September 19, 2004

"Unjustly Forgiven" - September 19, 2004

Unjustly Forgiven
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
September 19, 2004; Proper 20, Year C
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 138; Luke 16:1-13

The parable in today’s gospel has a reputation for being one of the most difficult to understand in Jesus’ ministry. But after spending the better part of two years studying it for my master’s thesis, I came to the conclusion that it’s not as obscure as it might seem, once we get over our resistance to the most obvious interpretation. I’m convinced that the most obvious interpretation comes from looking at precisely what it is that the steward in the parable does, shocking as it is.

In fairly straightforward terms, here’s the plot of the parable:

A very, very rich man lives in a big city (a city like Jerusalem), with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. He’s hired a manager (ot steward) to run it while he parties in Jerusalem, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land, had they not lost it in payment on a debt. So now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at prices far above what their grandparents paid for the same goods), with whatever is left over after they pay their exorbitant rent to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what each family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid – there’s just no way to pay the kind of large debts that accrued under that system of tenant farming. The immediate face of this system is that of the steward -- someone who might have come from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management, but who managed somehow to get the education needed to keep records and to lose the backbone needed to refuse to participate in something so clearly unjust.

At the very beginning of the parable, the landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner's resources (and “squandering” isn’t necessarily a bad word here – the sower in another of Jesus’ parables squanders seed by tossing it on roads and in bird-feeding zones, and the shepherd in last week’s parable potentially squanders the ninety-nine sheep by running after one lost sheep). So, having been fired, the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master’s name. The farmers from whom the steward probably came aren’t about to take him in either, given that up until now he’s allied himself with the landowner by taking a job that involves collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers. That kind of behavior is why the steward is called “the steward of unrighteousness” in verse 8.

So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe the landowner money, and he tells them that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of “a million bazillion kajillion dollars” to something that maybe could be repaid, (maybe) freeing the family to make choices about next steps. With quirks of how records were kept, the steward’s creative accounting involves a few subtle strokes of the (forger’s) pen – much like what students do in changing a handwritten ‘D’ to a ‘B’ on a report card, or in a crooked accountant’s deletion of a zero or two from the records.

The farmers think that the steward is still acting with the master’s authority in all of this; the steward doesn’t tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn’t authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers’ eyes – and the steward, by extension, is also.

The landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is both exhilarating and challenging:

The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They’re shouting his name, telling him he’s a hero.

One of his loyal servants at the estate house breaks the news to him that his ex-steward has told the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts. Now he has a choice to make.

The landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd – the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family – and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward’s generosity was an act of crookedness (or unrighteousness, depending on your perspective) and won’t hold water legally. The cheering will turn to boos … and I wouldn’t want to be the landowner then.

Alternatively, the landowner can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward's actions, in which case he’ll continue to take in the acclaim of the farmers  – but remember that the steward was the bearer of that good news. If the landowner wants to keep the crowd’s favor, he’ll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, who brought such good news of the lord’s generous forgiveness, and the crowd might turn on him.

That’s quite a bind the steward has put the landowner in. I don’t doubt what a sane person in the landowner's situation would do in such circumstances, but either way, the steward goes from scab and scumbag to hero. When the steward retires, the farmers who formerly resented him will gladly take him in, if the landowner won’t.

So we know why the steward does what he did, and we know why the landowner did what he did. Here’s the big problem, for most commentators:

Why is Jesus telling this story? Commentators can argue about who exactly is commending the steward in verse 8, when Luke says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.” The Greek is ambiguous. It says <i>ho kurios</i>, “the lord” or “the master,” commended him, and that could mean either Jesus or the landowner. But even if you say it was the landowner in the story who commended the steward, you still have to wonder why Jesus told this story, unless Jesus meant to suggest that the dishonest steward in some way had something to teach us.

And make no mistake: What the steward does is clearly dishonest. From a capitalist perspective, he’s guilty of all charges, of taking the landlord’s property and squandering it. It was the reason he was fired in the first place, and it’s what he does after he’s fired and therefore is no longer authorized to do anything, let alone alter bills, in the landowner’s name.

Most commentators who are looking for the point of the parable come up with something like this:

“The steward is confronted with a crisis, and he acts decisively. Jesus is saying that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God calls upon us all to act decisively.”

No offense to commentators, but that rings hollow for me. What’s the crisis or decision? And what about the direction of the decisive decision is commendable? After all, if the story had gone something like, “There was a rich man who had a steward and fired him, so the steward decisively concluded that he should form a boy band and inaugurate a tour of Galilee and Judea,” we probably wouldn’t get quite the same point.

So here’s the big question that I haven’t seen commentators in print ask:

Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?

A: The steward forgives debts.

The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that’s the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a difficult position, one in which it seem he couldn’t be reconciled,either&nbsp; to the landowner or to the farmers.

So what’s the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?

It’s a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

Remember, Luke’s version of the “Lord's Prayer” includes the helpful category confusion, “forgive us our sins as we forgive the monetary debts (it’s clear in the Greek) our debtors” (Luke 11:4). I could point to at least a dozen moments off the cuff at which Luke raises this point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.

Why forgive? For a specific example, why forgive the debts of debtor nations? In America, we could get involved in the efforts of groups like Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation to forgive the debts of developing countries and invest in their welfare for the reason that Bono, U2’s lead singer, cited in his recent appearance on the <i>O'Reilly Factor</i>: to raise or maintain the value of the American brand, letting the rest of the world associate “USA” with health and freedom. Or we could do it because of what Jesus said about forgiving debts. Or we could do it because we think leprechauns will then lead us to the land of eternal youth. To paraphrase Nike’s best-known ad campaign, we could just do it.

Or for another example, why forgive someone who’s sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if we’re not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus’ name every Sunday morning, namely, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” and because we know we’d like forgiveness ourselves.

Or we could forgive because we’ve experienced what we’re like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don’t want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus’ power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.

Pretty much every Sunday morning at St. Martin’s, either Tricia or John puts on a stole and stands in front of us doing something rather like what the “unjust steward” in today’s gospel does: declare our debts, whether debts owed to God or to another human being – forgiven. Only they don’t just declare the debt reduced … they declare it erased. Gone. In most cases, they’re not declaring forgiveness of things specifically owed to them. What gives them the right?

Today’s gospel says that Jesus gives them the right. Jesus gives US the right. And furthermore, Jesus’ example gives us the obligation – or, if you prefer, the freedom. Jesus gives a good reason to remain in fellowship (or “in communion,” if you want a more technical term). Jesus gives us a good reason to be gracious. Jesus gives us a good reason to give up any and all scorekeeping.

For what reason? For the good of our soul, because of our of our own sense of being forgiven, for any reason at all. Pick any reason! It doesn’t matter. If a guy who was a scab and a scalywag can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net after he’s been fired, we who have experienced real grace – grace from Jesus, grace in this community – have much better reason to forgive. We’ve got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on. We’ve got a mission, and a mission given to us from God. We’ve got the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord. The time has come to just do it.

Amen, and thanks be to God!

September 19, 2004 in Amos, Forgiveness, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 16, 2004

"Fear Not, O Soil" - May 16, 2004

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 67; John 14:23-29

As you may remember, last week we had some excellent guest preachers, who chose as their subject Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you." What impressed me most about their sermon is how open they were in talking about the barriers and struggles they (and we) encounter trying to live into that command.

They're a tough act to follow, so I want to build on the important things -- the crucial things, the foundational things -- they said to us last week. Those things were crucial and foundational for those of us who want to follow Jesus because when Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," there’s a good chance that the word he is referring to specifically is the "new commandment" from last week's sermon, the commandment from John 13:34 to love others as Christ loves us. Last week's gospel told us that our love proclaims whose disciples we are; this week's gospel builds on that by saying that our love for others is how we experience God's love for us, and how we make where we live into God's house, God's home, the place where God's Spirit lives on earth.

Some of you have heard me talk about the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus was growing up, that was the place he was told was God's house, God's home, and he was told what made it possible for God's Spirit, God's holiness to be present there to an extent not possible any place else. Such a holy place had to be carefully guarded and protected. The conventional wisdom is that pure things are pure because they haven't come into contact with anything dirty. As soon as something dirty -- even something little -- penetrates into something that's clean, the dirtiness has spread, and the whole thing is dirty. For example, let's say I'm baking a cake for a special dinner. I've made the batter, and I pour it into the pan. Then I remember that I need to scoop out the catbox before the guests arrive, so I make my way to the bathroom where the catbox is, set down the cake pan next to the box, and start scooping the catbox. Just a little tiny piece of what I'm scooping from the catbox falls into the cake pan. Can I go ahead and bake the cake, and tell my guests that there's only one chunk from the catbox in the cake, so if they get the slice of cake with the cat-generated surprise in it, they can just pick it out, or let me know and they'll get a new slice? I don't think so; the minute the tiniest chunk from the catbox gets in the cake, the whole cake has to be thrown out. That's why not very many people would have the cake pan anywhere near the catbox. Pure things have to stay well away from dirty things to stay pure. If your hands are clean, you can't touch something dirty, or your hands will be dirty. So God's people guarded the purity of the Holy of Holies very carefully, because if the wrong sort of person, a dirty person, got in, the place wouldn't be clean. And God's house has to be clean, right? Conventional wisdom is that God's holiness, God's purity, means that God can't live in a place where impurity or sin dwells. Conventional religious wisdom in many quarters still says that if we take seriously that this is God’s house, if this is a place where God is to be at home, we must be very careful here to keep everything in its place – if we can’t keep the dirt outside where it belongs, at least we should make sure everyone knows just how dirty we think it is.

That’s conventional wisdom. But you know what's coming, don't you? How much does Jesus teach conventional wisdom? St. Paul puts it well: Christ's wisdom is foolishness to the world. The world says that you make a place clean by separating out the dirt, by keeping dirt in its place, in the flower beds outside. And I think some of our anxiety about dirt and what to do with it springs from our knowledge that we are dirt. We see others as dirty because they remind us of something in ourselves that we don't want to face. We have to make our boundaries between us and them, pure and impure, clear because we don't want others to think we're like those people, the ones who do those awful things. Those people are dirt; our hands are clean.

But God formed each and every one of us from the dirt; we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Each and every one of us –rich and poor, gay and heterosexual, black and brown and white, torturers and tortured, the virtuous and the wicked – all six of the people worldwide who might actually fall into either of those categories – and the vast teeming billions of us who are not virtuous or wicked, but neither and both of them at once – each and every one of us was formed of the same dirt. The same rain falls on each of us, and the same sun shines above us in the same sky. The same God blesses us with that sun and rain.

If the pew Bibles I’ve ordered were here, I’d ask you to open them right now to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, so we could take a look at the demand Jesus makes there of those of us who presume to call ourselves Jesus’ followers. It’s one that sounds impossible: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Perfect? Doesn’t God know that we’re creatures of earth, that we’re dirt? But here’s how Jesus defines being perfect like God is perfect: it’s loving like God loves. Specifically, it’s about being every bit as indiscriminate as God is, in sending the same rain, the same sun, the same love and the same blessing on each and every one of us – and lest we start thinking that means, “each and every one of us good people,” Jesus specifically says, in Matthew 5:45, “on the righteous and the unrighteous.” If you want a “biblical morality,” that’s it.

But surely God doesn’t expect us not to discriminate between bad people, dirty people, and good people – people like us? God doesn’t, but if that’s not enough to tell us that such indiscriminate love and blessing is God’s will, then maybe we should take a moment to remember that in the biblical story, in our story as God’s people, we are not only all formed of the same dirt, but as humans we are all given life by the same Spirit, by God’s spirit breathed into the dust we are. That’s what Genesis tells us.

God's Spirit does not dwell in spotless temples of white marble, but in earthen vessels. The temple where God's Spirit dwells, the place where Christ and God the Father make their home on earth, is in the dirt. It's the Body of Christ. We don't need to get rid of the dirt to make Christ's home, to be Christ's Body, to build the temple; we need to love the dirt. Get rid of the dirt, and we’re not cleaning house; we’re driving God’s temple out of our church – the church we call ours when we forget that it’s God’s. The church we call ours when we forget that it is Christ’s Body, where our Baptismal Covenant obligates us to seek and serve Christ in all others.

This is in no way saying that we should take God's presence among us lightly, or that we can experience the fullness God wants for us without hard work done intentionally over a lifetime. But it's not the sort of work we might think. It's not trying to get rid of what's dirty, or trying to be different from those dirty people out there. It's the work of seeking out those we're tempted to think of as dirt, whoever that is, and loving them as Christ loves us. If we want to experience God's purity, we need to go out and make some mud pies. Because as we learn to love those who stretch our ability to love, we see the face of God. As we learn to love dirty people, we can recognize that we too are people of earth, of dirt, and we experience what we can't understand with worldly wisdom: God's holiness, God's purity does not flee from dirt, but requires it, as God's purity is pure love and forgiveness.

So Jesus’ word to us in today’s gospel is “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Don’t be afraid of getting dirty, of experiencing our shared human identity as creatures of earth. Or as our Old Testament reading says, "do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice!" Don’t worry about what will happen when we bestow our blessing as freely as God blesses us with sun and rain and the breath of life, of God’s Spirit. Open the doors of God's house WIDE. If we’re going to call this God’s house, we should invite every creature of earth to come in and join the feast. Don't fret about whether they'll track in the dirt from outside. And don't look for ways – especially not on the Lord’s Day – to make people ashamed of dirt. That’s not the Word Jesus asks us to keep. We are called as God’s people to proclaim God's word that God is in the midst of God's earthy people, and God's people shall never be put to shame.

Thanks be to God!

May 16, 2004 in Easter, Inclusion, Joel, John, Purity, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 18, 2004

"Touching Is Believing" - April 18, 2004

Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 5:12a, 17-22, 25-29; John 20:19-31

The Second Sunday of Easter is always the Sunday of Thomas “the twin,” sometimes called “doubting Thomas.” And here at St. Martin’s, it’s also a day when we baptize children, so I find myself reflecting on the connection between the Baptismal Covenant and this Sunday’s gospel, in particular Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to believe.”

In many ways, it’s a puzzling statement. It certainly goes against some modern sensibilities. A lot of the scientific quests of the 20th century seem predicated on the assumption, “blessed are you who, because you won’t settle for somebody else’s word for it, finally see for yourself.” A lot of us grew up with that assumption, so Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to believe” is counter-intuitive. It goes against a modernist view that stories are for children and fools, that what we really need, what life is all about, is “facts,” things to which the authorities – the newspapers, the pundits, the four out of five dentists – attest, things that are measurable and therefore feel more certain.

But, Greek geek that I am, I have to take a look at the wording that the gospel uses. When Jesus is talking about “believing” here, he’s using variations on the word pistis. Pistis is often translated in our English bibles as “faith,” but it would be more accurately translated as “trust” or “allegiance.” Pistis, the “belief” that Jesus speaks about here, is NOT saying yes in your head to some kind of doctrinal statement or creed. Throughout the gospels, Jesus seems pretty uninterested in that kind of thing. That’s especially true in John, in which Jesus talks about “the truth” not as a creed, a confession, or a theology, but as a person – specifically, as the person of Jesus. The pistis, the “faith” that Jesus commends in today’s gospel, is not trying to convince yourself that an idea is true; it’s an allegiance, a willingness to invest in a relationship, to be true to a person.

That speaks powerfully to correct folks on the opposite end of the spectrum from the “blessed are you who must see for yourself” crowd. I’m talking about those of us who are tempted to say, “blessed are you who are willing to sign off on this handy creed I’ve got of things all right-thinking Christians believe, even if every experience you’ve got of love and of life go against it.” And by the way, I don’t think that either end of any theological or political spectrum has a monopoly on this way of thinking. But this way of thinking, the kind of “belief” that means trying your darndest to talk yourself into assenting intellectually to an idea, is at best a distraction from what Jesus is talking about, from the kind of faith that we’re talking about when, in the Baptismal Covenant, we say, “I believe.”

The whole continuum, the whole debate between the “blessed are those who won’t agree to something without proof” and the “blessed are those who will agree with what I think is the right interpretation,” has little to say in the end about faith, about the kind of belief to which young ________________________ are being committed today in baptism. What we’re committing our children to this day, what we’re recommitting ourselves to this day, isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing; it’s about trusting and uniting. There’s a leap of faith being taken today, but it’s not one of saying yes with our lips and our brains to an idea or an ideology; it’s of saying an irrevocable yes with our hearts and our hands to a person and a community.

But I’m going to side with Thomas for a moment here. Don’t say yes to Jesus before you’ve met the risen Jesus for yourself. Would you marry someone before you’d met them? Probably not. And those of us who are married know well that when you get married, you’re marrying into a family; best to meet the family too. In Jesus’ case, it’s not as hard as some might think.

If you want to meet the risen Christ, it’s as simple as hanging out where he hangs out. Invest compassion as well as time and treasure with those with whom Christ suffers today. Find a stranger on the road you can invite to break bread with you and your fellow travelers. Listen deeply for Christ’s voice where two or three are gathered in his name. In short, don’t rely solely on books, or even on solitary prayer to find Jesus. Connect with Christ in community. Thomas was absolutely sure of one thing before he saw the risen Jesus for himself. He knew that if Jesus was alive, Jesus would be seen in the flesh.

Thomas was right. We still encounter Jesus in the flesh. We might not see him with our eyes, but we’ve got something in common with Thomas: the surest way for us to encounter the risen Jesus and to know him as Lord and God is by touching (and being touched by) Christ’s Body.

And that brings me back to baptism and our Baptismal Covenant. We can’t live the life of the baptized outside of community, without other human beings with whom we can form relationships of justice, whom we can love, whom we can forgive, and from whom we can receive what Christ wants to give – the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. I love to hear conviction in the congregation’s cry of “We will!” in our vow to support the baptized as they live into the covenant they’ve made, or their parents have made on their behalf. Our journey isn’t always easy; Jesus’ call to proclaim Good News with our lives, to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, to strive for justice and peace among ALL people and respect the dignity of EVERY human being, is as much in tension with our culture as it was in first-century Palestine. The new disciples will need our support. And we need theirs. We need all of the gifts, the creativity, and even the wounds of Christ’s Body to know life in Christ.

We need to meet the risen Jesus to know eternal life in our own lives. We need to be nourished with the Body of Christ, and not just on Sunday mornings. The more demanding our lives, the less we can afford to go it alone. However and whenever you can do it, I urge you to be every bit as demanding as Thomas. Touch the Body of Christ. It’s a gift that is all the more precious for being broken. Do it in the Connect? class, which starts tonight. Do it as you break bread with friends at a weekday lunch. Do it at home and at work, as you seek and serve Christ in those around you and as you intentionally surround them with prayer. Do it and you meet the risen Christ.

It must have been hard for those who saw Jesus before his death on the Cross to understand how they could see his face in the face of a child, or an old woman, or a community, to trust that they could meet the risen Jesus amongst their bickering fellow disciples, or amongst the enemies they feared. They thought they knew Jesus’ face, having seen him in Galilee.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and who have come to trust. When we are willing to touch the wounds of the Body of Christ, as we are willing to bare our own wounds to our brothers and sisters in Christ’s body, we find the life, the healing, the joy we long for. We find Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

April 18, 2004 in Baptism, Faith, John, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 09, 2004

"Christ Our Passover: Our Exodus from the Narrow Places" - April 9, 2004

Good Friday, Year C
Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 69:1-23; John 18:1 - 19:37

Matthew, Mark, and Luke present Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – the meal we remember particularly on Maundy Thursday – as a Passover meal. The Gospel According to John, however, goes out of its way to say that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation, the day before the Passover meal would be eaten. I find the question, though, of which day was the one on which Jesus died far less interesting than the question of what points the gospels are making in presenting things as they do in each of their unique takes on the meaning of Jesus’ death.

John presents Jesus as dying on the Day of Preparation as part of his presentation of Christ as our Passover. In 1998, I was fortunate enough to hear Rabbi Alexander Schindler (former head of Reform synagogues in the U.S.) speak, and I will never forget something he said. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means “the narrow place,” Schindler pointed out; God leads us out of the narrow places.

I’d always loved the haggadah, the liturgy of the Passover meal, but each year, as I continue to reflect on what Rabbi Schindler taught me that night, my appreciation deepens further still. The haggadah instructs us to say, in the first person, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” from Deuteronomy 26:3-11. The story of our Exodus, as God leads us from “the narrow place,” goes back at least to Abraham. When humanity’s vision of the world and the powers that made it is in the narrow place of thinking that the gods are as thirsty for human bloodshed as humankind is at our worst, in a culture in which parents sacrificed their sons and daughters so they could be more successful in agriculture, politics, or war, God’s voice speaks to Abraham as he loomed over his bound son Isaac, and God says, "Stop it! That’s enough!" God goes with Abraham to that dark and narrow place and led him to a wider place, a wider vision of who God is and what God wants from us.

The Passover haggadah instructs us to say, in the first person, “When we were slaves in Egypt,” from that same passage in Deuteronomy. “When we were slaves in Egypt,” we are called to remember. And in the Passover, we remind ourselves that when humanity sees power merely as domination, when humanity treats difference as a reason to subjugate the “other,” God raises a prophet to say, “Enough,” to lead us out of the “narrow place” of slavery, into the wilderness in which we are freed to become God’s people, and to treat one another as God treats us.

Not that we stayed looking and moving forward on the journey God set us on with Abraham and Moses. Humanity’s history, or even the front page of any major newspaper today, tells of us sacrificing our sons and daughters to all kinds of powers and causes, trading lives for what is far less precious than life. We enslaved peoples captured in wars, from colonies, or by poverty and debt, practicing slavery in legally enshrined and more subtle de facto ways. We experienced how, when we treat human life as cheap, our own lives seem worthless. We found as we enslaved others that our greed had enslaved us. We tried to protect ourselves from death by killing, from violence by violence, from pain by wounding others, and amidst all of our score-keeping and fantasied and practiced revenge, and in the person of Jesus, God said, “THAT’S ENOUGH. Never again.”

So there is Good News on this Good Friday, in this dark place. And the Cross is a dark place, a monument to how we, “blessed with reason and skill,” in the words of one of our Eucharistic prayers, make use of God’s gifts to engineer darker and narrower prisons for ourselves. The Roman culture that invented the Cross was known for its ingenuity in making use of simple and natural forms for engineering. Shape stones a certain way, and they form an arch that will support tremendous structures, held together by gravity and friction in a way that makes mortar a mere formality. Chart the right pathway for it, and water can be propelled over a tremendous distance solely by natural gravity in aqueducts.

And perhaps the height of Roman engineering, ingenious in its simplicity, was the cross. Take heavy posts, and set them along the busy roads into the city. Set brackets in them to receive a horizontal beam. Nail or even tie a man’s hands to a beam, set that beam across the pole in brackets, and you have an excruciating form of torture and slow death that takes little time or effort to start but days to finish. Rulers like Pontius Pilate didn't hesitate to use it. It was diabolically simple, cost-effective and highly visible as a public deterrent to those who would oppose the might of Rome. During the Passover season, as Jerusalem became clogged with pilgrims remembering how their God liberates slaves from their oppressors, Pilate lined the roads with hundreds of crosses, each filled with a living tableau of how narrow and dark a prison we can make of our imagination when we set it upon wounding others.

In the person of Jesus, God came to that dark and narrow place, to our Mitzrayim. In Jesus’ arms, stretched out on the Cross, God showed us the wideness of God’s mercy. The most powerful person in all Creation became powerless for our sake. The only person who could rightly be called “lord” or “king,” the person before whom all earthly kings will one day kneel, took upon himself the treatment humankind dealt to a slave convicted of treason. The judge of the nations was stripped naked – no loincloth to cover him – set to suffer anonymously among hundreds of anonymous suffering and disgraced men, and violated with a shameful death. How often do I hear someone these days say, “God will not be mocked!” But Jesus, God made flesh, was mocked, and humiliated, and tortured, and murdered, and on that dark day said, finally and for all time, “That’s enough. Never again. IT IS FINISHED.” Not with a decisive blow back at his tormentors to put them to shame, but with words of healing, of reconciliation, bringing together the human family with his last breath. The power of that demonstration has never been equaled, because Jesus’ power is not like the power of worldly kings. Jesus speaks truly when he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of the order, of the kosmos, of this world. What earthly ruler do you know who would behave as Jesus does in such dark times? But Jesus’ light shines all the more brightly in the darkness of Good Friday.

This is a dark place we visit today. But we need to be here. We need to visit the dark and narrow places, to open our hearts not only to the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed, but to the contemptuous, the persecutors, the oppressors. Because the dark places in our hearts are populated by all of these; we scorn and despise and persecute and try to kill what we most fear in ourselves. It’s hopeless – or it would be hopeless … but Jesus put an end to that. There is freedom for slaves and slavers alike through the one who became as a slave to all, as we discover in this dark place. All scores were settled in the refusal of this one to settle the score. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as we discover in the midst of our Mitzrayim, our narrow place. The darkness and the fear and the pain and death itself have been cast out: IT IS FINISHED. Sacrificing our sons and daughters in Haiti, or for that matter in Baltimore and D.C., to the narrowness of mind that follows poor or no education because of our narrowness of vision: IT IS FINISHED. Enslaving one another and ourselves to ambition and injustice because of our narrowness of heart: IT IS FINISHED. The God of the universe has proclaimed definitively, for all time: Enough bloodshed. Enough shame. Enough suffering. In our narrowness of spirit, we once thought these were needed to set things right, but one greater than Moses has freed us for all time from that narrow place.

And we are free. Free to love, free to serve, freed from every system and every habit that made us, those we love, and our world suffer. It is finished – all of it – and we are free to claim the vision of a world made new, the immeasurable wideness of God’s mercy.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.

April 9, 2004 in Atonement, Genesis, Holy Week, John, Justice, Passover, Year C | 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)

March 14, 2004

"Repentance and Grace" - March 14, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

February 15, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s grace. Thanks be to God!

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

January 11, 2004

"Baptized Into Imperfect Community" - January 11, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

December 21, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

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