cross and what it might mean for me to take it up.

It has to do with the title “son of God,” which is not Mark's favorite way of talking about Jesus. He doesn't use the phrase much, but he uses it at three crucial points as he tells “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” and all of which we visit over the course of Lent and Holy Week.

We hear the phrase at Jesus' Baptism, when he has a vision of the Spirit descending upon him, and Jesus hears God call him as a beloved son. And empowered by that experience, Jesus enters the desert.

We hear the phrase at Jesus' transfiguration on the mountaintop, as Jesus is called as a prophet alongside Moses and Elijah, and once more hears God saying, “this is my beloved child.” Empowered by that experience, Jesus journeys toward his Passover in Jerusalem.

You may have noticed my saying “empowered.” These are stories about Jesus claiming his power. Is that hard to hear? We need to hear it, though. We need to hear it to understand Philippians 2, to realize the vision of the Cross. Because it's at the foot of the Cross that someone -- a Roman soldier no less, a man whose humanity has been so wounded, so eroded, so subverted that he could put another man on a cross -- finally gets what Peter doesn't get in this Sunday's gospel, and this Roman soldier looks at the broken man above him and says -- knows -- “truly this man was God's son.”

He gets it. He perceives Jesus' power in its fullness -- power made perfect in weakness, power poured out for the powerless.

That's the way of the Cross, of Jesus' cross. Jesus claims his power, God's power, and he gets it -- that real power, God's power, is not a limited thing to be grasped, but a inexhaustible stream flowing freely to refresh and empower the weary and the marginalized.

What, then, might it mean for us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus? It's not a call to martyrdom -- if nothing else, the teaching that Jesus' blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice for sin, it ought to tell us that Jesus' blood was the LAST blood to be shed because of sin. God does not need or want bloodshed. Not another drop. God does not call us to be a herd of lemmings. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, praying as Jesus taught us that God's kingdom would come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us to seek God's kingdom and to seek it first -- to look for and journey toward God's dream given flesh in the world, in communities of justice and peace and hope and abundant, vibrant life.

This is a powerful congregation. We have power by virtue of our education, our relative wealth in the world, our privilege in society, our voice. It can be very tempting -- all too tempting -- to seek nothing more than charity. Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place in which we release some portion of our resources in order to get more power. We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy, that gives us the illusion of control, and then we give away just enough to feel generous without seriously compromising our privilege.

The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that. Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have -- both the worldly power we've got because of our skin color, our gender, our social class, our education, our birth in the most powerful nation in the world, and the spiritual power we have as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit -- and then to let all of that pour out -- “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) -- to empower the poor.

We are called not only to make sure that the most marginalized have a place at the table, but also to recognize whose table it is. The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ, who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love, that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross. And the symbol of humanity's brokenness, of power corrupted to become domination, becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.

Thanks be to God!

March 9, 2006 in Genesis, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Lent, Mark, Romans, The Cross, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

First Sunday in Lent, Year B

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Genesis 9:8-17
- link to NRSV text
1 Peter 3:18-22 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:9-13
- link to NRSV text

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

It sounds fairly dry and matter-of-fact, doesn't it? But there's a lot going on between the lines. Jesus' home and family are in Nazareth of Galilee, and Jesus isn't. This isn't 21st-century white and middle-class America, when adults are expected to leave home to go to college, travel if they can afford it, and find their way in the world alone. It's first-century Palestine, and the decent thing for Jesus to do, by conventional standards would be for him to stay in Nazareth and look after his mother (and his father, if he's alive -- the gospels' silence about Joseph after Jesus' childhood suggests to some that he may have died) until they died, and to make sure they got an honorable burial. That would be the decent thing for a son to do.

The normal thing for a man to do in Jesus' culture, especially for a spiritual leader, would be to stay in Nazareth, marry, and have children -- preferably including at least one son to carry on the family name. That's true even more within most branches of first-century Judaism, in which “be fruitful and multiply” was seen as a binding command from God, not a vague expression of good wishes.

But Jesus didn't do either of those things. Had he married and had children (as the FICTIONAL book The Da Vinci Code suggests), his disciples would have been shouting that from the rooftops, not trying to conceal it -- “Our guy WAS a real man and a good Jew!” But his followers didn't say that, and the best historical explanation for that is that, embarrassing as it was to say that Jesus died having never married or had children, there was just no escaping the fact.

Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus left his home -- abandoned his family, they would say in the village -- on a spiritual quest.

We have now entered the desert of Lent on a spiritual quest of our own. Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time -- chocolate, beer, swearing, or somesuch -- drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as 'good,' and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we're on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered a desert with wild beasts and angels (and I don't know about you, but I suspect that the reason that the first thing out of an angel's mouth is “don't be afraid!” is that angels are often at least as terrifying as wild beasts), and we are striving to follow him.

That sounds lonely as well as terrifying. How on earth could we do it? Why on earth would we do it?

I think that this Sunday's gospel provides a clue. Jesus enters that desert as a man who is discovering his Baptismal identity, taking it in fully and acting on what he hears from God in Baptism. Jesus has no family where he is -- but in Baptism, God calls Jesus his beloved son, and Jesus hears God say, “with you I am well pleased.”

That means that Jesus has a family. His family by blood is going to come after him to drag him home as a crazy man who's bringing shaming the family name (Mark 2:21), but in Baptism, Jesus has mother and sisters and brothers in whoever does God's will (Mark 3:32-35). Jesus is leaving house and tools, but he will find shelter with others seeking God and God's reign. Jesus is not alone on his journey, and neither are we.

We have one another, and we also have something else on our journey: the opportunity to encounter God as Jesus did, to take in deeply God's word to us that we are God's beloved children, to claim that identity as the central one or maybe even the only one we have.

I don't think that Jesus spent his life after his Baptism trying to figure out what a good person, a good teacher, a good friend, a good leader would say or do and then trying to say or do that. I believe that Jesus sought the living God, claimed his identity as God's child, and let his life, his words, his relationships, and his love, even to giving of himself on the cross, flow from that identity as God's beloved.

Perhaps that's what God is calling me to do this Lenten season: to follow Jesus into that desert to listen deeply for what God has to say to me through my Baptism. And if that's God's call, those wild beasts won't destroy anything worth keeping. Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, “he isn't tame, but he's good,” and I believe that's true of God as well. I want to be alive in the spirit, as Jesus was, and that's a good enough reason to follow Jesus. If God is there, I won't be alone.

And besides, you're coming too, aren't you?

Thanks be to God!

March 3, 2006 in 1 Peter, Baptism, Genesis, Honor/Shame, Kinship/Family, Lent, Mark, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Proper 15, Year A

Isaiah 56:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 67 - link to BCP text
Romans 11:13-15,29-32 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 15:21-28 - link to NRSV text

In my experience, three forces running counter to discernment tend to pop up a lot -- especially where theology and politics (by which I mean power systems, not just party politics or civics) intersect (and isn't all theology really about politics too, if you think that God is the source of all legitimate power and authority?).

The first force is the conviction that you're already fully aware of what God wants. Give in to that, and you won't even start a process of discernment -- why bother, if you already have full access to everything God has to say on the subject?

The second force is the conviction that there's a person or group you don't need to listen to, as s/he or they couldn't possibly have anything valuable to contribute. Just think about what that would have done for the early church if, say, Ananias had decided that Jesus would never appear to someone who was an avowed, practicing, and notorious persecutor of the church, let alone call such a man as apostle to the Gentiles.

The third force is the conviction that if you knew what God was up to before, no further discernment is necessary. I think this last one just might be the most insidious for Christian leaders. After all, Jesus is Alpha and Omega, incarnation of the god who is the same yesterday, today, and forever -- right? And furthermore, changing course implies that the first course was a mistake. God doesn't make mistakes, and if you want to be seen as a trustworthy Christian leader, you won't let anyone think that you've made a mistake either.

These temptations are particularly strong for leaders who, in their heart of hearts, feel both that authority is about knowing a great deal more than others in the community and that they don't really know enough to justify being in a position of leadership. Parents and priests are prone to it; while neither giving birth nor being ordained confers miraculous infusions of knowledge or maturity, congregations and families often have vastly inflated expectations for what three years of seminary or three decades of living will do for you, and we're often afraid that any course corrections will cause us to lose face, and will confirm what they probably already expect: we're not Jesus.

But how well does that picture we have of the ideal, unwavering Christian leader, the one who doesn't need to grow because s/he's already a spiritual giant, the one who treats engaging with other points of view as a sign of undesirable weakness, match the canonical picture of Jesus? Not well, if this Sunday's gospel is any indication.

In it, Jesus is confronted by a woman who calls out to him demanding his help. It's not at all surprising that Jesus doesn't answer her. I've blogged many a time about Jesus' culture being an honor/shame culture. In such a culture, answering someone who confronted you like that would register for all onlookers -- and for anyone who heard the gossip from the onlookers, which would spread like wildfire especially if anything unconventional happened -- as an admission from the person who responded that the challenger was at least an equal. Once Jesus responds to the woman, that's what everyone watching things thinks -- that Jesus is no better than she is.

Unless, that is, she's appealing to him in the proper way, as a subject to a king. Her address to him as "Son of David," and by extension king of Israel, might suggest that -- if, that is, she were an Israelite. Perhaps -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- that was on her mind when she cried out, and she'd hoped to pass as such -- anything to bring mercy to her daughter. But Jesus' reply to her makes clear that even if he's king, she's not his subject. In other words, Jesus took away his one face-saving excuse for what's about to happen.

What's about to happen is that Jesus is going to give in to her. She challenged him, and by answering, Jesus made her his equal in the eyes of the crowd. But then, after acknowledging that she is not an Israelite, Jesus engages her in more argument ...

... and Jesus gives in. He loses the argument. He changes course at a woman's word, and commends her for challenging him. I've heard people say that Jesus didn't really mean what he said in this story, that he knew precisely what he was doing, and he was testing the woman's faith to see whether she was worthy of the miraculous healing she requested for her daughter. And I don't buy it, for the simple reason that this isn't how the crowd who witnessed the historical evidence would have interpreted it and more than Matthew's readers would have, and I don't believe that Jesus would play mind games with a woman desperately seeking a cure for her daughter to score a point so obscure that nobody in his culture could have gotten it.

I think we're on more solid ground in thinking that what was going on was this:

Jesus was changed in that encounter. He chose to listen to someone whom others would have ignored, and he chose to act in compassion in a situation in which no one would have faulted him for moving on. His choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind when doing so would cost him honor in the sight of others, demonstrated for us how a true leader discerns mission.

The kind of discernment we're called to exercise is not about certainty -- especially not when certainty threatens to trump compassion. As Rabbi Sheila Peltz said of her visit to Auschwitz, "As I stood before the gates I realized that I never want to be as certain about anything as were the people who built this place."

Discernment isn't about knowing who not to listen to either. Conventional wisdom would hold that someone who took counsel from a strange woman, a Canaanite woman, a woman who shouted out in the marketplace when she should have been home caring for her daughter, was not a good person from whom to take advice. And yet, Jesus, who compares himself to Wisdom herself in Matthew 11:18-19, is still open to hearing wisdom from the Canaanite woman.

And once we've discerned a genuine call, that doesn't mean it's what we're called to do at all times and under all circumstances, let alone that it's a call for all humanity. As I've blogged about before, I don't think that Jesus was blowing smoke when he talked in Matthew's gospel about a call to go to the House of Israel, even when there's persecution coming from Israelites. I don't think he was blowing smoke or playing mind games in this passage when he says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel either. But I think that Jesus had a deeper sense of call, a deeper sense of what it would mean for him to be faithful, and that it included entering into relationship -- real relationship -- with others. That's what love means. And real relationship, loving relationship, changes everyone involved. Christian leaders are called to "keep the main thing the main thing," as they say, and the main thing in Christian community is that quality of relationship.

Thank God for that! Thank God that, as our scriptures testify, God is Love, and God is changed in loving relationship. God saw that humankind was inclined toward evil, and resolved to blot out evil people from the earth (Genesis 6:5-7). After the great flood, God sees the inclination of the human heart toward evil (Genesis 8:21), but God resolves nevertheless to hang up God's bow, God's weapon, forever (Genesis 9:12-17) -- never again to try to destroy evil by destroying evildoers. Jesus sent his disciples to the House of Israel, where he said he was called to gather lost sheep -- and then a pushy Canaanite woman unveils something more -- something that leads the risen Jesus to commission an apostle to the Gentiles. Just when we thought we'd seen the limits of God's love, that love grows.

Thus says the Lord: "Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed." Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
-- Isaiah 56:1-7

Let your ways, oh God, be known upon earth, and your saving health among ALL nations. Let ALL the peoples, upon whom you have poured out your mercy and your blessing, praise you, and honor you by extending that mercy to all.

Thanks be to God!

August 10, 2005 in Discernment, Genesis, Honor/Shame, Inclusion, Isaiah, Leadership, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Women, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Trinity Sunday, Year A

Trinitysmall Please feel free to check out this sermon from a previous Trinity Sunday and this lectionary blog entry from Trinity Sunday last year if you're looking for additional inspiration. I found myself going in a rather different direction this year! 

Genesis 1:1-2:3 - link to NRSV text
2 Corinthians 13:5-14 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 28:16-20
- link to NRSV text

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
-- 2 Corinthians 13:13

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time when we celebrate especially the communion that is God's very Self, and remember the Great Commission that the risen Jesus gave us to baptize people from all nations.

But the commission Christ gave us doesn't stop there, and too often what follows is the Great Omission in the life of the church. We're called not just to baptize. We're not called to make churchgoers, people who include religion as one among many respectable civic activities. We're called to make disciples, people who really follow Jesus as Lord.

That language of lordship has fallen out of favor in a lot of circles, and I completely understand why: too many people have used it for too long to support their own agendas, ones that undermine the radical freedom which is Christ's gift to us. Case in point: the “Bush fish,” which literally enmeshes the bearer's identity as a follower of Bush in the symbol which is supposed to identify the bearer as a follower of Jesus. BushfishFor that reason, I have to agree with Slactivist's observation that “this isn't quite 'the abomination that causes desolation, standing in the holy place' -- but it comes close.” I'd feel just the same about it if it was the “Kerry fish” or the “Dean fish.” I'd also feel the same way if it were an American flag, or a Canadian flag, or any other flag, embedded in the fish, and this Sunday's gospel is one reason why I've got such a problem with the idea.

In this Sunday's gospel, the risen Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That's what we mean when we confess that Jesus is Lord. And that's actually Good News, “liberty to the prisoners,” for the very reason that the confession has that troubling edge in our history. It's Good News because there are a great many people in the world who want to be lord.

You had to win, you couldn't just pass
The smartest ass at the top of the class
Your flying colours, your family tree
And all your lessons in history.

-- U2, “Please,” Pop

You know that among the nations, those whom they recognize as their the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
-- Mark 10:42

The bad news is that there's a lot of competition for the title of “lord,” and most of the candidates will enrich themselves at your expense. But those candidates haven't heard or heeded the news that they've lost the race. The position has been filled, once and for all time. And the really Good News is that the winning candidate is Jesus, the one who gave this vision as an alternative to that of the rulers of the nations:

It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant ... for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
-- Mark 10:43-45

In other words, the Lord of all is someone whose only agenda is to serve the servants. The one to whom all power belongs is using all of that power to empower the powerless. And this one Lord is the one to whom all of our allegiance belongs. Furthermore, the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations through baptism, in which all of us from all nations die to our former ties; from all nations, those of us who were once not a people are called as God's people, in which all barriers between Jew and Greek, American and Iraqi, fall away. We participate in national affairs as paroikoi, pilgrims who live in and among the nations, but whose baptism calls us to seek and serve Christ in others, and to serve Christ only. Putting one of the rulers of the nations in the same category as Jesus and allegiance to one nation's agenda in the same category as our citizenship in God's kingdom indicate a fundamental category confusion, a tragic mistake.

I use that phrase intentionally. New Testament texts have a name for the sort of confusion that puts “God and country” in the same category: they call it hamartia. It's a word that can mean “mistake.” Aristotle in his book on tragedy used it to refer to a particular kind of mistake, a fundamental category confusion that leads to the downfall of a great hero, like mistaking your daughter for a sacrificial lamb, or your betrayer for your most faithful friend. It's a “flaw,” as in “tragic flaw.” We don't usually translate the word as “flaw,” or even as “mistake” when it occurs in the New Testament, though; we translate it as “sin.”

But for a moment, let's look at it in an Aristotelian context as a tragic mistake, the instrument of a fall. I think that's what it is. It's a mistake, and usually an honest one from honest people who love their country and quite rightly want to work with those who work for what's right. That's what makes it so heartbreaking. Such pure and strong intention makes it easy to push that much harder, take it that much further. Just enough awareness of what Jesus asks of us may inspire someone to believe that following the way of the Cross means that violence is inevitable, or even that the kingdom can be brought about by violence.

Your holy war, your northern star
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car ...
So love is hard
And love is tough
But love is not
What you're thinking of.

-- U2, “Please,” Pop

That's not it at all. The Cross doesn't belong to you, or to any of us, any more than the crown does. In religious language, Jesus' sacrifice was full, perfect, sufficient. In plain terms, if Christianity is right, then no one ever need die again because of sin, just as no one ever need follow the rulers of the nations as lord. All of that's over, and here's what remains:

God's kingdom coming, making all as it was when the world was born: lands as borderless as the skies. Humanity in the image of God, invited into communion with the God whose very Being is Triune communion. The grace of the Lord, Jesus the Christ. The love of God. The communion of the Holy Spirit. With all of us, always.

So please, get up off your knees. The risen Christ invites us to into the world bearing this Good News!

Thanks be to God.

May 17, 2005 in 2 Corinthians, Baptism, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Justice, Matthew, Trinity, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Proper 24, Year C

Sorry this is late, folks; Blogger has been refusing my connection.

On a personal note, I'd like to ask for your prayers this Friday and Saturday, when I'll be interviewed for postulancy, the biggest hurdle in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church (if you're not familiar with what that process looks like, you can read a summary of the process in the Diocese of New York. I'm in the Diocese of Maryland, not New York, but there are a lot of similarities in how they do things). By mid-week next week, I should know whether the bishop wants to make me a postulant right away, perhaps later, or never.

Now, to this Sunday's readings ...

Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30 - link to NRSV text
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 - link to NRSV text
Luke 18:1-8a - link to NRSV text

It's the custom at the parish where I work to do only two readings, either the Hebrew Bible or the epistle (but not both) and the gospel, in Sunday services. This week, since I'm preaching, I've asked that we do all three.

The 2 Timothy passage we've got this week has always been and is still is an important one for me personally. When as a teenager, I had a conversion experience -- in evangelical parlance, I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior -- it was largely in response to what I heard from God in my extensive and enthusiastic reading of the Bible, both on my own and in small groups. Scripture has been integral as well to my other conversion experiences since then -- for example, when I first felt confronted with my own racism and sought to repent from it and be intentional about my ongoing formation in a way that would further my ongoing conversion.

Scripture is also central in my sense of vocation. I feel called to a ministry that is sacramental and pastoral, but I don't know how I'd understand what either of those things mean in the context of Christian community were it not for my many years and ongoing practice of studying Scripture regularly, intensively, and enthusiastically.

And of course, one of the elements of my vocation that I'm particularly passionate about is teaching, empowering people to interpret Scripture in a way that will further their own ongoing conversion, formation, discernment, and ministry. On the live album Rattle and Hum by the rock band U2, lead singer Bono introduces the song "Helter Skelter" with the words, "This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back!" Sometimes that's how I feel about the Bible. Plantation owners may have given slaves the Bible to try to inspire obedience, but in the process, slaves learned the story of Moses. Some people try to steal the Bible so they can conceal their claims to power in it, as some do with the flag. But we're stealing it back.

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is a true saying, and worth repeating, even as we confess one (and only one) Word of God, no book, but a person: Jesus, the Christ of God, the Word made flesh in Nazareth and dwelling among us still. Our study of Scripture informs our sense of who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to his invitation to follow him, but Jesus, not Scripture, is our end. Scripture is inspired and useful, but Jesus is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.

And furthermore, much as I give thanks for the printing press and the Internet, these media are a mixed blessing in creating the illusion that we can read the Bible in our "prayer closets," in isolation from community. In the ancient world, writing materials were very expensive, so copies of scriptural works were difficult for individuals to obtain, and most Christians would have been unable to read anyway. As a result, the early Christians studied Scripture in community, pooling resources to obtain copies of books and reading them aloud together, in community.

In a context like that, it's easier to follow 2 Timothy's counsel, which I'd say doesn't start with verse 14 (where our lectionary picks it up), but in verse 10. 2 Timothy counsels us to learn not solely from Paul's letters, but from his life -- his conduct, his aim, his faith, his patience, his love, and his steadfastly holding to a response of love even when persecuted. When I think about those moments of conversion in my own life in which Scripture was key, it becomes clear that the presence of the Spirit that made conversion possible was mediated not solely by my reading Scripture on my own, but also (and in some ways, perhaps more importantly) by the example of others in community. I love studying Scripture, and if I may paraphrase St. Paul, I thank God that I have opportunity to do it more than most people. I commend intensive study of the scriptures at every opportunity to all; there's nothing more useful for those of us with the hubris to serve as teachers.

It's useful. I'd say it's necessary, if we're to be proficient, equipping God's people for every good work. But it's not sufficient. There's something else we need, something that 2 Timothy 3:10-11 hints at, and that I draw from our Hebrew Bible and our gospel reading for this Sunday. We need contact. We need community.

Not that community is all hearts and flowers and happiness. All communities go through conflict, and conflict isn't fun. But conflict in community isn't a distraction from the spiritual; it is a place in which we can encounter God, find blessing, and experience conversion. In Genesis 32:3-30, Jacob is in the midst of a feud with his brother that's serious stuff -- he believes that his brother may be coming to kill him and his entire family, "the mothers with the children," as verse 11 (omitted in the lectionary) says. And that's where God shows up. Even Jacob's encounter with God isn't exactly lovey-dovey; it's an all-night smackdown that ends with Jacob dislocating his hip. But Jacob holds on to his opponent, saying, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 26), and Jacob leaves blessed by God, empowered to reconcile with his brother Esau.

As in our Hebrew Bible reading, the parable from this Sunday's gospel starts with seemingly irreconcilable differences, as a widow seeks justice from a judge whom the text explicitly says neither fears God nor respects anyone. But she won't let go; no matter how many times the judge dismisses her, she keeps coming back. She won't let the matter drop until she sees justice. At the end of the story, we might be tempted to say that the widow wins and the judge loses, but I think that's a misleading statement. The widow won her case, but the judge got a gift even more valuable; he received the gift of conversion.

When the widow wrung the verdict she sought from the judge, her efforts turned the judge from a man of injustice to a man who does justice. The man who at the story's beginning is identified only as an unjust judge who respects no one, having done justice and listened to the widow, will need a new name, just as Jacob received a new name. The widow reminds me of Desmond Tutu, calling in the darkest days of apartheid to the soldiers who threatened him, saying "It's not too late! You can still join the winning side!" Like Tutu, the widow refuses to demonize her oppressor, to treat him as if he were the evil man everyone -- including the narrative voice in the text -- says he is. So the widow wins, and the judge joins the winning side.

So when I preach this Sunday, I will have something to say about Scripture and its usefulness for correction, but I won't stop there. The meat of the message this Sunday, I think, will be about the wrestling we do in community. I'm preaching the day before the Lambeth Commission chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames issues its recommendations -- recommendations which some are saying, or even hoping, will be the end of communion, a definitive break in fellowship. It won't be. That's true not only because of the facts of our polity, because any recommendations issued by the commission will have to go to the primates' meeting, and then to the Anglican Consultative Counsel, and even then instruments for implementing decisions are limited. That's also true because there are too many of us who will not let go. On the commission and off it, from cathedral thrones to parish pews and in the streets, there are too many of us who will refuse to go away until justice is done -- for African children in danger of dying of malaria for want of a $2.50 net, for LGBT martyrs who put their life on the line for justice, for those tortured in Abu Ghraib or in Cook County Jail in Chicago. We won't let go until our wrestling partners and angels -- we refuse to respond to them as enemies or demons -- become sources of blessing and justice.

With God's help, we're holding on. And all of God's children will receive the new name and the blessing God promises.

Thanks be to God!

October 12, 2004 in 2 Timothy, Genesis, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 14, Year C

If you're looking for a comment on the readings for Sunday, August 1st (Proper 13), scroll down!  This one's for Sunday, August 8th; I'm publishing it early because I'm about to leave for vacation, and probably won't be on the Internet again until I get back on the night of the 7th (and finish up my sermon for the 8th!).

Genesis 15:1-6 - link to NRSV text
Hebrews 11:1-3, (4-7), 8-16 - link to NRSV text
Luke 12:32-40 - link to NRSV text

How many times do we hear or say the words "I know I should ... but my heart's just not in it"?

The gospel reading for August 8th tells us that there's something we can do about that, and it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.

It comes in Jesus' saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." It's often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.

In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to give alms, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom. Those of us who are most anxious to accumulate enough to shield us from misfortune and pain (as if that were possible!) have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" away; when we do, we will finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."

As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.

This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose behave as children of our Father because of who we are, and our hearts follow -- experiencing, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do.

That's why I'm glad the gospel for August 8th is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it is about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle doesn't leap on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.

So let's be generous with all of our treasure -- certainly with money, but also with time (I think an even rarer treasure in the communities in which I live and worship!), and energy, and love. Let's do it as if this were our last chance to try it. Where our treasure is says far more about who we think we are, what we think is of eternal importance, and who we want to trust, than anything we say with our lips. Let's speak with our treasure who we are in Christ, and we may find the miracle of Creation repeated, as speech bring worlds into being.

Thanks be to God!

July 31, 2004 in Faith, Genesis, Hebrews, Luke, Ordinary Time, Stewardship, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 12, Year C

Genesis 18:20-33 - link to NRSV text
Luke 11:1-13 - link to NRSV text

Our collect in the Episcopal Church (USA) for this Sunday:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Let us so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.

I wish the collect said something more like, "Let us make use of things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal." That seems to be the point of one of the most interesting things in Luke's version of the "Lord's prayer," the prayer that we are all taught to pray as followers of Jesus.

"Forgive our sins, as we forgive our debtors."

Luke is a very careful writer -- probably the most careful writer of those whose work is preserved in the gospels. But his structure here isn't parallel structure. He says, in vocabulary that makes his meaning clear, "forgive our sins as we forgive the (monetary) debts of those who owe us money." The Greek word, for those interested, is opheilonti. It's a totally clear money opposed to the totally clear (it's even the word that Aristotle used in his discourse on tragedy) word for "sin."

Luke is too careful to let me think that this deviation from parallel structure -- a deviation that Matthew doesn't have -- is a mistake. Luke is suggesting here that we should ask God to forgive our sins the way we forgive monetary debts. I wonder if that's what those who crafted our lectionary had in mind when they paired this passage with a passage from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose sin, according to Ezekiel, was about despising the poor and needy, not anything about sex as such.

In the days of Jesus, and in the days of Luke, debt was the leading cause of slavery. I suspect that the same could be said of our own day. In Luke, Jesus calls upon his followers to ask God to forgive their sins as we (that's in the plural, the "we") forgive our DEBTORS, those who owe us money.

Where would we American Christians be if God answered that prayer?

Where would we be if God forgave our sins the way we (collectively, as a nation) forgive debtor nations?

Maybe we as a church ought to live, ought to exercise our citizenship and whatever collective power we have as people who talk and pray weekly about what it means to live as Jesus' disciples, as if we really wanted that to happen -- as if we wanted God to forgive our sins as we have forgiven the world's debtors.

Maybe there should be more organizations like this one. Maybe we ought to live as though "Christian values," particularly as they affect how we vote in elections, had something to do with our relationship with God. Maybe we ought to be as generous with our own resources -- ALL of them -- as God is generous with God's love and the resources of God's Creation.

Much is required of those to whom much has been given. What a solemn expression of God's profligate generosity!

Thanks be to God.

July 19, 2004 in Genesis, Justice, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 11, Year C

Thanks for your patience with the delays in getting this posted.

Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14) - link to NRSV text
Luke 10:38-42 - link to NRSV text

This week's expanded Hebrew scripture reading provided the domain name ( for this site, and it means a great deal to me personally. It's the source of the reminder in the Book of Occasional Service's liturgy for a house blessing, "Do not neglect to show hospitality, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (BOS, p. 150), and the source of the imagery for Rublev's icon of the Trinity, used in the banner for this site.

As a 21st-century feminist, though, there's something that rubs me the wrong way about the passage's treatment of Sarah, and it's epitomized by verse 13, in which God addresses Abraham, not Sarah, to ask why Sarah laughed. I suppose that, since the address seems to come through the three messengers, it could be viewed as unseemly for strange men to address Sarah directly rather than through her husband. The result is that in this passage the only voice Sarah has is through her provision of hospitality for the visitors, which is received graciously, and through her laughter, which seems to be portrayed as indicating a lack of faith.

The scene brings to my mind the book Like Water for Chocolate, in which Tita, a youngest daughter whose place in life and lack of voice is dictated by her gender and her position, pours her emotions so powerfully into her cooking that all who taste it share her feelings. The power that Sarah exercises is not insignificant, but I think one of the reasons the image of her laughter so grabs me is because of my sense that it is breaking through great suffering and subverting the conventions that would give her no voice.

So I'm glad that the story of Sarah laughing by the oaks of Mamre is paired with the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. I think the passage is too often used to criticize Martha, as if she should have known better than to hurry about the kitchen while Jesus was in her home. But I think the strength of Jesus' statement, with its "Martha, Martha" opening and declaration that Mary "has chosen the better part," doesn't serve to criticize Martha so much as it serves to defend Mary against the criticism she would have received for her inhospitable (sitting around rather than seeing to the comfort of her guests) and unseemly (behaving as only male disciples should behave by sitting at Jesus' feet) behavior.

In this sense, this Sunday's gospel is a continuation of a theme from Luke 9:59-62, which we read a few weeks ago. When Jesus said, "Let the dead bury the dead," he was releasing a man from the constraints of being a dutiful son. When Jesus said, "There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her," he was releasing women from the constraints of their role in the household.

In the household of God, there is only one who can claim the title "Father," only one who can claim a father's authority for men and women alike, and that's God. That word would have been received as profoundly shocking to most and profoundly liberating to some, both men and women. Both men and women in Jesus' culture were enmeshed in a network of relationships and obligations that -- so long as they were committed to being respectable -- would hold them back from following Jesus and living as he did. After all, a man is obligated to care for his wife and children and his aging parents -- how can he do that if he follows Jesus' command to "give to all who ask, without expectation of repayment" (Luke 6:33)? And a woman's honor lies in her care for her husband and children and home; good girls don't roam the countryside with men who aren't their husbands or fathers, as that awful Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna (Luke 8:1-2) do. So, Jesus, surely you don't mean this whole "follow me" thing literally, do you?

Call me a biblical literalist -- I think Jesus does mean it, and I think he meant it literally in the texts in which he says it. And I think he still does mean it. Jesus is now present wherever two or three are gathered, rather than in one specific place, so we may not need to start roaming around the countryside to follow him. We do, however, need to place the demands of the Good News ahead of the constraints of respectability. Some will call us loose women and irresponsible men because we are bound to our family in Christ and are responsible to our Lord. That's the radical freedom and the solemn and joyful obligation to which we are called, and that's the Good News of Jesus' word to Martha.

What have we held back from doing in following Jesus, in striving for justice, in providing for all of God's children, in proclaiming the Good News, because we felt obligated to someone or something else? What have we been doing not because we felt called by God to do it, but because we felt it was the best we could do within constraints? What would we do if Jesus said to us, "There is need of only one thing," and we took responsibility for that? What would our lives look like if we took to heart Paul's words in Galatians 5:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

I'm not preaching this Sunday, so I'll ask as a favor to those who are: please hit the "we're too busy with many things" point quickly, if at all, and leave room for the main point of the gospel. Our identity in Christ is the "one thing"; other identities are valuable only insofar as they deepen our maturity in Christ and empower us for Christ's mission in the world. The only constraints, the only obligations, are those of love. In Christ, Phoebe is free to journey from Cenchreae with Paul's letter, boldly preaching the Good News in all of the churches in Rome (Romans 16:1-2). In Christ, any daughter, sister, or mother can claim her voice, no longer straining to listen from outside the tent, but seated alongside the others at the table, feasting with any who will join such a company of loose women and prodigal sons. Sarah's laughter must be ringing throughout the heavens to see that.

Thanks be to God!

July 14, 2004 in About this site's name, Genesis, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)