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January 30, 2005

"What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life" - January 30, 2005

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Micah 6:1-8 ; Psalm 37:1-18; Matthew 5:1-12

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew just might be the most familiar passage from the gospels, and I’d hazard a guess that the Beatitudes, the passage we read this morning, just might be the most familiar section of the Sermon on the Mount. But sometimes I think that very familiarity makes the Beatitudes harder rather than easier to understand; we’ve heard them so many times before that we tend to let ourselves be carried off by their cadences without letting it sink in just how seriously they challenge us.

Here’s one way to think about it: there’s a person’s story behind what Jesus is saying here, and recovering that story outlines for us in very concrete terms both what the cost can be to follow Jesus and why someone might think that is was worth the price.

The key to the story behind the Beatitudes is in verse 11, in which Jesus addresses his followers directly to say what happens when “people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.” The middle verb there – the one the NRSV renders as “persecute” – has a sense that’s a little more specific than it might seem. It literally means, to chase out. Jesus here is talking to those who have been literally “chased out” – disowned by their families, no longer welcome in their villages. He’s talking to people who have been dis-honored, in a culture in which someone without honor would have difficulty finding anyone who would do business with them.

That’s the root of all the hardships outlined in the Beatitudes. Certainly, being chased out by your family would leave you a person in mourning for what you’d lost, but very quickly that loss would have very practical consequences – without honor you can’t make a living. A person who IS nothing in the eyes of their village will very quickly become a person who HAS nothing. The word used for that in verse 3 is ptochos, a word that indicates having absolutely nothing. “Poor in spirit” in this context doesn’t mean some kind of strictly metaphorical poverty – it’s more like “poor to the core,” bereft from the inside out.

That sounds like harsh treatment of one’s own flesh and blood, but many families would have had little other choice. You’ve heard me say before that Jesus’ culture is what anthropologists called an “honor/shame culture.” A man who behaved in the ways the Beatitudes describe – who is meek, refusing to defend the family honor when challenged, who’s a peacemaker, seeking reconciliation instead of retaliation with someone who attacks, who strives to become “pure in heart” as Jesus defines it, embracing those whom others saw as impure – wasn’t behaving as it was thought a man should behave, and as a result, he could bring shame on the entire family if the family didn’t chase him out first. Rather than see the whole family bereft, many families drove out a son or daughter who chose to follow Jesus.

So Jesus is speaking to men and women who are literally hungry and thirsty “for righteousness” – because of their choosing to follow Jesus. Having lost their families, they have lost their honor, and having lost their honor, they have lost everything. So far, this sounds like a pretty sad story … and it would be, if the story ended here. Why on earth would a sane person choose such a costly path?

I’d say that such a person was insane, except for two things. Here’s the first thing:

What if the cost of leaving the “rat race” for honor, steep as it is, is still less than the cost of staying in it?

Jesus’ culture values honor above all else, and there’s only so much of it to go around. That turns every encounter between people into a competition for honor. That’s why anthropologists also call Jesus’ culture an “agonistic” culture, from agon, the Greek word for a contest or wrestling-match. What an exhausting way to live, constantly striving like that!

If this whole honor/shame thing is a little too distant and abstract, let’s bring it a little closer to home by talking about the values that are analogous to honor and shame in importance for cultures like ours, which anthropologists call an “achievement/guilt” culture.

We prize achievement. We say that achievement makes you an important person, and more and more, and earlier and earlier in life, we order our lives around getting it. We’ve turned achievement into a moral value, and maybe the one most highly prized in our culture, and what a costly path that is. There’s a book out by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice that I encourage you to take a look at. Its subtitle is How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction. Schwartz is a psychologist who found in study after study that for a lot of achievers, the more choices they are offered, the more two seemingly incompatible things happen: 1) the better the option will be that they end up with; and 2) the less satisfied they will be with their choice. In other words, you get better stuff, but you’re less happy with it!

That’s where the title of the book comes from – The Paradox of Choice. And it seems to apply to all kinds of decisions, from what kind of jeans you want – classic fit, easy fit, boot cut, low-rise, button fly, stone-washed, acid washed? – to choices about which career path, whom to marry, or what parish to worship in. The more choices we believe are open to us, the more responsibility we feel in our achievement-guilt culture to make not just a good choice, but the very best choice. It’s a costly way to live.

For one thing, this way of life is incredibly labor-intensive. How on earth can you KNOW that you made the very best choice, unless you investigate ALL of possible choices from the dizzying array of options? And then there’s the regret and self-blame. If I’m dissatisfied with something about my life, does my mind leap immediately to what I might have done differently – to that opportunity I passed up or that other choice I could have made six months, or a year, or ten years ago? For a lot of us, the answer is yes. That’s a high-pressure way of life, when every choice represents a new life or the end of a whole life’s possibilities.

You’d think that the high anxiety and the high blood pressure that comes with living like that would be enough to motivate us to think about opting out of it. But the pull of achievement is so great in our culture that many of us do more than give in to it ourselves; we pass the pressure along to our children.

My mother is the head of a private K-6th grade school, and more and more, she’s got parents of third-graders or younger in her office fuming about their child’s test scores, because if she doesn’t raise her scores in a hurry, she’ll never get into Flintridge Prep for middle school, in which case Harvard-Westlake is unlikely for high school, in which case Harvard is out of the question, and then where will she go for med school? It might be almost comic to listen to, if it didn’t make our children so anxious and miserable. And I’ve heard more than one teenager in this community say, “this is the most important year of my life.” They say it without a trace of irony; they think that the academic choices they’re facing now will affect their potential for happiness FOR LIFE.

Our children think that because we teach them to think that; we’ve passed along our own values to them. We do it because we care, it’s true – and we also do it because we’ve turned parenting into one more arena in which we would rather be achievers than feel guilty about the choices we made, or didn’t make.

What an exhausting way to live! What an anxious way to live! But what other choice do we have, if the basic value around which we structure our lives is “Blessed are the achievers”?

That, however, is a choice that we make. Are we going to order our lives around achievement and guilt? Do we live as though the good life is a matter of getting the right grades to go to the right schools to get the right job to buy the right house, so our kids can go to the right schools and get the right grades to go to the right college … is THAT what life is about?

Who do we say is really worthy of the best God has to offer – and by that, I mean, what do our LIVES say about it? We can tell our children until we’re blue in the face that we love them no matter what, that they are important not because of what they do but because of who they are, but it’s just so many words unless we can say that with our lives. We cannot teach our children that they are precious as God’s children until we can take that truth in ourselves, so deeply that it bubbles out of us in every arena of life. YOU are important not because of what you do, but because of who you are – a child of God, loved with such depth and power and tenacity that it’s almost as if you were the only person in the universe for God to love. Taking that in is Step 1. When we do that, we encounter the living God, and in that encounter we realize that God loves each and every person in that very same way.

Once we’ve taken that in, it’s bound to spill out in our thoughts about who deserves to be our neighbor on our street or in the pew, about who deserves a good education and meaningful work that will feed their families, about who deserves love and peace and justice, and God’s blessing. And then our children will see who we really think is God’s child.

And that leads in to the second reason we might decide to opt out of the rat race and in to the values of the Beatitudes. The first reason was the knowledge that staying in costs us and our children even more than getting out. But the second reason is even more powerful that the first:

The rewards for living into the Beatitudes far outweigh the cost for opting out of the “rat race” for achievement. They far outweigh the most lavish rewards that the rat race can offer. They offer the ability to live into something else Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, something that’s as much of a promise as it is a challenge: “don’t worry about your life … Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? … Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:25-34).

So which will it be for us: honoring the meek or honoring the achievers? Are we important because of what we do, or because of who – and whose – we are? And what do we want to pass along to our children: an insatiable appetite for achievement, or an unshakable sense of faith in and love from the God who created them? What does the Lord require of us? Or as poet Mary Oliver asks the question:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand …
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,  
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done? …
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from House of Light (1990)

January 30, 2005 in Epiphany, Matthew | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 02, 2005

"Far as the Curse Is Found" - January 2, 2005

Second Sunday after Christmas; January 2, 2005
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

On the last Sunday of Advent, I stood in this pulpit and shared with you one of the most radical and empowering truths the gospel has for us.

God, the Creator of the universe, is making all of Creation new. That renewal, healing, and reconciliation is the most fundamental force in the universe; everything else, every force that would isolate us from one another and from God, everything that would interfere with the abundant life God has for us, is falling away.

That’s true, that’s real, and that’s not something off in some unreachable future, because everything the world needs for its renewal came in the person of Jesus. That’s why in the Eucharistic liturgy we name Jesus’ ministry for what it is: perfect and sufficient. When we decide to follow Jesus, we’re not joining some hopeless but noble quest; we are answering Jesus’ invitation to celebrate the victory that is already won, to BE THERE to watch the remaking of the world, to experience the abundance of that abundant life in the here and now. That’s what we celebrate this Christmas season we’re in: if Jesus heals by God’s hand, then the kingdom of God – the realization of the best of humanity’s dreams, and of the new dreams that come to us in profound moments of God’s grace – has come among us in the person of Jesus.

That’s real.

There’s something else that’s very real to us to in this Christmas season, something we see very graphically in the headlines and photographs from the tsunami that struck countries around the Indian Ocean, and that’s pain. An official death toll of  over 150,000 dead solely from the impact of the wave, over a third of them children. Over five million people in immediate danger from starvation and disease because of the disaster – and again, this danger is borne disproportionately by children.

How can we hold on to that vision of the world made new, of a people dancing on the ruins of the world of sin and death, in the face of such obvious and unjust suffering?

What did the children of Indonesia or India do to deserve what they got? For that matter, what does a child do to deserve being born in crushing poverty, to a family or in a country in which the kind of medical care most of us take for granted is totally unavailable? As a song ("Crumbs From Your Table," from How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) from U2’s most recent album says, “Where you live should not decide/ whether you live or whether you die,” but that’s exactly what’s going on now. And then there are the personal tragedies we experience, some of them in this congregation still fresh, the personal losses that just don’t make any sense, that make the world itself seem cruel and senseless.

Wasn’t it just over a week ago that we met in this sanctuary and sang, “Joy to the World”? What sense does that make, in light of what’s happened since? How can we celebrate Christmas, the world made new, in the midst of such suffering?

But we do. Every year in our liturgical calendar on December 28, the fourth day of Christmas, we observe the feast of the Holy Innocents. That’s when we remember what Joseph and Mary were running from when they became refugees in today’s gospel. They were running from Herod.

What kind of a ruler was Herod the Great, Jesus’ rival for the title of “king of the Judeans”? The first-century Jewish historian Josephus documents Herod’s struggles to secure his territory, which he eventually did with extensive help from Roman troops. He thanked his benefactors not only by taking on titles like “Admirer of Rome” and “Admirer of Caesar,” but by undertaking extensive building projects – temples, gymnasia, statues, and even whole cities named after the emperor. But “since he was involved in expenses greater than his means,” Josephus writes, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues” (Antiquities 15.365, as cited in Horsley, pp. 43-44).

The more the people chafed under Herod's rule, the more repressive it became, as Josephus explains:

No meeting of the people was permitted, nor were walking together or being together permitted, and all their movements were observed. Those who were caught were punished severely, and many were taken, either openly or secretly, to the fortress of Hyrcania and there put to death. Both in the city and in the open roads there were men who spied upon those who met together. ... Those who obstinately refused to go along with his practices he persecuted in all kinds of ways. As for the rest of the populace, he demanded that they submit to taking a loyalty oath, and he compelled them to make a sworn declaration that they would maintain a friendly attitude to his rule. Now most people yielded to his demand out of complaisance or fear, but those who showed some spirit and objected to compulsion he got rid of by every possible means.
– (Antiquities 15.366-369, as cited in Horsley, p. 47)

In other words, when Herod saw his power threatened, he quashed the threat without asking who was guilty and who was innocent. Matthew chapter 2 more than gets that across when it reports that when Herod heard that some were proclaiming a newborn child in Bethlehem as “king of the Judeans,” Herod arrived at a solution that was as brutal as it was complete: kill every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two.

I saw a cartoon the other day that showed a copy of the Bible with a big sticker on it, reading, “PARENTAL WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT.” Stories like the one in Matthew 2, our gospel for this morning, are the inspiration for that cartoon, and I think it’s only half-joking. The bible is a collection of stories of God’s people wrestling with what God’s redemption means. The bible doesn’t and can’t shy away from episodes of unspeakable and unjust violence because the story of God’s people is not a sanitized and charming tableau in which “all is calm, all is bright.” In the pages of the bible, we encounter flawed men and women. We encounter violence, and injustice, and loss, and pain, and I for one am glad that it’s all there. I’m glad because even if all I had to go on were the personal tragedies I see and a newspaper, I would know that the world is far from perfect, far from whole. So when I read the Christmas story in its totality – when I see just how great the violence was in the world into which Jesus was born, just how vulnerable Jesus’ family was as simple peasants fleeing from a king supported by the military might of Rome, just how deep the darkness was in which the Light of the World came among us, I tap into the power that is greater than the power of darkness:

I find hope. Hope isn’t the denial of pain; it is the beginning of healing. When I read the newspaper through the lens of self-pity, I say that the darkness that we face is unprecedented and insurmountable. When I read the newspaper through the lens of scripture and see the context in which God’s people have proclaimed our redemption, I say that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, will not, cannot overcome it.

Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as “savior of the empire” that would better be put to use in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or Rome-supported client rulers like Herod. Jesus was born as “king of the Judeans” in a Judea ruled by another who claimed that title, and who would stop at nothing to hold on to it. He was born to a people who had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. Christ our savior wasn’t in the dark about the extent of the problems we face in the world, but his faith in the God of Israel who called him was such that he knew no darkness could hold out against the Light that has come into the world.

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, p. 238)

That’s our prayer in the collect for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, part of our Christmas celebration as God’s people. As God’s people, we give our children a gift that’s far greater than a fleeting illusion that there’s no pain or injustice in the world. We can teach our children the meaning of compassion – that great tragedy and great need are met by greater love. And when we have been intentional about getting and staying in touch with both Christ’s hurting with those who hurt and Christ’s vision of a world made whole, we can give our children a gift of immeasurable worth: the gift of HOPE, the recognition of both the darkness and the fundamental truth that the deepest darkness must give way when it meets light. We celebrate because even as King Herod conspired to kill the innocents of Judea, our God, the Creator of the universe, sent Jesus Christ his son, so that we all might be delivered from bondage and receive power to become God’s children, participating as full partners in God’s work on earth – the full and inevitable healing and reconciliation of all Creation to one another and to our Creator. The universe arcs toward the justice for which it aches, and Christ our Redeemer is born – in our aching, in our justice-making, and in our singing:

No more let sin and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.

– 1982 Hymnal

Thanks be to God!

Sources cited:

Horsley, Richard. 1988. The Liberation of Christmas. Crossroad Publishing Company.

January 2, 2005 in Christmas | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack