Proper 23, Year C

Dear community,

You all may have noticed that I've been posting very late in the week recently. This semester is pretty crazy; I'm a full-time student in seminary, who's trying at the same time to finish my Ph.D. dissertation, find a new diocesan home, and work at two jobs. But I've resolved to get back to posting earlier in the week, when new posts are most helpful to preachers, and I appreciate your hanging in there with me in the meantime. Please don't forget that, although I just switched to the Revised Common Lectionary this past Advent, I did blog the entire cycle of readings in the lectionary of The Episcopal Church in the Book of Common Prayer, and there's a great deal of overlap. If I haven't posted yet on a text for which you're looking for inspiration, you may find the 'search this site' box in the left-hand sidebar helpful. The easiest way to find comment on a particular passage is often to enter the full name of the biblical book and the number of the chapter for which you want comment in quotation marks -- e.g., "Luke 17" for this week.

But here's this week's post:

Luke 17:11-19 - link to NRSV text

In this week's gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers. Jesus instructs them to go to the Temple in Jerusalem, as the Law requires. Nine of them obey Jesus, and head off for Jerusalem. But one of the cleansed lepers disobeys Jesus, and instead returns to thank him.

As I pointed out the last time I blogged on this passage, coming back to thank Jesus would not have been seen as the most polite course of action the lepers could take, even if Jesus hadn't instructed them to go to the Temple. If that seems puzzling, it might help to imagine how you'd feel if you'd been out to dinner with a friend, and when the check came, you'd paid it, saying to your friend as he reached for his wallet, "Oh, don't worry about that -- you can get the next one if you'd like." The next day, your friend rings your doorbell with an envelope in his hand containing in cash half the amount of the previous night's dinner and a note saying thanks.

That would be slightly strange behavior, unless your friend thought you were very short on cash. Your "Oh, you can get the next one" comment is a way of declaring an ongoing friendship in which you share resources and cover for one another, but the cash in the envelope, as if it were necessary immediately to even the score, seems to carry a message from the other person saying "we don't have that kind of relationship" -- perhaps also saying something like "I don't really trust you not to hold this over my head" or "I don't expect to have dinner with you again, so I'd better settle any debts now."

The healed leper coming back to thank Jesus is a bit like that. The nine who did what Jesus told them to do were not only honoring the expressed wishes of their benefactor; they were also behaving as people would when they wanted and expected to continue the relationship while looking for opportunity to repay Jesus. The tenth leper, though, cannot obey Jesus' instructions. He is a Samaritan. Samaritans, weren't welcome in the Temple in Jerusalem, and had good reason to expect ill treatment from those who saw the Temple in Jerusalem as being the only true one (you can find some background on why that was so here).

What courage it must have taken for this man to call out to Jesus! The text points out that as they cried out, the whole group kept their distance, as they would have been expected to do as lepers. Even so, their trust in Jesus is clear from their crying out to him. Imagine the joy this group must have felt when they realized that they were cleansed, that their status as outsiders had ended!

Well, all but one of them. As the other nine headed off toward Jerusalem, the tenth realizes that even if he isn't a leper, he's still a Samaritan, set apart even from the nine people he was with when they were all lepers. As the others head off for the Temple, wondering what they can offer Jesus in return, the tenth returns, "praising God with a loud voice." And Jesus in turn praises the Samaritan -- not for giving thanks to him, but for giving praise to God.

As Samaritan and leper, the tenth person healed knew doubly well what it's like to be an outsider. And this is the person who saw and acknowledged God's hand in his healing, in Jesus' ministry.

Longtime readers of this bog may have gathered that one of the trends I've observed that grieves me most is the way in which those of us who are privileged seem increasingly to use our privilege to isolate ourselves from others we fear as not being "people like us." Crime and poverty go together, so we object when housing that's affordable to the poor (or even to less wealthy professionals such as teachers and police officers!) is proposed for our neighborhood. We build gated communities. We fuel "white flight" to the suburbs, even when that gives us long, miserable commutes. Even our churches are often structured to divide rich from poor; the wealthy are "members" who are welcomed warmly to participate fully in worship and leadership, while the poor are targets of "outreach ministry" that assumes those served have no spiritual gifts to offer the community except the chance to make us feel generous and to stay out of sight and preferably somewhere else the rest of the time.

We're missing out in a big way, though, when, by "things done and left undone," we exclude outsiders, when we don't listen deeply and look them in they eye. We're missing out on their spiritual gifts, their vision; we head off for a temple humming happily and we miss the chance to see God in human flesh before us.

But we have another choice. We can turn to face "outsiders" as neighbors, beloved children of God, sisters and brothers in Christ. We can turn to face Jesus, and when we do, we just might find ourselves crying out with Samaritans and outsiders everywhere, giving praise to God who in Christ is healing and reconciling the whole world.

Thanks be to God!

October 12, 2007 in Community, Faith, Healing, Inclusion, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (8)

Proper 16, Year C

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17


Such a powerful word. Spoken alone, such a powerful sentence, a powerful plea.


And so often we find so many other words, so many other calls, more compelling -- or at least loud enough to drown out calls for mercy.

On vacation in our little cabin, my partner was reading a book that offered a quiz on religious literacy, one of the questions being, "Name the Ten Commandments." (And hurrah for the book for recognizing that Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants actually don't have identical lists; we divide the passage that contains them differently, so any courtroom or classroom that posts one list of them will be choosing one tradition's version.) I'm a little embarrassed to say that off the top of my head, I only named nine. I forgot to include honoring the sabbath. In a way, it's not surprising; very few of us keep any day at all as sabbath, let alone THE sabbath (and it's not Sunday -- that's the day of Jesus' resurrection, and worth honoring, but it's not the sabbath day).

Many of our cultures in the West don't place much value on observing sabbath, and so I often hear passages such as this Sunday's gospel as a story of Jesus saying, "Look at all of these stupid rules you have. Just GET OVER IT!" But that's not the point at all. Jesus doesn't talk about exercising mercy on the sabbath because keeping sabbath is such a silly, arbitrary, or unnecessary thing. He picks it up because it's an ancient commandment. It's a central commandment -- one that God Herself honored in creation. The prophetic book of Isaiah speaks of honoring the sabbath in the same breath as honoring our sisters and brothers with our words, with offering our own food to the hungry and serving those in need.

Jesus doesn't talk about the sabbath in this Sunday's gospel because he thinks it's to be lightly tossed aside, let alone to suggest (in the way too many do, tinged with antisemitism) that those who keep it are foolish or universally hypocritical.

He talks about it in this particular context because it IS important. The weight of what Jesus is saying DEPENDS upon the importance of keeping sabbath. That's where the impact comes from when he says that as important as that is, exercising mercy is just as important and often more urgent -- indeed, that extending mercy -- God's mercy -- can be a way of keeping sabbath.

I thought about that a bit today, on my way to a doctor's appointment and walking past four men begging on the five blocks between the office and my home. I know a bit about what it's like in their shoes, so as I walked by, even though I wasn't going to give money, I offered eye contact and conversation. Not much -- just the sort that neighbors have on the corner on a warm day, not ending with "No," or "Sorry, no change," but continuing with "Sure is hot this morning," "Stay cool," "God bless."

I thought about it earlier this week, when I read a advice columnist's response when a reader asked him about whether the church group serving breakfast to the homeless might better sit down to eat with those they served than go out to a hotel brunch afterward. I'm going to quote him (Cary Tennis) at length here, because I think he says it well, though not in the words I'd choose:

... as humans we seek integration of the vast, many-faceted pattern that is our being. And the parts of us that we don't fully understand, or that are buried or undeveloped, signal us in primitive ways, through signs and encounters, through instinct, through happenstance and mishap and magic. In the struggle for integration of the self we proceed by signs. Sometimes it's moving too fast to work out on paper. A highly intuitive person, for instance, may see in a flash that his place is alongside the poor, not in the hotel with the mimosas. He may see it all in a flash and have to go with it. There's no time to explain! Just stay here! Really, though. There's no time to explain! Really ...

The thing is, what you may not have considered is that while you think you're the one who holds all the cards, the topsy-turvy truth is that these people at the homeless shelter have a lot to offer you. You already know how to drink mimosas. But do you know how to stay dry in the rain? Have you ever known hunger? It is a good thing to know, what hunger feels like. It is good to know the terror of finding yourself alone on the street with no food and no money and no idea where you are, knowing no one, having no phone numbers to call, having no sister or brother to drive and pick you up, having no parents to call upon, no children to call upon, no friends, no employers, no agencies. That's a good thing to know. It is a good thing to know what it feels like to wait and wait on a corner until you finally just fall asleep there on the cold, hard sidewalk. It's good to know when was the first time you realized you didn't have an address. These are things you might talk about as you eat [with those at the soup kitchen]. ... I think it is a revolutionary consciousness that can be expressed in a quiet, humble, Christian way, just by sitting down and sharing food with people.

It's a plea worth hearing, I think: There's no time to explain! Just stay here! It's a striking combination of phrases, and I think an apt one. There are so many concerns, so many headlines, so many self-help and parenting and retirement financing and other gurus who scream for attention, who want us to believe that we must do one thing or another urgently or we're in dreadful danger -- and the urgent thing in question is rarely if ever, among the central concerns that provide the tension in the gospel story we tell this Sunday.

I live in a culture in which a fitness chain advertises exercise clubs with the slogan, "You can rest when you're dead." Who ever says, "There's no time to explain! Just stay here!"? Who says, "Don't just do something -- stand there!"? Who -- other than the Spirit whose fruit includes peace -- says, "If you're that stressed about all you have to do, can you afford NOT to breathe?" And who -- other than God's love whispering to our hearts -- says, "Times are tough -- we can't afford to skimp on compassion"?

I've listened to countless people over the past decade or so wonder aloud how it is that they work more and more and are increasingly exhausted, and yet the harder they work, the more they feel behind. The last thing most of us need to hear is that keeping sabbath is a triviality and we should pack more charitable exertion into any spare hour, and that's not what Jesus is saying either. It's that keeping sabbath is important, AND that reaching out to participate in God's bringing healing, freedom, joy, and peace to those in need is an appropriate, rejuvenating path to experiencing those things more fully in our own lives.

Folks who have read this blog for a while know that one of hunches about how our minds work is that we often avoid looking at length and with open hearts in the eye of those who are very old or very young without others to care for them, the homeless and those ill or in pain, those who are lonely, angry, or grieving, because their vulnerability reminds us of our own. "Compassion fatigue" and just plain fatigue sometimes spring from a common root: we will not feel peace or be at rest when we are frantically running away from something.

So this week as we're reflecting on the gospel, it might do us some good to linger where Jesus lingers, to begin in a moment of sabbath, to start from a quiet place within, and meet with God's compassion the gaze of someone who is suffering -- someone in the news, someone on the street, someone in our memory -- and to remind ourselves ('reminding' involving a state of mindfulness!) of the dignity, the freedom, the blessing that is God's desire for this person as God's child.

We may be moved to act. I often am, and it can be tempting in that moment to act in a way designed more to put this person and the vulnerability s/he represents out of mind. But listen! There's no time to explain -- just stay here! And if we can stay with the pain we see and reach out from that quiet place within, it's my experience that God's compassion will flow in ways that will transform us as well as our world.

Thanks be to God!

August 24, 2007 in Healing, Isaiah, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year C | Permalink | Comments (3)

Maundy Thursday, Year C

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 - link to NRSV text
John 13:1-17, 31b-35 - link to NRSV text

I've often heard people say that it's through Jesus' death that we find new life through forgiveness for sin. I believe that's true, but it's only part of the truth; too often, we neglect to consider how Jesus' LIFE helps us to find forgiveness and life. Our readings for Maundy Thursday are a helpful corrective.

They are, of course, more than that. I'd call them solemn and even frightening. Passover is my favorite holiday in any tradition. Like many holidays, it is a feast with friends and family, but I particularly appreciate the intentionality of Passover as an occasion for storytelling, for remembrance, and particularly for remembrance of God's liberation of God's people. But one can't go through the stories of Passover without encountering a great deal of blood. Waters turned to blood. The loss of life in plagues of flood and famine. Worst yet, the story of every firstborn son of Egypt dying. A household anointing doorposts with lamb's blood on that night would do so with an awe tinged with dread at God's power to protect and the horror of what would befall others.

I have no glib, feel-good explanation to take away that horror. I feel the same temptation to come up with one that many people I know feel, but I pray to resist it. Celebration of Passover calls on God's people not just to celebrate liberation from slavery, but the horrors of slavery, of the desire to enslave, and to remember not only God's graciousness in delivering the Hebrews, in giving the Torah, in forming a people to be a light to all nations, but also the terrible losses, the grief of those who loved a son touched by death's angel or swallowed in the Sea of Reeds. Indeed, some Passover haggadot present the bitter herbs dipped in salt water as a call to grieve on behalf of the Egyptians lost, a call to pray for oppressors and enemies.

And so it is no coincidence that on Maundy Thursday we remember the Passover in Egypt as well as Jesus' last night before he died. Christian tradition invests Jesus with prophetic insight, but it wouldn't have taken a miracle for Jesus to know that he would die soon. He had participated in a very public demonstration mocking the triumphal processions of Rome. He had caused a public disturbance in the midst of massive crowds of pilgrims at the Temple, and in full view of Roman troops stationed in nearby buildings in positions above the Temple's walls. Roman governors didn't tolerate that kind of rabble-rousing, and certainly not during the Passover, when the thronged pilgrims -- a crowd made all the more volatile as they celebrated deliverance from oppressors -- posed a constant threat to public order. Do what Jesus did the rest of the week, and unless you've got some serious guerilla forces to take you to the hills, you're likely to end up where Jesus most likely knew he was headed.

Because he wasn't heading for the hills. Nor was he assembling an army. On this night, the night of his betrayal, the last night before he was to die, he was heading only to supper, assembling those with whom he had traveled -- friends, followers, and one who was to hand him over, and none of whom (especially in John's portrayal) save perhaps for the 'beloved disciple' and Mary, who anointed his feet (to whom we shall return soon).

As someone well schooled in how different Jesus' culture, and hence, his outlook, was from mine, I try not to psychologize, but I sometimes think that his were in some ways the loneliest hours of Jesus' life. On what we call Good Friday, he hangs on the cross in great suffering -- public suffering. Deserted by nearly all who called themselves friends or followers, he was seen and known by a few, who also saw his suffering and grieved and suffered with him, as he grieves and suffers with the suffering among us now. But on Maundy Thursday, Jesus "knew his hour had come" when no one else on earth could quite understand. Did the chatter and laughter of his friends comfort or anger him, I wonder? And even if some of it comforted him, John tells us that Jesus knew one of his companions present would betray him.

What Jesus does, then, is astonishing. He takes off his robe, wraps himself as a towel like a slave, and washes the feet of his companions. A student sits at the teacher's feet, not the teacher at the student's. That's not the half of it, though. If you've watched Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail or Life of Brian lately, you've gotten a pretty decent and graphic picture of what ancient streets were like. Most people dumped their garbage -- any and all kinds of waste people generate -- in the streets. People walked through it. When they arrived for dinner, and especially with the custom of reclining to dine, rather than our sitting on chairs at covered tables -- all of that skubalon, to use Paul's word from Philippians 3, which we read a couple of weeks ago -- would be washed off by the lowliest person in the household. I'm going to put it crudely: Jesus isn't too good for our crap; he puts up with it and cleanses the lowliest, shittiest stuff that clings to us.

And more. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how, in Jesus' culture, hands and feet represented intentional action, how Mary's anointing Jesus' feet anointed Jesus' deeds. When Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he is also cleansing their actions in a very graphic, memorable, tactile demonstration of forgiveness. He even washes the feet of his betrayer, whom, we are told, he already know will betray him, and with whom he breaks bread in the bit of text the Revised Common Lectionary cuts out between verse 17 and verse 35. Washing feet and breaking bread: this is Jesus' behavior toward his betrayer, his clueless friends, and his stumbling followers on the last night before he died.

Do this in remembrance of him.

That's what we do.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, that's what we do. We gather in front of Jesus' table, and before our supper, we forgive and are forgiven; we exchange the peace (in a wonderful echo of Matthew 5:23-24 as well as the passage from John we read for Maundy Thursday). In other words, we meet Jesus. CEO or homeless beggar are the same to him, as he meets us where we are, and goes straight to where we've picked up the most shit from our journey there. We let him do that; we let it go. He cleanses us, and when we greet one another -- CEO or beggar, zealot or traitor, and all of us in between -- we recognize one another as human beings whom Jesus has cleansed. We go with clean feet, hands, and hearts to his table, to break bread with him and with one another.

As I was exploring the last time I was honored to proclaim Good News in a church on Maundy Thursday, when most of us think about what we'd do if we knew this was the last night before our death, we think about what is core to who we are -- the intersection of what gives us the deepest joy and what we think is most important. On the last night before he died, I think Jesus did that too. And what he did was what I've described above. It wasn't all that different from what he did throughout his ministry; that's one of the many reasons we say that Jesus was the perfect human being, Incarnating God and living his full humanity in God's image. Jesus lived out who he was fully. He lived this full and eternal life on every night -- including and especially this night we remember on Maundy Thursday. Was he angry? Was he terrified? Was he lonely? I have no way of knowing, of course; I've just got the same texts you've got, and the gospels are anything but modern biography concerned with interior states. What I do know is that when Jesus had every reason to feel all of those things, he stayed with the community -- including his betrayer -- and cleansed, and cared, and forgave, and broke bread.

What would our lives, our churches, our denominations, our nations, our world be like if we were to embrace and express our humanity in God's image as Jesus did? What would our lives in all of these dimensions be like if every time we broke bread, or every time we met someone and their shit from the journey, we lived as Jesus lived?

Do this. Do this and remember.

Thanks be to God!

April 3, 2007 in 1 Corinthians, Exodus, Forgiveness, Healing, Holy Week, Humility, John, Matthew, Passover, Purity, Reconciliation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 18, Year B

Mark 7:31-37 - link to NRSV text
(See also the RCL reading of Mark 7:24-37)

This Sunday's gospel in the RCL poses difficulties from a variety of angles. Jesus encounters a Gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter. He says no, essentially calls her and all Gentiles dogs, and states firmly that his mission is only to Israel. She argues with him. He then agrees to heal her daughter. What happened?

One thing that has happened in this encounter is that when Jesus answers the woman, regardless of what specifically he says he is recognizing the woman's right to speak with him. Just by making the request, she is implying -- albeit perhaps solely out of desperation -- that she has a right to claim his time and power. By arguing, she implies that she is worthy of challenging him. And by answering, Jesus affirms that she has that status in his eyes. This is a profoundly counter-cultural recognition of her dignity. But then Jesus insults her by calling her and her people dogs (and no, there's no trick of Greek translation that makes it about cute little puppies -- Jesus is calling her people scavengers of the lowest sort).

But then, to all appearances, Jesus changed his mind -- not only about healing one girl, but about his mission. This bothers a lot of people; most sermons I've heard that have taken up this aspect of the story have suggested that Jesus really knew all along that his mission was to Gentiles as well as Jews, and that he was only pretending to think otherwise to help the woman increase her faith, or to further demonstrate his power, or some other reason.

Personally, I find this reading offensive as well as unconvincing. If Jesus changed his mind, then Jesus can't be the kind of eternally changeless "unmoved mover," to use Plato's phrase, that a lot of people present God as being. But if Jesus didn't change his mind and was just saying things he didn't believe so that he could accomplish some other end, then Jesus is a liar -- and a pretty cruel one at that, since the poor woman is clearly worried about her child.

And besides, who -- besides Plato -- says that Jesus isn't allowed to change his mind, to learn something he didn't know before? Learning is part of what it means to be human, I'd say. Try to turn Jesus into someone who knew everything and could do anything from day one and you'll quickly get drawn into fairly silly speculation about how Jesus could have spouted the full Sermon on the Mount (and in any language to boot!) on the day he was born, but faked being able to talk only like the baby he was -- perhaps so he wouldn't give away his secret identity, a la Clark Kent's having to hold back from running at full speed on Smallville. That kind of speculation is evident in some of the later gospels outside the Christian canon, but it's not in any of our canonical gospels, which consistently portray Jesus as a real, honest-to-gosh human being who as a baby needed his diapers changed and who, like the rest of us, learned to walk and talk and function by playing and otherwise interacting with his mother and other people.

In other words, Jesus had to learn words and speech when he was a child. As Luke puts it, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom" (Luke 2:40). Jesus changed, not only getting taller and physically stronger, but learning things he didn't know before. If that idea is offensive, it's the offensiveness of the Incarnation, of the idea that God could dwell among us in the flesh. Human beings aren't born knowing and doing everything they will ever be able to know and do. They learn and grow, and in particular, they learn and grow in relationship. Jesus did too -- all his life, as human beings do. Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that part of being made in God's image means that we become more fully ourselves in relationship. Knowing others and loving others changes us, teaching things we didn't know before and helping us to grow into the fullness of our identity and vocation, and our capacity to grow in relationship comes from a God who experiences that too.

I know that doesn't fit in very well with that picture of God as an "unmoved mover," never experiencing a change of mind. But that picture is Plato's far more than it is our bible's. Our scriptures are full of stories of human beings trying to change God's mind. We call it intercessory prayer, and scripture shows it as working at least sometimes -- God is moved to show mercy, to act in deliverance because someone asked. Observing that raises a great many problems of theodicy, among other things, but there it is, scattered throughout our canonical writings anyway. And gosh, I'm glad it's there.

I'm glad because it is a wonderful corrective to our human tendencies toward arrogance and hardness of heart. Why should we listen to someone else's view on a matter of importance when we already know what the scriptures say, what those words mean, and therefore what the truth of the matter is? If any had the right to that kind of posture, it would be God. But if we take our scriptures seriously, we have to allow the possibility that God too is changed in relationship. That may sound radical, but I find that radical message in our scriptures, as God is moved after observing the destruction wreaked by the great flood to say "never again," and hangs God's bow -- God's weapon -- in the sky as a sign of God's permanent swearing off of such moves. God -- the one Plato presents as "unmoved mover"-- is MOVED to mercy, and makes a covenant of mercy with all of humanity.

Is it so radical, then, to think that Jesus, God's agent, might also be moved by his encounter with a Gentile woman seeking healing for her daughter? I don't think so -- and if I were preaching this Sunday on the RCL, I'd probably be preaching something along the lines of this: Thank God for people who aren't willing to take "no" for an answer -- even or especially "no" plus Godtalk, a particularly potent combination -- from powerful men, but who will push for compassion and mercy. They prove to us that even God isn't the sort to say, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." They teach us something that we would have gathered anyway had we been paying attention when Jesus says, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" and makes clear that the "perfect" he means isn't about stasis in a "right" position, but compassion toward righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). They teach us that no one should be so certain s/he's right that s/he cannot make room to listen, and to listen in a way that allows us to be changed by what we hear. They teach us that God is love, and it's a very poor lover who is eternally unmoved by her or his beloved.

So when Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and therefore mute -- someone who is unable to listen and therefore was unable to learn to speak -- Jesus is very well prepared.

"Be opened," he says. He says it not only with compassion for someone who has suffered, but also with the authority of one who has experienced that of what s/he speaks. That is, after all, what the persistence of the Gentile woman said to him when he was deaf to her cries and therefore unprepared to speak of God's love for all peoples. "Be opened" -- and Jesus was.

Thanks be to God!

September 8, 2006 in Healing, Inclusion, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Miracle stories, Ordinary Time, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (5)

Proper 14, Year B

Deuteronomy 8:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 34 - link to BCP text
John 6:37-51 - link to NRSV text

I often say that I don't believe in perfection, but in redemption.

I want to talk about redemption this week.

There are several reasons for having that topic on my mind at this moment.

The first is that the texts suggest it to me. The gospel passage for this Sunday is part of a lengthy monologue in which Jesus relates Exodus 16's account of "bread from heaven" to his own ministry, and to God's ministry among God's people. The writer of the Gospel According to John is inviting his Christian community specifically and repeatedly to think of their journey in tandem with that of the Hebrews from Egypt -- the journey from slavery to freedom to serve God, from being dominated to being agents of God's liberating work, from being no people to being one people, God's people.

There's an intriguing detail in the biblical story of the Exodus that doesn't often get much attention, but that also invites drawing parallels between the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to the journey of the Johannine community (i.e., the community that produced and read the Gospel According to John, the biblical letters attributed to John, and the book of Revelation). With most of my books still in boxes from my move, I can't check my books, so I hope a sharp-eyed reader will catch me if I'm misremembering when I say that the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek version of the Old Testament, which was what the earliest Christians were talking about when they said 'scripture') is pretty clear on this point, which also comes across in the NRSV, though less strongly:

What God told Moses to ask for, and what the Pharoah did in the end, was not to 'release' the Hebrews, but to send, almost drive them out. My recollection, which I hope an astute reader might confirm or correct, is that in the Septuagint, the word used is exapostello (and if someone knows how to transcribe a long vowel in Internet-friendly text, please tell me -- that last 'o' is an omega). That's the verb to "send out," but it's often not the kind of "sending" you'd want. It's the word the Septuagint uses to dismiss a wife in a divorce. It's a word used to dismiss a servant empty-handed, or a prisoner to her doom. What we remember and retell explicitly in every Passover haggadah starts with something translated more accurately as God saying "send my people out, that they may serve me" than "let my people go." And the Egyptian people don't line the streets to heap floral leis and good wishes upon the Hebrews after resisting the command to send them away; they drive out their former servants with a fear that, given the horrible things the Hebrew god has visited upon them, is as understandable as it is great.

Small wonder that in the Passover celebration, God's people are urged to recall tears and bitterness. It's not just about remembering the bitterness of slavery; it's also about remembering the tears and anguish of the families who lost husbands when the Sea of Reeds closed over the Egyptian army, or lost an elder brother or firstborn son in the plague of death.

So amidst such tears, is the story we tell of Exodus as liberation to celebrate a lie?

This is the kind of question that makes me say that I believe in redemption, not perfection. And it's a question burned freshly in my mind this week.

Some friends -- my former bosses when I worked at St. Martin's parish in Maryland -- lost their eldest son this week. I can think of few people who seemed as full of life and purpose as well as gentle good humor as their son Mike was. He was 33 years old and very active when, while on a weekend camping trip, he died of a massive heart attack. Nothing can prepare a parent for such a shock and loss, and in any case there was no prior indication that anything like this might be coming. Having lost a 26-year-old elder brother almost as suddenly almost exactly ten years ago, I can barely -- but only just barely -- imagine how my friends, Mike's parents, are feeling.

If we lived in a perfect world, we might say, as many well-meaning people said when my brother died, something like, "God took him for a reason," and we might even try to supply a reason, like "God called him as an angel" (as a number of people said of my brother), much as we could say of the Egyptians' tears (or the tears of the Israelites who lost loved ones to the plague of poisonous quail later in the desert) something like, "this happened so that God's glory could be shown in mighty works." Maybe that works for you. It doesn't work at all for me, and to be honest, I've never met anyone for whom it really did work, for whom it really rang true over time and at a level of deep self-awareness.

So is the story of life and hope, of freedom and celebration, a lie?

I don't think so.

I think that something happens within and among us, something that's happening all the time around our messed-up world, amidst all the pain and bitter tears, as our stories take shape in our journey with God.

That something is called redemption.

Redemption doesn't say (as Stoic philosophers said) that there's no such thing as slavery to someone whose mind or heart is in the right place; it is a word, a story, a narrated act in community that frees someone enslaved to a new set of relationships, a new identity in community in which that person can live much more fully into her or his God-given identity and God-issued call. When we say "God is redeeming the world in Christ," we are not saying that there is no pain, no loss, no wrong, no brokenness in the world to grieve; we are saying that God's power is such that all of that pain, loss, sin (that's a word that needs to be said sometimes), and brokenness in the world -- all that it is meet and right as well as just plain HONEST for us to grieve -- is being incorporated into a larger story, a deeper and broader context in which our lives and the life of the world are about redemption -- about making whole -- and resurrection, bringing new life.

This is not some Monty Python-eque "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" song to be sung mindlessly amidst and in denial of pain. Anyone who spends enough time with enough children, artists, visionaries, or prophets knows that stories -- especially ones told truthfully and well -- knows that stories are incredibly powerful. Stories are, or can be, acts of the word in the world that bring very real and powerful life and light into the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and God spoke, and there was life, and light -- a whole world come into being. The story of God's people -- of Exodus and John, among other stories -- being inspired by God, is more powerful than bean-counting so-called "pragmatists" might imagine.

As I write, I keep thinking of an experience I had on a youth group retreat -- one I blogged about on Grace Notes, my personal blog, in an entry called "Fingerpainting and Forgiveness." Please take the time to read it if you can -- and don't skip the comments. The last comment there as I write this shows something how an evening in which I told a story in a community, and we told more stories in childish art, became a larger story in which someone none of us on that retreat had met found freedom and new life. When I say that I believe not in perfection but in redemption, I'm saying that I believe that when your sin and my sin, your brokenness and grief and mine, are offered to God and into the story of God's stumbling, broken, grieving and gifted people journeying with all Creation toward healing, wholeness, and reconciliation with one another and with God in Christ, the ashes and dirt become in their own way a part of God's art, an expression through God's grace of the love in and through and for which God made all in Creation that was, is, or will be.

So I write this week in pain, and with tears -- for my friends' eldest son, and for my friends; for a world in which too many sons and daughters and mothers and fathers are torn from us far, far too soon; for hunger and war; for fear and darkness and oppression. And I write in hope in Jesus the Christ, who in the Gospel According to John spoke to a community driven out of their homes, their synagogues -- a community in which many had been "sent forth" as prisoners condemned by the testimony of those they had called neighbor -- and said, "I am the Bread of Life." Jesus said to them that in the midst of their alienation, their grief, their tears, he was with them, sustaining them, incorporating their story into the Great Story of reconciliation that is the story of the world God made and loves --

A story of redemption. The Johannine community saw its end like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am coming to make all things news." Also he said, "Write this, for these worlds are trustworthy and true."

-- Revelation 21:1-5

I say through tears: See, God is coming soon! Blessed are those who keep the vision of God's prophets, who tell the story of God's past, present, and coming redemption of the world.

Pray for those who mourn. There are too damn many of them, though it is God's blessing and glory that their comfort is even now at hand.

I feel it is too bold to say, but in faith I'll say it: Thanks be to God.

August 9, 2006 in Current Events, Deuteronomy, Evangelism, Healing, John, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Redemption, Resurrection, Year B | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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1 Corinthians 9:16-23 - link to NRSV text
Mark 1:29-39 - link to NRSV text

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

That's what Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel. And Mark makes very clear that when Jesus proclaims the message, it's not just sharing words; it's healing and freeing people so that they can form communities that heal and free people.

That's what Jesus does with Simon Peter's mother-in-law. If she had a husband of her own, she would have been living with him rather than with her daughter's husband; she must have been a widow. And when her husband died, she would have been living with her son if she'd had one, or with her extended family. But she's living with her daughter's husband, and thus probably has no living family of her own to care for her. Perhaps even her daughter, Peter's wife, has died.

This, by the way, underscores for me just how costly and complicated Jesus' call often is. When Peter leaves to follow Jesus, what will become of his mother-in-law, who has no other family besides her daughter? What will become of Peter's wife, if she is alive? Did Peter have children? If so, he left them.

Don't be shocked. Well ... do be shocked. It's pretty shocking, especially for those of us (the majority in America, I think) who have swallowed wholesale the idea that “Christianity” is practically synonymous with mainstream respectability. But reading this Sunday's gospel carefully brings a whole new layer to our reading of Mark 10: 28-31, in which Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” and Jesus says this:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields -- with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Peter wasn't exaggerating: he really had left everything, including the mother-in-law Jesus heals in this Sunday's gospel, and his children as well, if he had any -- and in a culture in which children, like women, often weren't seen as people worth mentioning, there's no reason to assume that there were none in the household just because this passage doesn't mention them.

Peter left his family to follow Jesus. Abandoned them.

I'm not going to try to make that sound easy on either side of that equation, because it isn't. Peter's a bumbling disciple, but he's not an unfeeling monster, and he walked away from this woman who depended upon him absolutely for protection, for her very life, and she had no one else. And there may well have been children too, who depended upon their father as much or more. Please don't gloss over this or move on before letting the full impact of that sink in. Discipleship -- real, cross-bearing discipleship -- means hard choices and real cost -- sometimes even for others who know us and will be puzzled or angry at choices made genuinely for the sake of Christ's gospel, choices which could cost them as well as us.

Ouch. I can't help but wonder whether the story in this Sunday's gospel in which Peter's mother-in-law is healed by Jesus is meant in part to assuage readers' profound discomfort with what they would have assumed in the first-century Mediterranean world, namely that Jesus' followers abandoned family who depended on them just as surely as Jesus abandoned his own mother (who may well have been a widow, given that Joseph appears nowhere as a living character in the gospels after Jesus' youth). At least when Peter leaves his family for Jesus' sake, there's one person who has experienced Jesus as a healer in her family rather than solely as the man who tore it apart. And at least she can do household work. That wouldn't mean that she could hang out a shingle as a cook -- her culture still would hold her as a “loose woman” if she didn't have a husband or brother or son with honor to which she was attached -- but maybe that was something.

In other words, this is not exactly a feel-good story, about which we just cry, “Hurrah! She's healed!” before starting to chuckle about how much it bites to be a woman who has to spring up from her very deathbed if necessary to get dinner on the table for men.

She was healed. But where's the hope for Peter's nameless and friendless mother-in-law when Peter leaves? And what kind of a jerk is Jesus to extend this woman's life only to ruin it by calling her sole source of support away? And it's not like Peter's life is going to be a picnic either. Everyone he meets will assume that he had a family and he abandoned them, so he's bound to be seen as a disreputable character everywhere he goes. In his new life he has no fields to farm, no boat to fish, no money to rent either, and no blood kin to care for him (you think they'd take him in again after how he treated them?). Tradition tells us that Peter died the same painful and shameful (in the world's reckoning) death that his Lord did in the end, but surely he wasn't hoping for death when he left to follow Jesus. He was seeking life, but what life would there be for him if he made it to old age?

In short, Peter's new path makes him almost as vulnerable as his mother-in-law, and his hope is the same as hers:

That Jesus' gospel takes root.

Jesus' Good News is very good news indeed for those without conventional honor, those without family, those without friends or means, because Jesus taught that anyone who hears the Word of God and does it is his brother and sister and mother -- his family, his kin. That means that we are kin with one another, bound to one another by our relationship with God in Jesus more surely than we could be bound to anyone by blood or marriage.

We are set free from every structure that bound us otherwise, but we are bound absolutely to care for one another.

This is pretty much the point of my Ph.D. dissertation, which is titled Freed To Serve, and examines Paul's language of “freedom” in his letters. Did you know that when Moses proclaims to Pharoah what God is saying, the full message isn't “let my people go,” but “send my people forth, that they may serve me”? That's what God does. God frees the Hebrews from Pharoah's power, not so they can do what they wish, but so they can do God's will, which is to become a people -- and a people who live a certain way. It wouldn't surprise me if some echo of Moses' message weren't intended in this Sunday's gospel, as Peter's mother-in-law is set free from the illness that bound her so that she can serve some tired travelers whose path will lead to the cross.

And that woman's hope is all our hope -- that Jesus' message takes root such that there are communities of people everywhere who will seek out widows like her, derelicts and demoniacs and orphans and foundlings and anyone else whom the world would exploit and ignore, and will care for them as Jesus cares for them, as the God whom Jesus calls “father” -- and the only father, the only authority, the only Lord -- cares for them.

So yes, Jesus does tear families apart, and this Sunday's gospel is a perfect opportunity to share that with people who think there's nothing in the bible that should make them uncomfortable or cause their neighbors to look askance at them. But Jesus sets us in a family that runs on a different set of rules -- one that privileges those who have nobody else rather than encourages us to serve only or primarily those of our own blood or surname.

We must read this Sunday's gospel remembering that Peter is about to leave his mother-in-law to follow Jesus. She, and her fellow widows and orphans, have one hope in this world:

That we follow Jesus too, caring for the outcast as for our own flesh, or better. I'm not going to harp in this entry on the Millennium Development Goals, but you know that I believe that they're where this Sunday's gospel is headed when applied to our world. Jesus wasn't going to stick around to enjoy the hospitality of one household when neighboring towns hadn't yet experienced the Good News, the new Beloved Community of sisters and brothers, God has to offer. And Jesus' Good News, Jesus' message, God's Beloved Community, wasn't meant for just our family, our town, or our country; it demands a new economy and a new way of reckoning family for the whole world. If you are a follower of Jesus, your mother and your sister and your brother is in sub-Sarahan Africa and Southeast Asia and in every place where war or disease or circumstance is out to make widows and orphans.

Did you pause long enough to feel the pain of Peter's mother-in-law, both before and after the fever left her? That's Jesus' call. Please follow.

Thanks be to God!

February 2, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Call Narratives, Epiphany, Healing, Justice, Kinship/Family, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Proper 8, Year A (BCP lectionary)

[If you use the Revised Common Lectionary rather than the lectionary from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, or if you'd prefer to concentrate on the last three verses of this Sunday's gospel in the BCP lectionary, please see this article, which is a reflection I wrote for The Witness on the RCL readings for this coming Sunday. If you're using the BCP lectionary, my prior entries on text raising themes of kinship and family may be fruitful ground for reflection also.]

Isaiah 2:10-17
- link to NRSV text
Matthew 10:34-42 - link to NRSV text

The bulk of this Sunday's gospel is hard to hear for us all across what I call the theopolitical spectrum. Those who (like me) emphasize that Jesus' work among us is as reconciler and Jesus consistently condemned violence are disturbed by Jesus' saying "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Perhaps even harder for many of us to hear is Jesus' saying that he has come to set parents against children and children against parents. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, you're in good company. The language that passed Jesus' lips about this was almost certainly more like Luke's, which has Jesus saying, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters ... cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). No, there's no trick of Greek vocabulary or ancient Aramaic translation that blunts the meaning of the word "hate" there. It's the same word (misein) used in places like:

  • Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
  • Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
  • Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")

That's hard to take, and it's most likely that Matthew's community (which in all likelihood used some of the same written sources as were used for the Gospel According to Luke) backpedaled from that "hate" to say instead that it's about loving parents or children more than Jesus.

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37) is still a radical and potentially offensive statement, though. I think about a bio submitted for a lay leadership position in an Episcopal congregation which said something very like "family is, and will be forever, the absolute foundation of my life, the church, and society" (I kept the quote in my files, but am paraphrasing it to protect the person's identity). What does Jesus' claim that he came to set parents against children and children against parents do to that? Those who loudly proclaim a Jesus whose "family values" exalt heterosexual marriage and parenthood above all other relationships and priorities can't be biblical literalists about passages like this Sunday's gospel, so they're often forced to gloss over them (I'd love to hear about any congregation out there not working from a lectionary in which the preacher chooses to take up texts like this!) or resort to interpretive contortions like misused or even invented etymologies to try to dull the force of Jesus' proclamation.

Why is this so hard for us to hear?

Anthropologists use the term 'redemptive media' to refer to the set of things people do in a given culture that allow them to be seen as good, as blessed and worthy of blessing. In the United States during my lifetime, the dominant culture's redemptive media have included graduating from high school and university, owning one's home, and being financially successful (or at least managing wisely the money one has), and (in some circles, and of decreasing importance over time as a redemptive medium in the technical sense) being a member of a religious congregation. But above all of these things as the chief 'redemptive media' in the dominant American culture have been two things: marriage and parenthood.

Think about it this way: there's a fifty-two-year-old politician thinking of a run for the U.S. presidency. He dated in high school and his first two years of university, but once he decided to dedicate his life to public service, he decided that he would have more time and energy to serve the public good without neglecting a family if he were celibate, though as someone who's neither a monk nor a Roman Catholic priest he's under no formal obligation to celibacy. Heck, let's even say for the sake of argument that everyone is satisfied that he's heterosexual. Would his chosen singleness (which St. Paul would commend, though not command) be a political help or liability with American "family values" voters?

I suspect it would prove a serious political liability -- perhaps even more of one if the candidate were a woman. Especially in contrast to another candidate who in his television ads was surrounded by smiling, handsome children and grandchildren (and probably the family Golden Retriever as well), an American man or woman who chooses to remain single and/or childless -- even if it's a choice made to provide more opportunities to serve humankind and leave a better world for other people's children -- would be seen as selfish ("Clearly, this jerk has placed career over family!") or just plain weird, even if it isn't seen as an indication of closeted homosexuality. Even in gay communities, pairing off and raising children boost respectability and a person's perceived level of success. Gay or straight, a church member who's never been partnered is very likely to be met with pity, well-intentioned attempts at matchmaking, and/or reassurances (however unwelcome) that "I'm sure God has someone in mind for you." Marriage (or at least a stable partnership) and parenthood, as our cultural redemptive media, are as American as apple pie -- and we all know that the full phrase ought to be "Mom and apple pie."

So what the heck is Jesus talking about when he says that he's come to set Mom against her daughter, Dad against son, children against their parents?

One side of it is that Jesus is talking about a fact. In a culture that values marriage and family above all else (superficially, in name and cultural iconography -- don't get me started about how hard many of our government's policies make it to get medical care for all of our children, to parent without both parents having to work outside the home, for African American women to form those nuclear families that politicians praise ...), sometimes justice, integrity, and wholeness -- qualities characteristic of Jesus' work among us -- can divide parents from children.

I'm thinking about Zach, a young man of sixteen who lives in Bartlett, Tennesse. Zach loves the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings and rock bands like Good Charlotte and No Doubt, but he'd usually rather read a book than watch T.V. He has an online journal -- a blog -- that describes a good amount of typical teenage drama in sentences that sometimes run on or lack a few capital letters.

Zach hasn't posted anything new to his blog in nearly a month, though. He's been sent away to a place where he's searched bodily every day, he isn't allowed to have keys to his house or a phone to call a friend, or even a photograph or memento to remind him that he has friends with whom he can hang out or play video games, friends who care about him. He was sent against his will to a place where even Bach and Beethoven are banned as secular music and a possible influence to sin.

Zach was sent there by his parents when he finally worked up the nerve to tell them that he's gay. His parents found this place -- a place run by a group called "Love In Action" -- where they hoped that Zach would, with their treatment, become heterosexual. They told Zach that they were sending him there. Zach ran away, but when he came back to try to reconcile with his parents, they did send him there, very much against his will. There are some who might say that Zach or his "disordered" orientation is to blame, and that the repressive and potentially abusive treatment he gets from "Love In Action" is simply the last and best hope to "cure" him of a disease, to which I'd say that this certainly isn't the first time a superficial scientific sheen has been applied to call God's children claiming their full humanity a disease and their personal integrity a disorder. In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who was widely viewed as an expert on health care for Black people, "discovered" the supposed diseases of  "dropetomania" (literally, "flee-from-home-mania") and (here's a mouthful!) "Dysaethesia Aethiopica" (a disease with symptoms of sullenness and refusal to obey orders) Dr. Cartwright claimed that these supposed diseases to which Black people were uniquely vulnerable were best treated by whipping as soon as possible when symptoms showed, and since these diseases were "the natural offspring of Negro liberty," slavery itself was the best hope to tide the epidemic. [If you're interested in hearing more about this, please see the footnote at the end of this post.]

I imagine that Dr. Cartwright thought of himself all the more as a good Christian for his work. It would be perfectly in keeping with a theological disorder that has long plagued this country and others -- namely, a tendency to project onto God whatever our culture's redemptive media are. In 1851, a "good" slave was an obedient slave. And in Zach's family, a "good" son is a heterosexual son.

And so Jesus comes -- to heal, and to love, and however long it takes to grow, to nurture the peace that comes with the fruit of the Spirit -- but also, in some cases, to separate a son from his father. I don't know Zach or his parents personally, but just from reading Zach's blog, I wonder whether the best thing I can pray for Zach is that he'll find a way to break away from his parents while staying safe. Zach needs to be among people who, though they're not related to him by blood, will receive him as a beloved brother, a child of God whose every capacity for self-giving and life-affirming love is a gift from God.

And my hope -- my vision, as someone who believes with all her heart that the God of Israel, the God who became Incarnate in Jesus, is present and active and powerful to heal and redeem -- is that the story wouldn't end there, but that Zach could, with the support of his new sisters and brothers and an unshakable sense of just how much God loves him, find the strength and the courage to forgive his parents, and that they would be moved to reconcile with him, receiving him as an adult with his own integrity, not  only son, but a beloved brother in Christ.

That's the Good News in this hard word of Jesus about the gospel inspiring sons and daughters breaking from their parents. It's that there is no brokenness, nothing so disordered as to be completely beyond the reach of God's power to redeem. That truth gave St. Paul the boldness in his letter to Philemon the slave-owner to insist that Philemon not only free his slave Onesimus -- a slave for whom Dr. Cartwright would have prescribed whipping -- but receive him joyfully as a brother in Christ, a child of God, his equal with God-given rights and a God-breathed vocation.

The day of our redemption is near.

The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
   and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
   and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day.

-- Isaiah 2:11

When God alone is Lord, no other person, no cultural imperative, no unjust law, no earthly power can claim that title or keep us from our identity in Christ. Our freedom in Christ divides us from all that would oppress us and restores us to one another as members of one Body of Christ, called to ministry and maturity in Christ, co-heirs with the one who sets us free.

Thanks be to God!

If I can indulge in a lengthy footnote, turning difference coupled with a refusal to accept the "less than" status accorded to one by one's culture has a long history in American medicine. In 1851, slaves who repeatedly tried to flee to freedom were diagnosed with "drapetomania"  -- literally, "flight-from-home-mania" -- a disorder "discovered" by Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who was seen as an expert in the medical care of Black people. Dr. Cartwright taught that "drapetomania" -- that is, wanting freedom -- was  "a disease of the mind as in any other species of alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule," if "treatments" of whipping were applied at the first signs of this supposed disease. Dr. Cartwright also prescribed whipping as the cure for "Dysaethesia Aethiopica." In Cartwright's words, this "disease peculiar to Negroes" was characterized by "hebetude of the mind and obtuse sensibility of the body" -- in other words, by sullenness and resistance to obeying one's master. Dr. Cartwright chided abolitionist colleagues for noticing "the symptoms, but not the disease from which they spring," this disease being "the natural offspring of Negro liberty," making slavery -- with whipping, of course -- the only humane solution to this supposed epidemic. (Props to Elizabeth Kaeton for bringing this to my attention; you can read about it here, among other places.)

Our country also has a history of forced sterilization and/or imprisonment in extremely oppressive and unhealthy mental "hospitals" to cure perceived social ills via eugenics, with American scientists sparking the German eugenics movement that justified the Holocaust -- a subject with which Dr. Karen Keely first acquainted me.

June 23, 2005 in Healing, Isaiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Kinship/Family, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Philemon, Reconciliation, Redemption, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

John 9:1-13(14-27)28-38 - link to NRSV text

It's sensible enough: start with the idea that God is just, compassionate, and in control. Then take a look around you. There's a lot of suffering there. Think about why people suffer. There's got to be a reason for all that darkness, right?

In Jesus' culture, people thought of light as a STUFF, a substance that radiated out from itself, a kind of fire that, when present in the human body, could flow out of a person's eyes and allow them to see (props to the Social Science Commentary on John for that). Someone who couldn't see just didn't have the stuff in them; their body had darkness in it instead of light. Makes a certain kind of sense.

And how did they get that way? Surely God didn't make them like that. Had to be sin.

What if the person in question was born that way, born full of darkness? What do we do with that? Do we blame the parents? Do we blame the blind person (some people in Jesus' culture, and probably in our own, thought that in some way it was possible for a fetus to sin in the womb)?

Jesus answers that very important question of what we should do when we see human suffering that challenges the conventional ways we talk about God's goodness and the goodness of the world that God made. I think in some ways that Jesus' answer could be summarized as this:

Get back to work.

Really, I'm as intellectually curious as the next person, but that's what I hear coming across as I read this passage. It speaks to me as a person who's frequently tempted to devote energy to talking about Jesus' compassion that might be better spent extending it.

That temptation seems pretty close to the one faced by the particular Pharisees in this passage: they've spent so much energy figuring out how God's justice and God's compassion operate in the world, and through whom they operate, that they've got very little left to receive the reality when it's in front of them.

I definitely do NOT mean to condemn all Pharisees by this. When Christians use "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "villain," it invariably comes across as antisemitic -- and besides, it's grossly unfair. The Pharisees were not moral bean-counters who didn't care about justice. Indeed, the prophetic books that most thoroughly informed Jesus', Paul's, and early Christians' vision of what God's justice looks like -- books like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Micah, and Amos -- are in our bibles largely because Pharisees saw them as inspired works that deserved to be in the canon. The Pharisees were the primary movers for placing in the canon the passages that, according to Luke 4, were central in Jesus' own sense of mission.

Luke gets that across by having Jesus quote some of the passages in question, such as Isaiah 42:1-7:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD,
   who created the heavens and stretched them out,
   who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
   and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.

This was not a passage about some singular figure who was going to come to save Israel. Isaiah's "servant of the Lord" was ALL of Israel. And in this Sunday's gospel, Jesus does far more than read or explain these words: he puts them into action. All of Israel, not just an anointed one or few, was to serve as a light to the nations, opening the eyes of those who are blind.

And so it may be that the most damning point this Sunday's gospel has against Jesus' accusers is one that we easily miss: they did not know the blind man who was healed.

He sat and begged there daily, and every day they walked by him, but when the time came, they couldn't be sure of who he was -- others had to fetch his parents before they could be sure of the identification (again, props to the Social Science Commentary on John). Or maybe they'd identified him solely by the darkness they thought was inside him, as a social problem indicative of how far society had sunk. For whatever reason, they'd never looked him in the eye or really noticed his face.

I think that globalization and the previously unimaginable -- and potentially, in some ways, very helpful -- capabilities it brings come with an equally impressive set of responsibilities: that, having been grafted into God's people, we are called to find some way to, in some sense, look people of all nations in the eye before we take their money or as we give ours, to find a face and a name where others see only columns and figures representing social problems or potential profits, symbols to use for political or financial gain, or to prop up a worldview.

Questions about how things got this way and theological questions about what God's revelation to us looks like in our community and our world have their place, but never at the expense of our call as God's servants and Jesus' followers: to bring peaceable justice -- justice that doesn't so much as bend a reed or blow out a candle, let alone issue force in explosions, but which nonetheless brings liberty not just to those most able to seize opportunity, but to the blind and the captive -- to every nation, every block, every city, every neighbor.

We cannot be light to the world until we can see that light in the eyes of beggars in our town and in our global village, welcoming that light as Christ's presence among us and receiving each bearer as a neighbor, a brother or sister with a face and a name. Jesus shows us the way, and his presence with us gives us courage to live more deeply into it.

Thanks be to God!

February 28, 2005 in Healing, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, Year A | Permalink | Comments (11)