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.

Listen!

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

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)

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)

September 14, 2003

"Wrestling with God in Grief" - September 14, 2003

Proper 19, Year C
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 116:1-8; Mark 8:27-38

When I was a child, I loved the book Horton Hears a Who. I knew every word on every page, from the dedication to the very end of the story, and I think that’s why I loved it so much. Every now and then, my mother (who I think could recite the book from memory to this day) would try to shorten the story, or she might have changed something to see whether I was still awake, and whenever she deviated from the story I knew and loved, she got a sternest reprimand a child could muster.

Peter grew up with stories too, and chief among them was the epic story of Israel’s relationship with God. Peter knew stories about high priests, anointed to offer pure sacrifices, to restore and keep a Temple according to God’s word, which had been received by Moses and passed down the generations to the present. He knew stories about kings anointed by God to rule justly and lead Israel to victory in battle over her enemies.

And Peter knew that where Israel was in his own lifetime was not where it was supposed to be – but this too was part of the story. Israel, and particularly kings and priests, do go astray. And then God sends prophets. That’s what happens in the middle of the story. But that doesn’t go on forever – there’s an end to the story, and here’s how it goes. God is going to anoint the kind of high priest we’ve always wanted – one who will establish a line of priests that won’t go astray – not ever. And God is going to anoint the kind of king we’ve always wanted – a king like David, only without that regrettable weakness for adultery and murder. A king anointed by God to take the Holy Land of Israel for the people of Israel. And the story ends with that anointed king and his sons ruling from Jerusalem forever, while that anointed high priest offers sacrifices the way they’re supposed to be offered.

That’s the story Peter knew. And while he had heard it ever since he was a child, it wasn’t just a children’s story. People had fought and died for this story. Peter himself had left his family, his village, and everything he had because he was convinced that Jesus was more than a prophet to try to move the story along – that Jesus was a messiah – that’s the Hebrew word – or a Christ – that’s the Greek word for the same thing – both mean “anointed.” Peter thought that Jesus was anointed to wrap this story up, to bring in that long-anticipated ending – the end that the prophets told, the end where God’s justice is the law of the land, where everyone who lost their livelihood, their friends, their family, or their lives would be paid back in full, in joy.

Or let me put it in Lord of the Rings terms: Peter might have been wondering whether Jesus was anointed as the wise priest, like Gandalf, or the true king, like Aragorn, but Peter thought that this was the last volume in the trilogy, Return of the King – the final chapter of Israel’s saga, the final defeat of evil, the final vindication of the long-suffering good guys, the happy forever after. That’s what Peter is saying when he tells Jesus that he is Christ, the anointed.

And then Jesus burns the script. Our translation says he “sternly ordered” his followers not to proclaim him as anointed. The English loses some of the force of the Greek, which in effect has Jesus saying, “SHUT UP – that’s enough of that kind of talk.” Jesus is not willing to cast himself in the role that others have for him.

Now the story we’re most familiar with here is the one from the Gospel of Mark, not the story of the conquering messiah with which Peter grew up, so it’s not always easy for us to sympathize with Peter. But I want to take a moment today to connect with where Peter is in today’s reading.

We’ve read the end of the book. We know Jesus is right. But right here, right now, Peter doesn’t know that. I’m not sure he’d feel much better if he did know that. He’s disappointed. More than that – he’s got to be hurt, and confused, and angry. He gave up everything he had to follow this man, and right now, he’s got to be feeling that Jesus was leading him on. I can hear him thinking: It’s not supposed to be this way!  You know, you do everything right – OK, not everything, but what more could I do? You said you were ushering in the KINGDOM OF GOD, and now you’re saying that we’re headed for suffering, death, and disgrace. And yes, I said ‘we’ – what do you think will happen to us if that’s where you’re headed?

Peter was angry – at least as angry as Jesus was – with the kind of anger that comes from losing something that matters. And I know that feeling. I’ve felt that way about my brother’s death in 1996. He was two years older than me, and that year he was 28. He was handsome and charming – a bit of an underachiever, floundering a bit like a lot of us do in our twenties – but he had the rest of his life to get it together, to get married, have kids … he was going to be a writer, but I always thought he would end up in politics. That’s how it was supposed to be, anyway. Not all of the details of his story were solid in my mind, but I can tell you that leukemia was not in the plan. And there was no time to make an alternative plan – nobody, including him, had any idea that he was ill until after he’d died. How much sense does that make? Where is God in that?

And here we are, two years after September 11th – the September 11th – and still, when I think about it, and when I’m deeply in touch with how I feel about it, I’m still angry. I’m still grieving. I went to a memorial webpage this week, where I saw row upon row of faces, and I read stories and notes from people who loved those who died, and people who were still asking why. I’m still grieving for them. And I’m grieving for something else – for the loss of that story I knew, the story I told myself was my life, in which violence felt predictable, something I could avoid if I exercised good sense.

I think it feels even worse in a situation like Peter’s, when you feel that you’re in this painful place specifically because you’re following Jesus. I know that there are people in the church who feel that way about the General Convention vote to confirm the election of an openly gay bishop. There’s a real sense of loss, real grief, and real anger coming out of grief. Having experienced that kind of grief and anger myself, I can say that sometimes it just doesn’t help to hear a rational or theological explanation, any more than I found it comforting when someone would say that my brother died because God needed him as an angel, or that God’s plans are always good. It wasn’t comforting. It didn’t diminish grief in the least.

If we are blessed to live long enough, and to love deeply enough, we will at some point experience grief. And if we love and trust God, at some point we’re going to be disappointed and angry with God, as Peter was with Jesus. For me, it hasn’t helped when I’ve been grieving to hear about how God is really right, this is for the best, and I should just get over it. What has helped has been looking at passages like this, or the psalms, or Job, and letting myself do what those grieving people did.

They rebuked God. Maybe they weren’t right, but that’s where they were. They were angry, and they let themselves be angry. And God took it. That’s part of who God is.

And God understands who we are and how we struggle. The name “Israel” comes from when Jacob wrestled with an angel in the book of Genesis. Jacob wrestled with that angel until the sun rose, and he left that encounter with a dislocated hip and a new name – “Israel,” meaning “the one who struggles with God.” And he left with something else – a blessing. “Struggles with God” is the name God gives to God’s people, and God blesses us even as we contend with God. God can take our anger, scary as it might be to let loose with it.

It can be scary to be in touch with being angry with God. It was frightening for us as children to be angry with our parents, for at least two reasons. Children can be so overwhelmed with their experience of anger that they fear it could erupt in a literal way, like a volcano, and annihilate the ones they love. When we experience intense anger even as an adult, it brings up some of those old fears, and we’re tempted to deny or rationalize our anger or to project it someplace else. On top of that, we grew up with parents who were very human – as human as we are – and sometimes they had just as hard a time with anger as we did. Children can see how adults in their lives sometimes pull away when confronted with anger, and they get scared that those adults upon whom they depend to care for them will abandon them if they express anger. Sometimes, we harbor remnants of those fears in our dealings with God. We’re frightened of being angry with God because we know that we need God and God’s love. But God’s love is never at risk. We can rail at God and God won’t run from us, won’t love us any less. When we take the risk of being open with God about our anger, we may find God being open with us about ways we need to grow, but we will also discover that God can and does receive us as we are. Jesus responded to Peter’s rebuke with some hard words of his own, but he stayed in relationship with Peter, demonstrating a constant love and infinite patience Peter could not have found anywhere else – the kind of love and perseverance that would sustain Peter when he was ready to take in what Jesus was saying and take up his own cross. God gives us the love we need in the midst of anger to begin to heal, not ignoring the pain, but staying connected through it.

Healing is what we need, and willingness to acknowledge both the pain we experience with loss and our need to stay connected through it is how the healing starts. If we grasp too quickly for an explanation or a course of action that will resolve everything in painful times, we’re rushing for that final chapter in a way that risks losing our place in the story. And while the details of the story may not all be mapped out, it’s a good story. God is author of our salvation, the story one of redemption, of a love so powerful that it can and will eventually transform the world and everything in it. It’s the story of a loving God who shares our righteous anger, and who receives our childish anger with as much grace as the childlike love we offer. That’s the story we live whenever we can live in the moment we’re in, when our own heights and depths serve to reveal the height and depth of God’s love.

Thanks be to God!

September 14, 2003 in Mark, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns | Permalink | Comments (1)