Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Jenee Woodward -- whose work is a boon to lectionary preachers everywhere -- honored this blog by making it the featured link at The Text This Week, the site she runs. It's quite a compliment. So I reread my reflection that I wrote in 2005 on the texts for this week's readings. And, if I may say so myself, I thought it was pretty good. I've been stumped for several days as to how I'd add to it, so I think I'll just link to it instead:

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A (2005)

Let me know what y'all think of this, and blessings!

January 24, 2008 in Call Narratives, Discipleship, Epiphany, Matthew, Year A | Permalink | Comments (1)

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)

First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 43:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Acts 8:14-17 - link to NRSV text
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 - link to NRSV text

I often, and especially on Sundays like this coming one, find myself musing about the practice of Baptizing infants and small children. I'm supportive of families who do choose to Baptize their children; I believe that God often works through the intentions of families and congregations expressed in their preparation for and participation in Baptizing a child. I also think it's remarkable and quite sad that the decision to Baptize a child is so often made at least initially with more thoughts about pretty gowns and celebration with relatives than about the sign of the Cross that will be made on the child's forehead as the child is told, "you are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever."

Baptism is serious stuff.

Take Jesus' baptism, for example. We read about it during worship this week in a manner that mostly isolates that event from the context in which it takes place in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark's wording is particularly striking, as "immediately" after Jesus is baptized by John, Mark says, "the Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness." The verb Mark uses is ekballo -- the same word used of what happens to demons in exorcism.

Matthew and Luke tone that verb down, but still make clear that Jesus' baptism gives him not only a vision of God declaring him to be a beloved son, but also a vocation -- one that places him in conflict with spiritual adversaries, the powers that seek to enslave us, dividing us from one another and from God, and with very human adversaries, rulers and others who benefit from that oppressive order and fragmentation. And if the gospels present Jesus as in some ways being like the Baptizer but greater, John's execution at Herod's orders indicate the kind of dangers Jesus faces as he steps forward into public ministry empowered by his baptism.

It's not just about Jesus' baptism either. The book of Acts links Baptism in the Holy Spirit with great spiritual power, and also makes clear that the Spirit's power comes with conflicts with worldly authorities and worldly values. And yet we choose to Baptize our children, marking them with the otherness that marked Jesus, placing them on the path of the Cross. Indeed, we do it joyfully -- all the more joyfully, I'd argue, when we do it with eyes wide open to the challenges ahead of those who, like the Baptized child, have been set on the way of the Cross. Why?

I believe that joy in a Baptism chosen with eyes and heart wide open comes from being in touch with the audacious vision of God's dream for humanity, in which we participate as Baptized members of the Body of Christ. When we are immersed in and excited about what God is doing in the world, the challenges that arise from those who prefer the world order in which the poor, the sick, and those marked as 'other' stay on the margins can be seen for what they are -- the last gasps of an oppressive order that is passing away.

That's one reason I love the ways in which people of faith have embraced the vision of the Millennium Development Goals. It's a vision that's audacious and ambitious, yet meant to be realized in our hearing, in this generation -- and one I'll definitely be touching on in great depth, as Luke 4 is coming up soon in the lectionary. I hope it will suffice for now to note that when we talk about what it is we take on as our vocation when we are sealed with the weighty sign of Baptism into Christ, it includes taking on participation in Jesus' mission, that when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord (which is the most central confession of Baptism), we are investing our very lives -- body, psyche, and spirit, as well as any resources and gifts we have or will gain to offer -- in the mission of ordering the world God made such that it looks like what we say is true: that Jesus is Lord.

In other words, in Baptism we pledge our whole selves to ordering not only our lives, but to the best of our ability, the world in which we live in harmony with the reign or kingdom of God -- that is, what the world looks like when Jesus' lordship is fully consummated. And what does that look like? This Sunday prompts us to look at Jesus' baptism as a frame through which we might see what that moment might look like through the lens of Christian Baptism.

Jesus' baptism provided him with clarity about his purpose and his message. In Luke's terms, that message is about the realization of Isaiah's prophetic vision -- not in some distant future, not as something to be wished for idly or prayed for in pious passivity, but as present reality. The Good News of the present vindication of the poor, of release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the jubilee year of God's favor is more and more for here and now as "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). As the apostles live into the ministry of their Baptism, Luke characterizes their ministry similarly. Their testimony to Jesus is validated by their making real among one another what Jesus proclaimed:

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. (Acts 4:33-35)

I ache to know what the world would look like if all of Christ's apostles today saw this as the economy -- which, not incidentally, is our adoption of the Greek work oikonomia, or household management -- of the household of God's people. And "apostles" is NOT (especially not in Luke's writings) a word designating twelve guys who lived in Palestine over two thousand years ago; "apostle" means "one sent," and every person Baptized into Christ is sent forth in Christ's name. If you're waiting for the church's permission to function as an apostle and the Baptismal Covenant doesn't seem to be enough, just wait until the end of the service, and a deacon (or someone functioning as one) will commission you as an apostle:

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

That's said, and you're sent. You and I, the Baptized, are sent forth, designated as apostles of Jesus Christ, sent to proclaim the new life of Christ Jesus not just with empty words, but with power -- with deeds that change lives, with the offering of all that we have and all that we are. That's appropriate enough for the Baptized. When we were Baptized, what part of us was left untouched? None. When we seek to follow Jesus, what part of us is reserved for someone else's cause? None. And when we are following Jesus with all we are, what part of us -- indeed, what part of our world -- will be left untouched and not transformed fully by grace? None.

That, I believe with all my heart, is why it's worth everything that we pledge when we are Baptized, when we Baptize our children, when we reaffirm our Baptismal vows. It's worth it all because it is more than the "all" we humanly thought possible; it is embracing the telos or "end" for which the Word was breathed and all things made in the beginning. It is the imagining that will stretch our imaginations for as long as eternal life lives.

I admit that hear often from a few people that most members of their congregations have no interest in stretching their imaginations in this way, that most are perfectly satisfied with their lives and the world exactly as they are. I have to say that this does not at all match my pastoral experience in the wealthiest, most privileged, most "secure," and most "successful" of congregations any more than it matches my experience in ministry with the homeless. There are a great many people in our culture who are by most measures wealthy, but who are tremendously economically insecure -- in a house that cost far more than they could comfortably afford, but that seemed necessary to buy given how good the schools in that neighborhood were in contrast to the terrible state of public schools in poorer neighborhoods not so far away. They are one paycheck away from disaster, and they know it; if one person in the family gets sick, if there's some unforeseen disaster in a single industry, if the wrong person gets elected or promoted or one rotten stroke of luck, it feels like everything will be ruined. The adults and children feel it almost equally, even if neither ever names or talks about it. And then there are the other kinds of disasters that our culture threatens us with seemingly at every turn. Perhaps it's more a function of child and adolescent literacy than of anything else, but I'm not convinced that's it -- I have never seen more cultural artefacts of anxiety from the young of any culture I've studied than I have when listening to the voices of young people in affluent communities today.

On some level, I think that we all know that the world as our worldly powers have ordered it is not working, is not giving the human family abundant life as we were created and still ache for.

And I believe this is part of the Good News of our Baptism. If some part of you believes that the world as it is on the front page of the newspaper is not the world as it was meant to be, you're not crazy and you're not just a starry-eyed idealist; you are feeling God's call in Baptism. If some part of you wants something more than the chance to achieve enough to feel pressured to achieve more or to defend what you thought you won, you're not just greedy or lazy or odd; you're feeling God's call in Baptism. And if you feel at times that the world and the life you're aching for is more than you could bring into being by your own achievement, even if you wanted it only for yourself and those you care about (and who can restrict caring to just a few?), you haven't run into the thing that makes the dream impossible; you just might be hearing the call of Baptism.

Baptism, after all, is not just about you. Not by a long shot. Luke, after telling us about Jesus' baptism, immediately gives us that most genre of lectionary readings most dreaded by lectors: the geneology. He tells us how Jesus is connected, via saints and sinners (and aren't they all some of both?), via the famous and obscure, to all humanity. And like Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us of the vision Jesus had in Baptism that empowered him to face what he faced in the desert and in the crowds, whether enthusiastic or angry: he heard God's call to intimacy as God's beloved child. There were many things about Jesus that were unique, but Jesus' intimate relationship with God as we hear in this story of his baptism was not one of them; it's something that God has offered to all of God's beloved children from the beginning. It's the call and the promise that Isaiah sang of along with those audacious visions of what the world could be, that in the midst of the world as it is, we could hear God say:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I pray that this Sunday and every day, all those gathered to hear God's word can hear that word, can receive the truth of God's presence to empower us as ones sent to live into the truth of God's reign.

Thanks be to God!

January 6, 2007 in Acts, Baptism, Epiphany, Isaiah, Justice, Luke, Mark, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, 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)

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 17, Year B

Deueteronomy 4:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 15 - link to BCP text
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 - link to NRSV text

There are all kinds of irresponsible caricatures drawn from pulpits about what Judaism and Pharisaism was and/or is like, and I expect that too many of them will be drawn this Sunday. This Sunday especially, we need to remember that there's a reason that, for example, Jewish ministries on college campuses are called "Hillel House" after the man who's probably the most famous Pharisee (other than Paul of Tarsus, whom Christians call St. Paul) in history: to my knowledge, all branches of Judaism today are descended from Pharisaism. When we Christians use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or speak of Pharisaism as a religion of empty ceremonies and heartless enforcement of rules, we are using rhetoric that insults today's Jews and Judaism. Such rhetoric is not only insulting, but also profoundly misleading.

Pharisees in Jesus' day didn't hold to a religion that said that God was more distant or less loving or merciful than the god we proclaim. Anyone who looks up words like 'love/loving' and 'mercy' in a decent concordance that includes the Hebrew bible will find plentiful evidence that the Pharisees taught that God is, in the words of Exodus 34:6-7, "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness," and "forgiving iniquity and sin." Neither did the Pharisees teach that God is distant or that human beings can't have an intimate relationship with God, as anyone who reads the Psalms can witness. Indeed, the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, taught that God could be present in anyone's kitchen, workplace, and bedroom as God is present in the Temple. Nor did the Pharisees confine God's love to Jews or suggest that one had to be born Jewish to know or follow God, as this passage from the Numbers Rabbah (8.3) on proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism) suggests:

The Holy One loves proselytes exceedingly. To what is the matter like? To a king who had a number of sheep and goats which went forth every morning to the pasture, and returned in the evening to the stable. One day a stag joined the flock and grazed with the sheep, and returned with them. Then the shepherd said to the king, "There is a stag which goes out with the sheep and grazes with them, and comes home with them." And the king loved the stag exceedingly. And he commanded the shepherd, saying, "Give heed unto this stag, that no man beat it"; and when the sheep returned in the evening, he would order that the stag should have food and drink. Then the shepherds said to him, "My Lord, thou hast many goats and sheep and kids, and thou givest us no directions about these, but about this stag thou givest us orders day by day." Then the king replied, "It is the custom of the sheep to graze in the pasture, but the stags dwell in the wilderness, and it is not their custom to come among men in the cultivated land. But to this stag who has come to us and lives with us, should we not be grateful that he has left the great wilderness, where many stags and gazelles feed, and has come to live among us? It behooves us to be grateful." So too spoke the Holy One: "I owe great thanks to the stranger, in that he has left his family and his father's house, and has come to dwell among us; therefore I order in the Law: 'Love ye the stranger'" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
-- The New Testament Background, pp. 208-209

Jesus criticized Pharisees, to be sure, but even when he was doing so harshly, he acknowledged their zeal in evangelism, in letting Gentiles everywhere know that the God of Israel would receive them gladly -- take a look at Matthew 23:15, in which Jesus specifically says to Pharisees, "you cross sea and land to make a single convert." Nor were the Pharisees uninterested in justice for the poor; they taught that scripture passages like this week's reading from Deuteronomy mean that God made the Hebrews a people and chose them specifically so they could be a community that did things differently from the nations, including caring for the poor, and in a way that could make the people of the God of Israel a light for the whole world.

In short, Jesus didn't criticize Pharisees so passionately because they were the furthest from his point of view; he criticized particular Pharisees because in so many ways their thinking was so very close to his. In other words, Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees is a quarrel between brothers -- which, as anyone who grew up with siblings knows, can be the most animated kinds of arguments.

So what, then, was the substance of Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees? I've said a great deal so far about what it was NOT, but little about what it was. The short answer is, I think, the main point of this week's gospel reading, and it's a point that ought to be very challenging for us too. The Pharisees weren't concerned only with purity laws; they are, after all, the people who lobbied longest and hardest for prophetic books like Isaiah to be counted as scripture. And their position on purity laws was one that, I think most Pharisees were argue (if you'll forgive my saying this in anachronistic terms), was an inclusive and progressive one. Sadducees would say that the purity rules that priests (and you had to be a male without deformity born into a priestly family to be a priest -- it wasn't something one could choose or decline) were supposed to follow surrounding their periods of service in the Temple were just for those born in a position that would bring them into God's holy place. The Pharisees were making Judaism and the sense it offered of being in God's presence accessible to anyone by saying that anyone could be a Jew and a Pharisee, and any place could be holy to God if only people would treat it as such. That point is the core, I think, of Jesus' agreement with his Pharisaic contemporaries.

The disagreement was about what it was that made a place holy, what it was that constituted purity. This Sunday's gospel shows Jesus teaching something with potentially radical implications. It's not that purity doesn't matter. Getting people to treat everything and everyone as pure would, in my opinion, be hopeless in any culture, and probably not desirable either. Sometimes I ask students to make a list of the purity rules they follow. At first they usually object that they don't follow any, but then I offer some examples. Most of us grow up being taught not to eat or leave the bathroom without washing our hands. Oh, but that's just about germs, right? Our purity rules are just about health and science, and those are the only purity rules worth following. But we generally think it's weird or even offensive to prepare food in the bathroom -- a rule that's not at core about germs, as studies have demonstrated that the bathroom is generally the least germ-ridden place in our houses. But guests would be puzzled or grossed out if they thought I'd prepared their dinner in the room I used to defecate. I'm not saying that's bad or stupid -- I'm just saying that we ALL have purity rules that we follow.

And that's why I think what Jesus does in this Sunday's gospel is so brilliantly subversive. Jesus redefines purity in terms of "what comes out of a person" -- of qualities we demonstrate in relationships.

It's brilliant because it would have been someone between fruitless and counter-productive for Jesus to say anything like "purity doesn't matter." Human beings just aren't 'wired' culturally to be that way -- and being the kind of person who will say "that just isn't appropriate," especially when we feel and say it on a gut level, can be very helpful in some circumstances. But Jesus is proposing that intentionally, in community, we 're-wire' ourselves, building a subculture that trains us to feel as much 'ick factor' about carelessly wounding remarks as most of us were taught growing up to feel about carelessly (or, if you have to have it in 'scientific' terms, unhygienically) prepared food. Jesus is proposing that we intentionally build a culture that worries about whether our behavior is feeding grudges or a spiral of violence in the same way -- but with considerably more intensity -- than most of us were brought up to worry about food practices feeding bacteria. And building that kind of culture requires that we engage intentionally with one another in the kind of gentle, consistent, persistent, 24/7 formation in community that, in most healthy households, gradually teaches children about washing hands and being careful with meat and potato salad. That would be a radical move. Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view churches if every congregation put as much care into seeing that our children aren't infected with racism or pride as we generally want them to put into seeing that they're not infected with salmonella at the potluck?

That would be cool. But that's not the most radical implication of what Jesus teaches about purity.

The most radical implication of Jesus' view of purity is something that St. Paul picks up and applies to his view of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. Most views of purity that anyone would count sensible know that if just one impure thing comes into contact with something pure, that transmits the impurity -- in other words, both things will now be impure. If just a wee bit of litter from the catbox makes it into a cake, that cake -- not just a piece of it, and regardless of what scientific tests demonstrate that some part of it is free of bacterial nastiness -- is not going to be seen as suitable to serve to guests. That assumption about purity often carries over into how we treat people, though. There are some things people can do that render them in relational terms "radioactive" -- treated as untouchable, lest we "catch" their bad reputation and/or bad conduct. But what if purity is every bit as transmittable as impurity? What if purity can actually overpower impurity? In St. Paul's view, a woman -- a person the culture sees as easily made impure -- can actually render her whole household "pure," holy, a place where God is powerfully present and powerfully at work. That attributes a great deal of positive power to the woman.

And that's an idea I'd say Paul got from Jesus, and specifically as a solid inference from passages like this Sunday's gospel, as well as from Jesus' consistent example. It is possible, Jesus teaches us, to live in such a way, to display in our relationships a quality and consistency of love, that something the world writes off as irredeemable is transformed into something bearing witness to God's power to redeem. If it's "what goes in" that makes someone impure, then people need to guard carefully against coming into contact with the wrong sort of person, lest they come into contact with the wrong sort of things. But if what flows out of people in loving relationship with one another radiates purity, then we are freed to live making decisions based on love and not in fear. That is an incredibly radical, liberating, transformative insight -- one I'm always trying to take in more deeply.

And there's one further insight from Jesus' view of purity that might be more radical still. If purity is something radiated out by how we are in relationships, then we actually NEED other people for a life of holiness. For example, if true purity is about exercising forgiveness, then we NEED to take the risk of staying in relationship with people the world thinks are hopeless to experience God's holiness. If true purity involves exercising compassion, then suffering in the world isn't proof that God doesn't care, but is an opportunity to experience and proclaim just how much and in what ways God does care. If true purity is about relationship, then the challenges facing us as a church of flawed and bickering people are an opportunity to understand God's grace more deeply and proclaim it more powerfully by insisting that reconciliation be the first, middle, and final word. Is that possible? If Jesus is right, if what's "out there" doesn't make us impure and purity flows out in relationship, then past or present nastiness already "out there" is beyond what can be transformed by God's holy and holy-making love. That's Jesus' teaching in this Sunday's gospel; that's the example we have in Jesus' manner of life, which posed a profound challenge to his Pharisaic brothers much as it challenges the church today.

Thanks be to God!

September 1, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Mark, Matthew, Pharisees, Purity, Year B | Permalink | Comments (5)

Proper 10, Year B

Mark 6:7-13 - link to NRSV text

If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.

I think the most memorable time I've heard those words was in a sermon by the Rt. Rev. Doug Theuner, then Bishop of New Hampshire, at the consecration of his successor, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson. Those words (which Theuner quoted from the parallel passage in Matthew) were part of Theuner's charge to Robinson. If any place will not welcome you, he said, and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.

That's harsh. That's saying not only that you won't touch them, but that you won't touch anything they've touched -- not even the dust.

And I don't think that +Gene has taken that advice.

Instead, at the Integrity Eucharist at General Convention this year, the refrain in his sermon was "Love them anyway." Even if you'd been under a rock for several years and had no idea what he'd been through -- the death threats against him and (inexplicably) his daughters, the sneering, the hate mail, the protesters, the constant scrutiny, and on top of it all the burden of receiving countless letters from hurting people who didn't know anyone they could talk to about being gay -- you could tell from +Gene's voice that he was not saying it lightly. He knew just how difficult and painful it could be to take seriously the oneness of the Body of Christ and the imperative to seek and serve Christ in all people. His voice broke several times as he said it.

Love them anyway.

That doesn't erase the hard word about shaking off the dust, and to be completely honest, I'm not totally sure what to do with it. I really, really dislike sermons that take a hard word from Jesus and say something that boils down to "he didn't really mean it." I hope that what I have to say about this hard word doesn't fall into that category.

The first thing that I want to point out about it is the context. Jesus' followers were a tiny, obscure minority in the Roman Empire. The vast majority of people had never heard of Jesus. How much sense would it make for his followers to keep preaching in a town where everyone had heard and no one would listen? I was tempted to say, "and where staying would only get them beaten up or worse," but when you look at the breadth of Jesus' teaching, what his disciples actually did and how many were martyred -- and most importantly, what Jesus himself did in "setting his face toward Jerusalem," being received as a king, and preaching liberation to packed crowds there to celebrate the liberation of God's people from slavery -- I don't think that the danger of sticking around was a consideration. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X predicted that they would be assassinated -- Jesus and his followers didn't need any special revelation to know the risks they took.

They took them repeatedly. They loved them anyway.

And not just that. Jesus not only ruled out retaliation against those who chased his followers out of town; he also sent his followers out with no bread, no bag, no money, no outer tunic. No tunic meant that sleeping outdoors was not an option; no bag meant that they wouldn't be able to collect enough in one place to survive on their own in another. In other words, Jesus lived out and passed on to his disciples not just engagement, but vulnerability. They were to go to people they didn't know and rely on them day by day for food and shelter from the elements.

That's radical dependence on God. I don't mean by that that Jesus or his followers were sure that everything was going to be OK by conventional reckonings. Jesus didn't promise safety -- especially not in the sense of static self-preservation. That's not God's job. God wants something better for us. God calls us out of safe stasis. As the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye said in a recent interview in Christianity Today:

One of the gravest threats to the North American church is the deception of power—the deception of being at the center. Those at the center tend to think, "The future belongs to us. We are the shapers of tomorrow. The process of gospel transmission, the process of mission—all of it is on our terms, because we are powerful, because we are established. We have a track record of success, after all. ... Those at the center decide that anyone not with us is—not against us—[but] just irrelevant.

God very often is working most powerfully far from the center. Jesus is crucified outside Jerusalem—outside—with the very cynical sign over his head, "The King of the Jews." Surprise —- he is the King of the Jews. "We had hoped ... " say the disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he did not fulfill our criteria. In Acts, we read that the cross-cultural missionary thrust did not begin in Jerusalem. It began in Antioch, on the periphery, the margins. But Jerusalem is not ready for Antioch! In fact, even when they go to Antioch, it's just to check on what's happening.

... I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch.

Can we begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness? Let's go back to Matthew 25 and read it in the church in America, over and over. Who are Jesus' brothers? The weak, the hungry, the immigrant workers, the economic outcasts. Let's read the passage of this woman who pours ointment over Jesus. Let's ask, who is mostly in the company of Jesus? Not bishops and pastors! The bishops and pastors are the ones who suggest he's a lunatic! Who enjoys his company? The ordinary folk, so ordinary that their characterization is simply this: "sinners." Can we begin to point to those passages?

Yet this ability to read different passages, to read the Bible differently, won't happen until people are displaced from their comfort zones. I thank the Lord for deep friendships he has given to me beyond my comfort zone, beyond my culture, beyond my language. Until that happens, we will all be tribal, all of us.

... Whether in Africa or America, the Cross is not an easy place to be—it is the symbol of our faith, but we do not love the Cross. "Come down from the Cross" is the cry not just of the Jewish leaders; it's the cry even of us Christians. We want Christ to come down from the Cross. We don't like the Cross.

And the Cross is where God calls us -- out of tribalism, out of nationalism, out of the safety of our comfort zones. I think that shaking the dust from our feet is not ultimately about refusing to be in contact with those who reject us, but refusing to remain in familiar territory with the "devil we know" rather than risk moving out further to the margins and the unknown. As one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite short stories says, "there is no safety," out there or anywhere, but there is, as one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories puts it, "wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger." The way of the Cross, of Jesus' radical vulnerability, is also the way of Life.

Thanks be to God!

July 14, 2006 in Inclusion, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Mark, Matthew, Nonviolence, The Cross, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Christ the King: Proper 29, Year A

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

Now, to my own reflections:

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

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podcast (i.e., the MP3 audio version of this entry)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

Proper 28, Year A

Added 11-14-05: By popular demand, my first podcast. It's pretty much this blog entry read aloud, and it's something of an experiment. Let me know what you think!

By the way, if you haven't yet visited and put a pin down on the online map, please consider doing so. You won't be giving any information that will generate spam, and I am REALLY enjoying seeing where y'all are and hearing your shout-outs!

Oh, and I preached on this text last year; that sermon is here.

Matthew 25:14-15,19-29
- link to NRSV text

This Sunday's gospel is yet another reason to get out of the habit of seeing all of Jesus' parables as allegories in which one character represents God or Jesus. That isn't what's happening here. Take a hard look at the behavior of the master: he's an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. Take a look at the behavior this master wants of his slaves: the profit-making that the master demands would be seen in Jesus' culture would of necessity come at the expense of other more honest people; it would be seen as greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. The master tells the slave whom he treats most harshly that the punishment is specifically for refusing to break God's commandment against usury (Matthew 25:27), a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament. And the Greek word for "talent" very specifically means a unit of money; it has no relationship whatsoever to the word for an ability, so this is NOT a parable about us being the best we can be, no matter how much our culture of achievement wants to twist it into that. There are versions of that message that can be helpful, but it just isn't what the parable is about.

So what's the message of the story, if it isn't about us using the abilities God gave us? Jesus gives it to us explicitly in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." In other words, "the rich get richer, and the destitute lose everything."

Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people? Heck no! If you've got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn't a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we do these things, and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.

In short, PLEASE don't tell people that the message of this Sunday's gospel is anything along the lines of "make the most of the talents you've got," as its message is much closer to "care for those whom the world would leave destitute." Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn't be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away. Jesus will bring his work in the world to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. You know that wave I talked about last week? Jesus' parable in this Sunday's gospel is telling us that we should line ourselves up to ride it. It's coming -- bank on that, not on what our culture says is most profitable!

The live question for us, I think, about this Sunday's gospel is whether we can really believe that, if we really can trust in that enough to risk living as Jesus taught us rather than according to the demands of those who try to set themselves up in Jesus' place as our lord, who try to enslave us to wordly standards by telling us that our security is in acquiring resources for ourselves and striking out at our enemies.

I believe we can. We can because it's Jesus who told us this, and Jesus is absolutely trustworthy. And as we inch toward Advent, I want to encourage y'all to look for the signs that Jesus was right, the signs happening in the world right now that the Spirit Jesus sent is living and moving and active in the world to accomplish Jesus' work among us.

They're out there: large and small signs. Here's a large one: over two million Americans have signed the ONE campaign's pledge to use their vote and their voice to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. By 2008, it's expected that over five million will have signed, making this campaign bigger than the National Rifle Association, speaking good news to the poor not only with the moral authority of the cause, but with the power in numbers to make it happen.

I remember when the Berlin Wall came down. That was big. People were dancing in the street; students at the seminary I was at were leaving in droves to dance on the Wall itself as it came down, bringing graffiti-covered chips home to remember the moment. It was big -- the moment of a lifetime, some people would say. But I believe that a moment bigger than that is on its way. It's not a pipe dream; many of our world's top economists think it's attainable in our lifetime. Imagine with me for a moment what the party is going to be like in streets around the world when we're celebrating the end of poverty. Imagine telling your children or grandchildren about that.

That's a vision that made me want to dance, much as it made Mary want to sing:

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

That's what Jesus came to do among us. It's what we pray for when we pray as Jesus taught us. And it's the future we can bank on.

Thanks be to God!

November 9, 2005 in Advent, Eschatology, Justice, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year A | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Proper 27, Year A

Those of you preaching this Sunday on the readings for All Saints' instead of those for Proper 27 might find this sermon on Matthew's beatitudes and/or this sermon on Luke's beatitudes and woes helpful. I'll be blogging on the Proper 27 readings:

Amos 5:18-24 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 25:1-13 - link to NRSV text

Here's the scene behind our parable for this Sunday:

It's a wedding. In Jesus' culture, village weddings tended to look something like this: The groom and his family gather at their household (married couples tended to remain living with the groom's parents for as long as the parents survived). The bride and her family and guests gather at her household. The groom and his family make their way to the bride's house to collect the bride. When the groom arrives, he takes the bride indoors, and they do what we might call "consummating the marriage," but in their culture was what would make them married in the eyes of their families and the village: namely, they had sexual intercourse. After that, the blood on the sheets (seen as proof that the bride's hymen had been intact) would be shown to the crowd outside as proof that the couple were married, and partying would ensue.

In the parable we read this Sunday, there are ten young women who are guests of the bride. Five of them don't have enough oil, so they rush out to buy some before the groom arrives. The groom arrives while they're still out, so the party starts without them.

If I were preaching this Sunday, the sermon would probably be titled "People Get Ready" -- and not just because I've wanted since 1987 (when U2 started pulling fans on stage for this purpose) to get pulled on stage to play that song with the band. "People Get Ready" is pretty much the point of this Sunday's gospel reading. The party we've waited for is starting, and if we want to be in on the action, we need to prepare ourselves for what's coming.

That's a pretty popular theme in our culture, if sales of the Left Behind books (and movies, and board games, and who knows what else) are any indication. The message of Left Behind is that Jesus is coming back soon, so we should be ready. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the series' idea of just what that means and how we should prepare departs radically and in very unhelpful ways from what the vast majority of texts in our scriptures have to say.

First off, works like Left Behind have a fascination (perhaps even an obsession) with trying to line up current events with biblical prophesies (which they read as predictions about the future, though in the vast majority of cases it seems clear that the biblical writers took them as comments on events current FOR THEM, centuries ago -- witness Matthew 24:34, for example) to establish when and how what New Testament texts call the parousia (which might best be defined as "Jesus' coming to complete finally and fully his purposes on earth") will happen. Jesus puts the kibosh on that kind of speculation just paragraphs before this Sunday's gospel, in Matthew 24:36: "No one knows of that day and hour -- not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only."

Second, and more seriously, the Left Behind genre seems to be fundamentally confused and WHOSE coming it is that we expect. They get the name right, but they seem to think for some reason that by the time Jesus' parousia happens, he will have undergone a complete personality transplant. They (and especially the horrible and horribly mistitled book Glorious Appearing) seem to have Jesus confused with a creature I call "the Christ-inator," after the robot assasin Arnold Schwarzeneggar played in the  first Terminator movie -- an unstoppable force, absolutely determined to kill-kill-kill, and empty of any human feeling, let alone compassion, for its victims.

For those who are eagerly expecting "the Christ-inator," this might sound like bad news, but for the rest of us, who (after hearing too many Left Behind-ish readings of these texts) are tempted to hear readings about Jesus' parousia -- such as we hear in Advent, the season in which we train our hearts particularly on that event -- it's very Good News indeed:

The person we are expecting is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. If we've read the gospels, we should know his character. He taught, healed, and broke bread with anyone who would join him, and he was known particularly for his compassion toward the poor and outcast. While his disciples often seemed to expect him to duck into a phone booth and emerge as Messiah Man to kick the butts of evildoers (props to Scott Bartchy for that image), he consistently denied that was his calling, going even to the cross rather than strike back against violent people.

That's what Jesus was like in his first coming, the Incarnation.

Will he be different at the Second Coming? That's an easy question to answer, because Jesus did come back a second time: we call that "Easter." And when Jesus came among us a second time, he opened the scriptures to his disciples, walked beside them on the road, and cooked them breakfast -- not exactly the behavior of a "Christ-inator."

And don't forget that Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. How many times do you think that's happened over the last two millennia? I'm no statitician, but I figure we're probably somewhere in the neighborhood of the trillionth coming of Jesus, and his character remains the same. The Left Behinders have got it wrong: the realization of Jesus' purposes on earth -- what we pray for every time we say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" -- is GOOD News for the world.

That all leads back to the point of this Sunday's gospel. If we're mistaken about who exactly it is that we're expecting in the parousia, we're that much more likely to be mistaken about what that person would have us to do to prepare. I've already talked about the mistake of trying to prepare by trying to calculate when it will happen. The other thing that the Left Behinders seem to think we should be doing to prepare is to talk endlessly about how "the Christ-inator" is coming soon, and if people don't want his army of angels to come around to bust their kneecaps or worse, they'd better pray a prayer to get on his good side.

Is that what Jesus said we should be doing? Personally, I haven't found a single reference anywhere in scripture to "accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior." That's a phrase I've actually found helpful from time to time in my life, and I've been "born again" (probably a dozen times or more in the evangelical sense even). But I don't mistake a phrase that makes sense in one late-20th century context for Holy Writ, and of all of the things that scripture teaches us we should do to be ready for Jesus' parousia, the vast majority involve a lot greater expenditure of calories, marshalling of compassion, and putting what we value most on the line than mouthing a "sinner's prayer" or handing out tracts with the "Four Spiritual Laws."

So what is that, then? How do we prepare for Jesus' parousia? Our reading from Amos might give us a clue:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

We prepare for the fulfillment of Christ's purposes on earth by doing what he did. We prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it, and God's justice first, as Matthew 6:33 suggests ("justice" is a fine translation of what's often translated as "righteousness," namely dikaiosune -- sorry if I get the transliteration wrong; I really need to learn how to do that properly in ASCII one of these days).

All of those fine-sounding words like "justice" can seem awfully abstract, but it isn't. I'm saying that we prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it in the here and now, gaining strength from a life of prayer to engage in a lifetime of pursuing what God pursues. And what is that? As we move toward Advent especially, we might look to Mary's song of expectation for some pointers -- how about scattering the proud and removing the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things? If we wanted to seek that, if we expected that God's purposes on earth, the fulfilment of Jesus' work in the world, were really going to happen and we wanted in on the action, wouldn't we be doing things like these?

  • Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieving universal primary education
  • Promoting gender equality and empower women
  • Reducing child mortality
  • Improving maternal health
  • Combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • Caring for God's Creation
  • Bringing people together around the world to do justice

This isn't some pie-in-the-sky, wide-eyed dreaming. It's what development experts think we could actually accomplish: that, if we seek this justice first, "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Matthew 24:34). Call it "the Millennium Development Goals" or just call it justice for the poor, but don't just talk about it.

People, get ready -- it's coming! It's like a huge wave, and did you know that surfing is basically strategic falling? You align yourself on the board to align the board with the wave such that gravity -- not your own effort propelling you -- takes you down the wave's surface at the right angle for you to just keep falling, sliding down with gravity but zooming at an angle as close as you can get to parallel with the beach. A big wave like that is good news to those of us called to ride it; align yourself with the wave now, and you're in for the ride of a lifetime.

Surf's up! Get ready!

Thanks be to God!

November 2, 2005 in Advent, Amos, Eschatology, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year A | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack