Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Communion to Renew the Covenant: A Sermon for World Wide Communion Sunday

Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9; Psalm 137

In the Christian church year, we are in the season that leads up to Advent.  In the Christian liturgical tradition, some portions of Lamentations that are also read during Holy Week are included in the readings for today.

Both Jewish and Christian interpretations of these passages deal with a spiritual world that is transformed into an alien place overnight.  Psalm 137 tells the story of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, bce.  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  The ancient Hebrew people who experienced the original exile were physically uprooted and marched away into captivity in the 6th century, bce.  The commemoration of that day happens on the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar, which this year was July 19.

The 9th of Av also memorializes the day when the Romans destroyed the Temple in about the year 70.  The foundation of the Jewish community was obliterated.  From then on, the Jewish religion changed from one focused on the Temple in Jerusalem to an itinerant religion in permanent exile until the founding of the nation of Israel in 1949.  As another historical aside, that day – the 9th of Av – was deliberately chosen for the day when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

These are powerful texts in the history of the struggle by the Jewish people for justice.  We should use them with respect.  With that in mind, as Christians get ready for the season of Advent, we remember that everything Jesus’ followers had come to trust was destroyed by his death.  Because they were devout Jews, who lived their tradition, they would have turned to these scriptures for solace.  So with this week’s reading we remember our own exile from God’s kingdom, and we claim the promise of deliverance by the Messiah to come.

Even in the midst of his unspeakable grief over the loss of Jerusalem, the writer of Lamentations trusts that God will make things right in the end.  Lamentations 3:19-26 says: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases . . . the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”   God will restore the covenant with the people.  Remember that when the people were forced out of Jerusalem, Jeremiah stayed behind in the occupied city.  Jeremiah knew the people would return from exile.  He trusted in God so much that he bought a field that had been abandoned by one of the exiles, and agreed to hold it until the proper owners returned.

The lectionary reading from Luke for this Sunday sends us to a scene in which Jesus’ disciples ask him to increase their faith.  But Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  Then Jesus goes on to make the point that no one invites a servant to eat dinner with them.  Instead, the boss commands the servant to make dinner for the boss, and eat later alone.  Jesus tells the disciples they are more like the servants who do only what they are ordered or obliged to do.  Jesus is reminding his disciples that anyone with faith as small as a mustard seed has the power of faith that can propel mulberry trees to throw themselves into the ocean, but service to others is what really matters.  And service to others is far more difficult. The passage from Luke reminds us about the power of even the least amount of faith in Jesus.  And the writer of the second letter to Timothy urges continued courage in the struggle to spread that faith – the gospel of the Christ.

The disciples did not understand what Jesus was talking about when they asked him to increase their faith.  Jesus did not mean that faith as tiny as a mustard seed could literally cause a mulberry tree to throw itself into the sea. What Jesus meant was a radical abandonment of self-interest.  That means a willingness to give up our own well-being and act as servants or slaves who only do the master’s bidding.

Luke’s Gospel is full of examples of fairly well-to-do folks who are concerned only with their own personal welfare.  There is the man who has harvested a bumper crop, and has built huge barns to store all of his wealth in, but that very night he dies.  There are the Pharisees who insist on the front row seats in the synagogues, and demand proper greetings in the streets.  There is the prodigal son, who takes his inheritance and squanders it.  Luke’s Jesus says on several occasions that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; that the servant is greater than the master.  His point is that whenever we are more interested in the etiquette of seating and service, dinner and entertainment, and how to safeguard our own wealth, we lose touch with the power of God to transform the world in which we live.  The mulberry tree stays firmly planted in the yard.

The problem is that when we do follow Jesus into a life as a servant or slave we very easily find ourselves in a kind of exile.  When we align with the fringes of the communities in which we live – such as the immigrant community, or gays in the military – we are doing something counter-cultural.  Our ministry becomes contrary to what the rest of society thinks is proper or good.  We might get threatening phone calls; our neighbors may stop talking to us.  We may get crosses burned in our front yards.

To paraphrase the desolation of the exiles in Babylon in Psalm 137, sometimes we feel like leaning our guitars against the wall, and throwing ourselves down on the banks of the Potomac River at the Watergate amphitheater across from the Pentagon, and weeping.  How can we possibly sing the Lord’s song of justice-compassion in a land where highly qualified men and women are denied their calling as warriors because of their sexual orientation?  How can we possibly sing the Lord’s song of liberation in a land where immigrants have no right to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care?  How can we sing the Lord’s song of love in a land where hatred and fear holds sway?

The kind of faith Jesus actually taught is trust in the power of choosing to participate in God’s Kingdom of justice-compassion, which changes the very contours of the world – or, in 21st century language, shifts the paradigm.  The paradigm shift Jesus spoke of most often is the radical abandonment of self-interest individually, collectively, socially, politically, globally.  Prophets – such as Habakkuk and the writer of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and Jeremiah himself – not only believed, they knew that God would act in real time to return the people to their land, and restore God’s covenant.

But how does God act? Psalm 37 tells us we should rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him. The expectation seems to be that we don’t have to do anything.  Somehow a bolt of lightning will strike, and the world will be transformed: Slaves will be free; poverty will end; racism and bigotry against immigrants and other outcasts will be a thing of the past.  The wolf will eat grass like the cow, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and a little child will play in the snake pit without fear.  Many Christians believe that will happen in the twinkling of an eye when Jesus comes back, riding in the clouds.

But the early Christian leaders – including the Apostle Paul, and the ones who wrote the Gospel stories – realized very soon that when Jesus did not reappear, the people began to lose heart. When we believe in a God that resides only in the Temple, which we listen to only on Sunday, and which we expect to intervene on our behalf, the result is alienation – exile from God’s love – powerlessness, hopelessness, and fear.  The same thing happened during the long years of Babylonian exile in the 6th Century bce.  So what did the prophets tell the people?

“How long . . . shall I cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” the prophet complains – and God answers: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . .”  Habakkuk  2:2-3.

“Covenant” does not mean passively waiting for God to do something spectacular. “Covenant” means active partnership in God’s work to restore God’s rule.  And God’s rule has always been justice-compassion.  When we trust the spirit of covenant with justice-compassion in our hearts, we can transform the way we live life on this planet.  The writer of 2 Timothy says, “. . . for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love . . .” (2 Tim. 1:7).  That’s what it means to cause mulberry trees to transport themselves into the sea.

“Covenant” means a never-ending reclaiming of spirit from the ease of complicity with the powers that seem to be.  Covenant is counter-cultural.  This is why we most need to wait for the Lord and to trust – to have the kind of faith that does shift the paradigm.  Psalm 37 says, “Trust in the Lord and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.  Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.  He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”  God will act by giving us the courage to begin and to continue the struggle, no matter how long it takes.

We know that Jesus died in the service of God’s covenant for justice-compassion.  If he had not been engaged in that work, none of the Roman leadership would have cared.  But what did he do?  He invited the marginalized to eat with him.  He included the poor and the sick and the outcasts in his entourage.  He even invited himself to dinner with one of the collaborators with Rome – Zacchaeus – who was properly hated by everyone in Jesus’ group.

“Covenant” does not mean passively waiting for Godot.  “Covenant” means active partnership in God’s work to restore God’s rule.  And God’s rule is justice-compassion.  Whenever we do that kind of work – such as making sure immigrants have a chance at being treated fairly in work, housing, and health care, or standing for truth and justice against lies and gross unfairness wherever and whenever we encounter them – we are participating with God in the great work.  We are living the incarnation of the Christ.


On this Sunday, all over the world, the Body of Christ – the Church – and all those who would follow Jesus’ teachings, are celebrating the one Sacrament that separates Christians from all other spiritual practices. We know that Jesus died in the service of God’s covenant of justice-compassion. If he had not been engaged in that work, none of the Roman leadership would have cared, and we would not be here today. We know that whenever we engage in that same work, we embody the Christ, and bring the realization of God’s kingdom to a closer reality.

On the last night with his disciples, as they lounged at their dinner, Jesus decided to try one last time to make them really understand what he was doing, and what it really meant to follow him  He picked up a loaf of bread, and spoke into the hubbub of their conversation: Listen! – he said – This bread is like God’s justice in this world. Then he tore the loaf into two pieces.
[Break Bread]

This is God’s justice in the hands of the Romans and the Temple authorities who collaborate with them. Believe me, one of you is going to turn me in to them soon. If not tonight, then as soon as the Passover is finished. Whenever you eat together after this night, remember that, and remember me. For this is my body, broken for you.

Then Jesus picked up the jug of wine. This wine is also like the Kingdom of God – it is the blood of the paschal lamb, painted on the lintels and doorposts of our people as a sign that they belong to God and not to Pharaoh’s Empire. But this cup that I drink is a new cup. It is a libation of my blood poured out for justice for all those who choose to share it.
[Pour Wine]

Drink it. All of you who are willing to engage in the work and participate in God’s covenant of justice-compassion, and remember.

One: The gifts of God for the People of God
All: Thanks be to God

THANKSGIVING [Based on The New Century Hymnal Prayer of Thanksgiving, p. 20]

All: Eternal God, you have called your people from east and west and north and south to feast at the table of Jesus the Christ. We thank you for the spiritual food of bread and wine, body and blood. By the power of your Holy Spirit, go with us to the streets, to our homes, and to our places of work and play, so that whether we are gathered or scattered, we may be the servant church of the servant Christ, in whose name we rejoice to pray. Amen.

Hymn: God Reigns O'er All the Earth NCH #21

BLESSING [Based on the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith]

Go now in peace, secure in the knowledge that all who trust God’s promise will find forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in God’s realm, which has no end.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Figs, Fires, and Fate

Luke 13:6-8; Judges 9:7-15

Luke seems to borrow from Mark when he suggests that the fig tree the owner wants to cut down has been barren for years.  But Luke does not take Mark’s metaphor.  In Mark’s gospel, the story of the fig tree cursed by Jesus brackets Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple (Mark 11:11-21).  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue in The Last Week that Jesus’ unreasonable curse of the fig tree that is without fruit in the off-season calls attention to the condition of the Temple under Roman rule.  The Temple cannot properly serve the people (produce good fruit) under the corrupting influence of the Roman occupation.  Unlike Mark’s Jesus, Luke’s vinekeeper suggests giving the fig tree a second chance.  “Let it stand, sir, one more year . . . Maybe it will produce . . . but if it doesn’t, we can go ahead and cut it down.”  Later, in Luke 21:29-30, he has Jesus use the fig tree’s leafing out in the spring as a metaphor for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God.

Mark considered that the kingdom of God had already arrived with Jesus.  For Luke, writing 30 to 50 years after Mark, the kingdom of God has not yet arrived, but should arrive soon.  So, Luke’s Jesus first says, “repent or perish.”  Then – perhaps to soften the blow – he assures with the parable of the barren fig tree that God is working to cultivate and enrich the soil in order to give sinners one more chance.

Luke’s parable appears only in his Gospel.  It is highly likely that he invented it; although the Jesus Seminar Scholars were apparently reluctant to consign it to the realm of sayings not original with Jesus.  Whether Jesus used the metaphor or not, the fig tree has been reprieved for a year.  Prudent gardening practice has become the first century equivalent of “tough love.”  Three strikes and you’re out.  One more chance, then it’s compost for you, Sinner.

Luke’s “parable” of the barren tree is included in the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday in Lent, Year C.  In the context of the other readings for that day, which include the preceding verses in 13:1-5, “. . . Luke’s Jesus is clearly the son of a violent god: '[U]nless you repent, you will all perish . . .,' he says – twice.  Apparently Jesus’ God is inclined to give Luke’s hearers one more chance before cutting them down, but that hardly translates into compassion.”  On its own, without the dogmatic gloss supplied by its combination with the other readings, Luke’s vignette is merely a metaphor that softens the judgment that went before.  We can speculate that Luke is once again making following Jesus a safe occupation for Roman citizens.  The radicality of the free gift of grace is not there.

Biblical scholars – liberal or conservative – agree that fig trees in the Bible are metaphors for the people and leadership of ancient Israel.  The condition of the fig tree was a metaphor of Israel’s spiritual condition.  In Matthew’s version of the fig tree legend, a frustrated and hungry Jesus curses the barren fig tree, then tells the disciples that if they trust and do not doubt, they also can kill fig trees with a curse.  In fact, they can move mountains into the sea with a word.  But beware the temptation to follow Matthew and Luke into anti-Semitism and black magic.  Luke’s fig tree might represent the members of Luke’s community who were reluctant to buy into the Christian version of Judaism that was rising toward the end of the first century.  The implication is, with some careful nurturing, they might produce fruit for the kingdom after all and join the Christian faction.  If they don’t, then leave them out of the community.

Matthew wanted to replace Torah with his story of Jesus because he considered that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest hope and desire.  Matthew’s contribution to the meaning of fig trees is to declare them incapable of ever bearing fruit again – an unfortunate anti-Semitic trap for the unwary.  Further, the followers of Jesus who “have faith” (NRSV translation) and do not doubt will posess the same power Jesus does to not only render fig trees permanently barren, but to move mountains into the sea.  Whether the phrase is translated “to trust” (Five Gospels) or to “have faith,” it is difficult to read the passage as a metaphor that calls for radical transformation of all human life.  Anti-Jewish sentiment underlies it like a watermark.

Perhaps for the above reasons, the Elves who put together the RCL consider neither Mark’s nor Matthew’s radical fig tree metaphors. Sunday morning hearers of the Word are left with Luke’s gentle conventionality.

However, the parable of the trees in the Jewish book of Judges 9:7-15 may hold a clue to both Mark’s and Matthew’s evangelical conviction that Jesus had indeed restored the kingdom of God to earth.  The parable of the trees is never encountered in the normal years of readings from the RCL.  It is part of the 400-year legendary history of the Hebrew people, after their escape from Egypt, and the death of Joshua – the successor to Moses.  During this time, the tribes of Israel experienced nearly constant wars with their neighbors, and internecine squabbles among themselves, as local leaders attempted to set themselves up as kings or rulers over all the tribes. The parable of the trees is a sarcastic allegory, challenging the legitimacy of Abimelech’s claim to be king.  It is part of the argument the leaders of the Hebrew tribes had before the advent of King Saul about the dangers of forming a monarchy. (As an interesting aside, given my use of this parable, “Abimelech” means “My father (God) is king.”)

The fig tree, the olive tree, and the grapevine all represented survival, abundance, and riches for the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.  In the parable, all are invited in turn to be crowned king of the trees, and one by one they all decline.  They are content to continue to provide their own life-giving fruits to the people.  The bramble is the only one that agrees to rule.  But the bramble is only used for starting fires – a somewhat ambiguous usefulness.  Fires are essential for life, but – in careless or evil hands – fire is the supreme destroyer of life.  The bramble warns that if the people are not acting in good faith – if Abimelech is not who he claims to be – destruction by fire will be their fate.

In the ancient parable, when the one who is considered the least valuable is the only one willing to rule, the result will be disastrous unless the people act in good faith, and in alignment with God’s purposes.  Bringing the metaphor into the first century, Jesus becomes the itinerant bramble, who is worthless in the eyes of imperial Rome.  Mark’s gospel points out that the corruption in the Temple had reached apocalyptic levels.  The fig tree is cursed and dies.  Matthew’s gospel leaves no doubt that the paradigm has changed.  Jesus cursed the fig tree and it died, and his followers can do the same.  Luke has apparently forgotten that Jesus came to set the earth on fire (Luke 12:49).  Has Luke missed the power and the point once again?  Or is Luke the master of subversion who has deliberately obscured a dangerous proposition?


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Luke 12:54-13:5

Who knows why Luke strung together the sayings that he did, why he chose them, and why he put them in the order he decided?  The verses from 12:54-13:5 seem to form a progression.  Luke’s Jesus starts with another example of his frustration with his followers.  “You phonies!” he yells, “You know the lay of the land and can read the face of the sky, so why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?”  He follows that with what seems to be a clarification: “Why can’t you decide for yourselves what is right?”  He finishes with a warning that is pure Luke: “. . . If you don’t have a change of heart, you’ll all meet your doom in the same way [as those Galilean sinners who had their own blood mixed with the Roman sacrifices, or the Siloamians who had the tower fall on them].  In other words, “Repent or Perish!” Luke made up both the incident of apparent cannibalism perpetrated by Pilate, and the accident that killed 18 workers in Siloam.

The Elves fudge the non sequiturs by dividing this portion between Proper 15  and the third Sunday in Lent, Year C.  (We will deal with Luke’s version of the parable of the fig tree next week.)

Christian tradition has interpreted these passages as apocalyptic warnings.  If they were – if Luke intended them to be – then the parable of the fig tree could arguably be included.  The Jesus Seminar scholars generally agree that the advice to settle matters out of court and the parable of the fig tree may go back to the historical Jesus.  But they were not necessarily associated with one another.  Luke (and the other evangelists) and his community were apocalyptic thinkers.  They expected a final judgment, with rewards and punishments, before Jesus would return again to establish God’s kingdom.  Present-day scholars argue among themselves about whether or not Jesus himself was apocalyptic.  Nor would they agree that the sayings have anything to do with one another.

This blog is taking the liberty of reading another meaning into these passages.  That is the only way they can even begin to be useful to 21st century followers who do not believe in a coming non-environmental apocalypse, nor in an afterlife of punishment/reward, nor in the return of Jesus literally from the sky to establish any kind of permanent kingdom on earth.  Taking the readings at face value, and from a 21st century point of view, is of course anathema to scholars.  But if Luke could do it in the 1st century, we can do it now.

Despite right-wing largely Christian denial, scientists are reaching consensus on the fact of global climate change.  It is happening now, and it is irreversible.  The task for humanity is to learn how to cope with the inevitable.  But what do we hear from self-described “progressive” Christianity?  A Google search brings up arguments from the right against global warming, but very little from the left in main stream, presumably “liberal” Christian denominations on how to deal with it.  Indeed the silence is deafening regarding so-called “clean coal” technology, cap and trade legislation, mountaintop removal mining, off-shore oil drilling, support for alternative energy resources . . . in short, the Christian “main stream” has nothing to say.  The 21st century equivalent to the fictional Siloamians whose tower fell on them might be the 29 miners who died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine back in April.  What mainline Christian church is going to preach against the continued use of coal and the continued rape of the mountains of Appalachia?

Jesus’ words echo down the canyons of the millennia:  “You phonies!  You know the lay of the land and can read the face of the sky, so why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?”  But who is listening?  Bob Dylan screamed a warning in the 1960s that the political times were changing.  But now the very web of life that sustains humanity is changing, and the churches are saying and doing nothing.

Repent or perish! Luke’s Jesus says.  That means, Change or die.  But the change that Christian tradition has insisted upon is accepting as provable fact that Jesus was crucified to save us from “sin”; that he walked out of the tomb and vanished in the general direction of Antares, with the promise that he would return; and unless we turn away from personal petty sin, when Jesus comes back, we won’t be part of the kingdom.

Luke may have shrouded the radicality of Jesus’ message with his emphasis on the wealthy, but the opposition to the normalcy of Roman imperial theology is clear for those with eyes to see.  From Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-56) to the resurrection and appearances of Jesus, the Roman empire (and all empires, whether governmental or corporate) has been put on notice.  Repent or perish.  Establish systems of justice or face the consequences.

Today, the establishment of systems of justice must be economic, social, political, and ecological.  Otherwise, as Isaiah said of old, “. . . the Lord comes out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no longer cover its slain” (Is. 26:20-21).  Sure enough, the oceans are rising, the glaciers are melting, whole species are disappearing daily, and human babies are born already alergic to the Planet.  No lightening bolts are required from some grandfather almighty in the sky.  There are definite consequences for polluting the waters with oil, destroying the mountains for gold and coal, and hiding government malfeasance behind a screen called “national security.”

Repent or perish.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Riches and Readiness

Luke 12:13-53

This portion of Luke is routinely divided by the Revised Common Lectionary among Propers 13, 14, and 15,  in Year C.  Verses 21-32 are skipped, in favor of the version in Matthew 6:25-34 (Propers 10 and 11, Year B).  The result, as these commentaries continue to complain, is that Christian dogma is preserved at the expense of biblical integrity.  Like other portions of Luke, this sequence has its own theme: Don’t be greedy; don’t worry about how you will live, and be ready for the kingdom when it finally comes.  The Jesus Seminar Scholars point out what might be a thematic progression from wealth and possessions to watchfulness and alertness, and ultimately judgment against those who get tired of waiting.  All of it was put together for Luke’s early Christian community.  Brief portions are believed by the Jesus Seminar to reliably be attributable to the historical Jesus (12:16-20, 22-25, 27-28).

It is easy to accuse Luke of conventionality.  After all, he always adds his own pious commentary at the end of the sayings from Jesus that were part of the oral tradition.  It is impossible to know why he did this.  One theory is that his editorial additions deliberately took the edge off Jesus’ radicality so that the Way could be practiced under Roman imperial noses.  For example, in 12:16-21, Luke uses a saying lifted from Thomas 63:1-3 (see The Five Gospels p. 508).  In Luke’s hands, the concern is what will happen to the stuff the rich man has collected.  Luke implies that God will demand the rich man’s life because he has saved up for himself, and therefore is really not rich in God’s terms.

Luke then has Jesus go on to explain, “That’s why I tell you: don’t fret about life – what you’re going to eat – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. . . .”  He lifts this nearly verbatim from Matthew’s great sermon on the mount.  But he intersperses this discourse with his own comments.  Regarding Jesus’ question, “Can any of you add an hour to life by fretting about it?” Luke’s Jesus says, sarcastically, “If you can’t do a little thing like that, why worry about the rest?”  Luke ends this part with his own heavily veiled challenge to imperial society: “These are all things the world’s pagans seek, and your Father is aware that you need them.  Instead, you are to seek God’s domain, and these things will come to you as a bonus.”

But Luke has not yet finished his sermon.  He goes on to reassure his readers: “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it has delighted your Father to give you his domain,” yet he means no challenge to Rome.  He tells the people to sell their belongings, donate to charity, and pile up wealth in heaven where it cannot be stolen or destroyed.  He further diverts attention from radical, distributive, kingdom-realizing justice by delivering a warning about what happens to faithless slaves who are not prepared for the master’s return.

Then Luke summarizes four other well-known parables: the parable of the leased vineyard (Mark 12:1-13 [skipped by the RCL]); the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-8a); the money in trust (Luke 19:12-27 [skipped by the RCL – stay tuned]); and the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:23-35).  He misses or softens the point of all of them, including the parable of the shrewd manager, which is the one that he alone reports.  The concluding warning that Jesus came to stir up conflict appears to apply to internecine squabbles either between traditional Jews and fledgling Christians, or within Luke’s community of believers.

Roman spies would have slipped out the door, to report that these Christians pose no threat at all to the status quo.

But in the saying from the Thomas collection, which is probably closer to the original than Luke’s expanded version, the existential and subversive joke is clear.  We can imagine Jesus’ company around the campfire one night, perhaps griping yet again about how unfair it is that the rich have everthing and they (the itinerant poor) have nothing.  Jesus says, There was a rich person who had a great deal of money.  He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce that I may lack nothing.”  These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died!  In the blink of an eye, Jesus has leveled the playing field.  No matter how much anyone has, everyone dies.

In Luke’s hands, Jesus’ defiant joke has been bastardized: “You can’t take it with you.”  New age psychologists, self-help gurus, yoga instructors and interior decorators advise that spiritual health includes getting rid of the clutter.  It’s good feng shui.  Jesus’ discourse on trusting God to provide food, clothing, and shelter has become the foundation for the “prosperity gospel,” which is nothing more than a new name for a very ancient attitude:  God intends for believers to be prosperous.  The corollary is, prosperity is a sign of God’s favor.  The secular form is, if you give, you will get.  The social assumption that governs conservative politics is, people are poor because they are guilty of sin: sloth, gluttony, pride, wrath, greed, lust, and envy.  In the midst of the worst global economy since the Great Depression, the hapless unemployed are told to get off your duff and get a job.  And if you want unemployment benefits, we’re going to test you for drugs first.

Luke has Jesus continue speaking without transition until 12:54, making the paragraph on fire and conflict really part of the preceding sermon.  Luke’s Jesus expresses some frustration with the progress of establishing the kingdom.  “I came to set the earth on fire,” he says, “and how I wish it were already ablaze!”  He voices the complaint of every leader advocating change: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and what pressure I’m under until it’s over!”  Then he warns that did not come to bring peace, but conflict.

The entire speech reflects upheaval among the followers of Jesus as they began to organize themselves.  They were often in conflict with Jewish communities who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and were unwilling to replace Torah with the story and teachings of Jesus.  Luke’s Jesus expresses impatience with the difficulty of finally establishing the kingdom of God on earth.

A major theme in Luke’s gospel is the unfolding of the divine plan, beginning with Jesus, and continuing in Acts with the early church.  Civilizations since Rome have been highly suspicious of language that implies a divine plan other than the one put forth by whatever powers that exist at the time, so Luke is careful to put the prophecy in ambiguous terms.  When has there not been conflict among members of families?  But Jesus’ words as reported in Thomas are much more provocative:  “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.

For 21st Century followers of the Way, this part of Luke’s gospel is testmony to the continuing struggle for distributive justice-compassion.  Despite the claims of the prosperity gospel and the Tea Party faction of the current “conservative” movement, being rich is not a guarantee of a place in the Kingdom.  Having said that, however, “a great deal is required of everyone to whom much is given; and even more will be demanded from the one to whom a great deal has been entrusted” (The Five Gospels, p. 341).  In today’s economic conditions, those with the means to redistribute wealth have the moral obligation to do so, whether it is recognized or not.  Perhaps this is how to read 12:42-48, about slaves who know what their masters want and don’t do it, and slaves who don’t know what their masters want, but at least make an attempt to act properly. This seems to be a non-sequitur in the 21st century.  But when financial corporations and the top 1% of the population continue to stockpile their wealth in treasury bonds and gold instead of investing in viable business, they have only themselves to blame when the system crashes.

Are you ready?


Friday, August 27, 2010

I Have a Scream

Luke 11:27-12:12

The Revised Common Lectionary skips everything Luke wrote between the ask-seek-find scorpion-for-an-egg hypothetical and the parable of the rich farmer.  Much of what is skipped in Luke is also skipped in Mark and Matthew.  Of course, much of what is skipped is actually repeated nearly verbatim elsewhere in all three synoptic gospels.  Luke repeats himself in 11:33.  For a discussion of the original in 8:16, see To Have and Have Not.

To give the Elves their due, very little of what Luke describes in those intervening verses is particularly edifying.  He has a woman exclaim how privileged his mother must have been to have nursed him as a baby.  Apparently she was quite enamored of Jesus (think: I don’t know how to love him from Jesus Christ Superstar).  Luke’s Jesus piously brushes her off: “Rather, privileged are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”  Then Luke takes off on a tirade about how evil “this generation” is, and tries to make a point about Jonah and Ninevah, and how Jesus is a sign that at judgment time “the citizens of Ninevah will come back to life” and condemn them.  After referring to “the queen of the south,” who apparently listened to Solomon’s wisdom, and will also reappear like the ghost of Christmas future, Luke seems to have written himself into a corner.  At that point, he repeats Jesus’ one-liner about the lamp under the bushel basket.

But then, Luke regains his own light of inspiration, and launches into a full court press against Pharisees and lawyers.  Ignoring this part of Luke’s gospel allows church leaders to pretend that Jesus never lost his temper, or used the kind of language for which your mother used to threaten to wash out your mouth with soap.  Luke’s Jesus says “damn you!” no fewer than six times, three each for Pharisees and “legal experts.”  Needless to say, “By the time [Jesus] left there, the scholars and Pharisees began to resent him bitterly . . .”

After the rant, Luke’s Jesus warns against the “leaven of the Pharisees, which is to say their hypocrisy.”  He seems to be advising his followers to say the same things in public that they would say in private, and to say them without fear of retaliation or even death.  “Don’t be so timid,” Luke’s Jesus admonishes: “You’re worth more than a flock of sparrows.”  The whole sequence ends first with the warning that those who disown Jesus in public “will be disowned in the presence of God’s messengers.”  Luke seems to be confused about the difference between the man Jesus (“son of Adam”) and the holy spirit.  But he ends with the assurance that when faced with persecution, “the holy spirit will teach you at that very moment what you ought to say.”

Instead of ignoring Luke’s series of damnations frothing from the mouth of Jesus, 21st century followers of the Way might want to consider what Luke was trying to do.  Present-day scholars are fairly certain that Luke’s audience was highly likely to have been among the better educated and privileged members of Roman society, probably in Syria, 30 to 50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.  Pharisees and legal experts (scholars) would have been fair game for a rant against corruption and hypocrisy amid the culture wars between those who were trying to preserve Judaism, and those who wanted to update it, and proclaim that Jesus was the long hoped-for Messiah.  Today’s culture wars are analogous to the culture wars in Luke’s first century community.  Who and what is a Christian, and what is meant when that name is claimed, are in debate.  Fundamentalist and conservative Christians are clamoring for their own brand of Christianity to be enshrined in government policy, in direct contradiction to the first amendment establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Hatred of the sojourner, the foreigner, indeed anyone outside the white male normalcy of U.S. civilization, is justified on religious grounds.

In what may be a perfect contemporary illustration of who Jesus was condemning in 11:47-50, self-appointed Christian Pharisee Glenn Beck has organized a Tea Party rally on Washington’s Mall on the same date as Martin Luther King’s 1963 rally for civil rights.  King’s words from that day reflect Luke’s concluding advice:  “But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

If the public face of Christianity today is supposed to be love of neighbor and enemy, then where is all the greed and violence coming from?  Luke’s Jesus has no time for those who “neglect justice and the love of God.”  Jesus himself may well have condemned those who are more interested in prominent seats in the halls of power and being treated with respect in the marketplace.  Luke’s Jesus says, be on your guard against hypocrisy so that you don’t fall into the same traps the religious and political leaders and lawyers do.  Everything will become clear sooner or later, so be sure that whatever you say in the darkness and behind closed doors can be said and done openly.  Take courage.  Speak truth to power.  Above all, don’t worry about how you will defend yourself or what you should say when they bring charges against you.  If you are aligned with God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, you will know what to do and say.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Devils and Demons

Luke 11:14-26

These verses constitute Luke’s version of the “Beelzebul controversy.”  Both Matthew and Luke lifted this series of sayings from Q.  Mark’s version includes some Q material, but not what appears in Matthew and Luke (Mark 3:20-35; Matt. 12:25-32).  The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest that “the similarities and differences in these clusters demonstrate that the same stories and sayings could be put together in different ways” (The Five Gospels, p.51).  Apparently in order to settle potential arguments, the Elves eliminate both Matthew’s and Luke’s renditions from the Revised Common Lectionary.  Because of the vagaries of the Western, moon-based,  movable feast called Easter, Mark’s “controversy” can also be preempted by the reading from John’s gospel for Trinity Sunday.  This was the case in Year B, 2009.

Scholars are clear that these series of sayings and stories were put together in their various forms well after Jesus’ death.  However, the Jesus Seminar scholars are fairly certain that the sayings in large part probably go back to the historical Jesus.  If, as scholars propose, Jesus was an itinerant cynic, engaging the local religious leaders in debate and aphorism, he might very well have come up with the following argument: “Every government divided against itself is devastated, and a house divided against a house falls. [So] if Satan is divided against himself – since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name – how will his domain endure?  If I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive them out?  (In that case, they [your people] will be your judges.)  But if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you, God’s imperial rule has arrived” (The Five Gospels, p. 329, emphasis and brackets added).

Jesus would seem to have his challengers where he wants them.  Satan’s domain cannot possibly endure if Jesus is dividing it by driving out the demons, and if Jesus is driving out demons by the power of God, then God’s realm has indeed arrived.  The arrival of the kingdom, here and now, and how to participate in it was the whole point of Mark’s Gospel.  Luke confirms that arrival.  But then he goes on to obscure the radical change in paradigm that God’s imperial rule brings with it.
Luke puts Jesus’ illustration about the strong man who is attacked and overwhelmed by an even stronger one in his continuing context of exorcism.  He follows this with a common aphorism, not original with Jesus: “The one who isn’t with me is against me.”  Finally, Luke finishes his series on exorcism with the curious saying about unclean spirits which, upon finding no resting place, come back to the original host along with seven additional ones.  The person who was supposedly exorcized and free of demons is worse off than before.  Scholars have no idea what the context was for this saying, which came from the Q tradition.  Luke’s placement seems to call into question the efficacy of exorcism that is not based on God’s power.  But in Rome, Cesar was God.  So long as there is the possibility that the transformation that is not caused by God’s [Cesar’s] power will not take hold, the Romans can continue to consider Christians to be irrelevant, and no threat to Rome’s imperial rule.

So what does it all mean?  In a 1st century context, where neither physical nor mental illness was understood as they are in the 21st century, exorcisms were a sign of spiritual power.  Jesus’ success as an exorcist would have called into question the authority and legitimacy of religious leadership – both Roman and Jewish.  But pre-modern people were just as capable of understanding metaphor as are post-enlightenment sophisticates.  Earlier in his gospel Luke picks up Mark’s story about the man healed of a demon named “Legion.”  This is not a miracle story about medical cures, demon possession, and the mis-use of livestock.  It is a parable about subverting political and spiritual oppression; it shows how trust in God’s reality transforms life under occupation by the imperial Roman legion into freedom and justice.  In Luke’s context, this is what Jesus’s real “mother and brothers” are supposed to be doing.

So now, when Luke’s Jesus retorts that, “if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived,” he is putting local collaborators with Roman injustice on notice. After sparring with his opponents about driving out demons in God’s name, Jesus compares the arrival of the kingdom of God to a robber who overpowers a fully-armed man, who is guarding his possessions in his impregnable courtyard.  This joke successfully sailed over the heads of Jesus’s opponents, and apparently right past Luke as well.  He has Jesus say, “the one who isn’t with me is against me, and the one who doesn’t gather with me scatters.”  But the point is not who is with or against the church of Christ.  The point is that participation in the realm of God can overthrow the strongest of oppressive empires.  The weapons upon which the oppressor relied are taken away, and justice is restored.

Jesus changes the paradigm from imperial, retributive justice (an eye for an eye) to non-violent covenant with God’s kingdom where distributive justice-compassion rules.  In fact, Jesus is saying, those same collaborators might be the most pious in town, but the moment they abandon God’s covenant for Roman retributive justice, seven other spirits more vile than the one that led them astray in the first place will move in and take over, and the collaborator will be worse off than before.

On the eve of the 9th Anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, the people of the United States are embroiled in a fight over whether a local mosque should be allowed to build a community center two blocks from “ground zero.”  Some believe that allowing this to be done is a betrayal of the surviving families of the 9/11 victims.  They claim to honor the first amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, while demanding that Muslims give up theirs.  It seems reasonable, on the level of not hurting the feelings of the victims.  But the religion called Islam did not bomb the Twin Towers.  In attempting to prohibit a community center that would benefit the entire neighborhood, the spirit of perhaps the most profoundly transforming principle of government in the history of governments has been swept out.  Finding no place to rest elsewhere in the unwelcoming 21st Century zeitgeist, that spirit will likely return, bringing with it multiple spirits of fear, hatred, intolerance, retribution, and – ultimately – oppression of all religion.

 The kingdom comes like a thief in the night, says Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:2).  As for you, be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves, says Jesus (Matthew 10:16).   Unless and until we get Jesus’ subversive joke, the house will be effectively divided.  The terrorists will have won.

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Gaia Rising

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Summer Hiatus

I am taking a 10-week break to complete Clinical Pastoral Education training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

If you are visiting this Blog for the first time (or are a regular) please visit the Gaia Rising website for the complete 2010 Archive, and for highlights from Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary, Years A, B, and C.

This blog will resume with commentary on Luke/Acts in August.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

In the Zone

Luke 11:9-13

“So I tell you, ask – it’ll be given to you; seek – you’ll find; knock – it’ll be opened for you.  Rest assured: everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and for the one who knocks it is opened.”

This series of aphorisms is among the best known and – along with the Beattitudes – most basic of Christian affirmations.  It comes at the end of Luke’s series on prayer.  However, as we have seen, this particular selection of sayings and the interpretation was purely Luke’s. Scholars theorize that rather than being a promise of God’s answer to persistent prayer, Jesus’s directive to ask, seek, and knock was an assurance that those who take up the same kind of itinerant life Jesus led can expect hospitality wherever they look for it, or ask for it.  Even a knock on the door at midnight would not be ignored.

Luke’s point was that God will provide whatever is asked, will reveal whatever is sought, and will open the way to whomever knocks on God’s door.  He has Jesus expand on this by comparing God’s answer to prayer with giving good gifts to one’s own children.  But Luke’s Jesus here abandons the prayer for daily provision of bread, which he started with.  Instead of food, “the heavenly Father will give holy spirit to those who ask him.”  Later, in the Gospel of John, the emphasis shifted from God to Jesus.  John’s Jesus says “whatever you ask in my name will be granted to you” (John 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23).  Ultimately, the saying morphed into the icon from Revelation 3:20, in which the Christ declares to the Church in Laodicea: “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.  To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

The 1st Century transformation in the meaning of Jesus’s words is like the viral transmutation of political speech in the 21st Century news cycle.  In less than a week in May 2010, the meaning of the reported words of a candidate for the United States Senate evolved from idealistic, libertarian theory to racist bigotry. In less than 100 years from Jesus’s death, the expectation of hospitable acceptance for wandering wisdom teachers became justification for holy war.

Jesus’s original words to ask, seek, knock, and trust in the custom of hospitality have become a magic spell.  The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that 60% pray daily, although the content of the prayers was not broken down.  While no one has done a survey of the percentage of people in the general population who routinely pray for parking spaces and find them, the efficacy of intercessory prayer has been studied frequently.  Unfortunately, the results are inclusive at best.  One study that looked at complications arising after coronary surgery for patients receiving intercessory prayer versus patients who were not prayed for found a slight advantage in terms of fewer complications for those who did NOT receive intercessory prayer.

With such murky findings, the fact that belief in the magic power of prayer persists must be attributed to the mysterious way human consciousness has developed.  Perhaps we are hard-wired for hope in hopeless situations.  Or perhaps something else is going on.

Jesus was not originally talking about the answer to prayer, as Luke and the tradition like to think.  Jesus was invoking the ancient rule of hospitality for itinerant travelers.  Scholars are fairly certain that Jesus depended on that rule for his and his disciples’ support as they traveled from village to village throughout the region of Galilee.  He had an expectation, based on complete trust in God’s imperial rule, that he would find a hospitable response.  However, his followers did modify their own expectations in the interest of practicality.  As all three synoptic writers report, if the disciples Jesus sent out did not find a welcome, the solution was to “shake the dust from your feet” (Mark 6:11; Matthew 10:14; Luke 9:5).  Matthew’s Jesus adds, “I swear to you, the land of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off at the judgment than that city [which does not welcome you].”  Sodom and Gomorrah, you may recall, was the Old Testament poster child for the total breakdown of hospitality.

Jesus himself seems to have experienced a level of trust in God’s realm that most humans find difficult or impossible except in rare instances.  If we take the words attributed to him in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as his own, Jesus was able to live within the same kind of seamless realm experienced by the birds and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:26).  In that realm, there is no boundary between creator and creation, God and humanity, or between the worlds of life and death, spirit and flesh.  For most of us, this experience manifests as a quality of life where everything works without effort.  It’s a string of lucky circumstances; serendipity; everything falls into place.  Miraculous healing can happen there.  I call it “being in the zone.”

The difficulty of describing that kind of experience – in any language – is clearly illustrated by what has happened to Jesus’s original teachings over time.  It is not a matter of simply saying the name of Jesus, or petitioning God to intervene and change the physical laws of the universe, even in company with two or three others.  The key, prosaic as it may be, seems to be the willingness to ride the horse in the direction it is going.  In other words, to ask, seek, and knock with the expectation of receiving, finding, and opening the way means to align oneself with the way things are.  In Buddhist terms, surrender.  That does not mean giving up.  It means total acceptance of whatever is happening now, with no concern about what any particular outcome may be.  While clear intent about the desired result may important, the key is not to care.

The idea of “not caring” drives most of us crazy.  How can we “not care” about our mother dying, or our friend with terminal cancer, or physical pain of any kind, or about torture victims, or the poor, or any of the other kinds of suffering produced by disaster, whether from natural or human causes?  Those are the tough questions.  Entire books have been written about the answers.  Tough or not, the key to the end of suffering, the power that drives healing, is to accept what is, right now.  That means a radical indifference to the nature of the ultimate resolution.  Mother may die; the cancer may win; the pain may only be alleviated with heavy doses of morphine; the torture may not end; poverty may continue to condemn the rich; disasters – of natural or human cause – may happen.

Jesus calls us into that radical indifference through trust.  It is a latter-day itinerancy, in which we let go of conventional ideas, unnecessary possessions, market demands, and even life itself.  We cannot answer that call so long as we see ourselves as the victim of our life circumstances, trapped in the normalcy of economic and political systems, or determined by the lottery of our biological heredity.  Nor can we answer that call if we resist or resent what happens to us, or if we ignore the realities of the world in which we live.  Tradition tells us that Jesus himself fell out of the zone at the horrifying end of his life.

Even so, the message of Christianity is that even death on a cross does not negate the truth of living in the zone – the realm of God – where we ask, seek, knock and find whatever we need for abundant life.  But you can’t just point your magic wand and scream “Aguamenti!”  Before the water comes from the rock, or the door opens to your knock, you have to trust the process.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Hospitality 2010

Luke 11:5-8

The NRSV follows Luke’s apparent intention and puts under the heading of “The Lord’s Prayer” Luke’s anecdote of the friend at midnight along with the “Ask, seek, knock” and “Good gifts” aphorisms.  Conventionally, these passages have been considered to be a treatise on prayer.  If you pray as Jesus did, God will provide, just as you would if your next-door neighbor came to you to borrow a cup of sugar at some inconvenient time.  You might resent the timing, but you would nevertheless provide the sugar out of pious duty.  If  you pray as Jesus did, God will answer, just as you would if your own child asked for an egg.  You would not substitute a scorpion.

But suppose this series of sayings was not a related sequence at all?  Taken as an independent quotation, out of Luke’s context, we can readily see that the “friend at midnight” was not about how God answers prayer; it was about hospitality.  The 21st Century world has largely forgotten that “hospitality” was a matter of life and death to 1st Century people.  Welcoming the stranger into your tribal enclave for a night, or until the stand storm ended was a matter of honor on both sides.  The host asked no questions about whether the stranger was an innocent traveler or a fugitive from law.  The guest did not rob or otherwise violate the sanctity of the host.  This code assured some degree of safety for everyone in a dangerous world.

In addition, 1st Century Palestine was an “honor/shame” culture.  In Luke’s story, the host taken by surprise by unexpected guests may have run the risk of “shame” for not being able to properly care for them, but far more likely is the “shame” the sleepy neighbor would have experienced if he had not responded.  He and his family would have been socially ostracized.  The Jesus Seminar scholars point out that the original Greek that Luke used in the last sentence of the story can be translated either as “you will get up and give the other whatever is needed because you’d be ashamed not to;” or “because the other is not ashamed to ask.”  (The Five Gospels, p. 327-328).  The surprised neighbor is not ashamed to ask for help in supplying hospitality to the unexpected guests.

We cannot know why Luke did what he did with this snippet of oral tradition.  It seems to fit better with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Luke interprets the parable in terms of the law that says “love your neighbor as yourself.”  A discussion about the unexpected need to help a neighbor seems to be a further illustration of the reliance of neighbors upon one another.  The Good Samaritan unexpectedly extends hospitality beyond what a reluctant neighbor might be shamed into offering.

Citizens of these United States pride ourselves on the fact that we can rely on our neighbors for help in time of need.  In fact, we are so proud of that fact that 20% of us think the government should have nothing to do with providing disaster relief , health care, education, or social security.  But as the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast learned after Hurricane Katrina, relying on our neighbors is nothing more than a romantic notion.  The hurricane happened in 2005.  Assistance in recovery was not forthcoming from the federal government.  Five years later, volunteer efforts on the part of corporations and non-profits have not been able to complete the task.

But what best illustrates the 21st Century failure to live up to Jesus’s 1st Century expectation of hospitality in Luke 11:5-9 is our treatment of immigrants – specifically, people who risk their lives to cross the Mexico-U.S. border.  Our friends on the Christian Right insist that we are a Christian nation, yet we offer travelers nothing and lock our doors against them.  We refuse to allow them food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care.  Even when the worst of humanitarian violations force the disintegration of “undocumented” immigrant families, we are unashamed.

The Elves who put together the Revised Common Lectionary do not get to Luke’s series on prayer until late July this year (Proper 12, Year C).  The tradition has followed Luke’s lead and ignored the more likely (and troublesome) subject of hospitality.  The accompanying Old Testament RCL readings are Hosea 1:2-10 and Genesis 18:20-32.  The prophet Hosea is condemning the land and people of Israel for forsaking God.  The story in Genesis is the preamble to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Both readings support the idea of God’s judgment and God’s answer to persistent prayer.  When God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham convinces God to spare the cities for the sake of 10 righteous men.  What is never read if the Revised Common Lectionary is followed is Genesis 19:1-29.  But it is the full story of what happened to Lot in Sodom that goes to the heart of Jesus’s teaching about the friend at midnight.

The two angels sent by God to search out 10 righteous men arrive in Sodom in the evening.  Lot sees them, and greets them with respect, and invites them into his house to wash their feet and spend the night.  The angels decline, saying they will be fine spending the night in the village square.  But Lot insists.  They come into his house, and Lot prepares a feast.  But then, before they retire for the night, the men of the city surround Lot’s house and demand that he throw the guests out so that the men can “know them.”  The intent of the village men is clear.  When Lot reminds them that the visitors have “come under the shelter of my roof” and offers them his daughters instead, the men of the village are outraged.  But they are not outraged because of the offer of the daughters.  That is a historical-cultural artifact that turns the story into a feminist “text of terror,” and can easily distract 21st century minds from the point.  The men of Sodom are outraged because “this fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge!”  In other words, the immigrant has the nerve to shame the citizens for their failure to offer safe haven to the strangers.  (If this were an academic paper, the next comment would be in a footnote:  One has to wonder how the story of the destruction of Sodom became so well known, given that the Elves have skipped it altogether for purposes of Sunday morning preaching at least as long as the Common Lectionary has been in use.  Surely such a story of violence and unexplained custom is hardly suitable for children's Sunday School lessons.)

The ancient rule of hospitality was broken at the risk not only of shame, but of one’s own future security.  In a world dependent upon the most primitive of communications, once the word was out that your tribal lands or your household did not honor the rule, you could find yourself denied assistance or shelter.  The angels warn Lot that because of this sin – this failure of the men of Sodom to follow the most basic rule for human survival – God is going to destroy the city.  Lot had better leave with the angels and bring along sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone else that belongs to him.

Post-modern minds have drifted away from hospitality as an expression of distributive justice-compassion, where the stranger is given shelter – even feasted and entertained – for a night, with no questions asked.  The post-modern form of the failure to honor the rule of hospitality plays out on a daily basis along the United States/Mexico border.  It can also be clearly seen in the wall the Israelis constructed along the West Bank of the Jordan

The ancient rule of hospitality still stands.  God’s judgment – or the consequences for acting unjustly – does not apply only to people perceived as enemies.  Throughout the Bible, God is just as likely to favor the enemy and condemn God’s own people because God cares only about justice-compassion.  See, e.g., The Healing of Naaman, 2 Kings 5.   We rightly reject the idea that God’s judgment for violating hospitality or ignoring God’s demand for justice takes the form of volcanos, hurricanes, or plagues.  But we are mistaken if we think there is no judgment.  God’s judgment in a post-modern world is expressed in political and environmental consequences.  Politically, we now have the so-called Arizona “papers” law, which requires that Hispanics in Arizona now must carry proof of U.S. citizenship at all times or run the risk of arrest and deportation.  Some may think that is no problem for citizens with blue eyes and blond hair.  The implications of such naivety for human rights should be clear.

Environmentally, adding insult to injury in the Gulf of Mexico, now comes the mother of all oil leaks whose magnitude defies description.  Again, government assistance is nowhere to be found; corporations are pointing fingers at one another; and class-action trial lawyers are on the prowl as BP offers pre-emptive $5,000 settlements to devastated families and businesses.  Apparently all we can muster for our neighbors are internet campaigns to collect used pantyhose and dog hair.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bread and Debt

Luke 11:1-4

The version of “the Lord’s prayer” in Luke is the one that is included in the Revised Common LectionaryMatthew’s version is skipped.  Perhaps it is skipped because Matthew’s version is closest to the “Our Father” that is prayed in nearly all Christian denominations.  The Elves include Luke’s version in a series of readings for Proper 12 of Year C that appear to relate to how God answers prayer (Luke 11:5-13).  As we shall see over the next two weeks, Luke’s parable about “the friend at midnight,” the “ask, seek, knock” aphorism, and the “bread/stone fish/snake” dichotomies have little if anything to do with Jesus’s original prayers about bread, debt, and adversity.

The NRSV translation of Luke’s form is:

        Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.

The Jesus Seminar Scholars suggest that when verses from both Matthew and Luke are combined, the prayer that probably appeared in Q was:

        Abba [Daddy], your name be revered.  Impose your imperial rule.  Provide us with the bread we need for the day; Forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.  And please don’t subject us to test after test.  The Five Gospels, p. 327.

What has been known as “the Lord’s prayer” for nearly two millennia was probably never prayed by Jesus in any form that appears, whether in Q, Matthew or Luke.  Instead, the prayer consists of a collection of individual prayer fragments that may have been public prayers, or prayer-like aphorisms that Jesus said, on the order of “God forbid!” or “God only knows!” or “God’ll get you for that!”  The intent was to nudge listeners into changing their attitudes, joining the Way, and ushering in the realm of God.  In a 1998 essay published in The Fourth R, Jesus Seminar Fellow Hal Taussig discussed Jesus’s prayer in detail (“Behind and Before the Lord’s Prayer,” May-June 1998).  One of Taussig’s more provocative statements is, “[T]hese prayers . . . were wise-cracking prayers which pushed those who said them to re-examine themselves.”  I would also suggest that Jesus’s prayers were the opposite of petitions (desperate or trivial) to an interventionist god, and far removed from the pious mantra used to open 21st century church committee meetings or finish off the Sunday pastoral prayer.

The first phrase, “Daddy, your name be revered,” sounds shocking to 21st Century notions of holy propriety; for 1st Century Jews who were prohibited from speaking the name of God, it must have bordered on blasphemy.  Next comes the request to “Impose your imperial rule.”  That means God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s.  The next two phrases were seriously modified by Luke.  First, Luke’s version asks for God to provide bread each day.  The Q version – closer to what Jesus probably would have said – asks only for the bread needed for the day:  today; now.  But the kicker in the Q version is eliminated by Luke.  The Q people prayed, “forgive our debts to the extent we forgive those in debt to us.”  Luke says, “forgive us our sins because [for] we ourselves  forgive everyone indebted to us.”  Luke’s pious community is off the hook.  Finally, the last prayer fragment whines: “And please don’t subject us to test after test.”

To address deity as “Abba” – “Daddy” – presumes a partnership, not a hierarchical order of power.  To then ask for forgiveness of debt to the extent that the one praying forgives debt owed presumes active participation, not passive acceptance of whatever “God’s will” might turn out to be.  In other words, Jesus’s prayers are an illustration of the Covenant relationship demonstrated in the stories of the Jewish people throughout the Old Testament.

In the most recent edition of The Fourth R (Vol 23, No. 5, May-June 2010), Jack A. Hill explores the relationship of contemporary American culture with what he calls “the Divine Domain.”  He lays out three aspects of a “culture of fear” in the United States: 1) fear of personal non-existence; 2) fear of diversity; and 3) fear of transformative innovation.  He speaks of “evolutionary amnesia,” which is the root for a prevailing fear of death, and cuts us off from a realization of our commonality and profound relationship with the natural world.  He relates two stories of people who survived shipwreck in the open sea because dolphins came to their rescue.  He says, “we have forgotten what it feels like to greet the morning breeze as a friend, to be kept safe in the womb of the ocean, to be warmly regarded by the birds . . . .”  These are experiences of what might be called “enchantment.”  For a few years before the turn of the 21st Century, there was some discussion of the need for “re-enchantment” of corporate life.  Perhaps even a reclaiming of the root meaning of the word “religion”: the realignment of human spirit with the divine realms, i.e., a return to Covenant.  We must assume that is the kind of relationship Jesus had with God’s realm – God’s world.  This relationship is reflected in his prayers.

This is not misty-eyed, romantic, “spirituality.”  Jesus’s prayer suggests a non-violent alternative to oppression under the Roman empire.  If one lives in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, then there is no reason to be worried about having bread for the day.  Forgiving debt means declining to participate in the normal economic systems.  Finally, God does not need to test people who are already participating in the Kingdom.  Mark’s story about Jesus and the Devil comes to mind (Mark 1:12-13).

Eckhart Tolle is a popular, contemporary “spiritual teacher.” He has written two books that are categorized by Amazon.com under “Health, Body, and Mind.”  They combine a variety of western “Zen” or “Buddhism” and generalized Christian traditionalism.  But the basic message both in The Power of Now and A New Earth is the quest for what Tich Nat Han calls mindfulness, and what these commentaries would call “Covenant,” and what Jack A. Hill described above as “Divine Domain.”  Tolle writes:
        The mind is more comfortable in a landscaped park because it has been planned through thought:  it has not grown organically.  There is an order here that the mind can understand.  In the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos.  It is beyond the mental categories of good and bad.  You cannot understand it through thought, but you can sense it when you let go of thought, become still and alert, and don’t try to understand or explain.  Only then can you be aware of the sacredness of the forest.  As soon as you sense the hidden harmony, that sacredness, you realize you are not separate from it, and when you realize that, you become a conscious participant in it.  In this way, nature can help you become realigned with the wholeness of life.  A New Earth (Penguin, 2006) p. 196.

This experience leaves no room or role for an interventionist “god” who is outside of ourselves and the world in which we live.  The relationship is more intimate than even a concept like “Daddy” can reach.  “Mama” may come closer.  A petition for food or debt relief or forgiveness becomes meaningless in such a context, where there is no boundary between me and the divine.  If there is no boundary, then there is no greater or lesser transformational power than my own.  But while this hidden harmony, this sacred space, is a place to gather strength, it is not a place where I can hide.  To live in that divine domain (as Hill describes it) requires mindful action.  The struggle is always to find our way into that divine domain, or as Jesus put it, to find the treasure that is hidden in the field, or mixed like leaven into the flour.  The joke is that we are already there – all we have to do is open our eyes and look and listen.

Jesus’s prayer makes that clear: God’s sacred space is holy, and that holy realm rules.  We have what we need for now – indeed there is no other time than now.  And there is no debt, so long as we do not hold debt ourselves.  Finally, there is no demand for perfection, no trial, no test, unless – to stretch Tolle’s metaphor – we fail to see the forest because of the trees.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mary, Martha, and Zen

Luke 10:38-42; Amos 8:1-12; Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 52; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28

As with last week’s commentary on the parable of the good Samaritan, the Revised Common Lectionary does not get to Luke’s story of Mary and Martha until mid-July of this current Year C.  However, the RCL does follow Luke’s sequence.  It may be that Luke’s back-to-back scenes illustrate the grounding laws of Judaism:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” (Deuteronomy 6 :4-5) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  The parable of the Samaritan – according to Luke – is about loving your neighbor; the vignette with Mary and Martha – again according to Luke – is about loving God.

Because Luke made up the story of Mary and Martha out of whole cloth, we can do with it whatever we wish.  Jesus never had this encounter, never hinted that women disciples are better (or worse) than women supporters or servants of his ministry.  We might wonder, briefly, if Luke created this story in order to address an issue in his community.  As John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg are fond of reminding us, prohibitions on or sermons about particular behaviors never arise unless there is a problem.  For example, posting a sign on the church door saying that nudity is not acceptable would only be necessary if someone had walked in naked.  Perhaps a debate had developed in Luke’s community about the proper role of women as disciples vs. caretakers.  It is impossible to know.  But in any event, this story is not about women’s liberation from patriarchy.  It is not about the proper role for women in 21st Century church and society.  It’s about choosing to follow Jesus’ Way into God’s Kingdom.

The Common Lectionary readings that accompany Luke’s story offer metaphors of fruitfulness and spiritual maturity.  The prophet Amos talks about the basket of summer fruit that will become famine because the people turn away from God’s great work of justice-compassion.  Sarah and Abraham– in their spiritual maturity and trust in God’s word – will bear the fruit of a son, and be the ancestors of many nations.  Psalm 52 warns that evil doers will not succeed; Psalm 15 says that those who will dwell on God’s holy hill will be “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right.”  The only piece that is a clanging gong in the ensemble is the Colossians rant about “Christ” being “the head of the body the church,” and the theology of substitutionary atonement, which the real Paul had no time for.  Perhaps it’s a way out for orthodox preachers who don’t want to consider unconventional interpretations of Luke’s Mary/Martha drama.  Contrary to much contemporary preaching, the story is not about sibling rivalry and woman’s real place in the home.

In the 14th Century, Meister Eckhart may have had the same accompanying scriptures in mind.  In 1980, Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox published a collection of Eckhart’s sermons titled Breakthrough:  Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation.” In commentaries on each of 37 sermons, Fox spells out the Catholic mystic justification for his theology of Creation Spirituality.  Two sermons are on the subject of Mary and Martha, using the metaphor of fruitfulness as a sign of spiritual maturity.  Meister Eckhart’s Sermon 20 talks about how Martha represents the mature person – the “wife” who bears fruit, who serves the master.  Mary is the “virgin,” the young sycophant, enamored of the guru, naive, and trapped in ego-involvement.  Mary Magdalene’s aria, “I don’t know how to love him,” from Jesus Christ Superstar comes to mind.  But “wife” and “virgin” are metaphors for Eckhart, and gender is irrelevant to this discussion.  In Sermon 34, Eckhart continues with the metaphor of a spiritually mature person (Martha) living in depth with God, not – as is Mary – enamored with the idea of being a disciple.  For Eckhart, contemplation is not better than action, nor are ideas more valuable than work.

Eckhart writes, “I call it obedience when the will is sufficient for what our insight commands”  (Sermon 34p. 485).  Mary cannot yet imagine what action her devotion to Jesus’s teaching might demand.  But Martha has already integrated the desire to follow Jesus’s teachings with the work required to do so.  Eckhart imagines that Martha’s complaint that Mary isn’t helping is really a bit of gentle ribbing to get Mary to let go and let be – to get out of her mind and into the fruitfulness of service.  Mary’s “better part” is that she is learning to live in God’s kingdom and to join in the ongoing work of distributive justice-compassion, but is not there yet.  Fox suggests that this Mary is the Magdalene, who only later . . . learned how to . . . do works of compassion. . . .”

To be spiritually mature is to participate in the great work of distributive justice-compassion, in order to bring about the transformation of human society from greed to sharing, from violent retribution and payback to the non-violent, radical abandonment of self-interest.  Fox writes, “Eckhart believes that contemplation is not better than, nor in the mature person even different from, work. . . . Compassion and the works born of compassion are themselves acts of contemplation.  This is the fulness of spiritual maturity: to be in the world, active in the world, and yet not hindered by these actions from being always in God.”  Fox commentary on Sermon 34, p. 489.

Fox says that our work is an enchantment.  That means, we live, breathe, move and have our being in that ocean of compassion that is God.  We are possessed by and obsessed with that spirit.  At the same time, the Zen of following Jesus’ Way and doing the great work of God’s Kingdom of Justice Compassion means letting go and letting be.  Let go of the mind chatter about being a disciple, activist, whatever, and just do it.

Progressing from naivety to maturity is not a linear journey, but a continuum of experience.  Luke’s story is a snapshot of a moment in time, not an allegory about women’s role in the early church.

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Friday, April 30, 2010

Samaritans in the Ditch

Luke 10:25-37

The Revised Common Lectionary will not get to Luke’s retelling of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan until mid-summer.  But this blog is discussing Luke/Acts in the sequence in which it was written.  By unfortunate yet serendipitous chance, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is especially timely.

The story of the good Samaritan is probably one of the most loved and misunderstood parables that Jesus told.  Nearly all of us identify with the Samaritan who stops to help a man who had been robbed and left for dead by the side of the road.  There are probably hundreds of homeless shelters, feeding programs, and free clinics world-wide with the name “Samaritan” in them, but they miss the original point of the parable.  See The Five Gospels, (Harper SanFrancisco, 1993) p. 324.  For a couple thousand years, probably starting with Luke’s community, people who heard this story heard it as changing the idea of a neighbor from one who receives love (the man in the ditch) to one who gives love (the Samaritan).

Luke throws the parable off point when he uses the story to answer a legal expert who tries to test Jesus by asking, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers with his own question: “How do you read what is written in the Law?”  The lawyer quotes the founding rule of Jewish covenantal life: “You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your energy, and with all your mind; and [you are to love] your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he’s right.  “Do this, and you will have life.”  But the lawyer isn’t satisfied.  He wants Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is.  So Jesus tells the parable about the Samaritan.  At the end of the story, Luke’s Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, in your opinion, acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer answers, “the one who showed him compassion.”  Jesus says, “Then go and do the same yourself.”

Luke was writing for Roman citizens –  Gentiles, who accepted the Jewish God but not Jewish customs.  If Luke’s readers were also among the educated and rich, the story would have been perfect for challenging the conscience without challenging Roman authority.  Gentile readers, with no real idea about what Jewish custom or history was, would have been glad to blame the priest and the Levite for passing by callously on the other side because of “purity laws.”  Like 21st Century Christians, who have heard the story since childhood, Luke’s 1st Century community would have had no idea what it would have meant to the Jewish man in the ditch to be saved by an enemy Samaritan.  But Jesus’ original audience would have immediately seen the improbability of an enemy Samaritan helping a Jew.  In 21st Century terms, receiving such assistance would be like accepting donations from Hammas to the fund for 9/11 victims.  In Jesus’s original parable, roles are reversed, expectations exploded, and the playing field has been radically leveled.

Jesus’ contemporaries may have heard him tell the story at a banquet.  After the main course has been cleared and the wine and fruit brought out, the political discussions begin, interspersed with jokes and aphorisms about the occupying Romans, godless Greek pagans, Arab traders, and local riff-raff such as the tax collectors, dishonest merchants, and of course, those dirty, shifty-eyed Samaritans, who live in the hills and probably worship the old Canaanite gods and goddesses in contravention of God’s law.

Into the raucous profanity Jesus tosses this gem: “Have you heard the one about the man who was going from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell into the hands of robbers?  They stripped him and beat him up and left him for dead.”

“So what else is new?” the listeners gripe.  “The Romans refuse to secure the road.  We’re all at the mercy of bandits and murderers!”

“Well it just so happens,” Jesus goes on, “That a priest was going down that road.  When he saw the man, he went out of his way to avoid him.  In the same way, a Levite came to the place, took one look at him, and crossed the road to avoid him.”

“Probably thought he was dead. Unclean.  Can’t touch him.  It’s the law.”

“But this Samaritan who was traveling that way came to where he was and –”

“Hah!  Picked what was left of his pockets, right?”

“– was moved to pity at the sight of him.”

Jesus has everyone’s full attention at this point, and escalates the preposterousness of the scene with every following phrase: “He went up to him and bandaged his wounds–”


“–poured olive oil and wine on them.  Then he hoisted him up on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him.”

“Get out!”

“The next day, he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Look after him, and on my way back, I’ll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had.”

The entire room falls out laughing.

It would be fun to remain a fly on the wall at this point and listen to the discussion among the listeners, who identified with the victim in the ditch, not with the people passing by.  The question was not to whom am I a neighbor, but from whom can I expect help?

The following chilling, contemporary example reflects the parable from both points of view.  First, a homeless man (Hugo Tale-Yax) came to the assistance of a woman being attacked.  Assistance came to her from a very unexpected quarter of the human terrain.  The rescuer was then stabbed by the woman’s attacker.  Both the woman and the attacker fled in different directions.  The homeless man lay in a pool of blood on the pavement for an hour and-a-half, while people passed by, looked at him, took cell phone photos of him, and turned him over to see if he was dead.  No one came to his assistance.  By the time somebody got around to calling 911, he was dead at the scene.

Taking the traditional reading of the parable, how much longer can we pass by on the other side?  Taking the more disturbing meaning, what happens to us when we are tossed into the margins? From whom can we expect help?  Apparently our fellow human beings are no more likely to come to our aid than are the institutions we thought we had created to help us.  Law enforcement, FEMA, the U.S. Congress – all fail us.  Even our 21st century equivalents of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable – our institutional churches – look the other way when confronted with inhumane workplace conditions, unfair immigration laws, and war disguised as “preemptive strikes” against “enemies,” whom we are supposed to love.

Perhaps it has been more convenient for Christians to understand this parable as requiring selflessness on our part.  We are to be as compassionate as the Samaritan, and therefore worthy of “salvation” from Hell in the next life.  When the rich and socially-connected take care of charity cases, the need for expensive government safety nets is much less.  And when the “less fortunate” are convinced that it is their duty as well to care for their own, even better.

Oppressed people often side with their oppressors as a matter of survival.  The man in the ditch had to accept help from his enemy or die.  On that very personal level, it is easy to see that refusing assistance would have been stupid  But the stupidity is not so obvious when the choice for those in the ditch is to work for Walmart for minimum wage versus working overtime for unsafe mine operators while taking home upwards of $70,000 a year.  Accusations of collaborating with injustice are easy to make.  After all, we might be thinking, that "contemporary" incident mentioned above was nothing more than a criminal street fight.

But something else more radical than any of these scenarios is going on in this parable.  The playing field has been leveled.  The despised Samaritan is saving the equally despised victim of Roman oppression.  In the contemporary example, the whole altercation happened in Queens, New York, among people of questionable reputation at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday.
Deeper yet, in the parable, both parties have surrendered to the reality of their individual humanity, and have acted from that common ground.  The Samaritan has treated his enemy as a friend; the Jew has experienced his enemy as a savior.

Do we no longer recognize humanity in 21st Century America?  How long must we lie in the ditch?


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