August 01, 2005

"Three Miracles at Jesus' Spontaneous Dinner Party": Proper 13, Year A

Memorial Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland
July 31, 2005

Nehemiah 9:16-20
- link to NRSV text
Psalm 78:1-29
- link to BCP text
Romans 8:35-39
- link to NRSV text
Matthew 14:13-21
- link to NRSV text

Have you ever wondered why it is that, when we gather as the church to remember Jesus, we do it with a meal? If you think about it, it could have been anything. We could have built statues to remember Jesus, or held a dance. We could have made it a poetry reading, a teach-in, a weekly golf tournament -- but we didn't. When we gather as the church, our central act together in remembrance of Jesus is to have a meal -- the Eucharistic meal.

I know, it doesn't seem like much, as meals go. I have a friend who likes to say that when he receives one of those communion wafers, he finds it easier to believe that it's really Jesus' body than to believe it's really bread. But this is supposed to be a meal -- a feast, even. An abundant and lavish one, held in remembrance of someone -- Jesus of Nazareth -- who had a reputation for being, as the Irish scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it, "a party animal." We have a feast to remember Jesus, complete with breaking out the wine (which really ought to be our best stuff) before noon on a Sunday, because Jesus was remembered, as Matthew 11:19 puts it, as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners."

This is not the Jesus a lot of us grew up with, whose hair may have been a little long for our parents' taste, but whose name came up mostly when our parents wanted us to behave, hang out with the right kind of people, behave like the good citizens they may have (rather naively) thought we were. But today’s gospel doesn’t fit in with the picture of the well-mannered Jesus of popular conception anywhere near as well as it does with the “party animal” Crossan describes, and that’s the point I want to start with today.

I know that this isn't what usually comes to mind first when we think about the feeding of the five thousand. Usually, when people think about this story, they think about the miracle, by which they mean the multiplication of the loaves. Admittedly, that part of the story is pretty impressive. Not only did God's power produce enough food to feed five thousand people -- not counting the women and children, as Matthew emphatically points out (Matthew 14:21) -- but there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Twelve baskets, like twelve tribes of Israel -- in effect, this story tells us that there was such plenty represented in this feast that there were enough leftovers to fill doggie bags for all of God's people. Truly impressive stuff!

But as far as I’m concerned, that miracle of mutiplying loaves pales in comparison to a couple of other miracles in this story that I think are even more impressive, even more miraculous demonstrations of God's power acting in Jesus' ministry.

To set the scene for those miracles, it's important to know that in Jesus' culture, people really took seriously the old maxim that "you are what you eat," and not from a nutritional viewpoint. I'm talking about purity, about keeping kosher. You are what you eat; if you want to be a kosher kind of guy, the right kind of person, you've got to eat the right kind of food. This might initially sound like a fairly simple matter: if it's pork for dinner, you just keep passing the plate. But if you've ever had a serious food allergy -- or if you've ever had a guest who did -- you know just how complicated things can get. Who knew that peanut oil was in some brands of ice cream? Think how complicated it is to try to avoid not just one ingredient, but anything not prepared in the right way.

If it's really important to you, there are only two ways to be sure that what you're getting is kosher. One is to be in the kitchen, not only hovering over everything on the ingredient list, but making sure beforehand that no surface has been contaminated. The other is dicier: if you know your host family very, very well, and if you know for SURE that they know how to keep their kitchen and what you can and can't eat, you just might be able to trust them to prepare a meal you can safely eat.

So there it is: keep a close eye on every ingredient and how it's prepared, or at the very least make absolutely sure that you don't eat with anyone unless she knows how to prepare it all AND she really understands how important it is to do it right, and you just might be able to share a meal.

And then think of this with respect to the story in this Sunday's gospel:


Imagine those five thousand people at Jesus' spontaneous dinner party whispering: does anyone know who baked the bread? What kind of fish was this? Was it cleaned? This was some kid's lunch??! Does anyone know who his mother is? That would say something about whether the food is OK ...

But that didn't happen. Instead, five thousand people take one guy's word for it -- not a family member, not their best friend, not even someone they knew well -- and they sit down to eat food when -- and I mean this literally -- God only knows where it came from. Jesus inspired a miraculous trust in those who came to him, the trust that made everyone there willing to forget about years of "you are what you eat" conditioning to accept bread from Jesus without knowing or asking about where it came from and whether it was safe or kosher. Five thousand people -- not counting the women and children -- found their lives so transformed in encountering Jesus that all of their fears of dangers to be avoided, of what it would mean if they joined the ranks of those seen as impure, gave way to enthusiasm for sharing the feast before them.

Think about the kind of trust Jesus must have engendered in people to get that kind of response. That's real, life-changing spiritual power in Jesus' presence, a miracle at least as impressive as the multiplying loaves.

But that isn't the end of it. There's one more miracle in this story, and I think it's the most impressive one of all. In Jesus' culture, it wasn't just "you are what you eat"; it was also "you are who you eat with." Some of that was just a logical extension of purity observance, because it wasn’t just the ingredients that could make the food -- and you -- impure; it was also the hands passing the food. Imagine the scene of that spontaneous dinner party in this Sunday's gospel, and imagine that you'd just experienced that second miracle of being able to trust Jesus to provide you with food that's good. But Jesus isn't the peanut vendor at the ballpark; he’s not hurling individual portions with miraculous accuracy directly to you. Strangers brought the bread to Jesus, who blessed and broke it ... and handed the pieces to the disciples, who handed them to others in the crowd, who handed them to others, and so on across countless pairs of hands before it got to you. Take that bread, and you're taking into yourself not just whatever was in the field where the wheat was grown and in the kitchen when it was baked, but also what was on the hands of every other person in that crowd.

That's reason enough to be skittish about who you eat with, but that's not all. There's also the business of honor, crucial in Jesus' culture. A man’s willingness to do business with you, to consider allowing a daughter to marry your son, to acknowledge you as a person worth acknowledging, depended on how honorable he saw you as being. And "you are who you eat with" was the operative rule that said that your character would be assumed to be the same as the character of your companions at dinner. Eat impure food, and you're impure. Eat with a rebellious son or a tax collector and you're not going to be seen as being any more honorable than they are.

But along that hillside, over five thousand people were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector -- indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers -- just didn't count any more.

And I'm not just saying that in the naive way that lets college-educated white people say “oh, I don’t pay any attention to the color of a person’s skin.” The privilege that comes with my skin color means that I’m not going to be pulled over because of it, that I’m unlikely to be shot because of it, that I’m more likely to get fair treatment in court because of it, and so I can afford to pretend that I don’t notice color. That’s NOT what I’m talking about when say that in Jesus has the power to make irrelevant all the categories we use to divide. What I'm talking about is that radical force that turns mountains and valleys to plains, bringing down the mighty and raising the lowly. What I’m talking about is the end of a world in which some people aren’t counted as a world dawns in which EVERYONE counts. I'm talking about real change, a world in which a child from any neighborhood in Baltimore has the same chance at education, self-esteem, and all of the privileges that a child from the suburbs takes for granted. I'm talking about a world in which a child from any village in the Sudan has access to the running water and lights to read by at night that is taken for granted by children from across Baltimore.

When I talk about that third miracle from Jesus' lakeside feast, I’m talking about the miracle that fires us up to give flesh to that vision of a world in which every child has a chance -- in which God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us not only that this is possible, but that he was sending the Holy Spirit to give us what we need to make it happen. Every meal he shared with his disciples, with sinners and Pharisees, or five thousand strangers, was a living parable of that possibility, of that vocation that is his gift to us.

Thanks be to God!

August 1, 2005 in Eucharist, Inclusion, Justice, Matthew, Miracle Stories, Ordinary Time, Purity, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 06, 2005

God Is a Foolish Farmer: A Farewell Sermon for St. Martin's

A number of readers have noticed that, while I've preached in other congregations, I haven't preached in St. Martin's, the congregation where I work, since early April. When the rectors (senior pastors) left the parish on April 17, I was removed from the preaching and liturgical rotas to give the congregation to hear less familiar voices in the pulpit until the parish's interim rector arrived. That won't be happening until September, so it's clear that I won't be in St. Martin's pulpit again. St. Martin's has been so important to my developing my voice as a preacher, though, and I've so valued each chance to preach there as an opportunity with what's Good News for this particular community, that as a goodbye present, I wanted to offer one last sermon, though I won't be able to preach it outside of this corner of cyberspace. Since a cyberspace sermon doesn't make anyone's Sunday morning service longer, and since it's my last sermon for St. Martin's, I hope you'll indulge me in one that's longer than usual.

Thank you, St. Martin's, for letting me walk with you on this leg of your journey. I'll miss you!

– Dylan

God is a Foolish Farmer: A Farewell Sermon for St. Martin's

Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13 - link to NRSV text
Romans 8:9-17 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 - link to NRSV text

"Listen!" It's a word from this Sunday's gospel that stood out to me the moment I scanned the passage. It's a word meant to prick up your ears, a word meant to jolt us out of whatever else we're doing, whatever else we're thinking about or worrying about, and get us to pay attention.

Listen! In this parable, Jesus has a word for us today that feels particularly important, particularly urgent to get across. It's a word that's central to the gospel Jesus preached and lived out among us, and it's a word that I'm glad to leave as one last charge, one last encouragement, and one last blessing to you.

I'm glad that the text for this Sunday contains a parable, because Jesus' parables illustrate three things that I think are true about the Bible in general.

First, it's that the bible isn't always easy to interpret. Often, it's pretty hard. We're talking about texts written thousands of years ago by people who didn't speak our language and are from a completely different culture. Sometimes people say that Jesus' parables are simple truths put in simple language that anyone can easily understand, to which I say, have you read Jesus' parables lately, and closely? They say things like "therefore, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal tents" (Luke 16:9). I don't think that anyone's doing me a favor in telling me that this is easy to understand. If I believe them, when I come across something that I don't understand easily, I'm likely to feel like a particular dolt when it comes to the bible, and that's likely to make me want to avoid picking up the bible, like I want to avoid a gym when I feel like I'm the only person there who hasn't stepped right out of a fitness video.

So if you sometimes find the bible to interpret, take comfort: it IS hard to interpret sometimes. Often, actually.

Here’s a rule of thumb that I use for reading Jesus’ parables: if I interpret it in such a way that there is nothing surprising or even shocking about it, it’s time to go back and read it again. Jesus’ parables serve a purpose a little like that of a Zen koan – those ‘riddles’ like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The point of a koan isn't that there's a correct answer that springs instantly into mind. A koan isn't supposed to inform you; it isn't supposed to give you information that will increase your feeling of mastery. If anything, it's the opposite of that. It pulls our minds in to confound them, and that kind of dislocation from our usual ways of thinking helps us to open up and let go of our usual ways of thinking. A koan doesn't inform; it transforms you as you wrestle with it.

Jesus’ parables work kind of like that; each one ends in a shocking reversal of his listeners’ expectations. With that reversal, the story pulls us out of entrenched patterns of relationship and ways of being in the world; it dislocates us from what’s comfortable to free us to establish new kinds of relationship, new ways of being. If the first thing I want you to remember about the bible is that it's often not easy to interpret, then the second thing I want you to take away about it is that the hard work of wrestling with scripture is more than worthwhile. It's not a product of our culture, so I find there's nothing like it to challenge our cultural assumptions about who God is, what God wants, and what things like love and success and freedom really are. Anne Lamott likes to say that if what you get out of the bible is that God hates all the same people you do, you're in trouble. I'd put it more positively, in saying this: God calls each and every one of us to conversion, to amendment of life so that our life looks more like the wholeness of the life God offers. If I come away from the bible feeling that the problem with the world is that there aren't enough people like me in it, this is a good cue to keep reading, and to keep asking how God is calling me to conversion. And no, saying that God wants me to stand up more loudly and firmly against everybody else's sin doesn't count.

I am NOT saying that the point of reading the bible is so that you can feel bad. If your previous exposure to the bible and to how people use the bible makes you think of it as a book that's boring at best and oppressive at worst, then believe me -- I know exactly what you mean. I've seen people try to use the bible as a weapon more times than I can count, as I think many of you can imagine. I hope that knowing that lends even more power to what I have to say when I say that the bible is Good News for God's people -- news of justice, peace, of true freedom and abundant, joyful life. When I say that each one of us is called to conversion, what I'm saying is Good News: there is room in your life and in my life for God to work more deeply. There is room in your heart and in mine for more compassion, more peace, more freedom than we'd thought. I get that Good News in large part from all of the time and energy I put into studying, praying with, and reflecting on scripture, and I hope that in the midst of all my flaws and flubs, some of that Good News has come across. The Good News we experience as we wrestle with scripture in community is well worth the hard work we put into it. That's the second thing I want you to take away from this sermon about the bible.

And if you'll indulge me, I want to say a little about why. Wrestling with scripture intently, prayerfully, and together regularly throughout our lives is worthwhile because, while scripture isn't the only medium through which we find the transformation to which God calls us, I will say that it's one of the most important. When I read scripture, and especially when I come to the bible again and again alongside other people who want to read it carefully and prayerfully, I find myself called to decision. God calls to each one of us, and each one of us makes a decision about whether to respond and how. The choice that Jesus prescribes for us, the choice that Jesus promises will bring true freedom, real love, real peace, lasting justice, is a decision to follow Jesus, to make Jesus' version of "family" -- God as our father, and the only one who gets that title, and God's children as our sisters and brothers -- the source of our identity and our only permanent loyalty. Some people call that choice being "born again," and I want to take the liberty in this last sermon for St. Martin's to go on record as saying I'm entirely in favor of it. You and I need to be born again -- not once, but for every time that someone tries to tell us with words or actions that we're not God's child, for every time that we're tempted to substitute our culture's vision of respectability for God's dream of the mighty being brought low and the lowly raised up, for every time we forget that God's blessings, love, and justice are for ALL of God's children.

In other words, we need to be born again, and again, and again. In my case, several times a day. Maybe you're quicker on the uptake than I am. But for as many years I've spent intently studying the scriptures, and for as many times as God has, in communities like this and in my travels around the world, given me a glimpse of God's kingdom, I find all of the time that the richness of God's dreams for the world and for each one of us in it is so great and so profound that every further glimpse of it takes my breath away as it takes me by surprise.

A case in point: this Sunday's parable of a farmer who goes out to sow seed. What's so surprising about that? Farmers sow seed all the time. And anyone who knows anything at all about what a plant needs to grow won’t be surprised to hear that seed cast in the middle of a road, or on the rocks, or among thorns doesn’t grow. But this parable contains not one, but two surprises to jolt us into openness to the work of God’s Spirit among us and in our world.


It’s not at all surprising that most of the seed didn’t grow. What’s surprising is that the farmer chose to sow it there. This isn’t a rich man we’re talking about here: this is a poor farmer, a tenant farmer who can only eke out a living for himself and his family if he not only makes wise choices about where to sow, but also is blessed with good weather and a great deal of luck. Good seed is hard to come by; the wise farmer makes sure to entrust the precious grain he has to the best of soil. But this one tosses seed about while standing in the closest thing he can find to the parking lot at Wal-Mart, where the pigeons will eat it if thousands of feet and truck tires don’t grind it into the pavement first. In short, this farmer behaves as though that which were most precious was available in unlimited supply. What on earth is he thinking?

But here’s the real corker: God blesses a farmer like this beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Normally, the farmer who reaps a twofold harvest would be considered fortunate. A fivefold harvest would be a cause for celebration throughout the village, a bounty attributable only to God’s particular and rich blessing. But this foolish farmer who, in a world of scarcity, casts his seed on soil everyone knows is worthless is blessed by God in shocking abundance: a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what he sowed.

There's been a lot of talk at St. Martin's about scarcity, about guarding closely what's precious because it seems to be rare. Money is tight; time is hard to spare. Even when we're looking at less tangible and measurable  qualities we value, like love and blessing, there's sometimes a sense that the good things God has for us are in such limited supply that the only kind of good and responsible stewardship is to guard it very carefully, give it only to those we're sure are worthy, protect it like the last egg of the rarest endangered bird. Predictions of peril and doom provoke a great deal of anxiety, and living on a knife edge like that not only causes constant unrest, but also tends to shut down the kind of creative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live more deeply into God's dreams for us as individuals, in community, and for the world. That's not the Good News God has for us:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
-- Romans 8:15-17

Listen! What does this morning's gospel say to us, in a story that suggests that God is like a farmer who tosses seed into parking lots for the pigeons to eat, and in the surprising harvest that grows? It says that Isaiah's prophetic word is coming true:

Ho [in other words, Listen!], everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy? ...
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace ...
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
-- Isaiah 55:1-2, 10-13

The kingdom of God has come among us. God has blessed us richly, and God’s people have been entrusted with that which is most precious in the world. But ironically, these priceless commodities only gain value – the seed of God’s word only bears fruit – when God’s people scatter it absolutely heedless of who is worthy to receive it.

Listen! We are called to treat God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s blessing, precious as these are, as if they were absolutely limitless in supply for one simple reason:

They are. They really are. I believe that with all my heart, and I want to leave you with that as something to hold on to. Thank you for listening.

And thanks be to God!

July 6, 2005 in Inclusion, Isaiah, Matthew, Parables, Pastoral Concerns, Romans, Scripture, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 26, 2005

"Freed to Love with Integrity: The Good News of Matthew’s Hard Word": Proper 8, Year A

Memorial Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland
Proper 8, Year A; June 23, 2005
Isaiah 2:10-17; Psalm 1-18; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 10:34-42

In the name of the one who created us for love, the one who frees us to love with integrity, and the one who sets us in communities of love, one God, Amen.

The bulk of this Sunday's gospel is hard to hear for us all across what I call the theo-political spectrum. Those who (like me) emphasize that Jesus' work among us is as reconciler and that Jesus consistently condemned violence are disturbed by Jesus' saying "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Perhaps even harder for many of us to hear is Jesus' saying that he has come to set parents against children and children against parents. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, you're not alone. The language that passed Jesus' lips about this was almost certainly more like Luke's, which has Jesus saying, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters ... cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). There's no trick of Greek vocabulary or ancient Aramaic translation that blunts the meaning of the word "hate" there. If you look at how that same word (misein) is used in other places in the New Testament and in Greek literature in general, you’ll see that there’s no way around it: the word is used to mean the opposite of love (agape), the kind of emotion that persecutors feel before they put the persecuted to the sword.

The temptation, when a text like that comes up, is to gloss over it. When a preacher reads something like that in the gospel for the coming Sunday, you’re very likely to hear a sermon about the collect. It’s just too hard to take: how could talk about swords and division turn out to be Good News?

Well any preacher, or any Christian, who trembles a bit during the reading of this Sunday’s gospel is in very good company. Matthew used a lot of the same written sources for his gospel that Luke used, and it’s likely that when Matthew was confronted with Jesus’ harsh language about sons and daughters coming to “hate” their fathers and mothers, Matthew did what we’re tempted to do: if he couldn’t just gloss over it and hope that nobody else had heard about this shocking word from Jesus, the remaining strategy is to backpedal – like the wind! Take those shocking words, and soften the language so that it’s about loving parents or children more than Jesus.

But even with Matthew’s wording, we’ve still got a mouthful here. "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37) is still a radical and potentially offensive statement. I think about a bio I once read from an Episcopalian candidate for vestry which said something very like "family is, and will be forever, the absolute foundation of my life, the church, and society." What does Jesus' claim that he came to set parents against children and children against parents do to that? Those who loudly proclaim a Jesus whose "family values" exalt heterosexual marriage and parenthood above all other relationships and priorities can't be biblical literalists about passages like this Sunday's gospel, so they often resort to invented obscure meanings for Greek words to try to dull the force of Jesus' proclamation. Fortunately, we progressives don’t have to take these things literally.

... I’m still not going to just dust my hands off and preach on the collect, though.

We don’t have to take Jesus’ words literally here, but I want to challenge us – me included – to take them seriously – not because we have to, but because I believe that that this bunch of books left to us by ancient performance-art prophets and wild-eyed saints is actually GOOD NEWS, and when we gloss over the parts that make us initially uncomfortable, we run the risk of passing by some words that could serve not only as a healthy challenge to those whose claim to moral privilege and political power too often goes unanswered, but also as an encouraging, inspiring, and liberating word to us.

So what is that inspiring and liberating word in today’s gospel? What the heck is Jesus talking about when he says that he's come to set Mom against her daughter, Dad against son, children against their parents?

One side of it is that Jesus is talking about a fact. In a culture that wants to pay lip service at least to the importance of “family values” above all else, sometimes justice, integrity, and wholeness -- qualities characteristic of Jesus' work among us -- can divide parents from children.

I'm thinking about Zach, a young man of sixteen who lives in Bartlett, Tennessee. Zach loves the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings and rock bands like Good Charlotte and No Doubt, but he'd usually rather read a book than watch T.V. He has an online journal -- a web log, or “blog” -- that describes a good amount of typical teenage drama in sentences that sometimes run on or lack a few capital letters.

Zach hasn't posted anything new to his blog in nearly a month, though. He's been sent away to a place where he's searched bodily every day, he isn't allowed to have keys to his house or a phone to call a friend, or even a photograph or memento to remind him that he has friends with whom he can hang out or play video games, friends who care about him. He was sent against his will to a place where even Bach and Beethoven are banned as secular music and a possible influence to sin.

Zach was sent there by his parents when he finally worked up the nerve to tell them that he's gay. His parents found this place -- a place run by a group called "Love In Action" -- where they hoped that Zach would, with their treatment, become heterosexual. They told Zach that they were sending him there. Zach ran away, but when he came back to try to reconcile with his parents, they did send him there, very much against his will.

That’s the news I got from all of the conventional news organs – the newspapers, the newsletters, the editorials, the other blogs. It’s bad news too, to hear about what goes on in our culture in the name of things like love, or freedom, or democracy, or even in the name of Jesus himself.

But that’s not the only news I read. As a Christian, I read this book, this bible, not as the bad news that sends Zach to a prison camp, but as a source of Good News, the kind that sets Zach, and you, and me, and our world FREE. It’s this book, and reading it both carefully and prayerfully, that tells me what Jesus really comes to do -- to heal, and to love, and however long it takes to grow, to nurture the peace that comes with the fruit of the Spirit. And I stick with this book because when, as in Zach’s case, it separates a son from his father, I know that, in Paul’s words, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and Christ is at work in this situation to bring freedom – freedom that both Zach and his father need. I don't know Zach or his parents personally, but just from reading Zach's blog, I wonder whether the best thing I can pray for Zach is that this conflict will be the start of something much better, that he'll find a way to BREAK AWAY from his parents while staying safe. Zach needs to be among people who, though they're not related to him by blood, will receive him as a beloved brother, a child of God whose every capacity for self-giving and life-affirming love is a gift from God.

I spent the day last Sunday in just that sort of community, standing with people from this parish at a booth at the Gay Pride festival, handing out fortune cookies and brochures and cards with Good News for anyone with ears to hear – that the kind of beloved community and chosen family we all were born to seek is HERE, wherever two or three gather in the name of our shocking and life-giving Savior. That’s GOOD NEWS, for us and for the whole world, as I read about in a very, very Good Book.

But can be very difficult to stand in a place like a Gay Pride festival with a cross around your neck. There are so many people who think – whose parents and pastors may have told them – that all the Cross or the Bible has to offer is condemnation. Worse, yet, there are people who are attracted to the Cross and the Bible for just that reason – because there’s something in them that loves the idea of a judgmental God who hates and wants to punish all the same people that they do.

But they’re not reading carefully enough. If they did, they’d catch a glimpse of what energized St. Paul to proclaim Good News among all people – even, or especially, those who at first could see him only as a lunatic or a heretic. If they did read the whole story – if WE read the whole story – we might find something even more audacious and inspiring to dream about than the best of what we knew to hope for before.

I’ve read to the end of this very Good Book, and I’d like to share with you one of the dreams it’s given me – a dream for Zach. As I said before, I hope and pray that Zach could find the kind of community we’ve experienced here – a community where he could be received as a beloved child of God, and start to take in just how extravagant and unconditional God’s love for him is. But it doesn’t stop there. My dream, my hope -- my vision, as someone who believes with all her heart that the God of Israel, the God who became Incarnate in Jesus, is present and active and powerful to heal and redeem -- is that Zach could, with the support of his new sisters and brothers and an unshakable sense of just how much God loves him, find the strength and the courage to forgive his parents, and that they would be moved to reconcile with him, receiving him as an adult with his own integrity, not as a disobedient son, but as a beloved brother in Christ.

Is that even possible? At the very least, it does take a willingness to risk it, which in turn has to come from a glimpse of the immeasurable height and depth of God’s love for each one of us. But it is possible, with God. That's the Good News in this hard word of Jesus about the gospel inspiring sons and daughters to break from their parents. Our culture wants to paper over cracks and wounds to get us to limp along in relationships with others, relationships with money, relationships with power, and even relationships with God that seem to work superficially, but won’t allow us to experience real freedom, real love, real justice. So it’s Good News that Christ has come to break us out of those old and harmful patterns.

But that isn’t all. The Good News we proclaim – the Good News of this Good Book – is that there is no brokenness, nothing so disordered as to be completely beyond the reach of God's power to redeem. That’s the story of the world, and our story when we claim it. There are a lot of people out there who have told Zach and you and me that what God wants and what the Bible commands is about being good, following the rules that keep the powerful in power, the rich getting richer, the respectable keeping others invisible. But when we take the story of God’s people as our own story and when we wrestle with that story -- all of it -- in community, there is no prior obligation, no person, no cultural imperative, no unjust law, no earthly power that can keep us from our identity in Christ. Our freedom in Christ divides us from all that would oppress us and restores us to one another as members of one Body of Christ, called to ministry and maturity in Christ, co-heirs with the one who sets us free.

Thanks be to God!

June 26, 2005 in Conflict, Isaiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 30, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer Day

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

from House of Light (1990)

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

December 19, 2004

Dancing at the World's End - December 19, 2004

Dancing at the World’s End
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A; December 19, 2004
Romans 1:1-7; Psalm 24:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Rules are rules.

We need it to be that way. Rules make life predictable, and to make meaning, we need things to be at least somewhat predictable. Rules are how we know what's what -- something we need especially with respect to something that's really important. In some ways, you can tell what's really important in our culture by where we tend most to stick to rules -- things you do because that's how it's done.

Rules help us make sense of the senseless. When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, there was a rule that had become law, and we called it "Mutually Assured Destruction." There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. We talked as children about how close we were to what would be a primary target; everyone hoped to be near one of the initial blasts, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age: by mistake or intention, someone launches theirs, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. Mutually Assured Destruction -- the rule that accounted for how we didn't kill each other, and told us how we would eventually kill each other.

Another rule that’s prominent in many of the world’s cultures – cultures of the kind that anthropologists call “honor-shame cultures,” – has been making headlines lately because of how often it’s applied in Kurdistan, in the north of Iraq, now that local authorities are freer to enforce laws as they see fit. It’s a rule about what men are to do when a woman in their family is perceived to have been sexually violated or defiled in some way, whether voluntarily or by force. It’s called an “honor killing”; such a woman is murdered, usually by her own brother or father.

Cultures around the Mediterranean Sea in the ancient world were honor-shame cultures. They practiced honor killings too. Such a killing may be described in the book of Judges, chapter 19, in which a Levite’s concubine is raped, and the Levite responds by chopping her into twelve pieces. But a case like Mary’s, in which a betrothed woman was found to be pregnant and the man to whom she was betrothed knew the child wasn’t his, had a specific penalty commanded by scripture: both the woman and, if his identity was known, the man who had gotten her pregnant were to be stoned to death.

It's serious stuff, but rules are rules. That's what justice is, isn't it?

That's what Jesus upsets from the beginning -- even before he's born.

In this morning’s gospel, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father. He also knows the rules. As a man who is described in the text as “righteous,” you would expect Joseph to play by the rules and turn Mary over to the village authorities to receive the penalty that scripture assigned. That’s why I’d say that verse 19 is best translated as “Joseph, being a righteous man BUT unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Even before the angel intervenes, righteous Joseph resolves to break the rules, divorcing Mary, as would be necessary to dissolve a betrothal, but doing it quietly, hoping that Mary’s kin won’t seek her death to preserve the family honor. Fortunately, Mary’s family breaks the rule of “honor killings” as well.

And then an angel appears to Joseph to tell him that God is breaking the rules too, right down to the biological law that a woman can only conceive a child with a father.

Apparently even God-given laws in scripture and nature were made to be broken.

It’s significant that these are the circumstances in which Jesus was conceived and born. Ancient biographies, unlike modern ones, weren't interested in stages of development, and they certainly weren't interested in surprises. Subjects of ancient biographies were shown as being the same to their dying day as they were the day they were born -- the same the stars proclaimed they'd be at their birth. Jesus was no exception, in Matthew's biography.

Matthew's Jesus is "King of the Judeans," but the first people to recognize his coming, other than Joseph and Mary, are not Jews, but are astrologers, or magi, from eastern kingdoms. Jesus is the person who showed us what true honor is by acting shamelessly, befriending tax collectors and sinners and dying a death on a Roman cross that would -- by the rules, anyway -- be called shameful. Jesus, who has no human father and had no children of his own, incarnates for us the one who is Father to the fatherless.

In other words, Jesus' whole life -- and his being raised to life by the God of Israel after his death -- is, like his conception and birth, a paradox, a justly broken rule.

Here's another rule, one that's trustworthy, by sensible reckonings: you reap what you sow.

But consider that the angel's word to Joseph in this Sunday's gospel is true: Jesus came to save to save people from their sins.

Take a moment to think about what sin is and where it leaves the world -- about everything that speaks and enacts brokenness, despair, dehumanizing people made in the image of God, despising God's good gifts. Think about it. Think about the solutions people have proposed for those things -- a war on poverty, a war on terrorism, eugenics as a "final solution" to make sure that humanity's weaknesses become extinct. Those are from the optimists. The pessimists among us say that there is no salvation from our sins: the poor get poorer, the sick stay poor and (no insurance? sorry -- can't help you!) thus get sicker. They say that the only solution to violence is more violence. They say that the best we can do is to try to keep what we’ve got and protect those we love a world that is steadily going to hell, with or without a handbasket. They say there’s only one way out of this world, and that’s death.

But think about it: an angel of the God of the universe told Joseph that the child who was to be born -- the child whose birth we anticipate in this last Sunday of Advent -- will save people from their sins.

We will not reap what we sow, what our parents sowed.

I started out this morning talking a little bit about the world I grew up in, the world of the Cold War and of Mutually Assured Destruction. And I can tell you about the day when I saw that world end. I was in seminary at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and one morning while we were all having coffee in the common room, someone told us that the Berlin Wall was coming down.

That wall was more than a wall -- it was a world. The world of the Cold War was coming down, and people were dancing on it as it was crumbling. Students left St. Andrews in droves and hitchhiked to ports, bought tickets on ferries, did whatever they had to do to get there and dance with the dancers. They brought back chips of the wall, that thing that was built before we were born and told us how we and the world would die.

One of the few regrets I have in my life so far is that I didn't go.

I had things to do -- classes to attend, papers to write. I had a job waiting on tables that I was afraid to lose. I was afraid that the little money I had wouldn't get me to Berlin, or wouldn't get me back. I was so busy with the life I was living in the world that was ending that I didn't read the signs: that world was ending, and I had the chance to dance with those who were welcoming a new world, one that wasn't doomed to end in massive fireballs or nuclear winter.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. We have spent the last few weeks waiting, listening, watching as people in darkness who yearn for some sign of the light. And the Light of the World is on the horizon now: his name is Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.

The whole world of sin is ending. It's ending now. Imagine that! Without armies or weapons, Jesus has defeated every dark force and impulse that would isolate us from one another and from God. It’s a new world! It's bigger than the end of communism. It’s bigger than the end of terrorism. It is the end of ending and the beginning of beginning.  How foolish it was for me to miss the fall of the Berlin Wall because I was afraid of missing a few theology classes! That’s a mistake I don’t intend to make again. So this morning, as I look to Jesus' Advent, to celebrating Jesus' birth in less than a week, I’m going to pay attention to the signs. When I look to Jesus, I see the world of sin falling. When I'm really in touch with that, there's nothing I won’t drop to dance on the ruins as they fall.

I'm serious -- a world-changing event that makes the fall of the Berlin Wall look like trivia is on its way. It's not a pie in the sky; it's a tree growing from an undying root planted when Mary said "here I am" to God's call, and nurtured by Joseph's doing the right thing by refusing to do what the Law required. It's the end of every damn thing that damns us. Who wouldn't skip class, risk hitching a ride, do what it takes to get to where God's people are dancing there?

It's all happening! There are five days of Advent left to watch for it and get there – to figure out what's holding you back from going to where the stars will reveal the Christ, and make a decision to drop it. The time in which rules are rules is over. The only death needed to end a world of sin happened two thousand years ago. You and I really have been freed. Totally. What would you let slide if you knew that a new world was coming in less than a week? What would you do if the ONLY thing to do were to seek God and God's anointed?

We have received grace and apostleship to bring that to the peoples of the world ... starting with us, right here, right now.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our one Father, and from Jesus the Christ, who saves us from sin.

Thanks be to God!

December 19, 2004 in Advent, Matthew | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 28, 2004

"Jesus Is No Ruthless Master" - November 28, 2004

The Good News of Advent: Jesus is no Ruthless Master
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
November 28, 2004; First Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Matthew 24:37-44

There's a Costco warehouse shop right on my way home from work, and I stop by there frequently to pick up something for dinner. Those vast warehouses can be a little overwhelming any time of year, but it's even more overwhelming at the moment, because several aisles form a gauntlet of Christmas things -- fiber-optic laser displays that flash "SANTA STOP HERE," mechanical snowmen who wave at you with a smile that looks a little too much to me like a maniacal leer, and all kinds of gadgets squawking electronic tidings ahead of the season.

But they’re jumping the gun—it isn't Christmastime yet. We're in the season of Advent, a time of prayerful reflection and keen watching for Christ's coming.

This coming of Christ that we’re waiting for is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one "Easter." It's not the third coming we're looking for either. Wherever two or three have gathered in Jesus' name since Easter, Jesus has come among them, so we must be on about the ummpteen kajillionth coming. The particular coming, or "advent," we look forward to in this season is, in a sense, as mundane and as special as all of those other "advents" have been. It's all of those other "advents," all comings of Christ from the Incarnation up to this Sunday morning, that informs us about what the final Advent, the coming of Christ we look forward to during this liturgical season, really means.

So the first thing to know about the final Advent of Christ is that the person we are expecting in it is JESUS. That's the Good News of Advent. We've met and we know the person who is God's appointed judge for the nations, and it's Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter, the healer and teacher, founder of the Eucharistic feast and friend to tax collectors and sinners.

What we expect in Advent is the completion of the work of Creation, when God made the world and us and said, "It is good," and of the work of the Incarnation, when God lived as a human being among us and showed us in one package what real humanity and real divinity look like. And in the end, that real humanity and real divinity looks like it did in the beginning and in the middle. It's Jesus, the Word of God from the beginning. It's the Jesus we've known since he was first revealed to us, and he is concerned in the end with the same things he was concerned with before his crucifixion.

A look at this Sunday's reading in its immediate context in Matthew makes that clear. Our gospel for this Sunday begins a series of parables with the theme, "be ready for Jesus' coming." I think that Matthew paired the last two parables in that series deliberately in a way that makes clear just why Jesus' coming is Good News and what it is that we do to be ready for it.

The first of these "twins" is a story, found in Matthew 25, verses 14 through 30. If you’ve got a bible with you or you’re sitting in front of a pew bible, I encourage you to open it to Matthew 25:14, which is on page ___ in the pew bibles. This story is often called “The Parable of the Talents,” but I think a better title for it would be the "Story of the Ruthless Master." This is the story of a man described in verse 24 as “a harsh man, reaping where [he does] not sow.” This master profits through the work of his slaves, commanding them to increase his wealth by any means necessary – even lending money at interest, a practice condemned clearly and repeatedly in both Old and New Testaments. Two of the three slaves follow the master’s orders and double the master’s money, but the one who was given least of the three is punished for his refusal to break God’s laws by being stripped of what little he has and thrown out in the darkness to suffer. The “moral,” if we can call it that, in the amoral world of this story’s Ruthless Master, is “to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” – in other words, “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and those who follow God’s law will get nothing for it but punishment.”

You may have noticed in verse 14 that the story does NOT start with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like this,” and that’s because the kingdom of heaven is NOTHING like this! It’s like this story has taken everything that’s wrong in the world – all of the abuses of power and runaway greed in our culture – and has boiled down and distilled them into this horrible slaveowner and the amoral reasoning he gives for his conduct. Is that really what we think is true about the world – that the only way to avoid being left out in the cold is to get everything we can grab? Do we really think it’s true that powerful people can do whatever they want for as long as they want? Do we really think that the Ruthless Masters of this world are the ones who know what’s really important? And the most important question – do we actually think on some level that God is like this Ruthless Master? Do we think that when the time comes for us to meet God’s appointed judge, the question we’ll be asked is, “So, what have you done for me lately? And it better be impressive!”

If that were what God was like, if that were where the world is headed, then the climax of history and the coming of the Son of Man that we anticipate in this Advent season would really be Bad News – something to whisper about fearfully, not proclaim joyfully.

But that isn’t what God is like. That’s not where the world is headed. Matthew follows up the story of the Ruthless Master – his story of what happens when powerful people rule unchecked out of fear and greed – with the “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” a description of what it will look like when Jesus' work among us is completed. That’s the story I preached about on St. Martin’s Day, and there couldn’t be more of a difference between that story and the story of the Ruthless Master. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” (Matthew 25:31), the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats says, he will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The hungry and those who fed them, those without clean water to drink and those who gave them water to drink, the strangers and those who welcomed them, those without clothes and those who clothed them, and convicts in prison and those who visited them, are gathered in to the center, to enjoy God's kingdom.

In other words, the Jesus who is coming to judge the living and the dead is the same Jesus whose whole life – his teaching, his healing, his breaking bread with anyone who would eat with him, and most of all his willingness to die rather than retaliate against those who sought to kill him – speaks of his limitless mercy.

So what we’ll confess in a minute or two – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord, that he’s coming to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end – is truly Good News.

But who do we really say is Lord? Is it the Ruthless Master? If that were so, if the "way of the world" these masters set up were really the way things are always going to be, then the most sensible course of action for us would probably be to do what the others who served the Ruthless Master did: Keep your head down. Work hard. Line the master's pockets, and maybe there will be something in it for you too.

But this Sunday's gospel and this season of Advent proclaim Good News to God's people. The Ruthless Masters do NOT have the last word. Jesus does. The completion of Jesus' vision for the world, in which "the least of these" and those who worked for justice for them are finally vindicated, is coming! The signs are all around us, though some people don't recognize them any more than the kings of the earth recognized the only true Lord when he was a baby, or a homeless man, or a convict on a cross.

But Jesus is Lord nonetheless – Lord of the world and Lord of history itself, its beginning and its end. Is that just something we mumble in the creed, or is it something we testify to with our lives? Do our lives say that life and light belong to those with wealth and power and the might to take it away from others if necessary? Is that where we believe our salvation lies? Or do we live what we confess in the creed: that the judge of the world, the light of the world, the LIFE of the world, is Jesus. Jesus, whose coming was proclaimed in Mary’s song, that “the mighty are cast down, and the lowly raised up.” Jesus, who taught us that the world belongs to the poor and the meek rather than the rich and the powerful. Jesus, the king we serve not just by saying what he said, but by doing what he did.

The world has it half right – in the end, it really is who you know. And the more fully our lives here on earth say that we know Jesus, the more we can say of the present moment that the world tastes of heaven.

Thanks be to God!

November 28, 2004 in Advent, Matthew | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 28, 2004

"Living Into the Parable of Jesus' Life" - March 28, 2004

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; Luke 20:9-19

It’s sometimes said that Jesus’ parables are ways to make truth more accessible, taking complicated theological ideas and putting them in terms that anyone can understand. But in Luke 8:9-10 (and Mk 4:1-9, and Mt 13:1-9), Jesus said that he told his parables for the opposite reason, so that the crowds might not understand. It’s a very puzzling statement, to be sure. But it’s a statement that fits the reality of how puzzling the parables can be when we enter fully into them as stories.

When confronted with these puzzling parables, we are sometimes tempted to resolve the ambiguities by leaping immediately to interpret them allegorically. In an allegorical reading, we start with our expectations – with what we think we know is true.  Then we look at the parts of the story – the characters, the objects, the actions – we decide which character or object in a parable is God, which one is Jesus, and what the other things in the parable represent, and we work toward a truth that is in harmony with our expectations.

But that’s not what the parables are for. Jesus’ parables aren't there to make complicated truths simple, but to complicate what seems to us to be simply true.

The parable in today's gospel is an excellent case in point.  If we leap immediately and not very carefully to allegory, it’s a simple story.  The landowner is God. God sends messengers to people (in particular, to Israel). The people reject the messengers. God sends his son. The people kill the son. So God is going to reject Israel and choose another people. But how well does the parable really fit that interpretation?

For starters, how well does that interpretation fit Luke’s theology? One author wrote Luke and the book of Acts as a single two-volume work that scholars refer to as “Luke-Acts,” and one of the noteworthy features of Luke-Acts is how it shows a continuing and central role for Israel. Indeed, Luke-Acts tells us that the invitation extended in to Gentiles through Jesus is to join Israel, God’s people. Those of you who are familiar with the book of Acts may recall the “apostolic council” in Acts 15, where Luke specifically tells us that among the Christian leaders gathered to make important decisions there are PHARISEES.  Not former Pharisees, but Pharisees.  In Acts (23:6), Paul continues to identify himself as a Pharisee (not a former Pharisee) long after he became an apostle of Jesus. In Luke’s theology, the vineyard of Israel has not been taken away to be given to others; rather it has been opened up by Jesus to new workers called to gather in God’s abundant harvest.

More importantly, is the landowner of the parable really like the God of Israel revealed in scripture and proclaimed by Jesus? Let’s start with the literal details Luke gives us, and examine them in light of what we know about the culture that gave the story to us. The setting of the parable in today’s gospel is one that Luke features in many of his parables. It’s the estate of a wealthy landowner. The landowner does not live on the land, and doesn’t do the work of planting and harvesting. Those who do that hard work are hired laborers and sharecroppers, who have to turn over most of what they grow to the landowner, who in the words of the similar parable in Luke 19, is a hard man, reaping what he did not sow (vs. 20). This absentee landlord does not send messengers out of any great love for the people or the land, but to get the goods that sustain his life of ease in the more cosmopolitan environment of the city.

And in this morning’s parable, the farmers have had enough. The next time the landowner sends one of his lackeys to collect the rent, the farmers send him packing. I can almost hear the cheer that erupted from the audience as Jesus told this parable. Then the landowner sends another henchman to collect the rent, and the farmers again work together to send him away empty-handed. Another cheer goes up from the crowd hearing the story! And then one more person comes riding in on the dusty road from the city – the son of the landowner. The listening crowd’s anticipation grows. Why would the son – the “beloved son,” probably an only child – come, instead of a messenger? Such a thing would usually indicate that the landowner had died, and his son was coming to survey the estate he had inherited. And here comes an opportunity for the farmers. If the son dies and he does not have an heir, the land goes to those who live on it, and the farmers will be free. The farmers do what real men would be expected to do in response to years of exploitation; they rise up and kill the son.

And then comes the twist ... the landowner is not dead, and he does precisely what he would be expected to do under such circumstances: he wreaks terrible revenge, slaughtering the farmers and replacing them with others, so he can return once more to the ease of the city while others earn his bread. I think it’s safe to say that no cheers erupted from the parable’s hearers at that point. The chief priests and the scribes in the audience, who came from the social class of the rich landowner and his hirelings, weren’t cheering; Jesus has just issued a scathing critique of their dealings with their fellow Israelites. The peasant farmers in the audience aren’t cheering; they have just heard a graphic reminder of how escalating the spiral of violence will result in more violence visited upon them and their children. For the landowner’s family and for the peasants alike, standing up for themselves, as their culture expected honorable families to do, brought everyone down.

This is a sobering and challenging word to us this Lent. In what ways are we like the absentee landlord, dependent on others’ exploitation to support our lives of relative ease? How much do we consume without knowing or caring about where our clothes, our coffee, our electronics come from, or at what cost to poor people and the environments in which they live? In what ways are we like the sharecroppers, willing to do wrong to achieve what we think is right, to escalate interpersonal and international conflict in ways that will be visited upon generations to come?

And in what ways are we living into the parable of Jesus’ life, the model Jesus shows us of care for those the world disregards and disregard of the world’s standards of strength and honor? Jesus challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, to care as much for God’s children who make our clothes and shoes, who mine the ore for our electronics and dispose of the toxic computer monitors we toss out when we’re ready for bigger and better ones, as we do for our own children. Jesus challenges us to bless and honor the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.

We vow to do that in our Baptismal Covenant, and it’s the way of the Cross. When we say today to each child who is being baptized, to ____________________“you are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever,” that’s the way to which we are committing our children. But this way is also the truth and the life. It is the way to truly abundant life.  For while exercise of might can bring us to the depths, it is the promise of an absolutely faithful and loving God that the lowly will be raised up; the stone deemed useless has become the keystone on which God’s kingdom is being built. That is the paradox of the Good News we celebrate today.

Thanks be to God!

March 28, 2004 in Isaiah, Justice, Lent, Matthew, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)