June 18, 2007

"God's Year to Act"

A sermon for a service of U2charist sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, Journey of Faith Church, and Christ Episcopal Church, and held at Christ Episcopal Church in Dearborn, Michigan, June 16, 2007

Isaiah 58:6-12; Psalm 40:1-11; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; Luke 4:14-21

It’s great to be back in Michigan, where I’ve got good friends, new friends, and a great deal of history. I was born in Southfield, just a few miles from here, but I spent my teenage years in Los Angeles. And like a lot of people in sunny southern California, I learned to surf. I loved it, but wasn’t at all good at it, especially at first. I got a lot better almost instantly, though, when I finally got one insight that’s absolutely fundamental for surfing.

I imagine that even if you haven’t surfed yourself, you’ve seen enough surfing in movies and such to know pretty much how it goes: You take your surfboard to the beach. You paddle out to where the swells are forming. When a swell comes along that looks like it’s going to be a good wave, you start paddling. Once you’ve caught the wave, you can stand up and ride it.

There’s a common misconception, though, among beginning surfers about the role of paddling in that process. When I first tried surfing, I thought that it was the force of my paddling that propelled the board such that I could catch a wave. The harder I was finding it to catch a wave, the more frantically I paddled. I ended up with very sore shoulders and hardly any rides. Then I started to think what propelled the board was a current in the water, and I got very frustrated not being able to find this magical current on any given wave.

But then finally someone explained to me what really propels your board in surfing. It’s GRAVITY. A wave is a moving hill, and as long as you’re on a slick surface pointed downhill, you’re going to slide forward. Catching a wave is just a matter of lining yourself up with the wave so that you’re pointed downhill, and continuing to ride it is just a matter of pointing your board just close enough to parallel to the shore so that as the wave continues to break, you continue sliding downhill without reaching the bottom.

In other words, surfing is basically well-planned falling. It’s aligning yourself with what’s going on in the ocean and with the forces operating in the world -- gravity, friction, and so on -- such that the most natural way forward becomes an exhilarating ride. I still pretty much suck at surfing, so I’ve only caught that perfect ride a couple of times, but I can say even based on those couple of times that it’s an amazing feeling. You’re in touch with these elemental forces, and there’s something that feels very wild and powerful about that, but being aligned with them, there’s also something profoundly peaceful about it. Noise and distractions, including all of those self-conscious thoughts and anxieties, melt away into one feeling of "YES"!

I’d say that there’s no feeling like it in the world, except that I believe there is. Engaging God’s mission of justice for the poor can feel a lot like it. Let me put it this way:

The perfect wave is starting to swell in this world, and being aligned with it is one heck of a ride.

What do I mean by that? Take a look at the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. Eight points:
1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
2) Achieve universal primary education.
3) Promote gender equality and empower women.
4) Reduce child mortality.
5) Improve maternal health.
6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
7) Ensure environmental sustainability.
8) Develop a global partnership for development.

Eight points to change the world. And we’re talking about a big change. Here’s how things are now in this world. Right now, more than a billion of the world’s people live on less than a dollar a day. Right now, one child every three seconds -- 30,000 children a day, 11 million children a year -- die of preventable diseases. Half a million women die every year while giving birth. 2.6 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation that would allow them to stay healthy. I will never forget the images of those caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and I never want to forget that there are billions of people in the world for whom every day of their lives is like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s what Bono, U2’s lead singer, calls “stupid poverty,” because it could be eliminated if just seven-tenths of one percent more of the wealth of the richest nations went toward sensible development in the poorest. Stupid poverty. It’s stupid because we let all of this heartbreak happen when it wouldn’t happen if we put our hearts and our heads together.

Right now, the U.S. spends more than THIRTEEN TIMES more on defense than on aid. Right now, our government is not fulfilling the commitments it made previously. Americans are generous in their charitable giving, but only two percent of Americans’ charitable giving goes outside the borders of the U.S., and we tend to give it haphazardly, when someone asks, or when a crisis reaches our T.V.s. A recent study by Claude Rosenberg and Tim Stone (Note 1) showed that if U.S. citizens budgeted in charitable giving to address the Millennium Development Goals -- if we figured out what we could afford and gave it regularly, instead of writing a check haphazardly, as someone asked for it -- American charitable giving would go up by ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS a year.

One hundred billion. I’m not a numbers person myself. That sounds awfully abstract. So how about this:

Nineteen billion dollars a year between now and the year 2015 could ELIMINATE starvation and malnutrition from this world.

Twelve billion dollars a year between now and the year 2015 could give every child in this world an education through primary school.

Fifteen billion dollars a year from now through the year 2015 would provide access to clean water and sanitation for everyone in this world.

Nineteen plus twelve plus fifteen. That’s forty-six billion dollars a year -- less than HALF of what planning to give and following through with those plans would generate if every American did that.

If we make that commitment and follow through on it, then, in the year 2015, everyone gets enough nutritious food to eat. Everyone gets access to clean water. And every child gets an education, EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD. Three of those eight goals met with American people like you and me planning to give what we can and then following through on those plans. And then there’s what would happen if our government followed through on the commitments it’s already made. Just seven-tenths of a percent more in intelligent, coordinated aid for development -- in putting our hearts and heads together -- and the Millennium Development Goals are more than achievable.

I’m going to turn 45 in the year 2015. Most of us in this room will still be around then. And I would love to come back here in the summer of 2015 for a party where all of us can get together and say, “Hey, remember when we all got together and sang U2 songs all night? Yeah, and we decided to join this movement -- to step up, to tell our friends, to call our senators and our representatives? Remember back in 2007, when we said we were going to have this party in eight years?”

And then we can lean over to any kids at that party who are too young to remember what it was like in 2007, and we can say, “You know, there was poverty then. Back then, there were kids who died of malaria because they didn’t have a $3 mosquito net. In 2007, there were girls who couldn’t go to school because they had to spend all day carrying water from the river, and back then people got sick from drinking the only water they had to drink after all that work.” And there are going to be some kids at that party in 2015 who are going to say, “NO WAY,” because they live in a world in which none of those things happen any more, and they just don’t remember that they ever did.

That is going to be some party, sisters and brothers. That is going to be some party all over the world, where every one of us can tell the story of what it was like then, and what you did -- and what you did -- what all of us did -- that changed the world forever.

So I hope you don’t mind if right now I invite myself to that party in 2015. I hope you’ll invite yourself to it right now too. And I hope that you and I will spend the next eight years inviting everyone who will listen to that party. Can I get an Amen?

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the wave we’re going to ride. In our gospel for tonight’s service, we heard Jesus telling everyone in his hometown synagogue what his mission in the world was. He said:

God's Spirit is on me;
he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to
the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, "This is God's year to act!"

God’s Spirit is on me, because God has chosen me to preach the message of good news to the poor. Christ’s mission in the world. This is what God does in the world when God becomes flesh and dwells among us. Christ’s mission.

And we -- you and you and you and I -- are the Body of Christ. We are the very body of Jesus in the world. We have on us the Spirit that Jesus sent to every one of us. That’s why I know that when you hear what God is doing in the world -- what Good News for the poor there is -- there’s a part of you that feels the excitement of that perfect wave when it starts to swell. Here it comes. There’s a part of you that says, “YES!” You are the Body of Christ in the world. God’s Spirit is on you because God has chosen you to bring good news to the poor. Chosen YOU. Anointed YOU. Given YOU the gifts of the Spirit to prophesy -- to speak truth to power, to invite everyone you know and even people you don’t know, or don’t know yet, to that party we are going to have on that day when every one of us can say, “the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” YOU are the Body of Christ, chosen and gifted to ride the wave of the mission of Christ in the world. What can one person do? I don’t know, but I know what the One Body of Christ can do because God’s Spirit is upon you. It requires your generosity and it requires your voice. But this isn’t momentum that you have to create by yourself with frantic occasional paddling. This is a WAVE, and what your calls and your letters and your generosity are going to do is line you up to ride it.

God’s Spirit is upon you because God has chosen you to bring Good News to the poor.

That’s what the invitation to this party looks like, and I want to invite every person here right now to invite one or two of the people around you to it. I want to invite you to turn to someone next to you, put your hand on their shoulder if you both feel comfortable with that, to look that person in the eye, and say:
God’s Spirit is upon you because God has chosen you to bring Good News to the poor.
Right now.

[The congregation does this.]

God’s Spirit is upon me because God has chosen me to bring Good News to the poor.

Write that on a note and put it on your bathroom mirror to see in the morning and at night. Put it in your wallet to see when you pull out a credit card. Send a note to your friends from this service in a few weeks to remind them. Pick up the information from the ONE Episcopalian campaign. Pick it up, plan to line yourself up to ride this wave, follow through, and ride it!

This is God’s year to act! Surf's up!

Thanks be to God.


1 - "A New Take on Tithing," Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2006

Sarah Dylan Breuer coined the term "U2charist" and, with the Without Walls network for alternative liturgy in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, created the first U2charist service, held in April of 2004 in Baltimore, Maryland.

June 18, 2007 in 2 Corinthians, Current Affairs, Isaiah, Justice, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Stewardship, U2charist sermons | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 24, 2005

Remember That You are Alive: Jesus' Last Supper and Sacramental Living

St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
Maunday Thursday; March 24, 2005
Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 78:14-20,23-25; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26(27-32); Luke 22:14-30

I love the television show The Simpsons ("One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," from Season Two), which chronicles the life of an eccentric and flawed, but nevertheless loving, family in the fictional town of Springfield. In one of my favorite episodes, Homer Simpson, the bumbling father of the family, is told that the exotic blowfish he has eaten was not properly prepared, and so is very poisonous -- and Homer has 24 hours to live.

What would you do if that happened to you?

I think Homer does what most of us would do. He makes a long list -- a list that's probably been growing in the back of his mind for a long time -- of things he'd wanted to do before he died, and he hadn't done. He has to cross off the major achievements -- climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, make millions, win an Oscar, that sort of thing -- immediately. There's no time to do those.

But there are a lot of important things he hasn't done yet that he could do, or at least start. He teaches his son to shave. He tells those he loves how he feels about them. He calls his long-neglected father in the nursing home and tries to renew their relationship. And the guy who would rather stay home making his famous ultra-sweet "moon-waffles" wrapped around sticks of butter than go to church gets a recording of Larry King reading the entire bible, and he listens to the whole thing after his family has gone to sleep. He finally gets to some of the most crucial items on his very long list of "things ... left undone," and in the process, lives out what might be the best day of his life.

What would you do, if you thought you were going to die tomorrow?

Jesus faces that question on the night we now call Maundy Thursday.

I do believe that Jesus performed miracles, but on this night, it wouldn’t take a miracle for Jesus to know what was coming the next day. It was Passovertide, when all pious Jews were commanded to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were about six million Jews spread across the Roman Empire, and a significant percentage of them headed for Jerusalem. The city was clogged with pilgrims. Have you ever seen footage of what Mecca looks like during the Haj, the pilgrimage commanded of all pious Muslim men? Jerusalem probably looked something like that during Passover, as thousands upon thousands of pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the liberation of God's people from unjust foreign rule.

Those vast crowds, all aware of how God delivered them in the past from foreign rule, and many eagerly awaiting a new prophet like Moses, who would deliver them from the power of Rome, would make any governor in the empire jumpy, and with good reason. Trouble was easy to stir up in crowds like that, and any governor who allowed such trouble to arise would lose his job, if not his life. Most governors of Judea only lasted a couple of years. Pontius Pilate was not a man to take chances, and he held the populace in such terror that he ruled Judea as governor for nearly twenty years.

But Pilate knew that Passover was a particularly dangerous time for Rome, and to make sure the crowds didn’t rise up, Pilate lined the pilgrims' way into the city with crosses, the victims on them serving as an endless and unspeakably horrific living tableau of what would happen to any who dared disrupt the peace of the empire.

Even then, Pilate made sure that his guards could keep careful watch over the Temple, where streetcorner prophets proclaimed a God who was more powerful even than the Roman armies. Guards stationed in the taller building next to the Temple could see directly into its courts and be ready to respond if there was a disturbance.

That was the situation in Judea as Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends. And days before, in the midst of all of that tension, Jesus had entered Jerusalem surrounded by crowds who loudly proclaimed him, and not Caesar, as king. That alone would have provoked Pilate, and any local authorities who depended upon Pilate for their positions of power and privilege.

But that wasn’t all that Jesus did. After Jesus took part in this Palm Sunday demonstration, he made his way to the Temple, where -- in the midst of vast and easily agitated crowds, and in full view of the Roman garrisons -- he was shouting, overturning tables, pushing people ... disturbing the peace of Rome in a very dangerous time.

And so, on this night, Jesus knew what was coming. He and his friends had walked by those crosses on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus knew what was coming -- he knew it ever since on the mountaintop, shining like the sun and appearing in the company of Moses, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem to accomplish a new exodus. I do believe that Jesus worked miracles by God's power, but no supernatural knowledge would have been needed on this night to see that he was headed for a cross. Jesus chose this path, and he knew that this night was probably the last night before his death.

What would you do, if it were you? What would you do, if you knew that tomorrow you were going to die?

Here's what Jesus did:

He put on a dinner.

He did what he did every night: he invited people to eat with him. He invited his friends; he also invited the man whom he knew would betray him. He gathered friends and enemies, righteous and wicked and places in between, and he broke bread with them, and offered them wine. He ate with them, as he had countless times before. He celebrated the Passover with them, as he did every year.

That's a life lived with absolute integrity. Jesus knows that in all likelihood, he's going to die tomorrow. This is the time for any unfinished business -- to say anything that needs saying, to do whatever has been left undone, put off.

But Jesus does what he always does, because what he always does, his entire career -- his healings, his parables, his wonder-working -- was doing what he does this night, what he does every time he sits down to a meal. When people want to talk about Jesus' power, they often talk about the spectacular, the stilling of the storm, the raising of the dead. But Jesus' power is demonstrated at least as clearly in what happens when he breaks bread.

When Jesus broke bread, everyone -- the Pharisee and the leper, the rich and the poor, righteous and sinners -- experienced God's welcome at his table. When Jesus broke bread, the hungry were fed. When Jesus broke bread, serving any who came to him, people experienced what REAL power, God's power, does:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)

Jesus, having lived with integrity to his last meal, does what he always does: he issues an invitation in the breaking of the bread. On this night, as Jesus invites us to his table, he invites us to live with that kind of integrity, to remember him EVERY time we break bread -- at the altar, certainly, but also in the lunchroom and the dorm cafeteria, the family dinner table or the counter at the diner. Whenever we break bread, or draw breath, we are invited to do so in remembrance of Jesus, until he comes to complete the redemption of the world for which God anointed him.

And there is another invitation, in this breaking of bread. For on this night, on the night he was betrayed, on the night before he died for us, Jesus broke bread, and said to those gathered, "This is my Body." Not just the bread, but the company who gather to share it: this is Jesus' Body, given for the world. And whenever we gather with others made in God's image, other for whom Christ gave himself, Jesus invites us to do so in remembrance of him, aware of and honoring his presence.

It's a solemn charge Jesus gives us tonight. Paul cites Jesus' words on this night to back up his contention that those who fail to "discern the Body" gathered for the Lord's meal, those who fail to recognize everyone Jesus invites to his table as being members of the Body of Christ, are "eating and drinking judgment upon themselves" (1 Cor. 11:29).

But what an opportunity, to encounter and receive Christ in the homeless veteran in the Winter Shelter where we volunteer, in a client with whom we're having a business lunch, in a daughter as we share a snack before bedtime. What an opportunity, to live every moment as an invitation to feast with Jesus, who held every meal as if it were the Messianic banquet.

St. Benedict in the sixth century gave his fellowship of monks a solemn charge: as a regular part of life together, he said, “remember that you will die.” That’s an invitation we receive tonight, as we witness and reenact what Jesus did when he knew he was about to die. And as we do that, we receive another invitation, one that follows from the first:

Remember that today, you are ALIVE. Today, you have the most precious of gifts, the most important of opportunities: to LIVE as Jesus lived. Today, Jesus invites you and me to experience the fullness of abundant life. TONIGHT. Don’t put it off until you think you’ve earned it, until the nest egg is big enough, until the kids are in college, until you think you have time. This is it! Tonight’s the night! Tonight is our last supper together before the resurrection of the dead. Tonight is the night to experience God’s power as Christ, come among us to serve. Tonight, Jesus invites us to approach this table as he did for his last supper, fully alive, fully receiving and serving everyone willing to receive and be served. Tonight, we are invited to break bread in the presence of the one who celebrated his last supper as he did every meal. TONIGHT, Jesus invites us to BE in the world the Body of the one whose body was broken FOR the world. TONIGHT, we are alive in Christ, and tonight is the night to live into that truth, that abundant and eternal life. Now. Tonight.

Thanks be to God!

March 24, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Community, Eucharist, Exodus, Holy Week, Luke, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 17, 2004

"Wrestling with God: Conversion and Community" - October 17, 2004

Wrestling with God: Conversion and Community
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
October 17, 2004; Proper 24, Year C

Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8a

October has been an eventful month for me. Most of the last two days have been occupied with intense interviews for the ordination process – and I mean they were INTENSE. They asked really challenging questions, and here was the most challenging one I got:

“What question could we ask about your family life that would be most difficult for you, that would really get your heart rate up?”

I had to think about that one for a while, but then I had to say that they should probably ask me about my trip to California a couple of weeks ago for my grandmother’s funeral.

That trip brought up all kinds of complicated feelings, as my grandmother and I had a fairly complicated relationship.

It was in many ways a contentious relationship. Grandma believed that the Bible should be read ONLY in the King James version or a paraphrase of it. When I started studying Greek and Hebrew, she was deeply grieved, and she said so – often. It was a caring impulse – she wanted to make sure my salvation wasn’t in danger – but her deep disappointment, palpable in each of her frequent letters, was hard to take. She didn’t mind arguing her point, either. Even her grace at the Thanksgiving table would often contain some pointed requests for God to bring me back to God’s Word, and away from the “traditions of men.”

For that reason, it felt a little odd when I was asked to give her eulogy. But upon reflection, I knew just what I could say. I talked about her profound and lifelong love of Scripture. It was a love totally apparent in nearly everything she said, and it became even more apparent later that week, as I helped to sort through her things. The bookshelf nearest her bed must have had at least fifteen Bibles, each one peppered generously, in every book from Genesis through Revelation, with her notes. And by her bed were dozens of sheets of paper, marked over her last days with dozens of Bible verses she knew by heart and had written to strengthen herself as she was dying.

We contended often, and I think that was because we both cared so much about the same thing – about Scripture, the love of which came to me in large part through her. I think that’s why, after all our contending, I inherited what I think might have been her most prized possession – the huge family Bible, purchased within a generation after the family’s arrival at Ellis Island. That Bible is and always will be a sign to me that relationships that are contentious can also be deeply loving.

And many of us have a fairly contentious relationship with the Bible. Today’s epistle says that "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is a true saying, and worth repeating, even as we confess one (and only one) Word of God, no book, but a person: Jesus, the Christ of God, the Word made flesh in Nazareth and dwelling among us still. Our study of Scripture informs our sense of who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to his invitation to follow him, but Jesus, not Scripture, is our end. Scripture is inspired and useful, but Jesus is the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.

And furthermore, much as I give thanks for the printing press and the Internet, these media are a mixed blessing in creating the illusion that we can read the Bible in our "prayer closets," in isolation from community. In the ancient world, writing materials were very expensive, so copies of scriptural works were difficult for individuals to obtain, and most Christians would have been unable to read anyway. As a result, the early Christians studied Scripture in community, pooling resources to obtain copies of books and reading them aloud together, in community.

In a context like that, it's easier to follow 2 Timothy's counsel, which I'd say doesn't start with verse 14 (where our lectionary picks it up), but in verse 10, in which the author counsels us to learn not only from Scripture, but from Paul’s life -- his conduct, his aim, his faith, his patience, his love, and his steadfastly holding to a response of love even when persecuted. If we want to know how Paul read the Scriptures, we should look at how he responded to God’s call in his life, and specifically his life in community.

When I think about those moments of conversion in my own life in which Scripture was key, it becomes clear that the presence of the Spirit that made conversion possible was mediated not solely by my reading Scripture on my own, but also (and in some ways, perhaps more importantly) by the example of others in community. I love studying Scripture, and if I may paraphrase St. Paul, I thank God that I have opportunity to do it more than most people. I commend intensive study of the scriptures at every opportunity to all; there's nothing more useful for those of us with the hubris to serve as teachers.

It's useful. I'd say it's necessary, if we're to be proficient, equipping God's people for every good work. But it's not sufficient. There's something else we need, something that 2 Timothy 3:10-11 hints at, and that I draw from our Hebrew Bible and our gospel reading for this Sunday. We need contact. We need community.

Not that community is all hearts and flowers and happiness. All communities go through conflict, and conflict isn't fun. But conflict in community isn't a distraction from the spiritual; it is a place in which we can encounter God, find blessing, and experience conversion. In Genesis 32:3-30, Jacob is in the midst of a feud with his brother that's serious stuff -- he believes that his brother may be coming to kill him and his entire family, "the mothers with the children," as verse 11 (omitted in the lectionary) says. And that's where God shows up. Even Jacob's encounter with God isn't exactly lovey-dovey; it's an all-night smackdown that ends with Jacob dislocating his hip. But Jacob holds on to his opponent, saying, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (verse 26), and Jacob leaves blessed by God, empowered to reconcile with his brother Esau.

As in our Hebrew Bible reading, the parable from this Sunday's gospel starts with seemingly irreconcilable differences, as a widow seeks justice from a judge whom the text explicitly says neither fears God nor respects anyone. But she won't let go; no matter how many times the judge dismisses her, she keeps coming back. She won't let the matter drop until she sees justice. At the end of the story, we might be tempted to say that the widow wins and the judge loses, but I think that's a misleading statement. The widow won her case, but the judge got a gift even more valuable; he received the gift of conversion.

When the widow wrung the verdict she sought from the judge, her efforts turned the judge from a man of injustice to a man who does justice. The man who at the story's beginning is identified only as an unjust judge who respects no one, having done justice and listened to the widow, will need a new name, just as Jacob received a new name. The widow reminds me of Desmond Tutu, calling in the darkest days of apartheid to the soldiers who threatened him, saying "It's not too late! You can still join the winning side!" Like Tutu, the widow refuses to demonize her oppressor, to treat him as if he were the evil man everyone -- including the narrative voice in the text -- says he is. So the widow wins, and the judge joins the winning side.

Desmond Tutu and the widow alike contended for justice unyieldingly, but in a way that left open the possibility for reconciliation. They contended in the tradition of Jacob, now called Israel, the one who wrestles with God and men. And Israel, the ones who contend, is from then on the name given to God’s people. It’s our name, as God calls us not to easy answers, but to wrestling, to contention.

Tomorrow, the Lambeth Commission chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames issues its recommendations – recommendations which some are saying, or even hoping, will be the end of communion, a definitive break in fellowship. They won't be. They won’t be not only because of the facts of our polity, because any recommendations issued by the commission will have to go to the primates' meeting, and then to the Anglican Consultative Counsel. That's also true because God’s call to us is still to wrestle – with God, with Scripture, and even with one another. And there are too many of us who will not let go. On the commission and off it, from cathedral thrones to parish pews and in the streets, there are too many of us who will refuse to go away until justice is done -- for African children in danger of dying of malaria for want of a $2.50 net, for martyrs who put their lives on the line every day for human rights, for those tortured in Abu Ghraib or in Cook County Jail in Chicago. There are too many of God’s people who won't let go until our wrestling partners and angels -- we refuse to respond to them as enemies or demons -- become sources of blessing and justice. And then there is God – our loving, gracious God who will contend with us, and who won’t let go until each of us have received the new name and the blessing God promises.

Thanks be to God!

October 17, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 29, 2004

"Kenosis for Beginners" - August 29, 2004

Kenosis for Beginners
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, MD

Proper 17, Year C; August 29, 2004
Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18; Psalm 112; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Benjamin Franklin describes in his autobiography a program he designed for self-improvement. He created a table of the various virtues he thought he should cultivate, and tells the story of how he worked on each one in turn. But he tells us that he made one fatal mistake in his plan to become perfect in every virtue. He left humility for last, and by the time he got to it, he was already so near perfection in every other area that humility was impossible.

Franklin told this story with his tongue firmly planted in cheek, but he makes a serious point in the process about spiritual pride. Spiritual pride just might be the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, because it can corrupt even striving to be good and generous and turn it into an occasion for further pride. Fight it successfully for a moment, and you might just find yourself saying inwardly, “Wow ... I’m being really humble. And I’m MUCH more humble than Jean, or for that matter George. Maybe I should teach a class on humility.”

Pride is rife among those of us striving to be good. We don’t have a corner on it, though. Have you ever caught yourself saying, at a time when you felt a deep (and unhealthy!) burden of guilt, “I can’t tell anyone, and I can’t pray – I’m so bad that God can’t forgive me.” That line of thinking sets you and whatever crime you think you’ve committed as being more powerful than God, and “I think I’m more powerful than God” is a statement of supreme hubris – at least as prideful as the person who imagines that her moral superiority places her outside the company of lesser folk.

People at both ends of this pride spectrum, though, have something in common: they’re deeply concerned with boundaries, with what’s right and wrong, with what’s appropriate, with who deserves what, and they have a very hard time seeing anyone – themselves or their neighbors – getting something that’s given outside of those boundaries.

Our gospel for this morning tackles the issue of spiritual pride head-on, and it’s even clearer read in context. Those of you with pew bibles in front of you, feel free to turn to Luke chapter 14 and take a look.

The lectionary has us starting in verse 1 – “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” – and then skipping directly to verse 7, with Jesus starting to tell a parable. In doing so, the lectionary leaves out what Luke presents as the occasion for Jesus’ parable: Jesus heals a man with dropsy at the meal, and on the Sabbath. There was no good reason, by respectable people’s reckoning, for Jesus to rush to action. Dropsy is not a condition that’s life-threatening. If Jesus had only been willing to wait twenty-four hours, he could have healed the man without offending anyone. Furthermore, it’s not even clear from the text that the man Jesus healed was an invited guest at the dinner. Luke just says in verse 2 (if I can translate it in a wooden way), “And behold, there was a man with dropsy in front of him.” There’s another good reason to ask the man to come back tomorrow. Why reward his rudeness in disturbing the invited guests during the meal? Furthermore, Leviticus 13 suggests that someone with dropsy was impure, and his presence in the midst of the meal could make the whole meal impure and inedible. So, by rushing to heal the man there and then, Jesus was ‘dissing’ his hosts and the other invited guests, ignoring Leviticus, and violating the holiness of the Sabbath. What could possibly be so urgent that Jesus had to act immediately?

But that’s not how Jesus thinks. When presented with human need, Jesus doesn't ask, “Is there any compelling reason to act now?” In fact, he doesn’t ask any questions at all until after he’s acted, and even then, he doesn’t make much of an effort to soothe the wounded pride of those offended. Instead, he tells a parable that would offend the proud even more. He talks about guests who see themselves as deserving the most recognition being sent in disgrace to the lowest seat, while the lowliest are given the place of honor. He commands his followers to ignore friends and family members who deserve to be invited to the feast so that their invitations can be given to the poor and outcast.

But Jesus doesn’t only provide healing for the man with dropsy; he also points the way to a cure – perhaps the only cure – for spiritual pride. Try to fight pride internally, by trying to feel differently by sheer willpower, and we’ll just end up taking more pride in our efforts to be humble. So what’s the way out? Jesus tells the proud (and who among us couldn’t be counted in that number?) to focus not on ourselves and what we do or don’t deserve in comparison to others, but rather to look actively for opportunities to yield honor and advantage to others, deserving or not. Such opportunities are at least as plentiful as are opportunities to indulge pride, but it takes a lot of psychological and spiritual ‘rewiring’ for most of us to take them, meaning that most of us (including me) need a lot of practice. So here are a few concrete ways we could try to be intentional in that practice of yielding advantage to someone else without consideration for pride of place:

When driving, especially in rush hour or in particularly nasty traffic, take that instinct (finely honed in most experienced commuters!) to look for the fastest-moving lane and cut into it by any means necessary, and use those instincts to look for opportunities to make the drive easier, faster, and less stressful for someone else. The person who just really enraged you by driving by you on the shoulder and then trying to cut back into the lane would be a particularly good person to practice with: the point is not to try to reward another nice driver, but to give up the position of judging who deserves to be let in ahead of you. Pick one day a month or one day a week to try it until you get to a point where you actually prefer driving this way.

Maybe you don't drive. Here's something that we all (including, or maybe even especially young people in school) have opportunities to do: practice looking around you for the person you think has, for whatever reason, the most cause to be ashamed, and then look for opportunities to say or do something that makes this person feel genuinely honored and appreciated.

And here’s a third area in which many of us have an opportunity to yield our advantage to another. Those of us who have the right to vote have a particular responsibility to use our power the way Jesus used his – to others’ advantage, and especially to the advantage of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Christians can and do disagree in good conscience about what specific candidates and laws will most benefit the poor. But as Christians, we can’t ignore the poor. And here’s something else we can’t ignore – there are a lot more of them then there used to be. The Census Bureau reported this week that just last year, 1.3 million MORE people slipped below the poverty line in the U.S., and child poverty is now the highest it’s been in ten years. At the same time, the nationwide average of household incomes adjusted for inflation remained fairly constant. That means that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. Ignore that, and we build the kingdom described in this morning’s reading from Ecclesiasticus: “Sovereignty passes from nation to nation / on account of injustice, and insolence, and wealth.” But Ecclesiasticus also says “human beings were not made for pride.” We have a choice, and we have the power – if we vote prayerfully and after much study – to build the kingdom Jesus describes, God’s kingdom, in which those who suffered poverty and disease are given first place at the feast, not whatever leftovers there are from our daily feasting.

Every opportunity we take to focus on how we can seek others’ advantage will undermine something that I think does a great deal to build and exacerbate pride: the twinned convictions that there are only so many good things – only so much honor, love, and justice – to go around, and that it’s very important to see that only the deserving get them. As a dear friend from my college days would have said, “that’s a lie from the pit of hell.” God made a world in which there’s more than enough of every good thing to go around, if we share it freely. And God did not make us for pride, or for the anxiety that accompanies it. We are made in the image of a God who lived in flesh among us as

a baby born out of wedlock,
a homeless wanderer,
a friend to prostitutes,
a convicted criminal.

He died with no honor on earth – and he was raised to all honor heaven could bestow. But his story does not end in heaven. He taught us to pray that his kingdom come and his will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. That prayer is not a tease or a bait-and-switch – God is faithful to answer prayer. His kingdom is coming – ON EARTH, as it is in heaven. God challenges and invites us to confess and pray that not just with our lips, but with our lives, not just in our churches and our homes, but in and for the whole world. In the sum of thousands of thousands of small actions and inactions, we invite the outcast to their feast or follow the proud to our shame. Either way, God’s invitation to us stands – to follow the outcast into God’s kingdom, where anxiety and sorrow fall away with pride and envy, where love and faithfulness meet, and justice and peace kiss (Psalm 85:10).

Thanks be to God!

August 29, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 08, 2004

"Buying Freedom" - August 8, 2004

August 8, 2004; Proper 14, Year C
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

"Follow your heart." In pop culture -- especially in romantic comedies -- it's presented as the ultimate wisdom, the ultimate goal. And then the words "my heart's just not in it" are the ultimate conversation-ender, the big 'STOP' sign for any course of action. There's a certain kind of wisdom to that line of thinking, too. As Paul writes in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, and peace, as well as patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and if those things aren't present over time in a course of action that we've chosen, that's a pretty good indication that the Spirit may be calling us in a different direction. That's why Frederick Buechner defines vocation -- the direction God calls us -- as the place where our deep joys and the world's deep needs meet.

But sometimes when we say things like "my heart's not in it," what we're saying is something like "my heart's torn" between multiple and conflicting desires. I want to be a good provider for my family, so I work hard and long at my job -- but I also want my family to have quality time together. I want to invest more time and energy in deepening my relationship with God, but at the end of a long day, I just want to turn on the television and order out for pizza. I want to feel closer to other people, but I want not to risk being hurt. So I have a hard time deciding to pass up on that assignment that would help me dazzle my boss. I have a hard time deciding to cut back on other activities and look for some support around church to take up some in-depth Bible study, or to deepen my prayer life. I have a hard time disrupting a routine that feels safe to try something new, like signing up for <i>Connect?</i>. I have a hard time deciding to do those things because with these conflicting desires, I can't do them wholeheartedly.

So that's pretty much it, right? If my heart's not in it to begin with, I'll probably just be miserable if I try to do it. Better just to do what I'm comfortable with now. After all, there's nothing I can do about it if that's how I feel … right?

Today's gospel tells us that there IS something we can do about that, and in the process it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship of our money, our time, and our energy the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.

Jesus answers the question, "what can I do if my heart's just not in it?" with his saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." That saying is often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Let me put it this way: Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.

In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to take care of the needs of the poor, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom.

That kind of generosity isn't what most people would call "wise financial planning," it's true. Conventional wisdom holds that a wise person with resources builds up "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" and works to save as much as possible as a bulwark against the unexpected. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we can prevent most problems from arising, and take care of the few that do come up. Build up those resources, the story goes, and we'll have the freedom to choose a path for ourselves and our families away from crime, disease, disaster, and physical and psychological pain. As Jesus reveals
repeatedly through Luke's gospel, though, that strategy isn't wise, at least according to God's wisdom.

It's not wise, and those of us who are most anxious to get that one more thing -- the "slush fund," the bigger house in the better neighborhood, the promotion, the right number of zeroes in the retirement account -- so we can finally be secure and at peace are the ones who have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and our "rainy day funds" to the poor. One reason is we already know in our heart of hearts, and some here know from experience: there is no slush fund large enough to send away or compensate for some things that can and do happen in this world. As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are
innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear.

The flip side of that, though, is that when we can let go of these things that we've worked so hard for because we thought they could give us security, we'll discover what really IS secure in this life, what is rock solid through all the changes and chances life has to offer: that it is the pleasure of the King of the Universe to give his kingdom away -- and specifically to give it to you. You are God's beloved child, co-heir with Christ, and while there's nothing in this life that can take that away, there are all kinds of things we can grab for to insulate us from really experiencing it. It is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom, the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. Everything in this life we grab for as a way to try to do what God already has done and is doing for us is going to put us that much further from experiencing that fundamental truth, the one thing that matters. Let go, and we'll finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."

Don't be afraid??? Easy to say, but hard to do when your heart's not in it, when it's torn between trusting God -- trusting that these crazy things Jesus says really will yield the fruit of the Spirit -- and trusting what our culture says about who is really secure and how they get that way. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.

This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose to behave as children of our Father, whose role model is Jesus, because of who we are, and our hearts follow. We take that step that the world says is foolishness, and we experience, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do. Trust begets trust; generosity births generosity.

That's why the gospel for this morning is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it's about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle stays steady on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know
you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.

Today's gospel challenges us to let our heart follow our feet -- transforming us into people wholeheartedly following ALL of Jesus' message and experiencing ALL of the freedom that is ours in Christ -- in every way that God has given us something of value. Do your check register and your credit card records tell the truth of who you are in Christ and what's most important to you as a Christian? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to see where our spending over the last month shows we're telling our heart to go. And how about something that's even more and valuable than money for many of us -- how about our time?&nbsp; What does our appointment book from the last month show about where we're telling our heart to go? Today's gospel invites us to sit down as a family or with a trusted friend to take a hard look at that too.

And I mean a HARD look. If someone had complete access to your financial records, what would they say about who you are, or about who Jesus is? If someone had complete access to records of how you spend your time, what would those records say about who you are, and who your Lord is?

All of those messages we grew up with and are bombarded with every day create such a din that it takes a lot of intentional seeking to hear beyond them. Breathe, and listen to what your heart of hearts -- the part of you longing wholeheartedly for peace, and love, and joy, the fruit of the Spirit -- says. Our televisions say that our children want toys and snack foods. Social pressure says they must go to the right college, get the right degree and the right job. What do our lives, our checkbooks and our appointment books, say that children of God want and need? Our children are listening. Our hearts are listening -- and will run in whatever direction we put our treasure.

It's Jesus' word to the spiritually wise.

Thanks be to God!

August 8, 2004 in Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 13, 2004

"The Truth IS Reconciliation" - June 13, 2004

Proper 6, Year C; June 13, 2004
Galatians 2:11-21; Psalm 32:1-8; Luke 7:36-50

When I lived in Scotland, I had a job that gave me the most vivid image I have of what the kingdom of God looks like.

It was the Cornerstone Café. The Cornerstone was a business started by Brother Basil, a Franciscan monk, who wanted to see what would happen in a business that really took seriously Jesus' more radical demands. Among other things, this meant that the Cornerstone had a policy that was very unusual in a profitable restaurant -- and the Cornerstone WAS profitable. When I worked there, I used to explain the policy this way to new employees:

"We have two kinds of customers: paying customers and non-paying customers. Give customers whatever they order, whether or not you think they plan to pay for it. Treat all customers alike."

The policy attracted quite a few homeless people as regular customers. Another policy attracted a different set of customers: there was always an excellent, hearty, complete, and healthy meal on the menu that could be bought for two British pounds or less -- the equivalent of about $3.50 or so at the time. That policy attracted all kinds of backpackers from all over the world who were trying to see the city on the cheap, and it also brought in a lot of low-wage clerks and cleaners from the many shops and offices nearby.

The Cornerstone's location brought in a third set of customers. The café was in what used to be the crypt of St. John's Episcopal Church, which is right in the middle of the prestigious city center -- right across the street from the Royal Bank of Scotland, and a block or so from the Scottish government headquarters in Charlotte Square. As a result, the Cornerstone was the best place for bank executives and government officials to get a delicious lunch on a tight schedule.

The free meals, the good prices, the location -- these are the rational explanations for how we all came together there, but I think there was something more too -- the spirit of a place built with Jesus at the center -- that did it. So all of these kinds of people, from the richest to the poorest, and from New York to New Guinea, were regulars for lunch at the Cornerstone. And all seating in the café was at very long tables and benches, like you'd find in a monastery dining hall, so it was impossible to isolate yourself at a table. A busy weekday would find every table packed, with all kinds of people sitting next to one another. You could look down a bench and see how they were seated -- banker, homeless, bureaucrat, student, ambassador, homeless, janitor, banker, backpacker … all gathered because the feast was there.

The sight of all of these people gathered at a table that honored all equally -- rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, and folks from all kinds of cultures and languages -- that's something I recall when I try to imagine what the kingdom is God is like, when I try to imagine the vast crowd from every nation gathered at the climax of history to cry "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

I know a lot of us have similar images from times we stepped out of our comfort zones, and into a place where we experienced the Body of Christ more fully because of the diversity of those gathered with us. We've seen it at the Winter Shelter, breaking bread with the homeless. We've seen it with the people of La Resurrection. It's not impossible -- it's what we were created for. But it's a rare thing for most of us to see that kind of community, isn't it?

It's rare because we have a natural human need to feel understood, to be with people who speak our language, get our jokes, understand our priorities. We like to be with people for whom some things "go without saying" -- there are some things everyone just understands. So when we have a choice, we get together with "people like us."

It's only natural. In a lot of ways, it's how we order our world. It's not just about whom we invite over for dinner, or for a day on the water -- though it's definitely about that. But this is a culture in which we value the freedom to choose -- perhaps above all else. We use our money and our power -- and in this community, we have a great deal of both -- to increase our spectrum of choices in more and more areas of life.

So now we don't just choose our friends. When we can, we choose our employers. But we don't necessarily want to live where we work, so to the extent we can afford it -- and for a lot of us, that's a very great extent -- we choose our neighbors.

As a result, segregation isn't a thing of the past. Many of us have the money and power to choose with whom we're in community, who is our neighbor, and we choose to live with people like us. We want to fit in with our neighbors, and we want them to fit in with us. It's only natural. Our kids go to school with the kids of people like us. They want to fit in too. And that's only natural. In party politics and church politics too, we look for opportunities to get together with people like us, and that can bring increasing polarization. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the extremes of just about any spectrum seem headed further and further away from each other. Is that what the world is like -- like centrifugal force, with everything spinning around in a way that pushes us further and further away from the center?

It looks that way sometimes -- but appearances can be deceptive. We see the truth of what the world is like -- the truth of who made the world and what for, and where it's headed -- in places like the Cornerstone Café, and the Winter Shelter, and La Resurrection -- in places where we're brought together by something that runs deeper than our differences, by our shared hunger for something more. It happens in places like St. Martin's.

It happens especially in places like St. Martin's, specifically because of the friction we experience, challenging though it can be sometimes. I thought of that friction when I read the epistle for today, from Galatians 2. We're tempted to think of the early church as a place where everybody agreed on everything, where everyone spoke the same language. But they didn't. They were from different cultures, and they had some very different ideas about how God wanted them to live in community. Sometimes, the conflicts in churches that Paul founded got so serious, and so seriously nasty, that Paul had to say, as he does in 1 Corinthians 11, "if you're going to behave this way at the Eucharist, you may as well stay home and eat there." And I'm not talking about conflicts between heretics and true believers; I'm talking about conflicts between good people who sincerely think they're doing right, and sincerely think the other person is very wrong. I'm talking about conflicts like the one between St. Peter (called "Cephas," "the rock," in the reading) and St. Paul. We get Paul's side of the story in Galatians 2, but I'd be willing to bet Peter would tell a different version. Hearing only one side of the story -- and generally being a bit of a Paul fanatic anyway -- I'm inclined to say that Paul sounds like he's making all the right points.

But who sounds right when you have only one side of the story is beside the point. If their views were contradictory, whom would you want to kick out of the church -- Peter or Paul? Who wants to host the "apostolic smackdown," the reality show that eliminates disciples one by one as they make mistakes? These quirky, cranky, deeply flawed guys are rightly called heroes of the faith -- and I call them that not because they were always right, but because they lived in their relationship with one another what we as Christians believe the world God made, the world God loves and sent his Son to redeem, is really like.

God's world is not a galaxy of bodies spinning further and further away from a dying star, because God -- the living Creator, the Redeemer who rose from the dead, and the Spirit who breathes life through Creation -- is alive, and is at the center of it all.

If I may use a more mundane image, the world is more like a washing machine. It's always in motion, which can be dizzying at times, but the truth is that at the very center is God the Agitator -- living and moving and active, drawing what's at the margins in toward the center and what's in the center out to the margins. There's a lot of friction in that process. That's how laundry is transformed.

We need one another in that process. We need every Peter and Paul -- and the Marys as well. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, we need the truth of your testimony. As the old song goes, "if you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, who died to save us ALL." Because we were not set in community to agree with one another, but to love and forgive one another, that we might serve as agents of reconciliation for the world. The more different kinds of members gather as the Body of Christ, the more fully we are equipped as a community to show the world who Christ is.

We have a chance to do that -- to participate actively as agents of God's reconciliation -- every time we exchange the Peace, and every time we gather around the Eucharistic table. When we do that, we experience God's reconciling love.

We have a chance to do that in places like the BRIDGE meeting this Thursday evening, where hundreds people of faith from all over Anne Arundel County will talk about a policy that, like the policies Brother Basil established to put Jesus at the center of the Cornerstone Café, can make this county a place where all of those who offer their gifts to the community -- teachers and police officers and others who make our community work -- can afford to live here themselves. We can choose to make our set of neighbors look more like the set of those whom God loves. When we do that, we have a chance to glimpse God's justice, which is "the corporate face of God's love."1 When we glimpse God's justice and God's love, we experience those moments of transcendent wonder, the kind that makes us want to shout "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Our community is not a dinner party, where someone coming in to the feast who doesn't fit our idea of "people like us" is seen an unwelcome interruption. We worship a God who welcomes the stranger. We know we're due for a fresh demonstration of the kind of extravagant love we see when we view no one as beyond the boundaries of God's love, no one as unwelcome within the boundaries of our communities, and no one as uninvited to the Eucharistic feast.

Thanks be to God!

June 13, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 14, 2004

"Repentance and Grace" - March 14, 2004

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1–9

The message of these two linked passages in today’s gospel – Jesus’ comment on arbitrary deaths and the parable of the unproductive fig tree – is clearly proclaimed by headers for this section in many bibles: “Repent or Perish.” Or is it? I don’t find that reading entirely satisfactory.

“Repent or perish” doesn’t work for me as a summary of today’s gospel first and foremost because those in power in these stories are not like God; they pay no regard for who is penitent or unrepentant. Pilate slaughters Galilean pilgrims who had committed no crime. This portrayal of Pilate agrees with what we know of him from other first-century sources, most notably Josephus: Pilate was a brutal ruler who did not hesitate to kill hundreds or even thousands at a time, especially when he thought it might make an example to dissuade others from causing trouble.

It’s a helpful corrective to the kind of portrait drawn of Pilate in places like Mel Gibson's The Passion as a principled but waffling man who is deeply concerned with whether Jesus is innocent. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus (who himself is a Galilean) uses Pilate as an example of how oppressive Rome's rule could be, how arbitrary the “powers that be” in Palestine used their power. He notes specifically that the Galileans Pilate slaughtered were as innocent as any of their countrymen. Pilate came down on them like a ton of bricks, as it were; he didn’t check to see who was guilty and who was penitent any more than the tower in Siloam did before it fell. Indeed, it’s likely that the Galileans Pilate murdered WERE penitent, that what brought them out of Galilee, where Pilate had no authority, and into Jerusalem, where they died, was specifically their repentance. They were pilgrims, not tourists; they were in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices required of the penitent. Repent or perish? More like “repent AND perish.” Pontius Pilate didn’t stop to ask whether those he killed were good or penitent any more than the collapse of a tower does, or a virus, or a cancer.

Luke continues with the theme of unjust and capricious authority in the parable of the fig tree. The historians K.C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman (p. 106) present the setting as one that pops up repeatedly in Luke: the estate of a wealthy landowner – only the wealthy owned land worked by hired hands in Jesus’ and Luke’s society. The landowner mostly lives amidst the comforts and more cosmopolitan environment of the city while his staff and tenant farmers run the estate. In this parable, the gardener knows how to grow figs; like many peasants in Galilee, his family has grown them for sustenance for generations. The wise gardener counsels patience, letting the fig tree live. But the authority the gardener faces is not so wise. The landowner, whose ignorance of how fig trees are customarily handled is shown in his desire to cut down the tree rather than dig it out, as would usually be done, is inclined to kill the tree immediately. It was a common situation in first-century Palestine; wealthy and absentee landowners were eager to move on to crops like grapes or olives, which were more valuable for trade. But these crops were of far less use to the poorer people who actually planted, cared for, and harvested them. Although they paid exorbitant rents for the chance to work the land, they still could not control how it would be used; all they could do was to try to persuade the landowner to do what was best for the community. And the choice of a fig tree is also significant in this parable. In the Hebrew bible, the fig tree was often used as a symbol for Israel. In the languishing fig tree under threat from an authority not of the land, the audience would recognize Israel's own precarious situation, subject to the whims of an authority that, especially in contrast to the gardener, is not shown as being particularly reasonable.

That’s one reason the parable doesn’t quite work as an allegory for God’s judgment. God isn’t an absentee landlord who’s going to decide to sell out when it profits him most, any more than God is a capricious and brutal ruler like Pontius Pilate. The two stories in today’s gospel don’t reflect God’s character so much as they reflect the character of the world we build when we set unjust rulers above us, or when we ourselves use our power in ways that fail to care for the poor and vulnerable as God does.

We live in a world with a lot of pain. Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, and in Haiti, and in North America are infected with HIV, a virus that does not know or discriminate between the righteous and the unrighteous, the penitent and the unrepentant. The commuters in Madrid who died in the bomb attack last week weren’t any more or less sinful than anyone else. And then there’s all of the suffering that doesn’t make the headlines – illnesses like depression, or M.S., or Parkinson’s, or cancer. None of these are punishment for wrongdoing, and penitence neither prevents nor cures them.

So the first reason that “repent or perish!” doesn't work for me as the overriding theme of this Sunday’s gospel is that being penitent doesn’t seem to be any guarantee of not perishing. One could say that this is the bad news of the passage – even for those of us fortunate enough not to live under a brutal dictator like Pilate, even if we’re pious and hard-working and we play by the rules, there’s no guarantee in this world that we can avoid tragedy.

But there’s another way in which “repent or perish” doesn’t entirely sum up today’s gospel, and this one is good news: the parable of the fig tree comes up short on the perishing side of the equation. That’s especially clear when we compare today’s gospel in Luke with the cursing of the fig tree in Matthew 21:19. In Matthew, Jesus comes upon a fig tree that isn’t producing fruit, Jesus curses the tree, and it immediately withers and dies. In this Sunday’s gospel, the landowner has waited three years for fruit that didn’t appear, and still the gardener is willing and able to care for the tree and to intercede with the landowner to save it. Not bearing fruit is, in today’s gospel, no guarantee of destruction by the end of the story. Mercy is still possible.

Don’t get me wrong; I definitely think that repentance is a major theme in today’s gospel. We are called to repent. But there’s a flip side to the sense of loss and danger running through this passage. There’s an invitation. Repentance is not entirely about a conviction that transgressions are invariably and immediately punished any more than it’s about a conviction that this world will immediately and invariably reward virtue or repentance. That just doesn’t hold up. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. Good things often happen to people whose conduct doesn’t deserve them. Repentance is not our means to homeland security, to prosperity and physical health. We respond to Jesus’ invitation to repent not as “fire insurance,” to escape suffering in this life or after we die, but as a response to the grace Jesus offers. And the flip side of how indiscriminate disasters and illness can be is that Jesus’ offer of grace is made not just indiscriminately, but universally. The prosperous and the poor, the righteous and the unrighteous, those suffering from illness and the rest of us, the “temporarily able-bodied,” are equally in need of forgiveness and healing. We are equally offered the radical freedom we find in Christ to start over, to stop punishing ourselves and one another for real and imagined transgressions and to get on with living in a way that gives everyone around us – and sometimes even people half a world away – a glimpse of God’s grace.

Every circumstance – every hardship and every blessing – offers opportunities for us to experience grace and to extend it to others. Blessed with abundance, we have the opportunity to share – much as St. Martin’s support of La Resurrection in Haiti extends grace to people born into poverty, affected or infected by HIV, subjected to violence and deprivation. Blessed with an abundance of God’s love, we can take the time to share that abundance with young people in SMART [the parish high school youth group] or MSYG [the parish middle school youth group], and in the process we are blessed all the more richly by young people extending God’s love and exercising their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church and the world. And there are openings for some adults to do just that in both SMART and MSYG now and next year. It’s not a “do this or perish,” or “do this or the program will perish” thing; it’s a response to the grace we experience and a chance to experience a lot more of it. Our lives are full of such opportunities. When we feel blessed, we share. When we are hurt, we forgive. When we suffer, we give others the opportunity to minister. When we rejoice, we invite our friends, our neighbors, and our enemies to experience our joy. And when we realize that we have missed the mark, that we have done hurtful things and failed to do what’s helpful, that also is a moment of grace. We let go, we ask for forgiveness, and we thank God for the opportunity to start again.

In every moment, the invitation to us springs from grace, from an awareness of how precious this moment is, this life, this mercy, this chance. We’re not just fleeing from future wrath, and we’re not trying to behave in a certain way because of the reward we think we’ll get. We’re embracing God’s mercy in the present. That’s a fruitful life, regardless of our fortunes.

Thanks be to God!

March 14, 2004 in Current Affairs, Exodus, Justice, Lent, Luke, Parables, Pastoral Concerns, Repentance, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)

December 21, 2003

"Salvation Isn't a Delicate Cycle" - December 21, 2003

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
Micah 5:2-4; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

Last week, the movie Babe was on television, so I watched a good chunk of it again. Babe is the story of a lovable and unshakably optimistic little pig who turns out to have an incredible talent and a genuine vocation for herding sheep, the traditional job of a sheepdog. It's one of my favorite movies and I've seen it many times, so when I saw it last week, I was less caught up in the perspective of Babe, the little pig, and I was able to take a step back and view the story from the point of view of some of the other characters -- especially Rex, the former champion sheepdog who lives on the farm with Babe, and Farmer Hoggett, who owns both Rex and Babe as well as the farm on which they work.

And of course, my mind leapt immediately to the Magnificat, the song of Mary in today's gospel. It's not as wacky as it sounds, because Babe is in some ways a story of the powerful being brought down and the lowly lifted up. Babe, the unassuming little pig intended for the Hoggetts' Christmas dinner, becomes a champion, winning the hearts not only of Farmer Hoggett and all the animals on the farm, but of all of England, glued to their televisions watching the spectacle of this amazing pig in competition. Rex, the proud and mighty sheepdog, is displaced as the lord of the fields. And when we're caught up in rooting for the little pig, we have no trouble seeing the story of Babe as good news.

But from Rex's point of view, the story could have been very bad news indeed. For much of the story, that's exactly how Rex receives it too. Babe's gift for herding sheep, in Rex's view, isn't a gift at all, but a threat — not just to him and his own status, but to a way of life. It's a threat to the world's making any sense at all. As a viewer, you can see what kind of a threat Babe poses in the struggle characters have to name what the little pig is doing. Everybody knows what a 'sheepdog' is, but what do you a call a pig who does that job? A 'sheep-pig'? Sounds more like some kind of genetic experiment. All of the farm animals are quick to tell Babe that he's disrupting "the way things are." Everybody knows that cows are for giving milk, hens for giving eggs, and dogs for herding sheep. Rex is willing, more or less grudgingly, to treat the little pig kindly, regardless of the pig's aspirations, but it's clear to Rex that a pig's doing a sheepdog's job, no matter how well, not only makes a mockery of what pigs and dogs were born and raised to do, but also shames and blasphemes the farmer who would allow such things to happen. Rex cares too much about Farmer Hoggett to watch that happen, even if Farmer Hoggett is foolish enough to go along with it, so he does what he can to help, in his view -- to help Babe realize that he's doing the wrong thing in herding sheep, to help preserve Farmer Hoggett's good name, and to see that the sheep have a proper shepherd. Rex really does care about protecting the sheep, even if he doesn't trust them to know a good shepherd, and so Rex makes a series of mistakes that could turn his story into a tragedy.

Lack of trust is really Rex's problem. He wants to protect the sheep, but doesn't trust the sheep to go where they should or to know the good shepherd. And although Rex wouldn't want to admit it, he doesn't trust Farmer Hoggett, even though Rex loves him. When Farmer Hoggett doesn't stop Babe from herding sheep, Rex assumes that the farmer is just being slow to act, trusting Rex to do the job instead. Rex continues to believe that even when Farmer Hoggett is right before his eyes, calling Babe out to the pastures. Rex can't believe the farmer he knows and loves would approve of something so obviously wrong, even when evidence to the contrary is in front of him.

Farmer Hoggett, though, believes what he sees, even when there's no language to describe it. Pigs don't herd sheep, but when he sees it happen, he believes it and blesses it, in the same understated way he always expresses approval – "that'll do," he says. "That'll do ... pig." The farmer's trust in the rule books and almanacs is shaken, but he trusts his eyes, and he trusts his heart, so he can receive Babe's vocation, disruptive as it is to the way we all thought things were supposed to be, as good news — the best news.

The Magnificat, Mary's song of praise for the God who is casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly, is one of my favorite passages in scripture – maybe my favorite of all. It's framed on my living room wall in the graceful calligraphied script of a monk from the monastery where Karen and I first met. I've studied it, sung it, pondered it, and prayed it, so this week, as I turned to it again, I felt drawn to look at it from a different angle — from the angle of Rex, the ruler, from the perspective of the mighty. I almost couldn't help it, since the last time I stood in this pulpit, I shared with you how important I think it is that we acknowledge that most of us at St. Martin's are among the wealthy and the powerful. We're the ones who have the most to lose, if everything really is changing.

And the faith we have is that everything really is changing. As Christians, we believe that the tide of history turned with the birth of Jesus, the Christ. In Advent, we look to the future, when Jesus' work is complete and everything we see comes into alignment with what we believe:


God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. ...
    He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
    He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
    he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

We believe that's going to happen, and in this last week of Advent in particular, we are called to prepare to receive Christ, who is coming to accomplish all of this, as Good News. But when I pause to really take these words in — not unthinkingly, as pious sentiment, but really listening to them and asking God for openness to feel their impact — it's a profound challenge, especially in "he has filled the hungry with good things,/ and sent the rich away empty." It's like the Beatitudes in Luke (6:20-26):

    Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
    Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
    Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
    Blessed are you when people hate you,
    and when they exclude you, revile you,
    and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

And in Luke, if we're tempted as readers to gloss over these words as pious or strictly metaphorical platitudes, Luke shocks us back to attention with what follows:


  But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
    Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
    Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
    Woe to you when all speak well of you,
    for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

This is the gospel; this is Good News. It's Good News for everyone — it's what the world will look like when, as John the Baptizer preached in the desert, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6).

But if we're rich, if we have enough to eat now, how is it good news for us? We're not going to stay on top forever.

That's true, but the news we hear in the Magnificat is better news than "you'll always be on top." We who intend to follow Christ have a different aim than staying where we are; we're after the transformation of the world.

That's a heady claim. Let's try some imagery to bring it a little closer to home. For a moment, instead of trying to think of the world, let's think of the laundry.

One of the first lessons I learned when I started using a washing machine is that you can't pack it too tightly. If the clothes stay where they are through the wash, nothing happens. A washing machine doesn't work unless there's movement, and lots of it. At the center of a washing machine, there is something moving and active — the agitator. It agitates; it jolts back and forth to make sure that nothing else can stay where it is. It creates friction with the clothes closest to the center, sending them out to the margins. The friction and the currents created by that movement pull what's at the margins in to the center, and back out again. That keeps going until the whole load is clean, transformed, made new.

When Christ is at the center of our community, things change. The closer we are to the center, the more likely we are to be pushed out to the margins. Being pushed out doesn't always feel good, and friction often doesn't feel good either. And have you ever watched a load of laundry in a machine with a clear door? All that movement can make you pretty dizzy. It's hard to maintain a sense of equilibrium in there, I'm sure. But when Christ is truly at the center, we will be spun around and sent out, and brought in, and sent out. And that's how the transformation happens, the transformation we long for in the deepest part of our being. The proud are humbled, the rich made poor, and the lowly are lifted up and gathered in, and all flesh will see the salvation of our God.

Including us. We all need that transformation, and we all need one another — and we need that agitation that originates with Christ — to see it. We need that more than we need to be top dog. Even Rex, the sheepdog who would remain king, got that by the end of the movie. Because by the end of the story, Rex did two things that allowed him to root for Babe as much as any of us in the audience.

The first was that Rex admitted his own vulnerabilities, his own wounds. Rex's mistrust didn't come from nowhere. He'd been hurt before while trying to protect the sheep. He lost his hearing while trying to guide the sheep in a long and cold storm, and ironically, it was only when he admitted to the sheep that he'd lost the ability to hear as a result of his injury that he really learned to listen. It's a natural thing when we get hurt to try to figure out how we can make sure it never happens again, but in general — and I count this among my most important life lessons — any personal rule that you develop that's about not getting hurt should probably be suspect. Stupid behavior hurts, but love hurts too. Rule out risk, rule out pain, and we rule out redemption. Admit the things that make us uncertain, that render us in need of help, of a Shepherd, and we have some chance of finding healing.

The second, and probably the more important thing that Rex does, is that he stays in relationship, he keeps his eyes open, and, maybe despite himself, he keeps his heart open. The salvation for all flesh in Babe — for dog, pig, and farmer alike — is that they keep listening to one another, and their love for one another wins out. I'll let y'all rent the movie _— a great holiday movie — to find out exactly how that happens, but here's what I took away from my umpteenth viewing of Babe last week, as I was thinking about everything I saw in light of today's gospel, and of this community.

In the end, Farmer Hoggett gets to experience the wonderful thing happening — a pig's becoming a champion — because he keeps his eyes open, and his heart open to receive what his eyes tell him.  Rex is saved, is able to dig himself out of the bitterness he feels in watching a pig get more honor as a sheepdog than he does, because Rex keeps a place in his heart open to listen to the folks who love Babe, even if he can't listen to Babe himself. And Babe — Babe, the lowly pig, and also the one with the extraordinary talent — would, in the end, be lost if Rex hadn't passed along to Babe what he learned from Farmer Hoggett's sheep, once Rex was willing to listen. More importantly, Babe would have been lost in the end had he not been willing to trust that Rex, who in the past insulted and persecuted him, was telling him what he needed to know to connect with a new flock.

There's something these three characters have in common: openness. Farmer Hoggett would have missed out on the amazing story in front of him if he hadn't been willing to discard what he thought he knew about pigs and dogs and sheep when he saw something that said that this was a new thing, a pig that herds sheep. Rex would have been shut out by his own stubbornness had he not let himself get to know Babe even after he was convinced that there was nothing to like. And Babe, in the end, wouldn't have become the champion everyone admired if he hadn't been willing in the end to trust Rex, that Rex had really changed, and was wanting to help.

It's a washing machine, and a pretty delicate cycle. It depends on each of us having room to move. It depends on the friction that inevitably happens when one or more of us do move. It depends on us all not getting stuck, not staying where we are, but being ready to have some real contact with whoever is in the direction Christ is sending us. How ready am I to listen — really listen, deeply listen — to someone who's said hurtful things about me in the past? How ready am I to accept that someone who was really, demonstrably interested in hurting me in the past has something to teach me now? How ready are you to brush up against the person you (according to the lessons of experience, or some other reliable source) think of as eternally and necessarily on the outs, and to find that person drawing you toward the center?

I'm not that old — or so I keep telling myself, as I watch succeeding generations of youth groups move toward adult milestones — but I've lived long enough to say that all bets about where to find eternally safe and solid places are off. There's an agitator in this community who's turning everything upside-down, and in four days, I'll be with my family unwrapping presents to celebrate his birthday. Fools are wise, rich are poor, and the only thing that really makes sense is to go where the Christ is. I hear a star will be on the horizon any day now, but until I see it, I'm going with the rumor I've had that he shows up where two or three are gathered in his name. That's here, so I'm paying attention.

Keep your eyes on the horizon for that star, but keep your ears open for the word our Savior sends to us now. The salvation of our God is at hand!

Thanks be to God.

December 21, 2003 in Advent, Justice, Luke, Micah, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)