First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 - link to BCP text
Romans 10:8b-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

Over Advent and Christmas in 2004/2005, I was working in a parish where I was on the regular rota of preachers. On this particular year, I preached on December 19 -- the last Sunday of Advent -- and then again on January 2, in the season of Christmas. Had you asked me a month ahead of time what the thematic shift between those two sermons were going to be like, I probably would have talked about Advent as a time of tension between experiencing the world's brokenness and injustice and the hope we stake our lives on as Christians, that Jesus is coming to make all things new, and will complete what he has begun. When the Christmas sermon came around, I imagined would have been talking about Incarnation and celebration. When the time came, I was, in a manner of speaking, but in the meantime something had happened.

There was a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a devastating one, on December 26. 230,000 or more people swept away. Family members were torn from another before their eyes as they desperately tried to hold on to one another. It was a dark twist on some familiar texts:

For as the days of Noah were ... before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage ... and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away ... Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).

Dark texts about dark days. Advent texts.

What had I said in Advent? I'd tried to communicate a healthy awareness of the darkness in our world, the darkness that texts like Matthew 24 spoke from and to.

I talked about how the world's darkness sometimes seems relentless and inexorable if not impenetrable. And I talked about Advent hope. The sermon was called "Dancing at the World's End"; its central image was of the Berlin Wall -- a symbol when I was growing up of the Cold War that we all thought would end in nuclear war and winter, the end of the world. I talked about the day people started tearing that wall down -- when I lived in Scotland, close enough to join my fellow students who were streaming to Berlin in droves to dance on the wall's ruins. I didn't go -- I had classes, after all, a job waiting on tables, no time off and little money. And I talked about how little all of those seemingly important obstacles were in light of the change that was happening, the history I could have witnessed firsthand, the joy I could have shared with all those who were there. I asked myself and those in the church on that day what we might do if we were going to live in Advent hope -- seeing in the darkness the signs that the world -- the whole world of big and banal evils, of suffering and despair and death -- was crumbling before our eyes. If the Berlin Wall coming down was a change worth my skipping class and letting the waitressing take care of itself (and I believe with all my heart it was), what is it worth, what would we leave behind and what would we take up, to be present to dance on the ruins of sin and death itself?

Advent hope. That Advent, I spoke of it primarily as an antidote to what we wealthy Westerners sometimes call "the grind," which can feel oppressive enough. Hope can feel bold in the midst of that.

And then, the second day of Christmas, the waters came. The images and the stories of the tsunami itself were devastating; the reminder of just how many quieter but more devastating floods hit the most vulnerable:

About every six months, a tsunami's worth of women dying in entirely preventable ways while giving birth, and another tsunami's worth of people dying of HIV/AIDS.

Every week, just short of a tsunami's worth of children under five dying of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria.

The list goes on. We've heard about these things before, and most of us have wept about them before. And of course, I'm talking about things I've talked about before. The best thing I could think of to do in the pulpit in that dark Christmas season was to reclaim a familiar carol as a protest song:

No more let sin and sorrow grow
or thorns infest the ground
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.

"Far as the Curse Is Found." That's what I called the sermon.

I'm sorry to spend so much time rehearsing the past, but it's present in my mind once more this week. Our world is still troubled by much of what troubled us as I sang from the pulpit a little over two years ago. And I have many, many friends whose hearts are breaking this week. There are all the things I read about in the papers, of course, and more. Mothers worried about their sons and daughters at war, or wounded by war. Friends worried about friends who are addicts hurting themselves and others. People of all sorts and conditions who held out hopes for the meeting of our Anglican Primates (archbishops and other heads of churches) that were dashed in ways that felt deeply personal.

A world of grief. A world of anger. A world of hurt.

Where's our happy ending? Didn't God promise a land, an inheritance, freedom from slavery and from fear that would be celebrated with feasting? What of the psalmist's song?

There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For God shall give his angels charge over you
to keep you in all your ways.

What of the scriptures St. Paul quoted to the churches in Rome, that "No one who believes in him shall be put to shame" and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?" How can someone in real grief and real hurt open the bible and find anything helpful when real suffering comes on like a flood?

She can, I can, you can because the bible isn't that book that a lot of us heard about in Sunday School -- the one that says that we should be quiet, good, and cheerful in a world of smiling white guys who look a little like hippies patting the heads of fresh-faced children and snow-white cartoon sheep. It isn't a book that says that we should all be nice because everything is really OK. Read a book like Luke-Acts closely and you'll see a group of people grappling hard with hard questions, real oppression, serious pain.

Something stood out to me right away when I revisited the portion of Luke we'll be reading this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Full of the Holy Spirit -- led by the Spirit -- tempted by the devil. These aren't phrases linked naturally for a lot of us, I think. For a lot of us, when we're in a desolate place, we're likely to ask what we did wrong. How could we be led by the Holy Spirit and be in a place like this?

The people who wrote and read Luke-Acts asked questions like this too, I think. Some had left not only their homes, but their spouse, sisters and brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God's kingdom, and they were often met with persecution for it. Journey with these people and you've got company in your pain. They know what's wrong with the world -- enough to say even that the glory and authority of the world's kingdoms have been given to the devil. They know that sometimes -- too often -- the kingdoms of this world reward what Jesus called evil (and by the way, I'm not talking about homosexuality).

All of that is very, very real to the Christians we walk alongside as we read Luke-Acts. When we follow Jesus, we walk with and behind sisters and brothers who have known pain and oppression.

And let's not gloss over that, because without seeing that, we can't take in the full impact of the Good News they share with us:

That Jesus the Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, came to confront all the powers of sin and death, everything that separates us from one another, from God, and from the joyful, peaceful, loving life for which God made us -- and Jesus won.

Jesus won on the Cross, and we're going to talk a lot about that in the days to come, but let's not skip ahead. We don't need to. On this first Sunday in Lent, Luke shares with us the Good News that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, confronted the devil directly AND WON.

As Sue Garrett points out, the story of Jesus in the wilderness that we read this week is an early installment of the outcome her book's title points toward as a major theme in Luke's gospel: The Demise of the Devil. This isn't just the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, in which Jesus doesn't give in and a stalemate is declared. It belongs in an extensive tradition of stories in which Satan's or the devil's retreat in the face of the godly hero's strength isn't a coffee break, but a defeat, as in The Testament of Job (27:2-6):

And as he [Satan] stood, he wept, saying, "Look, Job, I am weary and I withdraw from you, even though you are flesh and I a spirit. You suffer a plague, but I am in deep distress. I became like one athlete wrestling another, and one pinned the other. The upper one silenced the lower one ... because he showed endurance and did not grow weary, at the end the upper one cried out in defeat. So you also, Job ... conquered my wrestling tactics which I brought on you. Then Satan, ashamed, left me for three years.
(Garrett, p. 42)

The language of Luke's gospel this Sunday echoes that of such stories -- this isn't a stalemate, but a victory.

And yet it's not the final victory. We (well, maybe I should speak for myself alone, but this does seem at least to be an American "prosperity gospel" tendency at least) accustomed to thinking of victory of evil as preventing pain, or at least ending it. In this Sunday's gospel, victory over evil involves a willingness to endure pain in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us. It's the devil, not God, who promises safety and success. But it's God, working in Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, who wins. This is, in the end, God's world -- as it was in the beginning. God's light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has never extinguished it.

We see and taste God's goodness and the wholeness for which God made Creation in countless small and breathtaking ways -- in sunrises and laughter, in an embrace or a shared tear, and even in chocolate (which I'm convinced is the single most underutilized argument for the existence of a gracious Creator). But chiefly we see it in the life and ministry among us of Jesus the Christ, who knew pain and desolation and betrayal as well as laughter and peace and love. Luke in particular promises glimpses of Jesus' final victory over the very real destructive forces at work in the world -- not just fleetingly and rare, but as regular nourishment for the journey.

If we are to start this journey with Jesus, or to enter more deeply and intentionally into it, or to better notice, know, and learn from our companions on that journey, I can think of no better time than this Lent. If your heart is breaking, so is mine; walk with me, and our stories and prayers will sustain us. If you're laughing, so do I; let's share it, and lighten the way. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into desolation and victory, and is company for us both in the full complexity of the winding path we're on together toward healing and reconciliation.

Thanks be to God!

February 23, 2007 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Deuteronomy, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Romans, Scripture, Temptation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Proper 27, Year B

1 Kings 17:8-16 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 146 - link to BCP text
Hebrews 9:24-28 - link to NRSV text
Mark 12:28-44
- link to NRSV text (plus a key couple of extra verses!)

I try to live with all in Christian charity. Really, I do, with varying (mostly miniscule) levels of success. But the editors of our lectionary are really making it difficult for me this week with where they end the gospel reading. Fortunately they give us impetus in the other readings for this week to think about the gospel differently, but they've given us a selection of verses from Mark to create the perfect collection of readings for "stewardship Sundays," all neatly packaged for sermons suggesting that we should all emulate the widow of this Sunday's gospel, whom Jesus praises so for her generosity. More sermons than not this Sunday, I suspect, will move from that point and use a rather uncritical equation of Temple=church to say that Jesus wants us to give more money to the church, trusting that God will take care of us if only we have the courage to pledge more.

There's one problem with this reading.

Actually, I have to amend that. There are MYRIAD problems with this reading, but let's start with the biggest one:

Where do you see any suggestion at all in the text that Jesus thinks it's a wonderful thing that this poor widow put her last two coppers -- all she had to live on -- in the Temple treasury, going away destitute?

It just isn't there. If anything, the text suggests the opposite. The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, receive the seats of honor, put on a good show of prayers, and DEVOUR WIDOWS' HOUSES. That last bit is particularly important because of what follows:

Jesus watches a bunch of guys in long robes take a widow's last two coins -- all she has to live on.

Then Jesus says something. What he says boils down to "and just in case you thought I was making stuff up on that point, check out this woman -- she just put literally her last cent, all she had to live on, in the treasury to maintain this lovely building."

But he doesn't stop there, even though our lectionary editors would leave people whose primary exposure to scripture is in Sunday services thinking as much. The conversation continues. Jesus' disciples have the nerve to say, "Yeah, but look at the building! This is glorious!" and Jesus responds with a prediction that it will all be destroyed -- an act that elsewhere in the gospels Jesus attributes to no less of an actor than God.

Note that Jesus did NOT say, "Not one stone will be left on another ... unless you all are as generous as this widow. Now dig deep, people -- this building must be maintained at any cost!" Jesus doesn't criticize or blame the widow for the dynamic here; he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the robed guys collecting the widow's money. That's something to think about when we're all vesting on Sunday morning!

But Jesus doesn't come anywhere close to praising the dynamic of poor people being left with nothing by people claiming to be God's people. Preachers, I beg you not to come anywhere close to suggesting otherwise this Sunday.

Jesus' point here is not to suggest that God's people must never have buildings in which to meet. The earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem met in the Temple courts, after all, and Christians' houses around the first-century Mediterranean provided not only places to meet, but places to house those whose choice to follow Jesus meant that their families tossed them out on the street.

That sharing of resources in which none have too much and all have enough -- sharing celebrated in our reading for this week from 1 Kings -- and not any number of impressive vestments, eloquent prayers, or gorgeous examples of architecture -- is what makes a place holy to the Lord who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146:8). When the Letter to the Hebrews speaks dismissively of "a sanctuary made by human hands," in contrast to the true one, it does so in that venerable and blessed prophetic critique of religious and political establishments naively assuming or cynically cultivating a belief that the defense of any piece of ground, the maintenance of any building or institution, or the observance of any ceremony could ever justify making more widows and orphans or failing to care for those already among us.

I believe that is the message God is calling us to proclaim on "stewardship Sunday" -- and on stewardship Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday too. I believe that every day is stewardship day, a day to remember "who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them" (Psalm 146:5), and to whom therefore all those things and all they produce belong. It is a day to remember that freely offering back to God all God's gifts to give justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger, freedom to the prisoners and sight to the blind. It is a day to remember, and to act in remembrance of God's grace to us, most especially in sending us Jesus, that those bent down by the world's troubles may be empowered to walk tall.

That, more than any building or any ceremony, is what glorifies God. And when we participate in that process, that mission of God in the world, we come closest to seeing God's glory on earth. There is nothing more exciting, exhilarating, and joyous than that -- nothing on earth more likely to inspire us to cry out:

Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.


And thanks be to God!

November 10, 2006 in 1 Kings, Justice, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Stewardship, Women, Year B | Permalink | Comments (7)

Proper 25, Year B

Psalm 13 - link to BCP text
Mark 10:46-52 - link to NRSV text

People often ask me how they should pray. I'm happy to answer, but I think the way the question is most often put shows some assumptions about prayer that are worth considering before buying into them. I particularly have in mind the "should" part of the question, which seems to me to imply that there are right and wrong ways to pray, a kind of prayer etiquette that's important to follow.

That's not something I see in scripture, though. This Sunday's gospel is an excellent case in point. Jesus and his followers are traveling when they encounter Bartimaeus, who shouts, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" It's not a demure, "if you're not too busy" request. There's no "if you want to do this," or "if you think it's best."

Bartimaeus shouts out a demand -- "have mercy on me!" -- that presumes a relationship between the two of them: Jesus as "Son of David" and therefore king of Israel is obligated to Bartimaeus, an Israelite and therefore his subject. Jesus heals him. He doesn't heal him because Bartimaeus has used the "right" title for Jesus. In Mark, Jesus' preferred title isn't "Son of David," but "the Son of Man." In calling Jesus "Son of David" and therefore king of Israel, Bartimaeus is treading in effect into territory that brought a stern "shut up" (the "charge" there is not the wording of a warm "you're right and I'm glad you said so, but please be discreet") from Jesus just two chapters before, when Peter called Jesus God's anointed (Mark 8:29-30).

In other words, far from being healed as reward for saying the right thing in the right way, Bartimaeus is healed despite his addressing Jesus loudly, repeatedly, and presumptuously before a great crowd in a way Jesus would rather not be addressed in public, if at all.

And Jesus not only answers him, but also heals him. Jesus is not one to hang back waiting for us to get it "right" before responding with compassion. And in any case, who said that the "right" way to ask for what we need would be demurely? There are other ways to read the parable Jesus tells of a persistent widow who gets justice from an unjust judge who "fears neither God nor humankind," but Luke clearly reads it as a model of how we should pray, with the widow's relentless tenacity as a model rather than a cautionary tale (Luke 18:1-8).

But really, should we be surprised by this, if we've read the ancient books that Jesus and St. Paul called the scriptures? The Hebrew bible is full of godly people arguing with God. When God tells Abraham that God is judging Sodom, Abraham bargains with God like a haggler at a flea market or boot sale. When God calls Moses, Moses whines and explains just why God is mistaken. When God calls Jeremiah, Jeremiah protests that he's WAY too young.

And have you read the Psalms lately? I've been spending some quality time with them of late, in part because I think that too many of us have taken in a rather silly idea that God is a very, very delicate being who can only stand us when we're feeling Holy and Meek in a cheerful if rather passive way, and I'm writing music to express some other things we often feel and are invited to bring to God. Psalm 10 is a good one for grief and anger. I just wrote a musical setting for it, though it doesn't appear in our Eucharistic lectionary. What would it feel like to pray that on a Sunday? How will it feel this Sunday to pray Psalm 13, which clearly (especially clearly for those who've read books like this one on cultures of the ancient Near East) is trying to SHAME God into acting ("everyone's calling you chicken, God!")? Can we really enter into that space of being angry with God as we all stand their in our Sunday best?

However we dress, though, when we do it, I think it's wise to practice coming to God with our anger, our grief, and our frustration. God doesn't care whether we're "justified" in having those feelings when we do -- as if feelings were something that needed "justifying." God gave us those feelings -- not to control, but to experience -- and we don't have to experience them alone. There is no more appropriate place to bring our anger and our grief -- not only our questions, but our frustrations when our questions aren't answered, or are unanswerable -- than to God; and when we gather as Christian community, we gather together not just as people who rejoice in our experience of God's blessings, but to bring before God the wounds of the world, including our wounds.

As I've preached about before, most of us will one day experience a grief that seems to turn the whole world upside-down, and when (not if) that happens amongst our families, our circle of friends, our communities, and our communities of faith, as people of faith we bring those to God. When we are angry, we rail at God. When we are sad, we weep before God. When we can't hear God or feel God's presence, there is nothing, in my experience, more potentially healing to do than to bring who we really are and what we are really experiencing in that moment to God.

That will sometimes mean railing at God for being absent -- and sometimes, that will be the most powerful way we could experience God's presence. The past is memory, an imagining of what was but isn't. The future is not here; it's our imagining what may be. The present is here, and when we need to experience God's presence, we do it in the present, with our present hopes and fears, our present longings and frustrations, our present feelings and thoughts. Whether we judge them to be acceptable or not, we can have confidence that God is not threatened by them as we are, and can accept them even when we can't. However we come, with whatever words and whatever wounds, in blindness and recognition, in peace or in anger, and whatever else God wants of us, God wants us to COME.

Thanks be to God!

October 24, 2006 in Mark, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Prayer, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (3)

Proper 6, Year B

2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Psalm 92 OR Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
Mark 4:26-34

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
-- BCP Collect for Proper 6

It's an apt prayer for the church during this General Convention. While we can only know provisionally, we want to proclaim the truth as we understand it boldly; especially because our perception of God's justice is never complete, we wish to minister it with compassion. And if we look at the world through the lens of Jesus' ministry and God's mission, we see endless opportunities to do both, innumerable places where Good News and compassionate justice are desperately needed.

That's never more apparent to me than at convention. The exhibit hall hosts hundreds of organizations seeking to inform the church about and bring healing and transformation to various needs of the world. Just reading all of the resolutions inviting participation in God's mission of justice and reconciliation in some corner of the world takes hours; serious advocacy for more than a handful at any given time is beyond any one mortal's capacity. Listening to the stories, looking at the figures, and taking in testimony could keep me in meetings from 7:00 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. or later every day of the week. And I can't help but think for everything I can't do whether that one extra bit of effort might have made a difference. How would I feel if this initiative failed because I was in bed, out to lunch, hanging out with a friend instead of alerting people to some development, using my voice, at least praying for the situation?

And then I have to chuckle at my hubris. Jesus offers an excellent corrective for people like me -- people who at times mistake the invitation to participate in God's mission for an invitation to play God, who alone is the world's Creator -- in the two parables of this Sunday's gospel.

The first parable is my second favorite in the gospels. (What can I say? I'll always have a soft spot for the so-called "Parable of the Unjust Steward" in Luke 16.) Commentators call it the "Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly," and it's the shortest parable in the canon. A farmer scatters seed, and it grows, "he knows not how. The earth produces of itself." No farmer, no matter how clever, can MAKE seeds grow. She can participate in the process by influencing conditions to make them more conducive to growth -- watering, composting, and so on -- but the gifts of life and growth come from God, and only from God, who graciously created a fruitful earth and gives without calculation of deserving the gifts of sun and rain.

This picture is a wonderful corrective not only to activists teetering on the edge of exhaustion, but also for those who talk of the world God made as if the most basic truth about it is that it is fraught with dangerous evils. The world isn't perfect by any stretch, but it was made and is being redeemed by a God whose grace exceeds our wildest imaginings. The most basic truth about the world is that it arcs irresistibly toward the justice for which it aches, and each day is bursting with opportunities to experience God's grace, joy, peace, and love. Like St. Paul, we can be confident that even if an earthly tent can be destroyed, the home and identity we have as new creations in Christ are eternally rooted and eternally lasting, and the smallest of mustard seeds will produce great and fruitful trees.

With that confidence comes a lightness of spirit, a sense of abundant life and even, dare I say, fun -- even or especially in situations the world sees as heavy and hopeless. We need that lightness. A life of activism and of mission that is fueled mostly or solely by a sense of desperation or thirst for martyrdom is bound to be a short career, and probably a less effective one. God calls us to participate in God's mission, but God provides opportunities along the way for sabbath, for quiet, for laughter, and each of us was made to enjoy those good gifts even as we strive to further their availability to every child, woman, and man. Being faithful is not just about working in mission; it is also about knowing when to rest and play, giving thanks for all of God's abundant and good gifts.

It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD,
and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;
To tell of your loing-kindness early in the morning
and of your faithfulness in the night season.
-- Psalm 92:1-2

Thanks be to God!

June 15, 2006 in 2 Corinthians, Justice, Mark, Parables, Psalms, Redemption, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

I've posted my reflection for this week at The Witness, my employers and -- especially this week, after spending a good chunk of Monday and most of Tuesday with board members, my inspirers.

It's called "The Missing 'FOR' and the Risen Life."

April 19, 2006 in Acts, Easter, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Good Friday, Year B

Dear All,

You may find helpful one of my previous sermons for Good Friday: "Christ Our Passover: Our Exodus from the Narrow Place." The Witness also has a wonderful piece for Good Friday from Reid Hamilton, "Loving Provocateurs," and for those of you looking ahead to Easter Sunday, a powerful piece from the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson entitled "The Missing Stone and the Empty Cross." I hope they're helpful to you.

And here's my reflection for Good Friday this year:

Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 69:1-23 - link to BCP text
Hebrews 10:1-25 - link to NRSV text
John 18:1 - 19:37 - link to NRSV text

Good Friday is a hard day for a lot of us. It's often hard to think of what's "good" about it. Are you against capital punishment? Good Friday is a day when we remember it. Do you think of Jesus as someone who was clearly and absolutely innocent of any crime, whether against humankind or God? Good Friday is when we remember that Jesus was executed as a traitor in a manner many would have said demonstrated that it was God and not just the Roman Empire who had judged him disgraced. Are you of the general opinion that people who are good will also be successful and left at peace? Good Friday would seem to speak against that.

It's a hard day, and many of us only contemplate it in the context of a line Tony Campolo (whose work I deeply respect, don't get me wrong) uses -- "It's Friday ... but Sunday's a-comin!" We want to rush ahead to Easter, because Good Friday is about pain and humiliation and desertion, and at least in upper-middle-class American culture, we're all about denial of suffering, and above all denial of death.  But Good Friday just isn't pretty. It doesn't fit in well with the Flash-animated slideshows on our church websites that show an endless parade of mostly young and always smiling faces. For us, Good Friday is an image problem, a downer that makes us comfortable.

But in my travels, I have met many, many people for whom Good Friday and the image of Jesus suffering on the cross is a time and an image of profound consolation. And when I've thought about what was different between those people and communities consoled by Good Friday and those distressed by it, my thinking keeps coming back to this:

Good Friday is a day when those who are suffering what Jesus suffered enter into the mystery:

God's suffering with them.

God knows the suffering of those who could read with all integrity and from their own experience the "suffering servant" passages of Isaiah as THEIR story, the Psalms of lament as THEIR songs. God knows the suffering of the poor, of the refugees and the displaced, of those who live in fear in occupied territories, of those who feel constantly vulnerable to economic, political, and military forces beyond their control, or even of their whole family or village or perhaps even nation. God knows the suffering of the hungry and the outcast, of those taken advantage of because the world sees them as meek. God knows the grief of the grieving, the pain of seeing betrayal at the hands of those from whom you expected solidarity. God knows the anguish that just might be the hardest of all to bear -- the terrible loneliness of one who is suffering all of these things, and who feels torn from or abandoned by everyone who might provide consolation -- even God.

God knows all of the pain, personally and profoundly, because God suffered it all in the person of Jesus.

Our Lord naked on the cross, vulnerable to insects and birds, to sun and wind, and to the most predatory animal of all -- human beings whose humanity has been twisted by violence -- is an icon to the poor, suffering, and vulnerable that says:

You are not abandoned.

This is not just the well-intentioned "I feel your pain" spoken by someone in a position of comfort to someone suffering; it's not some more pious version of "I've been there, and I remember just how much it sucked" that expresses at least as much relief on the speaker's part that it's over.

The broken body of the Christ is not some garment that God tried on, didn't like, and tossed aside to put on some more festive Easter duds; it is an icon of who God is in God's eternal nature. God was and is and always will be -- until the day when every tear is wiped from our eyes and sorrow and sighing shall be no more -- present with, one with, suffering with the suffering, the outcast, the poor. When we say "God identifies with the poor," we're not just talking about actor's empathy; we're talking about the core of who God is, how we best understand God's identity.

I'm reminded of a scene from The Quarrel, one of the best and most profound movies I've ever seen. The film follows two friends over the course of one afternoon -- the day of Rosh Hoshana. Both are Holocaust survivors: one has become a rabbi and founder of a Torah school; the other has abandoned his faith because of his experiences. The question that drives both of them is "Where was God?" Hersh, the rabbi in The Quarrel, is like Eli Wiesel's fellow-prisoner in Night, who can cry out when asked where God is amidst the suffering in the concentration camp, "God is in the muck with us!" Because Hersh finds God in the muck, he can say with all integrity that as he lay in the mud of the concentration camp as the guards kicked him, he could say whole-heartedly that he would not have traded places with the guard for all the treasure and comfort in the world.

That's the strength and power that comes from seeing God in the midst of suffering. If God is with us in the muck, in the most painful and painfully lonely moments of those abandoned and tortured by the empires of this world, then even in those moments, we can respond with compassion as deep as integrity, for we have seen in the suffering of the poor the very face of God.

Jesus taught this with words and deeds in the weeks before he set his face on Jerusalem, toward the cross. He said that the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are hated and reviled and persecuted were blessed, honored by God; he spoke woes to the rich and the comfortable and to the elites of Jerusalem at whose mercy he was, and found none. But he spoke even the woes with true and deep compassion, because he knew God's face, and would seek it even to death on a cross.

It's hard sometimes in our culture to live out Jesus' compassion. Many of us have been taught from before we could speak to fear anything and anyone who reminded us of our vulnerabilities -- to illness, to age, to misfortune, to grief, to loneliness, to death. We are tempted to surround ourselves with icons of perfect wholeness, of the cleanliness that Ben Franklin (NOT any biblical writer) claimed was next to godliness.

But God gave us Good Friday. We have the opportunity, however hard we gulp before taking it and however uncomfortable it makes us, to seek God's face in the suffering of someone this world -- our economies, our religious authorities, our empires and our fears -- took away everything: dignity, health, friends, family, and even life itself -- and we are invited to look in the muck to see God's face.

It isn't easy. There are reasons the writer of the spiritual said, "sometimes it causes me to tremble." But there is peace and forgiveness, the wounds that declared an end to anyone's right to wound, the death that declared an end to anyone's need to kill, the strength and courage and compassion to be naked before the powers of this world and to see in that the power of our suffering, dying, and living God.

April 13, 2006 in Hebrews, Holy Week, Isaiah, John, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Printer-friendly version

Isaiah 43:18-25
- link to NRSV text
Psalm 32 - link to BCP text
2 Corinthians 1:18-22 - link to NRSV text
Mark 2:1-12 - link to NRSV text

“Your sins are forgiven.”

What was so shocking about those words? Far too much is made far too often about a supposed contrast between the reluctance of an “Old Testament God” or “God of Judaism” to forgive and the readiness of Jesus or a “Christian God” of grace, of letting sinners get a new start.

It's a false contrast. Read Psalm 32 -- heck, do any substantial reading at all in the Old Testament with an open mind -- and it's clear that, as Psalm 103 puts it, “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, / slow to anger and of great kindness. / The LORD is loving to everyone / and his compassion is over all his works.” The prophet Micah tells us that what God requires of us includes doing justice and loving mercy, and those things aren't in tension for God any more than they are in what God's people are called to do. Those who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob understood deeply that God in God's mercy “has not dealt with us according to our sins, / nor rewarded us according to our wickedness. / For as the heavens are high above the earth, / so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. / As far as the east is from the west, / so far has he removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103).

Indeed, God's mercy was great enough to provide for forgiveness of sins for as often as a member of God's people failed to do God's will. Christians (especially Protestant ones) often say that the problem for which Jesus was the solution was that no human being could keep the Law, and that God couldn't forgive us for such shortcomings, and so was distant from humanity until Jesus came to make forgiveness possible. That's a misreading of St. Paul, though, following on a non-reading of Hebrew scripture. Not only did Paul believe that he could (and did!) keep the Law -- in Philippians 3:6 he notes that he was “as to righteous under the Law, blameless” -- but Hebrew scripture is clear that when people sin, God is gracious to forgive -- so gracious as to provide for a system of sacrifice and prayer culminating in the yearly Day of Atonement to provide for forgiveness of all Israel's sin -- and I've seen no indication that anyone thought that these measures were less than totally efficacious for forgiveness of sin and restoring a person to intimate relationship with God.

So why, then, were Jesus' words to the paralytic anything other than old news to all his hearers?

I think the answer is now as it ever was:

Because we still don't get it.

We still don't get that the God who created us not only can stand the sight of ourselves as we are, but really, really loves us. This is pretty much the root of the classic sermon that I hope (perhaps beyond hope) is a relic of the distant past -- the one that says, “God pretty much can't stand the sight of you, except insofar as God can hallucinate that you are God's Own Son.”

Let's get it straight, so to speak: God loves you. God really, really loves you -- even more than anyone ever loved Sally Field (whose Oscar acceptance speech still lives vividly in my memory, and whom I'll always love irrationally for her smiling endurance of The Flying Nun and the Gidget television series). God didn't have to send Jesus to make it possible for God to love you:

God sent Jesus because God loved you. Already.

And God was overflowing with forgiveness toward you. Already.

But do you get it? “Do you not perceive it,” as Isaiah asks?

On the whole, we don't. We do maybe sometimes, but usually in a manner that's a bit askew. We think that God loves us and forgives us because we said a prayer to convert, or because we really, really tried to be good, or because at least we're better than those awful, awful other homosexuals/bigots/terrorists/jerks/what-have-you.

But that's not it. God made a world that's good, and created people who were pretty amazing as creations go (I'm a pretty creative person, and I've yet to make a sentient being of any kind, let alone one capable of art and poetry and prayer and real, live, love), and then set us in communities in which we had what we needed to become the Body of Christ on earth, and we're still pfaffing around with apologies.

Your sins are forgiven, and now it's time to walk.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Is this a new thing? It's as new as God's love is for us -- new every morning, every moment. Is it enough for us to stop waiting for others to do something to deserve our forgiveness? If Jesus came to speak God's forgiveness to someone on the basis of nothing more than that this person was there and had need, I don't see why not. What excuse do we have to play Twenty Questions about whether someone deserves what God is gracious enough to give, now that we have been privileged with place to see just how boundless is God's grace?

It's not new, but I have to admit that it's new to me -- new every moment in which I'm given grace to see and to wonder.

Thanks be to God!

February 17, 2006 in 2 Corinthians, Epiphany, Forgiveness, Mark, Psalms, Year B | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Proper 24, Year A

Isaiah 45:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 96 - link to BCP text
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:15-22 - link to NRSV text

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction ... in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.
1 Thessalonians 1:4-9

The Thessalonians' faith was known such that there was no need to speak about it because they lived it out with consistency and integrity. In other words, they didn't shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God's lordship (and please see this post if you want to know why I want to reclaim that fraught language of "lordship") in their lives.

It's a lesson that the Pharisees and Herodians questioning Jesus in this Sunday's gospel could benefit from, as indicated by a combination of two things often overlooked in the story. The first thing is the setting of the story in the courtyards of the Temple, as indicated in Matthew 21:23. There's something very significant about that for how we read this Sunday's gospel story, and it has to do with why the moneychangers' tables that Jesus overturned in Matthew 21:12 were there in the first place. They were there because coinage of the Roman Empire included images -- such as the image of Caesar, that man who called himself "lord" when that title truly belonged only to God -- that ought not be carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images (that's commandment number one in Christian ways of numbering the "big ten"). We need to note that this Sunday's gospel takes place in the Temple because that's what makes the next point such a kicker.

The second point we need to notice in the story is that when Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians who are questioning him to produce a denarius in that setting, they do so immediately. In other words, THESE GUYS CARRIED AN IMAGE OF CAESAR INTO GOD'S TEMPLE! And these are the people who were going to teach Jesus a lesson about devotion to God rather than selling out to Caesar if Jesus failed to condemn paying taxes to Rome?

Until that moment when the coin is handed to Jesus, Jesus was between the horns of a dilemma. Had he said in so many words that paying taxes to Caesar was wrong -- especially during the Passover season, in which countless pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem to remember God's liberation of Israel from slavery under foreigners -- Jesus would be provoking Rome to immediate action against him. Had Jesus said that paying taxes to Rome was right, his questioners were ready to accuse Jesus of disloyalty to Israel.

And then Jesus tripped them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness. Anyone who was there to listen probably would have heard in dozens of voices whatever was the first-century Jerusalemite's equivalent of "D'OH!!!!!!!" On the spot, Jesus has  won the argument; he could now go home in peace, having avoided that difficult question entirely while still carrying the day against his critics.

But he doesn't. Jesus, having already won the argument, answers the question anyway.

What he says might have confused anyone around (if indeed there was anyone meeting this description) who didn't know their Torah from their Plato, but it wouldn't have confused any self-respecting Pharisee. Jesus says, "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's, and give to God what is God's." So what in this world is God's?

Our reading for this Sunday from Isaiah provides some clues. It has God addressing Cyrus, King of Persia, a gentile, as one who is nonetheless called by the God of Israel. In other words, it's not solely the people of Israel who are God's, but everyone to whom God gives life and breath. And God tells this gentile king, that he is providing help "though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah 45:4-7). East or west, light or dark, in all circumstances, God is God, and there is none other. Our psalm for this Sunday describes God similarly as Lord of all peoples, of all the earth.

As Psalm 24:1 puts it:

The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
   the world, and those who live in it.

It's a claim even more sweeping than some people would have wanted to make as they said that the land of Israel and everything in it belonged to the God of Israel. But as far as it relates to the question Jesus was asked -- the question of whether Israelites should pay taxes to Caesar -- it boils down to essentially the same thing:

What belongs to God is everything.

And if we really take seriously the claim that God is rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it, over what is Caesar a rightful lord?

Nothing. Squat. Nada.

That is the radical edge and the liberating cry of the claim that "Jesus is Lord"; as I've argued before, it's that when we make that the central fact of our lives, nobody and nothing else gets to make the same claim. So when it comes to all wordly powers who would be our lord, whether it's the flag of a nation, a cause that we hold dearer than the Spirit's guidance and the fruit of following it, those amorphous but ubiquitous would-be lords of respectability and achievement, or a person who wants to take God's place as Lord of our lives, get up off your knees. They have no rightful claim on you at all. And when somebody else wants to condemn you for the freedom Christ won for you, then remember how often people lash out at their own shadow sides, and ask them to produce a coin. You might be surprised -- and get a much-neededm life-affirming, and despot-disarming laugh in the process -- at what you discover.

Thanks be to God!

October 11, 2005 in Christ the King, Isaiah, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Year A | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Proper 20, Year A

Thanks for being patient with me this week. I got back on Tuesday from a job interview with a parish VERY far away. I'd naively thought I could write my lectionary blog entry on the plane coming back and post it immediately when I got home, but I was just too tired to get it done until today. By the way, I had a WONDERFUL time on the interview, thanks to my hosts -- it's a really wonderful congregation!

Jonah 3:10 - 4:11
- link to NRSV text
Psalm 145 - link to BCP text
Matthew 20:1-16 - link to NRSV text

They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
         they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
         slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone *
         and his compassion is over all his works.
-- Psalm 145:7-9

As I was growing up, I often heard a message preached that went something like this:

"God is a perfectly righteous judge. Humanity sinned. Because God is perfectly righteous, God can't stand to be with sinful people, and because God is a righteous judge, God MUST impose the death penalty for any instances of sin -- no other choice could preserve God's righteousness. So God became flesh and was killed so that the penalty could be paid. Now, when God looks at those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, God sees only Jesus and Jesus' righteousness, so God can be with us and still be righteous."

There's a lot that's troubling in this message, and it doesn't make much sense to me any more. First off, one of the presuppositions of the message seems to be that any law decreed by God is eternally binding, even upon God's self. Jesus doesn't seem to have gotten that memo, though. Even if you want to argue that Jesus followed all of the dietary and sabbath laws, there really isn't any way to harmonize "Honor your father and mother" with Jesus' command to "call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the father in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). That's just for starters, too -- if you'd like to see other examples, please check out my archives on kinship and family.

Another thing that troubles me about the message I described above is its assumption that righteousness -- especially God's righteousness -- would be compromised or even erased either by contact with unrighteous people or by exercising mercy, choosing not to impose a deserved penalty. I'd say that there's more in scripture to contradict that view than to support it, and this Sunday's readings form an excellent case in point, arguing that God's "righteous deeds," as the psalmist puts it, are evidenced not in invariably punishing wrongdoers, but in being "gracious and full of compassion" and "loving to everyone" (Psalm 145:7-9) -- deserving or no.

Matthew joins in that tradition in potraying Jesus' message and way of life both as proclaiming that God's righteousness is most evident in God's indiscriminate (by conventional reckoning) mercy. Yes, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus says, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, but take a look at what follows if you want to know what Jesus thinks fulfilling the law and the prophets and living righteously involves: it's reconciling with one another, treating women and men as human beings and not objects to exploit for pleasure and put aside when it suits us, to turn the other cheek, give to those who beg or ask to borrow, and love our enemies.

The clincher to that argument comes in Matthew 5:43-48, when Jesus says by what precedent he can argue all of this. Jesus can claim that he's fulfilling the law and the prophets, because he's siding with traditions like the one in Psalm 145 that says that God's righteousness deeds are those of "compassion over all his works," or the strand running through second Isaiah that "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). Still, Jesus' strongest point isn't so much about the words of scripture, but about the character of God as revealed in scripture, God's behavior toward humankind since the first rainbow was hung in the sky. Here it is:

God sends sun and rain, "blessing rain" (thanks to Liz Zivanov of St. Clement's Honolulu for that image) upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. When Jesus says, "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), that's what he's talking about: God loves loyal servants of God, and enemies of God, and everyone in between. So, folks, if anyone is waiting for God, or Jesus, to undergo some kind of personality transplant and suddenly start with gleeful smiting instead of loving, that person's going to have an eternal wait (sorry, Left Behind fans, but Jesus' glorious appearing won't be much like it is in those books, if the gospels have it right).

So if that's what I think, am I simply buying wholesale into the old liberal humanist paradigm that says that everything's going to be great because every day in every way, things -- and people -- just get better and better? Nope. That's not what I'm saying.

What I'm saying is that all of that trying to reckon whether people are good or bad and getting better or worse, has become passé in light of the coming of God's kingdom proclaimed in Jesus' teaching and inaugurated in Jesus' ministry. So, all of us Jonahs don't have to worry about the outcome of prophesy one way or another; we can just concentrate on being faithful to the call, and living more deeply into abundant life in community, and there's a heck of a lot more fun -- or, to use more accurate language, more enjoyment of the joy and peace and all the rest that's the fruit of the Spirit -- in embracing that path.

I know that there are some short-term psychological rewards in being more like Jonah. If you don't feel you're in a position to be joyful yourself, it can be maddening to see others experiencing joy, and it might seem like some small consolation at least to feel twice as righteous for it, and/or to long for and expect some cosmic payback for the person judged as less deserving. But there's a huge price for living that way. One dimension of that price is constant vigilance. As long as we place ourselves in the judge's seat, we'll always find massive caseloads, as long as we try to place ourselves above others we'll suspect others of being as grasping as we are, and as long as we view the world as being full of people in need of judgment and punishment we will find it very hard to accept and internalize the Good News of this Sunday's gospel:

God is infinitely generous, and God showers us with blessings far without the slightest regard for our deserving.

I mean that "infinite" part too. God's blessing and God's love is not a pie with less of it left for me every time God gives something to someone else. It's more like a really good joke, or a truly amazing concert -- all the more living and life-giving for every person who shares it.

We all forget that sometimes, of course. Sometimes we end up as angry at God for being merciful and generous toward those we reckon as the wrong sort of person as are the workers in the vineyard who cast the evil eye, a curse seen as potentially deadly, on the generous landowner (that's what Matthew 20:15 says -- literally, it's "Is your eye evil because I am generous?"). Those grumbling workers are right in their assessment that the landowner is not treating everyone in the vineyard as a "fair" (by the world's standards) employer treats employees, paying each according to what each deserves, but they're so busy with their attempt to see that all are treated as employees deserve that they're missing the invitation implicit in the landowner's conduct: to receive not wages earned but blessings shared, to be treated more like family than like employees.

That's why Matthew 5 links being "children of your father in heaven" with loving and blessing neighbor and enemy alike. We are invited to see ourselves and all those around us not as worthy or unworthy servants or lazy or diligent day-laborers, but as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Forgiving those whom the world reckons as unworthy of forgiveness, honoring those the world deems as shameful, and blessing without bothering about who deserves what is participating in our family business. It's what Jesus was and is about among us, and as the way of the Lord, the path upon which God's family is set, it's the way we'll experience most fully who God is and what life, abundant life, is like.

Thanks be to God!

September 15, 2005 in Forgiveness, Jonah, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Righteousness, Year A | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack