Proper 15, Year B

Proverbs 9:1-6 - link to NRSV text
John 6:53-59 - link to NRSV text

I must confess that I find the Gospel According to John to be the most difficult of the canonical gospels, and I have to scratch my head sometimes when I hear people say things like, "If always tell people who've never read anything in the bible before to start with John -- it's the clearest of the gospels." The community that produced the Gospel According to John is the same community that produced the biblical book of Revelation, and the imagery that resonated with them as they sought to discern who Jesus is and how they're called to respond to his call in the midst of their profoundly difficult circumstances is at times strange, to say the least, if not not disturbing. This Sunday's gospel reading is an excellent case in point:

"Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."

No wonder early Christians faced accusations of cannibalism! This is gross. And yet we recall this kind of imagery every time we participate in the Eucharist. As I receive the bread, I hear the words, "the Body of Christ," and then another phrase, usually, "the bread of heaven." As I receive the wine, I hear the words, "the Blood of Christ," and then usually "the cup of salvation." These four phrases have at least one thing in common:

Their meaning is obscure -- unless, minimally, you've spent a fair amount of time hanging out with and hearing from Christians. "The bread of heaven"? How would those words be understood by us were it not for their association with Christian liturgy and tradition? Another way to think about it is to ask how a hypothetical tourist from Mars who'd memorized a decent English dictionary but had little other exposure to Earth cultures might hear those words. "Bread from heaven," our Martian visitor might muse, "it surely can't be about its origin, as that woman over there bought it from a store called a 'church supply house,' and its ingredients -- none claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin -- are listed on the box. Perhaps they mean 'heavenly,' as in very good or pleasant -- but this stuff tastes like cardboard!" The phrase "cup of salvation" isn't much clearer to those without either significant association with religious people who use this language or at least significant study of them.

And that's half the point, I'd say. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out a great deal of John's "antilanguage" -- language used by members of a marginalized in-group that only they understand fully, and that both expresses and furthers their sense of close relationship with one another -- in their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John. Both "flesh" in this context and "blood" evoke imagery of sacrifice, and Christians in John's community understand Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to be THE sacrifice, like those commanded in the Mosaic revelation that made the Hebrews a people of the living God, a revelation accomplishing something even greater, broader, and more lasting than what Moses revealed.

When I say that I don't mean to participate personally in any "my tribe's miracles are better than your tribe's," but as difficult as it may be for us to accept in our scriptures, it is quite understandably present. Remember, the community that produced John was experiencing direct, severe, and life-threatening persecution from some of their neighbors and perhaps even family members in their synagogues. While it's very easy for me typing in my comfy chair in Cambridge to cluck about supercessionism, it's well worth remembering how different the impact of such language is in a society like John's, in which Christians were the smallest of minorities, and their 'alternative lifestyle,' which many Romans and Jews, also perfectly understandably, saw as anti-family and dangerously disruptive to the social order. In a society like mine, in which those who self-identify as Christian are a large and very powerful majority -- witness our country's very, very evangelical president and the religious leaders he invites to confer with him on matters of "faith-based" policy -- a powerful majority adopting "antilanguage" like that of the Johannine community, which was written to give comfort to a tiny, powerless, and persecuted minority, can wreak great destruction in God's name. Let the reader of the Left Behind series understand! But I digress.

My digression isn't entirely purposeless, though. I think the point is important to raise not only because of the prominence in American political discourse of powerful people making much of their identification as Christian and purporting that they are being marginalized and even persecuted because of it (leading Jon Stewart to muse on The Daily Show, "I dream of a world in which people -- even the president, or a Supreme Court justice -- may openly practice Christian faith, perhaps even openly wearing symbols of their faith in jewelry in public ..."). Jesus' shocking image of his flesh and blood as food and drink is significant not only for what it says about the closeness of its "antilanguage" community at the margins, but also because of what it says about the quality of relationships members of this community are called to live into.

Malina and Rohrbaugh hint at it when they rightly say that the language of "flesh" and "blood" evokes language of sacrifice, the fat and blood which is perceived as the "seat of life" -- life bestowed by God, and therefore belonging rightly only to God, not to be claimed by any other. But I don't think their discussion goes quite as far as I would on that point.

Yes, the Gospel According to John, as all the canonical gospels do to a greater or lesser extent, point to the cross as Jesus' sacrifice. But I find it particularly moving when the Johannine community -- a community keenly feeling fear, isolation, and betrayal in light of the persecution they are experiencing -- speaks of Jesus' sacrifice. John's gospel is one with a lot of bitter words for "the world" from which the community feels so alienated and threatened, but they are painfully, consistently clear in affirming nonetheless that "the world" that hates them is still "the world" which God so loves that he sent his only begotten son (John 3:16).

Flesh and blood are the seat of life -- life belonging only to God, life that can be claimed rightly only by God. And yet in Jesus, God has willingly poured out that life for the sake of the world -- not just the good people, the people who try hard to do the right thing, the people who praise and encourage the saints, but as much or more for the people who hate, and who act on their hatred, even to the point of killing a righteous woman or man, an innocent child. The biblical book of Revelation from this same community imagines what total and final vindication of a victorious judge of the nations and his followers might look like, and it pictures Jesus as anything but a cuddly and approachable pal (even the "Lamb of God" imagery isn't about a cute little sheep, as I've blogged about before), but even in the context of the final judgment, the Johannine Christians are given a "call for the endurance and the faith of the saints" in the strongest of terms that regardless of the violence their enemies inflict, they are not to resist with the sword (Revelation 13:9-10).

In other words, the community that produced the Gospel According to John produced testimonies to Jesus that underscore the community's tough circumstances, but that call for a response that, especially in their cultural context, would look anything but "tough" in the traditional, macho sense. And I'm grateful to those who crafted our lectionary for drawing attention to a point that J. Massynbaerde Ford writes about eloquently in her book Redeemer, Friend, and Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John: that there is potentially some strong feminine imagery in John's language about Jesus that we'll read together this Sunday.

Our lectionary's editors make their point in their choice for our first reading. It comes from Proverbs, which like other books in the genre of "Wisdom literature," personifies Wisdom as a woman. This Sunday, we receive in both our first reading and our gospel reading an invitation to see God acting toward humanity in ways associated specifically with the feminine. It's an apt pairing, Wisdom literature with the Gospel According to John; from the prologue to John's gospel (1:1-18) in its association of Jesus with the logos through which all Creation came into being to the gospel's conclusion, we find a great deal of language echoing Wisdom literature like Proverbs, portraying God in traditionally feminine roles of preparing dinner and laying the table, as in our first reading for this Sunday, or nursing children, providing nourishment for them from her own life, her own substance, her own breasts.

That's milk, of course, not blood. But Ford points out that in rabbinic writings and some ancient medical texts, the idea was expressed that breast milk WAS the mother's blood, transformed into milk for the child's benefit, with what was left becoming menstrual blood -- in either case, an expression (literally!) of a mother's pouring out of her own life in her love for her child.

In other words, when our next Presiding Bishop preached at General Convention of "mother Jesus," she was using imagery which is scriptural in John and other canonical portrayals of Jesus as Wisdom, as well as traditional in writings like those of Julian of Norwich. But there's no need to get hung up on the gendering of imagery if that's going to obscure the point -- the point of John's gospel, the point of the book of Revelation, the example of our crucified and risen Christ:

God so loves the world that God poured and pours out God's very life, very self, for our sake -- not because we were so good, but because we were hungry and thirsty and dying, and God made us to share God's wholeness, love, and eternal life. That pouring out of God's self for us is revealed most clearly in our tradition in Jesus the Christ crucified, but our scripture and tradition hold that it is far from a one-time event in the distant past of a distant land. It is a continual and eternal expression of who God is by God's very nature. God poured out God's self in birthing Creation, which teems with the life God gave. And God continues to pour out God's self for us in the call of Wisdom, the love we experience in the Body of Christ as we receive Christ together, in countless daily miracles as lives are transformed in the image of a loving God.

If that's "insider" language, then let it always be coupled with the invitation to come inside, to taste and see this limitless, self-giving love of God.

Thanks be to God!

August 17, 2006 in John, Nonviolence, The Cross, Wisdom (the aprocryphal book), Wisdom Literature, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3)

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)

Proper 23, Year A

It's fun to be writing this week's entry from the Cornerstone Café in Edinburgh, where I worked while I was in seminary and which was an important part of my formation and my vision of what the messianic banquet might look like on earth. Especially being here so near St. Francis' day, Brother Basil (SSF when I knew him, though I understand he's now a Roman Catholic priest), who founded the café, is very much on my mind. If you happen to know him, please pass along my greetings!

Philippians 4:4-13 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:1-14 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday's gospel passage is a challenging one. Like last week's gospel, it tells a story of violence that should disturb us. Like last week's gospel, it portrays the devastating consequences of perpetuating or escalating the spiral of violence rather than choosing Jesus' way of resisting evil with love rather than arms and blows. Like last week's gospel, it seems to invite an allegorical reading, with the king as God, the king's son as Jesus, and the unworthy subjects who kill the king's messengers as those who persecuted and killed prophets, and especially those who persecuted and killed Jesus and his apostles.

Once again, though, I'm mostly resisting that ready temptation to allegorize. Jesus' condemnation of violent retaliation is so clear and so consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his career but also and perhaps even more importantly by his own example of becoming subject to death on a cross rather than striking out at his persecutors, that I think one would need a great deal of evidence to support a suggestion that the God whom Jesus proclaimed is one who will retaliate violently when God's messengers are attacked. Whatever else we might want to say about this passage, let us remain always grounded in the central confession of Christian faith that we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and if we believe that, we must say that the eternal character of God is the character displayed in Jesus, who is nothing like the vengeful king of this story.

I know that many do and will continue to read this Sunday's gospel as an allegory in which the king is God, so I will say one thing about how I would preach on this text if I were going to allegorize it in this way:

*If* we are going to say that God is the king in this parable (a stretch I don't care to make myself), then at the very least, we must say that the parable reserves as God's role alone a task which too many people try to claim for themselves: God is the one who will settle any scores that need settling. No matter what evil others do or are accused of doing, no matter what murder or terror is committed by human beings, taking human lives is the sole prerogative of the God who is the source of life. If God is the king in this parable, then we are NOT the king, and we've got no business pretending otherwise. Those who proclaim that Jesus' blood shed on the cross was sufficient to cover the sins of the world in particular are bound to proclaim it with their lives, by being absolutely clear that no human being may ever say again that blood must be shed because of sin.

Furthermore, if we allegorize the wedding feast dimension of this Sunday's parable as a picture of the messianic banquet, we have to acknowledge at least that the guest list for the party and the task of modifying it if that should for any reason be necessary along the way belong fully and exclusively to the king  -- a part which no allegorical reading says is ours. The job of the servants is to gather all -- “both good and bad,” as our text for this Sunday says. Some may show up without proper wedding garments -- no small slight, as wedding garments were often designed in such a way as to thwart casting of the evil eye, a curse to which people were particularly prone at joyous events like weddings, which might arouse a person's envy. But even if we see someone doing something that, like going to a wedding without the proper garment, is believed to cause actual and potentially deadly harm, it's still not our place to decide they should be tossed out. If that call belongs to anyone, it would be to the king.

But this Sunday's gospel isn't just a loud “thou shalt not” to those who would claim God's prerogative of judgment; it's an invitation to enjoy the freedom and peace that comes with leaving all of that to God. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how, there will be no rest for us -- not only because there is always some crime which we might feel charged to avenge, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because when we're caught up in the vengeance cycle, those dark places we see and lash out at in others are bound to be projections of unacknowledged and therefore unhealed dark places in ourselves. In other words, people caught in the vengeance cycle are “treating” something that isn't the wound, leaving the real wound to fester.

Jesus offers us freedom from all that. Is vengeance needed at all, ever? Will the climax of history include a meting out of justice that includes punishment of unrepentant evildoers? That's an open question within the Christian canon -- some texts seem to suggest that there will be such a thing, and others seem to preclude it. But our Lord is clear on one thing: if that's needed, then God will take care of it at the end of the age. We can rest in that.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

October 5, 2005 in Eschatology, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Parables, Philippians, Year A | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Proper 22, Year A

Thanks for your patience, y'all. I've now located a very nice Internet café where I can post from the road, so I expect no delays next week.

Isaiah 5:1-7
- link to NRSV text
Matthew 21:33-43 - link to NRSV text

It’s sometimes said that Jesus’ parables are ways to make truth more accessible, taking complicated theological ideas and putting them in terms that anyone can understand. But in Matthew 13:1-9 (and Mark 4:1-9, and Luke 8:9-10), Jesus said that he told his parables for the opposite reason, so that the crowds might not understand. It’s a very puzzling statement, to be sure. But it’s a statement that fits the reality of how puzzling the parables can be when we enter fully into them as stories.

When confronted with these puzzling parables, we are sometimes tempted to resolve the ambiguities by leaping immediately to interpret them allegorically. In an allegorical reading, we start with our expectations – with what we think we know is true.  Then we look at the parts of the story – the characters, the objects, the actions – we decide which character or object in a parable is God, which one is Jesus, and what the other things in the parable represent, and we work toward a truth that is in harmony with our expectations.

But that’s not what the parables are for. Jesus’ parables aren't there to make complicated truths simple, but to complicate what seems to us to be simply true.

The parable in today's gospel is an excellent case in point.  If we leap immediately and not very carefully to allegory, it’s a simple story.  The landowner is God. God sends messengers to people (in particular, to Israel). The people reject the messengers. God sends his son. The people kill the son. So God is going to reject Israel and choose another people. But how well does the parable really fit that interpretation? How well does that interpretation fit the weight of the canon regarding the role of Israel?

As a point of comparison, it might be useful to look at the theology of Israel that appears in another New Testament work in which this parable appears, namely the Gospel According to Luke and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles. One author wrote Luke and the book of Acts as a single two-volume work that scholars refer to as “Luke-Acts,” and one of the noteworthy features of Luke-Acts is how it shows a continuing and central role for Israel. Indeed, Luke-Acts tells us that the invitation extended in to Gentiles through Jesus is to join Israel, God’s people. Those of you who are familiar with the book of Acts may recall the “apostolic council” in Acts 15, where Luke specifically tells us that among the Christian leaders gathered to make important decisions there are PHARISEES.  Not former Pharisees, but Pharisees.  In Acts (23:6), Paul continues to identify himself as a Pharisee (not a former Pharisee) long after he became an apostle of Jesus. In Luke’s theology, the vineyard of Israel has not been taken away to be given to others; rather it has been opened up by Jesus to new workers called to gather in God’s abundant harvest.

More importantly, is the landowner of the parable really like the God of Israel revealed in scripture and proclaimed by Jesus? Let’s start with the literal details we see in the parable, and examine them in light of what we know about the culture that gave the story to us. The setting of the parable is the estate of a very wealthy landowner. The landowner does not live on the land, and doesn’t do the work of planting and harvesting. Those who do that hard work are hired laborers and sharecroppers, who have to turn over most of what they grow to the landowner, who like the landowner in a similar parable in Luke 19, is a hard man, reaping what he did not sow (Luke 19:20). This absentee landlord does not send messengers out of any great love for the people or the land, but to get the goods that sustain his life of ease in the more cosmopolitan environment of the city.

And in this morning’s parable, the farmers have had enough. The next time the landowner sends one of his lackeys to collect the rent, the farmers send him packing. I can almost hear the cheer that erupted from the audience as Jesus told this parable. Then the landowner sends another henchman to collect the rent, and the farmers again work together to send him away empty-handed. Another cheer goes up from the crowd hearing the story! And then one more person comes riding in on the dusty road from the city – the son of the landowner. The listening crowd’s anticipation grows. Why would the son – the “beloved son,” probably an only child – come, instead of a messenger? Such a thing would usually indicate that the landowner had died, and his son was coming to survey the estate he had inherited. And here comes an opportunity for the farmers. If the son dies and he does not have an heir, the land goes to those who live on it, and the farmers will be free. The farmers do what real men would be expected to do in response to years of exploitation; they rise up and kill the son.

And then comes the twist ... the landowner is not dead, and he does precisely what he would be expected to do under such circumstances: he wreaks terrible revenge, slaughtering the farmers and replacing them with others, so he can return once more to the ease of the city while others earn his bread. I think it’s safe to say that no cheers erupted from the parable’s hearers at that point. The chief priests and the scribes in the audience, who came from the social class of the rich landowner and his hirelings, weren’t cheering; Jesus has just issued a scathing critique of their dealings with their fellow Israelites. The peasant farmers in the audience aren’t cheering; they have just heard a graphic reminder of how escalating the spiral of violence will result in more violence visited upon them and their children. For the landowner’s family and for the peasants alike, standing up for themselves, as their culture expected honorable families to do, brought everyone down.

This is a sobering and challenging word to us today. In what ways are we like the absentee landlord, dependent on others’ exploitation to support our lives of relative ease? How much do we consume without knowing or caring about where our clothes, our coffee, our electronics come from, or at what cost to poor people and the environments in which they live? In what ways are we like the sharecroppers, willing to do wrong to achieve what we think is right, to escalate interpersonal and international conflict in ways that will be visited upon generations to come?

And in what ways are we living into the parable of Jesus’ life, the model Jesus shows us of care for those the world disregards and disregard of the world’s standards of strength and honor? Jesus challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, to care as much for God’s children who make our clothes and shoes, who mine the ore for our electronics and dispose of the toxic computer monitors we toss out when we’re ready for bigger and better ones, as we do for our own children. Jesus challenges us to bless and honor the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.

We vow to do that in our Baptismal Covenant, and it’s the way of the Cross. When we say to someone who is being baptized, “you are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever,” that’s the way to which we are committing the baptized, and the commit we make anew for ourselves. But this way is also the truth and the life. It is the way to truly abundant life.  For while exercise of might can bring us to the depths, it is the promise of an absolutely faithful and loving God that the lowly will be raised up; the stone deemed useless has become the keystone on which God’s kingdom is being built. That is the paradox of the Good News we celebrate today.

Thanks be to God!

September 29, 2005 in Isaiah, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year A | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Proper 19, Year A

[If you haven't seen it already, you might want to take a look at my supplemental entry from last week, which also addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.]

Ecclesiasticus 27:30 - 28:7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 103 - link to BCP text
Romans 14:5-12 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 18:21-35 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday is September 11, 2005, four years to the day after September 11, 2001, and the end of a week in which news has been dominated once again with images that are equally hard to believe in one sense and hard to turn away from in another, images of death and suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both events are very much in the foreground of my mind this week as I reflect on the passages we'll be preaching on this Sunday.

I blogged in Grace Notes, my personal blog, a few months ago about a short film I'd come across online, and which I found to be very effective in its simplicity. You can find that entry, and a link to the film (which I encourage you to watch, if you haven't already -- it's only about thirty seconds long) here. What the film says is this:

Terrorism is bred in

The recent attacks on America have instilled
in otherwise peaceful people.

Vengeful retaliation will also instill
in innocent people who suffer from such attacks.

Terrorism is bred in

Violence breeds violence.
Our mission now is to break the cycle.

This short film with its powerful message is about forgiveness, what it's about, and why it's crucial for our survival -- by which I mean not just our continuing to draw breath, but our continuing to be ALIVE, living in the abundant way that is Christ's gift.

Jesus spoke these words about forgiveness -- unilateral, unconditional, and (to many of his hearers) nonsensical forgiveness -- in an honor/shame culture, a culture in which retaliating against someone who'd attacked your family or your family honor was seen not only as the only wise course of action, but the only GOOD course of action. You don't want people to feel that they've got a license to walk all over your family, do you? And if God is on your side, is there any way to prove it besides striking back so you can show that your god is stronger than theirs? You've got a duty to strike back -- not only to protect your own honor, but also to protect your wife, your children, those who are vulnerable and who can't strike back themselves. The Law limits retaliation -- an eye for an eye, one life and one life only for a life -- but doesn't prohibit it.

But it was the Mahatma Gandhi, I think who put it in these vivid terms: "an eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind. That's the sad tragedy of so many conflicts we see. In the Middle East, one side claims that their bomb came in retaliation for the other side's rocket. It really doesn't matter who started it; continuing by principles of violence for violence, there is nothing that will finish it.

What will finish it? Who will deliver us from this body of death, these spirals of violence?

Jesus delivers us, because Jesus taught us a better way: forgive, not once, or twice, but seventy or seventy times seven -- in other words, always, as many times as we're attacked.

It sounds crazy, but it's the only way out. We've seen it in less graphic ways in seemingly intractable church conflict. When we talk only of how we've been wronged and what others need to do (or be forced to do!) to make up for it, then we just get caught up in escalating spirals of the conflict. Not only does this continue conflict indefinitely (which, to be sure, is neither fun nor spiritually profitable, though it seems to work well for some people for short-term fundraising), but it also makes it awfully hard to really hear anyone else through the din.

What would happen if we took Paul's counsel seriously to "strive to outdo one another in SHOWING honor" (Romans 12:10)? We'd have a lot more energy to put into action the rest of Paul's train of thought, namely "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers" (Romans 12:11-13).

That last sentence hits me particularly hard in light of the devastation we've seen along the Gulf Coast, the images and stories and footage of people with no or not enough clean water to drink, food to eat, no home to light at night or power to light it, and in many cases convulsed with grief and worry about family members lost.

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

We would have so much more to give as a nation if we weren't so caught up in so many battles. How many evacuees could be housed and fed and given a new start if we could devote to it the combined annual budgets of every political group working to make sure that some other group doesn't gain ground? And then there's the war in Iraq. I know that many consider it to be a righteous cause, and I respect that there are many who are willingly putting their lives on the line to serve, but I have to wonder just how many lives we could save and how many enemies we could win over if we put even half as much of the money and the ingenuity and the energy into saving lives -- any and all lives, as trying to figure out who deserves life most just takes more energy we could put into saving more -- as we do into trying to punish those we reckon are "evildoers"?

Jesus' answer to that is forgiveness. Forgive those who attack and love enemies, and you can devote all the resources and energy that would go into judging and punishing others to the cause of loving, serving, and honoring others. Seventy times seven -- as often as it happens.

I've heard talk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about forgiveness meaning that we shouldn't talk about who's responsible for some of the decisions that left so many, especially so many of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, to suffering and death. That's not what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "it's like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.

Forgiveness accepts both that the other person is capable of moral action and that the actions for which you are extending forgiveness were immoral. Both of those things are crucial, as forgiveness is meant to call both parties to reconciliation -- that renewed relationship between persons who accept moral responsibility and who have dedicated themselves to uphold the other person as a moral agent, a person who is both capable of and called to give and receive love.

In other words, forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. Forgiveness is grounded in acknowleding shared humanity (or personhood, which would be a more appropriate term with respect to how God the Father forgives us), shared moral agency, and demonizing another person denies that person's moral agency, denying not only their fitness for being loved, but also their potential to love others, and behave in a moral manner toward others. Demonizing others usually happens, I've observed, in attempts to "hold their feet to the fire," but it has the opposite effect; in suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action, it lets them off the hook. I often think that's something like what St. Paul had in mind when he said that by loving, forgiving, and serving our enemies, we "heap burning coals upon their heads" (Romans 12:30). And if wanting to heap burning coals on someone else is the only motivation we can come up with for forgiving them -- and in so doing, inviting them to live as reconciled and reconciling people alongside us -- then that'll do.

So by all means, let us contribute to the needs of those in need. Let us extend hospitality to strangers, and generosity to those displaced by flooding as befits those who are aware of how vulnerable we all are, and how gracious God is toward all of us, without regard for who is deserving. And let us also embrace the prophetic call to speak to those in power about how they could use it to benefit most those who are most vulnerable. Both ministries are given to us for the mission of the church: to serve as minister's of Christ's reconciliation of all the world to one another and to God. That ministry is so powerful that none can stand outside the reach of God's love, and God's gifts to each one of us are so precious that all are invited to the freedom and the responsibility to to extend God's grace to others.

Thanks be to God!


September 7, 2005 in Current Events, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Proper 18, Year A

Romans 12:9-21 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 18:15-20 - link to NRSV text

The Good News that you heard included an invitation: right now, as you are, you can be a part of something -- specifically, a member of the Body of Christ.

The tricky part is that the Body of Christ includes an awful lot of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.

Welcome to the church, folks. We only just encountered the concept a couple of chapters ago (in Matthew 16:18, the only other time in the gospels in which the Greek word ekklesia occurs), and now in Matthew 18, we're being introduced to church conflict.

In this Sunday's gospel, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when someone in the church sins against us (yeah, I know that the "against you" part isn't in all of the manuscripts, but it does seem like a very helpful addition). The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. Without others around, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face -- and you have room to reconsider if the other person can point to ways in which your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation.

That's crucial, as at each stage of this process, the goal is reconciliation. The quiet conversation isn't just a necessary preliminary to a wonderfully juicy public drama, nor is it solely an opportunity to try to get one's way. Indeed, any more public confrontations that follow are about getting the parties directly involved to return to the table, where real conversation and real reconciliation can take place.

In other words, church conflict, if we're seeking to follow Christ in the midst of it, doesn't have to be a distraction from the mission of the Church; it can be a training ground for mission. It can even BE mission.

Let me unpack that. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. So when two Christians take their conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do in the Church can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world ...

I'm saying that church conflict, as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, can actually be sacramental.

And at this point, I can understand it if you're saying to yourself, "well I could do with a lot less sacrament then." I know what you mean. If you take a peek ahead to next Sunday's gospel, you'll know that Peter knows what you mean too.

The bottom line is that Christian community -- all community, really -- is, as St. Benedict said, a "school for souls," in which we learn not just how to live, but also how to experience abundant life. Jesus knew something that experience has affirmed for me (after long enough -- I'm a pretty slow learner): we understand best and deepest how God loves and forgives when we are, in our limited but growing way, extending that kind of love and forgiveness to others.

So when you meet someone who's really difficult, someone who pushes your ability to stay present with them, stay in touch, and stay focused on God's love, rejoice and be glad in that day: you get to love them, in the process you get a sense of how God loves you, and folks looking on get to see how much you mean what you say about the church being entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation.

Trust me on this one: as long as you need everybody to be happy and agreeable, you'll always be anxious, but once you find and keep hold of the joy and peace the Spirit brings in the midst of working for reconciliation in a tense situation, you'll know a bubbling fountain of energy and freedom that can only further your ministry and the ministry of reconciliation to which your congregation is called.

... love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. ... Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
-- Romans 12:9-21

Thanks be to God!

August 30, 2005 in Community, Forgiveness, Matthew, Nonviolence, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 11, Year A

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19 - link to NRSV text
Romans 8:18-25 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - link to NRSV text

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while have seen me blog about what anthropologists mean when they talk about an "honor/shame culture," and that Jesus' culture was one of them. Among other things, it means that in the culture in which Jesus told his parables, a "good" man was a "real" man, someone who would retaliate when someone attacked him or his family (and hence his honor).

However, Jesus consistently taught that retaliation is never appropriate, even when one is attacked and no matter how brutal or unwarranted the attack is. In many ways, that went even harder against the grain of Jesus' culture than it does against ours -- but it still goes against the grain of our culture in at least some ways.

I'm thinking right now about September 11, 2001. I was volunteering at a polling center during a political primary, so I was standing outside an elementary school with other volunteers when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. With the other volunteers, I got news as drivers slowed down when they saw us, rolled down their windows, and shouted news or their personal response to it. Bits of information and misinformation came to us this way: "Another plane hit the World Trade Center!" "A bomb went off outside the State Department!" Bits of prayers did too. And many drivers shouted resolutions, most of which were like that shouted by one young man as he drove past:

"I'm going out right now to kick the first Arab @ss I can find!"

When I heard that shouted with such conviction and urgency, I found myself thinking back to the 2000 presidential election campaign, and specifically to George Bush's much-maligned comment that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus of Nazareth. And an image came to my mind of a press conference, in which now-President Bush would say something like this:

"You all remember during the campaign, when I said that my favorite political philosopher is Jesus. You remember how I said that I do my best to think about what Jesus would do when I think about decisions I need to make. I've also made clear that I'm an evangelical Christian, and this guides my decisions in office. And I'm a man who means what he says, so I hope you'll understand when I tell you about a very hard decision I've had to make. The attacks against our country, against innocent people of all faiths in Washington and in New York were inexcusable and ruthless -- evil, even. But I follow Jesus, and when Jesus was attacked by evildoers, he responded by going to the cross they prepared for him, and by forgiving those who drove in the nails. There are those who say that the blood of the victims of these terrorist attacks cries out for blood, that those who took lives must pay with their own. But as an evangelical Christian, I believe that Jesus' blood shed was and is the sacrifice for all the sins of the world. And so my response, my only response, will be to pray for those who perpetrated this evil. May God bless our those who make war against us as God blesses the peacemakers. I am not America's sovereign; God is, as God is sovereign of the whole world, and will one day sort the sheep from the goats, the healers from the evildoers. And to evildoers, I urge you to accept the mercy of this God while God offers it, and to thank God for it. Were it not for the mercy I've seen, I would be vowing to hunt you down wherever you are. Were it not for this mercy, I would dismiss the deaths of any who stood between you and me as 'collateral damage' and the necessary cost of justice. But because God has shown me mercy, I will bless you through my tears and my anger. May God have mercy on your souls."

That's where my imagination went on September 11, 2001. I guess that means I have a pretty wild imagination, because a president who said such a thing would not have been reelected. Too many of us were too frightened that if were were seen as being anything but resolute, if we showed any hesitation before striking back, we would be attacked again. We were afraid of that because, I think, we knew in our heart of hearts that we WOULD be attacked again, no matter how we responded. We were even more afraid of that than we were of breeding even more terrorists in the terror of war. (Please see this short Flash movie on the subject, if you haven't already.) And so we tried to identify the evildoers so we could punish them, so we could kill them.

Please don't misunderstand me; it's totally understandable to want to do that. We want to protect ourselves and our children. It's only fair that those who want to kill innocent people might end up dying violently themselves.

That's exactly my point. In this Sunday's gospel, Matthew speaks to a community of people who KNOW what terror is. At any moment, they believe that someone -- anyone, even a brother or a father -- might haul them before a governor to be tortured, or worse. I've blogged about that before. The following week, I blogged about Jesus' advice and Matthew's to those terrified of that possibility, that likelihood. It's the traditional word of the angels, in scripture and even in many pop-culture angelophanies: Don't be afraid. God loves you. The words sound cheesy and lame. But the EXPERIENCE of that has a power that's unmatched.

That's the power of Jesus' name, of Jesus' character, of Jesus' ministry.

And that's our power. I've seen the pop-culture pictures of power as a warrior who blasts away in his anger, shouting "Kill 'em all -- let God sort 'em out!" That's not power. That's fear. That's terror. The truth that Jesus has for us is that there's something far more powerful than that: the Son of Man, the judge of the nations with all the power of the angelic hosts behind him, saying "Have mercy on them all. Love them all. Let them all grow, and their fruits sort them out."

Inept gardeners may think they know the weeds from the wheat. Wise farmers know that these tares (weeds) can't be pulled out from the wheat; only when they all reach maturity can they be distinguished. The more we think we know about who can safely be called an evildoer beyond redemption, the more we prove ourselves to be not only inept gardeners, but immature weeds. But those who are mature know who they are, and they know who they're not.

The mature know that they are not the judge of the nations because they know the judge personally. It's Jesus. And we're not Jesus, as we know when we're following him. So Matthew's word to us, even when we're under attack, even -- or especially -- when the attacks are brutal, is that we're not to usurp the role of judge. That's a role God has given only to the Son of Man, to Jesus. And when we fail to remember that and start trying to sort out the evildoers from the righteous, God's people from dispensible people, we are to remember at least what the approach is of God's appointed judge to the nations.

For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people,
to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
-- Wisdom 12:13, 16

God's judgment, God's righteousness, God's perfection is perfect love and mercy: blessings of sun and rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Like Father, like Son, as they say. This Sunday's gospel tells us that when we're wronged, we're to look to Jesus' teachings and, most importantly, how Jesus behaves when he's is treated with contempt as pointless as that of the enemy sows weeds among his neighbor's wheat (wouldn't the enemy really have the best revenge if he had spent that energy sowing crops in his own field and left his neighbor envying his harvest?). We're to look to Jesus' behavior in going to the cross and forgiving his tormentors from it. And we're to remind ourselves and one another:

Don't be afraid; don't give in to fear. Give in to love. We're not called to serve as judge, so judging will only make us more anxious as we try to maintain constant vigilance, always eyeing our neighbors to try to pick out the enemies. Our vocation, our destiny, is better than that.

... the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. ... For in hope we were saved.
-- Romans 8:18, 24

Jesus is the judge, so we don't have to worry about how to do his job. Jesus is the judge, and so we have access to an unshakable hope, the blessed assurance that we will be judged with the same infinite mercy as will our enemies.

God is still in charge. God and Jesus are still and always of the same character, the same love. And we are the charges, the children, of the same God Jesus proclaimed. Let all who have ears hear this blessed assurance, this Good News!

Thanks be to God!

July 13, 2005 in Atonement, Eschatology, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Matthew, Nonviolence, Parables, Righteousness, Wisdom (the aprocryphal book), Year A | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Proper 7, Year A

Matthew 10:(16-23)24-33 - link to NRSV text

I have a workshop that I do from time to time called "Speaking the Truth in Love: Practical Skills for Reconcilers." People often come to it expecting (especially if the conference booklet didn't have room for a longer description) lots of material on rhetorical strategies, on things you can say to try to get people to listen to one another.

I don't cover much of that in the workshop because I think there are two related skills that are more foundational, if not more important, than having ideas about what kinds of words you can use. If you can't do these things, it will undermine the effectivenes of what you say; if you can do these things, you'll find it easier to figure out what to say, and you'll be better able to mean it as well.

The first skill is to be as fully present as possible in the moment, in one's skin.

The second skill is to be in touch as fully as possible with God's love. You want to be really knowing and experiencing that God loves you extravagantly and unconditionally.

I know ... it sounds very Southern California-ish of me to say that. But I don't think I say that just because I grew up in L.A., and where I'm going with that is most definitely not the kind of "pursuit of the perfect mellow" that leads one to be complacent rather than confronting the world's woundedness and injustices. I actually got the idea from passages like this Sunday's gospel.

As I blogged about last week, Matthew's community was experiencing serious persecution. It would be decades before Christians would be persecuted solely "for the name," that is, because they identified as Christian, but Christians in Matthew's time were getting in trouble for the same kinds of reasons that Jesus and Paul got in trouble.

They believed that only God could claim the kind of power over others that so many others -- the Emperor and his agents, the pater familias or family patriarch whose word was law in the family, the man who believed that purchasing a slave gave him the title of "master" -- and so they proclaimed Jesus' teaching, "Call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the one in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). Their belief that God was calling every person -- male and female, slave and free, of every nation -- led them the build a community in which women and slaves were received as human beings with agency to make their own decisions and gifts to offer the community -- and they didn't ask anyone's husband, father, or owner for permission to do so. They built pockets of community living into a radical new order that looked more like chaos to many onlookers, and that threatened to undermine the order of the Empire.

And so their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes their own family turned them in, hauling them before governors as agitators, to be flogged, or worse. I can imagine that being betrayed by those so close would wound as deeply as any physical punishment.

So what's Matthew's word to his community, the one thing he wants them to remember when something like that happens? It isn't something they're supposed to say, some particularly compelling case they should make to their accusers or to the authorities. Matthew specifically says they shouldn't worry about that.

What they need to hold on to, more tightly than anything else, is how very much God loves them.

This is good advice for anyone living into Christ's reconciling ministry.

Sooner or later, if you're a part of that ministry, you'll find yourself making contact with very deep wounds, and wounded people, like all wounded creatures, are liable to respond to any overture out of pain, confusion, and anger. A person who comes back at them with more of the same is only going to speed up the spiral of violence, with disastrous results.

What we want to do in a situation like that is to be present and loving; that's the only way to disrupt that spiral of violence. That's very hard to do, though, when someone is right in front of you either threatening violence or saying something that would normally provoke a "fight or flight" response -- something that's sure to happen eventually if you're trying to be an agent of healing where the world's wounds are. In a situation like that, we're understandably tempted to withdraw -- to "check out" mentally if not remove ourselves physically -- or to strike back, or both. I think part of what makes those temptations particularly strong is that contact with another person's deep wounds often reminds us of our own wounds and vulnerabilities that we've tried to forget.

That's why reconcilers must remind themselves moment to moment to stay grounded in God's love. Remember just how much and how unconditionally God loves and values you, and you won't be thrown off-center by anyone's attempts to make you feel as worthless as they do. Remember just how powerful God's love is to heal, and you won't have to flee from things that remind you of your own vulnerabilities and wounds. Remember what God's love looks like in the flesh, in the person of Jesus, and you'll know how to respond. Keep in touch with that love in the core of your being, and you'll be able to respond with authenticity and with love no matter what you're faced with.

Don't worry about what to say. Don't worry -- full stop. There's a reason that Martin Luther King called the result of nonviolent resistance "beloved community." It is the community of those who know, who proclaim, and who embody the Good News that love is the fundamental, powerful, and inevitable Word through which the universe was made and lives, and for which it is destined. We have seen that Word made flesh in Jesus, and we see it embodied among us. That can't be stopped by violence; bringing violence to bear against God's love only creates more opportunities for God's love to disrupt the spiral of violence and build beloved community.

Thanks be to God!

June 16, 2005 in Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 5, Year A

By the way, I'll be participating tomorrow (Wednesday) night in Open Source, a new public radio show that starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, and can be heard on the Internet here. The show will be looking at how we experience God in online community, and how that changes online community and our perception of God. Online discussion for the show is already happening here; feel free to weigh in on what role this blog, Grace Notes, and other theoloblogical waystations play in your own spiritual journey!

Hosea 5:15 - 6:6 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 50:7-15 - link to BCP text
Matthew 9:9-13 - link to NRSV text

I'm sure you've heard the expression of a "vicious circle" or a "vicious cycle." They come in many flavors.

There's the spiral of violence. In the ancient Mediterranean world, vengeance was mandated for honorable men: you kill my brother, so I kill you. If your brother is an honorable man, he avenges your death by killing me. My brother or my cousin kills him. And he kills two of my cousins, for which surviving relatives kill four ... it never stops. How different is it today? In some ways, not very. Watch this short Flash movie, released just after September 11, 2001, for a reminder of how that works.

There's the cycle of poverty. If you're poor, you're less likely to have access to the kinds of preventative care and treatment that could keep you healthy. And when you're seriously ill, it's that much more difficult to find or keep work that could give you access to the kind of care that could help you get better. In a society that doesn't care for its outcasts, for those who are sick, or very elderly, or otherwise unable to work, the only social security is children who survive to adulthood. And then there's the overlap with another vicious cycle, this one having to do with self-esteem. If you're a young woman whom nobody thinks will ever amount to anything, there's one thing you can do to see that there's someone who looks up to you, who sees you as important, as needed, and that's to have a baby. If you're a young man whose agency and potential for power is unacknowledged, there's always one thing you can do to prove that you're a real man; you can demonstrate your virility by coming up with a conquest. Or, if you're a young woman or man who feels powerless, there's no better short-term equalizer when it comes to feeling powerful than a gun.

There are other vicious cycles that may be less familiar. They don't make the headlines so often. Here's one that I think about a lot, as I commute sixty miles each way to a parish where many, if not most, parishioners who work outside the home commute at least 60-90 minutes each way to their jobs:

The city center is plagued with urban ills, so those who can afford it move further out, to a suburb where they think the quality of life will be better. When they and all they have to contribute leave the city center, things deteriorate, pushing more people and more poverty outside the city center. Urban ills follow, so those who can afford it move further out, to a new development where they think the quality of life will be better, and so on, over and over again, until people sacrifice their quality of life with mortgages far beyond what they can afford realistically (especially if ANYTHING goes wrong with one partner's health, or job, or ... ) and commute in such traffic for so long that they find it hard to spare even an hour a week to pray with friends or read the bible in community. 

There's a reason we call these cycles "vicious." They're all about "solutions" that exacerbate the problem. Watch these cycles in motion in isolation for long enough, and you'll get this sad, odd kind of vertigo, this sense that everything is inevitably going downhill, and the best anyone can do is look after oneself and one's own, and try to retreat from and forget about everybody else. Those cycles draw you in until -- if you've got the energy -- you cry out:


But it isn't hopeless. Those vicious cycles don't have to go on forever. Someone, anyone, any person can declare unilateral forgiveness, remission of all debts and an end to all scorekeeping. Mercy! One person did that with his whole life, and even with his death, and so we know that it's possible; in our Baptism, we receive power from the Spirit who descended upon him at his Baptism.


That's what happens today. Matthew, not one of the chief tax collectors, but a lowly employee of someone. An empire that profited from the conquered recruited people who were just enough on the edge of community, just shut out enough, to take some small chance at profit under tremendous risk. The empire made them pay tolls and taxes up front for the whole region, which they did in hopes that they could collect enough to turn a profit. They recruited those who were even more on the margins, people who didn't have land to farm or means to work a trade, and who would take work by which they might subsist, though it would make them outcast even further from the community.

That's Matthew, someone who took a really lousy job in which he handled everybody's stuff looking for what ought to be taxed, picking up and spreading any uncleanness he encountered, someone who took a position that shut him out of respectability because he knew that nobody would ever let him in anyway.

And then Jesus invited him to his table, to his companionship, to his friendship -- even to his vocation, to come with him as a disciple. Jesus embraced someone seen as untouchable, and in doing that, he showed that oddly enough, the purity of God's people is best protected not by shunning the unclean, but by embracing them. God's perfection is shown most fully not in flaws noted and shut out or scores kept and settled, but in extravagant embrace of flawed people and the end of all scorekeeping:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
   -- Matthew 5:38-43

What right does any one of us have to demand of anyone else a sacrifice, if we believe what we say about Jesus' sacrifice: that it was full, perfect, sufficient? What right do we have to talk about who's deserving if we really understand the unconditional and unreserved quality of Jesus' embrace of us? Jesus' sacrifice was once and for all, but his mercy is such that it will take all of us who claim to follow him a lifetime of wild, uncalculating extension of unilateral mercy to even hint at the fullness of Jesus' love.

Mercy. As followers of Jesus, that's not a cry of despair, but a testimony of hope: we have seen the limitless mercy that is the most fundamental power in the universe, and we are empowered to extend it in the same wildly extravagant way that Jesus did in calling Matthew, toll collector and outcast, to join him as disciple, evangelist, and saint.

Thanks be to God!

May 31, 2005 in Hosea, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Year A | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Good Friday, Year A

I've long appreciated and admired The Witness, with its fabulous masthead proclaiming, "A Feisty and Opinionated Journal since 1917." God willing, I plan to have a long (and feisty!) career, and I'd be very pleased if at the end of it, my bio read even a little like their history from their 'About Us' page:

Since 1917, The Witness has been examining church and society in light of faith and conscience - advocating for those denied systemic power as well as celebrating those who, in theologian William Stringfellow's words, have found ways to "live humanly in the midst of death."

I encourage you to read The Witness regularly, and you'll find my reflection for Good Friday there. It's called "The Narrow Place." While you're there, check out the rest of the site. It recently got a new look, and I particularly appreciate the excellent and moving photography now featured on their welcome page.



March 19, 2005 in Atonement, Deuteronomy, Holy Week, John, Justice, Nonviolence, Passover, Redemption, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack