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

February 15, 2004

"Good News for All in Luke’s Beatitudes" - February 15, 2004

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 6:17-26

I want to look at three questions this morning: What is Jesus asking of us in today’s gospel? What makes it possible for us to live this way? And why would we want to live this way?

So what is Jesus talking about in today’s gospel? The short answer is that Jesus is describing a set of values that he expects his followers to have, and they’re radically counter-cultural values. Sometimes, the poetry and the familiarity of the Beatitudes, the statements starting with “blessed are …” sort of lull us into an artificial and superficial comfort with the sayings, like the folks listening to this sermon of Jesus’ in the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian who, straining to hear from their position at the back of the crowd, end up leaving saying, “oh, that’s nice … blessed are the cheesemakers. They are such nice, hard-working fellows.”

That’s one reason I like this version in Luke. Even if I did nod off at the beginning of the gospel, with the “blessed” statements, those woes are bound to wake me up in a hurry. Because it’s true … I am one of the richest people in the world. My annual income of $36,000 a year puts me among the wealthiest 5% of people in the world – to be precise, I’m at 4.33%. If you want to find out where you are on that scale, there’s a website – www.globalrichlist.com – that will tell you, based on data from the World Bank Development division. If you make $47,500 a year, that puts you in the wealthiest 1%, so that “WOE TO THE RICH” in today’s gospel is really going to come as a jolt.

And I think we need a jolt sometimes to get us out of the patterns we’re stuck in and get us to a place where we can more fully experience God’s blessing. I’m grateful for Jesus’ difficult sayings – for things like the woes in today’s gospel – because sometimes, especially in a culture in which sound bites and enticements and warnings are flying at us constantly, we need something pretty shocking to get our attention. Jesus isn’t just trying to get us to drink a different brand of soda or ask our doctors about a new medication. He’s trying to get those of us who are rich, full, and respected to change our whole orientation to life, to free us from entrenched patterns of relating to one another so that we can live into the kind of right relationship that’s really going to be life-giving, for us and for the world.

I think it helps a great deal in seeking to understand what Jesus is saying here if we clarify the meaning of three key words in this passage.

The first word is makaros, which the NRSV translates as “blessed,” which doesn’t quite convey the sense of the word. Some translations say, “happy,” which is even worse. This isn’t about an internal emotional state, and it’s not nearly as abstract or religious as the word “blessed” sounds. Makaros is more like “honored”; as a statement of community values, it’s like saying “we salute.” And ouai, which the NRSV translates here as “woe,” is more like “shameless,” or “we scorn.”

Let’s think about that in terms of our own culture. Advertising is an excellent indicator of what we value as a culture, what we think we want. And what does advertising tell us we value or scorn? Think of a few ads you’ve seen recently – what do they tell you we strive for or strive to avoid?

So this week, I paid a lot of attention to what I saw around me – to what was on television and in the newspaper, what I saw in the bar before the others arrived for our Mezzanine Group book study, how people interacted in fast-food restaurants, and here are some of the Beatitudes and woes, the “we salutes” and “we scorns,” that I saw:

We salute the pure of breath, clear of skin, and white of tooth, for they will have dates on Valentine’s Day.
We salute the consumers; the diamonds they give are forever.
We salute those low in body fat; their six-pack abs will win them love.
We salute those with high credit limits and a willingness to use them; what they have is priceless.

We salute the rich, for they are our major donors.
We salute the achievers, for we hope we’ll become what we envy.
We salute the winners, for they can reward our loyalty.
We salute the strong, for they can determine their own destiny.

We scorn the poor, for they can’t provide for their families.
We scorn the hungry, for we fear they will disrupt our lunch to beg.
We scorn those who weep, for they remind us of vulnerabilities we try to deny or hide.
We scorn those the world scorns, for this demonstrates that we, unlike they, are insiders.

That’s not Jesus’ vision of the world. That’s not what Jesus salutes. And when we’re seeking to follow Jesus, we’re probably not going to win a lot of respectability points in our culture. We might even find ourselves in the position of the person Jesus praises in the last Beatitude:

We salute you, we honor you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on Jesus’ account.

That last Beatitude from Jesus makes clear what the consequences can be in really living up to Jesus’ vision of what God’s people salute and scorn. Scholars point out that this whole passage points to a situation a lot of early Christians found themselves in. They lived in a culture that said “You’ve got to get married, you’ve got to be fruitful and multiply if you’re going to be a good person.”  Actually, our culture says pretty much the same thing. Would we elect a bachelor president? First-century culture said that even after you get married, you’re supposed to stay in your village and take care of your parents until they die, and then to see that they get a proper burial.

So in that first-century culture, if you heard Jesus’ call – the call we heard Peter receive in last week’s gospel – to drop everything, leave your village and your parents and follow Jesus – you would probably find yourself shut out. Honoring father and mother, caring for them for as long as they lived, was one of the highest “family values” in Jewish and Roman cultures. Leave your parents behind to follow Jesus, as Peter did, and anybody who knew who you were wouldn’t do business with you, wouldn’t house you, wouldn’t employ you. You could end up with absolutely nothing – no honor, no money, no home, and no power to get back in to the system you left behind.

That’s exactly the kind of situation envisioned in the Beatitudes. There are two Greek words for “poor,” and the one in today’s gospel is NOT the one used to refer to peasants, who hard to work incredibly hard to put food on the table, and sometimes had to go without – but the one used to refer to those who are completely destitute, without family, scorned by all. These are people disowned by their families because their way of life – their following Jesus – was counter-cultural beyond what their families could accept without risking that kind of ostracism for the whole family instead of just for the black sheep. So these destitute people drift from place to place scavenging, homeless and friendless.

Well, friendless except for one thing: Jesus befriends them. And homeless except for one thing: Jesus calls us as a community to be a home for those scorned and counted worthless by the world. That’s a hard thing, especially for those of us who have a lot – a lot of wealth, a lot of power, a lot of respect. We have the most to lose by casting our lot with those who have none of these things. We could lose it all, like Peter, who left his boat, his family, his home, and everything he had to follow Jesus.

What makes that possible? What gives someone the strength to do that? For Peter, and I suspect for most of those who have found the capacity for that kind of radical discipleship, that strength comes out of an experience of God’s overwhelming abundance. You might remember from last week’s gospel that in Peter’s case, it was an abundant catch of fish – so abundant that it threatened to sink the boat. If Peter hadn’t had partners to call to help take in the catch, he would have been a goner. In that moment, the urgent question in Peter’s life shifted from “Will there be enough fish? How will God provide?” to “Will there be enough people gathered to take in God’s abundance?” From then on, instead of trying to gather enough fish, Peter will be trying to gather enough people.

Have we had that kind of experience with God? Are we confident that God will provide for us abundantly – in our material needs, in honor, in love – if we give our money, and our honor, and our love as freely as God gives? I think we have as a community had some experience of that – of feeling so blessed with God’s abundance that we can forget ourselves and our sense that only the very best people deserve to experience the best we have to offer. We can give freely. I think we do that frequently with our children. When the Cherub Choir gets up front to sing their hearts out in worship, I don’t think there’s a soul among us who’s bothered by whether they’re hitting the notes perfectly, or whether one or two of them are wandering off and need to be herded back with the rest. Their complete lack of pretension inspires us to give up our pretensions, and we’re not afraid to clap loud and long – something we don’t do often for adults in church.

And when we really connect deeply with others in need, something similar happens. We remember that all of us here are on the Global Rich List in more ways than one, and we find ways to dig deep, to look beyond anything that would tell us that resources are scarce and we can’t afford to look much further than our own household. I think we do that with Haiti. Last week, it was a wonderful thing to see the parish hall crammed with people to raise money for others who, especially given the unrest of these recent weeks, are truly in need. The nearly thirty pots of chili bubbling away were, to take liberties with one of St. Paul’s metaphors, the very aroma of Christ to those who were perishing,1 a fragrant offering to the God who loves the children of La Resurrection. But are we consistently confident in God’s grace toward us? Confident enough that we can give without reservation of our honor and our money and our time and our love to those who are not respectable? That is, after all, how God gives – freely, according to Matthew 5:45 tells us, to the unrighteous as well as the righteous, or freely, as Luke 6:35 says, to the ungrateful and the selfish. We can find the strength to give as God gives as we experience the fullness of God’s love for us.

I think sometimes we don’t let ourselves experience that fullness, that grace, because we’re afraid that we’ll be called to respond with the costly and radical generosity we see in the Beatitudes. Why bother, when the price can be so high?

Thinking about it takes me back to my time with Miriam, a cancer patient whom I visited regularly to have Eucharist over her last six months. There was something incredibly warm and inviting about her, even when she was so weak that she couldn’t swallow, and I would just read her favorite psalms to her. I basked in Miriam’s presence, and looked forward to the time we spent together each week. One of those times, a few weeks before she died, Miriam burst into tears. “I don’t know why you come here,” she said. “I’m so sick and so tired all the time. I have nothing to offer.”

Instantly, my mind leapt to the time in my life when I felt closest to destitute. Nearly paralyzed with a painful spinal condition, unable to work and sometimes unable even to form a sentence through the pain, I lay in bed in a friend’s apartment week after week, sometimes barely aware when volunteers from the local synagogue came by to change my catheter bag and make sure I had enough water. When I was moving around again, I called that time my “houseplant period,” because I thought that’s about what it was like to be with me. I thought I was a waste of oxygen, and a waste of the volunteers’ time.

But when Miriam, who I looked forward to praying for and with every week, asked me why I came to someone who had so little to offer, a powerful sense of redemption flooded me. If Miriam, who was an instrument of God’s grace to me, could see herself as poor, destitute, having nothing to offer, perhaps that so-called “houseplant period” of my life wasn’t the waste I thought it was. Holding Miriam’s hand that day, I experienced God’s presence not only with us in that moment, but in some mysterious way I had a powerful experience of God’s presence with me when it was me who was weak and bedridden. That experience of healing continues to encourage me today.

That’s the payoff in becoming a people of the Beatitudes. Giving honor to the poor, the weak, those despised by respectable people in the world brings to light and to God’s healing touch the parts of us that feel bereft, vulnerable, and unloveable. It pulls us out of the vicious cycles in which we participate – where “the rich stay healthy and the sick stay poor,”2 where we give more power to the powerful and scorn those already pushed to the margins – and gets us into God’s cycle of blessing, in which giving more deeply helps us discover God’s abundance more deeply.

That’s grace. Thanks be to God!

February 15, 2004 in Beatitudes, Epiphany, Jeremiah, Justice, Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 11, 2004

"Baptized Into Imperfect Community" - January 11, 2004

First Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 89:20-29; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

From 1974 to 1984 – some very formative years for me – there was a series on television called Happy Days. Happy Days was all about nostalgia, providing a romanticized and idealized view of both the teenage years – portrayed in the series as a carefree time of friendship, romance, and wacky hijinks – and of the 1950’s – portrayed in the series as a time of American pride and prosperity, before the pain and tumult of Vietnam and Watergate. The title of the series says it all: those were Happy Days, when we were teenagers, in the Fifties.

Especially when things get rough, we like to romanticize the past, to look back to “happy days” and hope that in the future we can say that “happy days are here again.” But our view of what those days were like is often incomplete. In the TV series Happy Days, high school was all about friends and dances and hanging out in the malt shop; the show left out the real problems and pressure and pain we all went through when we were teenagers. And the apple-pie America portrayed in Happy Days was deeply appealing, but it left out the Fifties’ McCarthyism, segregation, and nuclear anxiety. The bottom line is that the “happy days” we like to get nostalgic about weren’t as ideal that we tend to make them out to be.

But what’s the harm? Why not idealize, if it gives us pleasure in a difficult time? Here’s the problem – sometimes idealizing something distant from us – something “out there” in the past, or the future, or in another country, or another community – prevents us from receiving the grace that’s right in front of us, in the messy present tense, in this messy place, with these imperfect people.

Our lectionary for today, which includes two verses from Luke, then skips four verses, then finishes with two more verses, does some editing to clean up the scene for us, and our translation does too. The favor our lectionary and translation try to do us has a cost I don’t want to pay this morning, so let’s read the whole passage, Luke 3:15-22. Here’s what our NRSV says there:

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.


Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And here’s the translation error in most English translations, including the NRSV we use. It might not seem like a big deal at first. In the original Greek of verse 17, when John the Baptizer talks about the mighty one who is to come – the one he hopes is Jesus – he doesn’t say, “his winnowing fork is in his hand”; he says, “his winnowing shovel is in his hand.”1 Fork, shovel – what’s the diff?

Here’s the difference. A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat – the good stuff – from the chaff – the stuff that’s useless. At the harvest, the farmers will take their winnowing forks and separate the good from the bad. Then comes the winnowing shovel – that’s what takes the grain, the good stuff, and literally saves it – shovels it into the granary to be stored. And the person with the winnowing shovel then takes the chaff – the useless stuff – and shovels it into the fire to be destroyed.

John the Baptizer says that the one who is to come – the one he hopes is Jesus – is coming not with a fork, to separate the wheat from the chaff, but with a shovel, to deal with the separated wheat and chaff. John’s mission statement for Jesus is here in this passage – “to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” – John hopes that Jesus is going to bring not only salvation to the righteous, but also destruction to the unrighteous.

And John is going to be seriously disappointed. Let’s take a look at Jesus’ own mission statement, in Luke 4:18-19:

‘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 favor.’

Here, Jesus claims part of the book of Isaiah as his own mission statement, what he is anointed by God to do. Actually, Jesus is doing some creative editing of his own, as here’s the whole passage from Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, AND THE DAY OF VENGEANCE TO OUR GOD.

Jesus here is mixing back and forth between two biblical passages, between Isaiah 58:6 on one hand – that’s where the “year of the Lord’s favor” comes from – and Isaiah 61:1-2 on the other hand. And what Jesus cuts out from Isaiah 61 in the mix, in his statement of purpose, is “the day of vengeance to our God.” In Jesus’ message and ministry, there’s no shoveling the chaff into the fire. There’s no “day of vengeance.”

So a little later in the story, in Luke 7:18-23, John the Baptizer, who is in prison, sends some of his followers to ask Jesus what he’s up to. If Jesus is all about good news, healing the brokenhearted, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the prisoners, who’s going to shovel the chaff into the unquenchable fire? That’s what John wants to know, so through his disciples he asks Jesus, “are you the coming one – the guy with the winnowing shovel – or should we expect somebody else?” And Jesus’ reply is to quote Isaiah again as a kind of mission statement, but Jesus again quotes from parts of Isaiah2 that talk about healing and good news for the poor. Then Jesus finishes his response to John with these words: “blessed is the one who does not take offense at me” – a remark directed at John, who is taking offense at Jesus’ seeming dodge of half his mission – the day of vengeance, the bad news for the unrighteous – that Jesus, in John’s eyes, is shirking in favor of more healing, more good news, more freedom.

There was real conflict, real and important theological differences, between Jesus and John. Jesus’ mission statement was a lot like today’s reading from Isaiah; John wanted and expected Jesus to fulfill a different mission, one that included vengeance, fire for the chaff. Our lectionary glosses over that in part by including the passage from Isaiah that Jesus includes in his mission statement, but excluding in our gospel reading the teaching from John the Baptizer that shows that John wanted something else from Jesus.

I think the agenda of our lectionary editors in omitting those verses that sketch the conflict between Jesus and John was to encourage us to concentrate on Jesus’ baptism – and, on this Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord – on our own baptism. On the things – our Baptismal vows – that unite us, rather than on the differences that we have that could threaten to divide us.

But I don’t think they’re doing us a favor. There’s a missed opportunity in the lectionary here. I think in glossing over John’s serious theological quarrel with Jesus – a quarrel, by the way, in which both sides could rightly claim biblical support – our lectionary leaves us in danger of missing something important. Our lectionary presents this moment in Jesus’ life in some ways as a kind of Happy Days retelling of the relationship between Jesus and John – Jesus’ baptism and the moment at which Jesus claims his mission and the Spirit descends upon him – as a moment in which Jesus is recognized by John for who he truly is, and Jesus is supported by a friend to set out on a mission they agree on completely.

That’s not how it is. This is a moment in which Jesus is seriously misunderstood by a close friend, someone whose support Jesus had counted on. This is a moment in which we are shown clearly the seeds of a conflict that isn’t going away. Does God need to get rid of or punish the unrighteous before the kingdom of God can arrive here, “on earth as it is in heaven,” as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer? John says yes – God will send a mighty one with a winnowing shovel to clear the threshing floor; Jesus says no – the kingdom of God is coming, like a mustard seed, with small acts of healing and reconciliation and liberation in the midst of everything else going on, in the midst of all of the things that have gone wrong in our relationships with God and one another. It’s a fundamental conflict between theological opposites.

And it’s a moment of real contact between passionate friends with passionate differences. It’s a moment in which, perhaps inexplicably, the Spirit breaks through, and descends like a dove to rest on Jesus. Inexplicably, perhaps paradoxically, a moment of misunderstanding, a moment that held the seeds of pain in a relationship between friends, is the moment when the Spirit says, “You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit says that to and of Jesus, but I hear the Spirit saying the same to and of John, who with deep faith and love persists in his mistaken view that the one to come must destroy the chaff.

I don’t want to gloss over that difference because I don’t want to lose the incredible, inexplicable grace of that moment. I don’t want to lose the hope of that moment. Telling me that in the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry everybody agreed and so everyone was happy not only offends my sensibilities as a card-carrying member of Generation X, who has lived in and through enough brokenness in families, communities, countries, and the world to be suspicious of claims of perfection; it also offends a close reading of the Bible. The Bible is full of serious disagreement between God’s people about important things. Does God want us to worship in a tabernacle, a tent set up temporarily to remind us that God’s people are called to be on the move – or in a Temple, a grand building that gives us an opportunity to give the world an impressive and visible sign of God’s glory, but which requires taxes that burden the poor? That’s a conflict that continues in Scripture long after the Temple is built – and long after it’s rebuilt. Is it possible to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, or must God’s people dwell in a particular place to hear God’s voice? Does God require circumcision and sacrifice, or only prayer and justice? And does God need to clear the decks of the impure and unrighteous before the kingdom of God can come, or has it already started amidst all of the pain and confusion we see around us?

The Bible is not free of conflict, any more than God’s people have been free of conflict. And still there is nowhere we can flee from God’s presence. There is no feeling more lonely, I think, than the feeling that the people in your life whom you most need and trust don’t understand you and so aren’t equipped to support you. If Jesus had the same sense of mission in Luke 3 that he does in Luke 4 – and I suspect that he did – this moment in today’s gospel was one of those lonely times for Jesus. And the great hope, the unimaginable grace, that comes across to us from this passage when we recognize how serious the difference between Jesus and John in this moment was, is that THE SPIRIT BREAKS THROUGH. When you connect – really connect – with other people in this community, you have a fleeting glimpse – seeing “as through a glass darkly,” as 1 Corinthians 13 says – of what God’s love for you is like. That’s easiest to grasp intellectually, I think, in the bright times, when we agree and feel understood. But I think we grasp the quality of God’s love for us most clearly in moments like the one in today’s gospel – when friends misunderstand and disagree and love and love and love relentlessly. Because while we read the story of Luke with 20/20 hindsight and know we’re supposed to side with Jesus, we’re really a lot more like John. We misunderstand and try to instruct and try to second-guess Jesus all the time – especially if we really love him. That’s just how we imperfect people are. That’s just whom God loves. And that moment – the moment in which we love and misunderstand and hurt and are loved more deeply than ever in return – is the moment in which we glimpse God’s love most clearly.

This is the Body into which we are baptized, with all of its misunderstandings and questioning and conflict. This is where the Spirit descends and you can hear God say to YOU, today, “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased.” Hearing God speak these loving words to us in the moment of brokenness is the beginning of the healing we need. It is the grace that comes to us in the here and now, and which we flee from when we run after fictitious “happy days” in the past or the future, or after an imagined ideal in some perfect or better elsewhere.

If we stay in a relationship of love with anyone – God, our family, our friends, our enemies – long enough, we will come to that moment of misunderstanding. When it comes, stay there and breathe and look; God’s sustaining Spirit is coming to whisper the love and encouragement you need to stay, and breathe, and look, and love.

Thanks be to God!

January 11, 2004 in Community, Conflict, Epiphany, Isaiah, Luke, Pastoral Concerns, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)