Proper 22, Year C

Luke 17:5-10

There's a one-liner that I think of when I read this Sunday's gospel:

"That person lives for others. You can tell who 'the others' are by the hunted look on their faces."

Have you ever met someone like that -- someone who is always doing "favors" for people and "helping" them, with a hefty price tag attached in each case? Sometimes it's that the person "helped" must then display gratitude -- lots of it, delivered early and often and expressed in exactly the right way. Sometimes it's the "mobster" model, in which every "favor" granted must be repaid with a like "favor" at some future point. Sometimes it's what I call the "ticker-tape" model, in which every act of "generosity" must result in a showering of honor and adulation upon the giver.

The one-liner about the person who "lives for others" is funny because it says something that is too often true about warped versions of generosity on social as well as interpersonal levels: we deliver what Valerie Batts calls "dysfunctional rescuing," or "help that doesn't help," and then we blame the person whom we just didn't really help for not being suitably grateful. It's a pattern of behavior that indicates that we weren't wanting to help the other person so much as we wanted to use the other person to prop up our egos.

When have you seen this happen?

I think about the parish that offered a Spanish-language service because they assumed that Spanish speakers in the area keenly felt a hole in their spiritual lives that could be filled only by the theology of rich white liberals. The parish clergy therefore assumed Spanish-speakers would walk past several other congregations with native Spanish speakers on staff to flock to a church where the priest stumbles haltingly through the liturgy and can't offer any kind of pastoral counseling or support in Spanish, and all of the parish's formation and incorporation programs are conducted in English. The Spanish-language service went ahead nonetheless, though, and if the population so "served" doesn't respond with wild adulation or profound gratitude to the congregation for finally giving them this superior theology, the congregation will be able to say, "Oh, we tried that and it didn't work" to every future proposal to change with the neighborhood.

I think also about how the U.S. too often treats immigrants. We have laws that don't make it particularly easy for people who aren't rich to come here, and when they come, with or without documentation, however they've been treated, and whether or not we've heard their stories, we expect them to gratefully take jobs we wouldn't take or allow our children to take AND we want to see them joyfully and tearfully waving the U.S. flag and singing the national anthem (in ENGLISH ONLY, of course).

I think about the experiences my partner and I have had at various points trying to find a parish home after we'd moved. One congregation in particular seemed incensed that we could be so ungrateful as to leave for another parish when they were trying SO hard not to let us see how disgusted many of them were by us. We were yelled at a bit in the parking lot, but at least not from the pulpit, for example. We were allowed to receive the Eucharist, and we were even allowed to contribute volunteer labor to church ministries! How dare we move on, and doesn't this just go to show that our sort isn't satisfied just being regular folks in the congregation, but insist on taking it over?

I think these are attitudes for which this Sunday's gospel can provide something of a remedy.

I admit it's hard, especially in our cultural context, to hear the message when its terms are about a slave knowing his or her place. It's rhetoric that strikes my ear as dehumanizing. It lessens the sting a bit to know that the word the NRSV translates as "worthless" (the Greek is achreios) might better be translated as "unprofitable" or "unfit (for the purpose needed)." It lessens the sting a bit more to note that Greco-Roman slavery was different in many ways from the chattel slavery practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, that becoming the slave of a high-status person in the ancient world placed you in an exalted household and therefore could raise the social status of a freeborn person -- indeed, that if you read St. Paul's letters carefully, you'll notice that he reserves the title "slave of God" very carefully as a particular badge of honor. But it still stings to hear Jesus talk this way.

And yet there's something liberating about serving without expectation of applause or thanks. When we serve the poor and marginalized, if we do it out of some expectation of gratitude or ticker-tape parade, we'll always be looking breathlessly over our shoulder for what we expect, and always be occupied with calculating whether others are behaving as we think appropriate. With all of that looking over our shoulders and all of that mental, emotional, and spiritual effort occupied in the calculus of deserving, we're all too likely to look in the eye of the real human being, made in the image of God, before us. We're all too likely to miss the opportunity to see God in that moment.

There's something liberating about humility. Hubris requires a great deal of energy to maintain, after all; if we are desperate to be seen as more important than we are, we'll constantly have to project a particular image and monitor those around us to assess our effectiveness at maintaining it and to punish those whom we see as failing to respond appropriately to our false projected self. The sad thing is that whether we succeed or fail in the process of getting others to buy into our hubris, we'll be miserable either way -- at least as miserable, if not more so, than we make anyone else by prideful conduct.

Think of what kind of energy we'd have, not only for genuine service meeting people's genuine needs, but also for laughter and love and the enjoyment of a quiet moment, if we were to stop spending all of the energy it takes to calculate what everyone around us does and doesn't deserve relative to what we are trying to make ourselves believe we deserve. That's what true humility is -- it's not about trying to make yourself or others believe that you are less than you are any more than it is about trying to make all believe that you're more. It's about letting go of that whole process of assessing and projecting and punishing or rewarding and then assessing again. It's about freeing ourselves to look at another and really see her or him. It's about freeing ourselves up for what's really important.

The word 'faith' (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with "increasing our faith" meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That's not faith; it's self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don't actually believe what we say.

But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris. Faith is relationship -- a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about "faith," he's not talking about what you do in your head; he's talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.

Matthew says that if we have faith in Jesus -- allegiance to Jesus, trust in Jesus such that we're willing to step outside of our comfort zones to follow him -- the size of a mustard seed, we could tell mountains to plunge themselves in the sea, and we'd see it happen. Luke uses an image that initially seems more modest; he says "mulberry bush" where Matthew says "mountain."

Use whichever image works for you; they're both about doing what conventional wisdom says is impossible. It's a moving target, in my experience, as every time I take an additional step to follow Jesus in ways that stretch my capacity to love, to receive, to trust, to serve, look those whom I serve in the eye and listen to them with my heart, I discover a little more about what truly is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus sent. When I reflect on the wonders of Creation, the liberation of God's people from slavery in Egypt and by every force that oppresses, and most of all when I think of the power I've witnessed in Jesus' ministry, the Millennium Development Goals start sounding overly modest, if anything. What on earth can hold back the power of God's Spirit? What gates could prevail against the Spirit-filled Body of Christ?

So yes, I've seen some amazing things God has done. I've been privileged to participate in some of them. But that's par for the course, isn't it, when we're participating in God's powerful work. And I don't want to spend so much time saying, "wow, that wave was really amazing -- did you see how I rode it?" that I miss the next set. There is more joy, more love, more wonder ahead, and I want to be fully present for it.

Thanks be to God!

October 6, 2007 in Faith, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Power/Empowerment, Slavery/Freedom, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2)

Proper 18, Year C

I sprained my wrist (a mild sprain, thankfully) this week and am trying to take a break from the keyboard, but I think this 2003 entry from the BCP lectionary for Proper 18, Year C should be helpful. What I'd add to it is that much of what I said this year about the gospel for Proper 15 applies equally well to this Sunday's gospel. The invitation in this Sunday's gospel is to end old patterns of relationship, thereby becoming free to enter into new patterns of relationship. There's no way of forcing that on someone else, though -- and to those who don't choose to follow Jesus as their sister or brother, spouse, parent, or son or daughter did would experience their abandonment as an act of hate. On the other hand, family members who joined the Jesus movement would find themselves part of a much larger family of sisters and brothers committed to care for one another. Choosing to follow Jesus can involve stark and difficult choices, and with any set of choices that could change the world, following Jesus presents others with choices they may not find welcome.

Philemon 1-21

Luke 14:25-33

"None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:33).

Is there anything Jesus could have said which would be harder for us to hear?

Oh yeah:

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

Both come from this Sunday's gospel reading, of course.

There is no trick of Greek translation or historical context that will make these sayings anything other than difficult, if not offensive. I can't recommend an angle of preaching or reading that could be summarized as "here's why Jesus/Luke didn't really mean this." Friends don't let friends do this to texts.

Let's take the Greek question head-on, as it's often said in sermons on this passage that the Greek word translated here as "hate" really means something more like "love less." There's no evidence to support this assertion. I suspect that it comes from confusing Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37, which says, "whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." But misein, the Greek word translated as "hate" in Luke 14:26, really does mean "hate," as in the opposite of love. Here are some other New Testament passages that use the same word:

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

You get the idea. This is a strong word, and not at all a pretty one -- especially for one's stance toward parents, spouse, children, and siblings. It's an offensive statement that has lost little of its offensive power in its travel from a first-century Mediterranean context to 21st-century America.

And I'm glad it's in the gospel, and in the context in which it appears, because the next sentence is supposed to be offensive too, though it's lost much of its power in our context. In 21st-century America, we see what we think of as a cross mostly as pieces of jewelry, and then as decorations for churches, and then maybe as part of the logo of an organization. It's become in many ways a symbol of respectability and privilege, held up by political candidates to rally the base.

But that's not what the cross represented in the first-century Roman empire. There, the cross was a work of perverse genius -- a cheap and non-labor-intensive way to inflict indescribable pain and shame, while providing a gory public reminder of just what happened to those who undermined the good order of the Empire. It was a reminder of what happened to Christians who encouraged women and men to decide for themselves whom they would call "lord," and then to follow no one else. As I've said in my comment for Proper 15, Year C and the previous entries linked from there, such teaching could and did divide families. It undermined the authority of every man who called himself "father," from the head of the family you grew up in all the way up to Caesar Augustus, who called himself the father of his empire, and his successors.

And it challenges us too. Jesus' words here aren't asking us to feel differently about our family or about the Cross; "hate," like "love," in a first-century context is not about emotions, but about actions. We are being asked to behave toward family in a way that our culture will almost certainly see as hateful. It is still offensive to say that we do not feel any more obligated to blood relatives than we do to others, and I think that's at the core of this week's gospel. We are being asked to abandon, or even despise, the cultural value placed on family, a value that reaches almost to the point of idolatry in many quarters.

But the choice we are faced with is not between swallowing whole "family values" as defined by our culture or rejecting all family members altogether. Jesus' teaching did tear his followers out of the families they grew up in, the families that not only provided for them materially, but gave them their identity in the world and any honor they experienced. But Jesus defined the community of his followers as a different kind of family. He expected them to care for one another materially (hence the emphasis on common rather than private possessions), honor one another in a world that despised them, and to treat one another with all of the intimacy and loyalty one would expect of brother and sister.

One's father and mother, spouse and children, were welcome to join the community, becoming brothers and sisters with all its members -- but the new relationship in Christ was then to be the definitive one. That was particularly challenging for fathers, accustomed to a kind of authority that Jesus taught belonged rightfully only to God.

That's the sort of challenged that Paul poses to Philemon in the epistle for this week too -- to receive Onesimus, who had been his slave, and to relate to him not as Onesimus' master, but as his brother. Doing so would include and go beyond freeing Onesimus from literal slavery. Normally, if Philemon freed Onesimus, Onesimus would still be defined as Philemon's freedman, obligated to him in a lopsided relationship in which Philemon could choose to care for him or ignore his needs. But brothers cannot do that to one another; they are obligated to one another indissolubly, absolutely, and mutually. As brothers, Onesimus and Philemon would be bound eternally in a relationship that freed both: Onesimus from the obligations of being Philemon's slave or freedman, and Philemon from participating in a system that dehumanized masters while oppressing slaves.

That's the Good News in Jesus' very hard words. Follow Jesus, and we are abandoning a lot of what gave us honor, security, and even identity in our culture. In short, we will be abandoning what gave us life. But what kind of life? Follow Jesus, become family with his brothers and sisters, and while we will share in his cross, we will share also in his risen life -- joyful, eternal, loving, and free.

Thanks be to God!

September 7, 2007 in Discipleship, Honor/Shame, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, Philemon, Slavery/Freedom, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)