Monday, October 21, 2013

Fire and Rain

Proper 16 C; August 25, 2013
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Our gospel lesson today is only incidentally about healing a woman’s crippling ailment. This story is really about who is entitled to be healed – who is to be included – who is privileged – and who is not.

In the religious communities of Jesus’ day, ritual purity was very important. Cleanness and uncleanness, health and sickness, who could be touched and who could not be touched – all of these considerations were the basis of religious laws. Doing any work, including the work of healing, was forbidden on the Sabbath, the day of rest.

These laws about cleanness defined who was in and who was out. If you were sick, as this woman was for 18 years, you were isolated, alone, probably shunned by your family, with begging your only option for making a living. So Jesus was not only doing some work – the work of God – by healing on the Sabbath; he was healing someone deeply unclean, someone shunned, someone the men in the synagogue would never touch – would perhaps not even look in the eye.

Jesus healed this woman, on this day, on purpose. Way back in the 4th chapter of this same Gospel of Luke, Jesus said this in his first sermon in his hometown synagogue: “Today this scripture has come true in your hearing.” You could say that the rest of the Gospel is an embodiment of that statement. In everything else he does in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is the living example of the work of God – the mission of God. If you want to know what scripture means, what God’s work of creation means, look no farther than me, Jesus said. Look no farther than this woman, this daughter of Abraham, that I have set free from her bondage to all of you.

If Jesus embodies healing and liberation, then those the gospel calls his “opponents” embody privilege, institutionalized privilege that shuts the “unclean” out. Institutionalized privilege is “business as usual.” If you do something, and someone says to you, “How dare you!” you are likely to have snubbed that person’s sense of privilege. Institutionalized privilege means you get to set the rules. You get to define what is normal, what is clean, who is worthy. You never have to earn this privilege; you just get it, by virtue of being … privileged. It is hard to question privilege that is institutionalized, because it is in the very air you breathe – that all of us breathe, those on the inside of privilege as well as those on the outs. It’s just the way things are.
That’s why the healing is only incidental to this story. What Jesus is doing here is upending a whole institution of privilege. Or you could say that healing IS central to the story but what Jesus is doing is healing all of these people of their sin of privilege – of their sin of pretending to be better than this woman – of their sin of thinking they are better than God.

In the midst of the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I caught a re-run of a
documentary on the life of the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin was eloquent about the toll white privilege took on him as a black-skinned American. It was exhausting, crippling, to be written out of American society as though he did not exist. The documentary frequently shows footage of white people incredulously asking Baldwin why he raises these questions with such urgency and can’t he just wait until things get better? It’s like expecting that crippled woman outside the synagogue just to wait another 18 years. But when privilege – the privilege to heal, the privilege to include, the privilege to define the terms of everyone else’s life – is institutionalized, everyone is shocked, and challenged, when someone has the audacity to raise questions. It is even more shocking when someone actually acts, and exposes privilege for the fallacy that it is. Heal on the Sabbath? She is a daughter of Abraham. Why shouldn’t she be healed?

This week we are reminded again how difficult it is to raise questions about white privilege. The journalist Charles Blow wrote,

… my worry is that we have hit a ceiling of sorts. As we get closer to a society where explicit bias is virtually eradicated, we no longer have the stomach to deal with the more sinister issues of implicit biases and of structural and systematic racial inequality.
I worry that centuries of majority privilege and minority disenfranchisement are being overlooked in puddle-deep discussions about race and inequality, personal responsibility and societal inhibitors.[i]

There were people in the 1960s who found James Baldwin terrifying. He grew up in the church. He knew the power of the wrath and thunder found in writings like our passage today from the Epistle to the Hebrews. One of his most famous books takes its title from a spiritual that could have been inspired by this passage – and Baldwin used those lines to warn society of the true wrath to come at the dismantling of white privilege:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign/no more water – the fire next time.

But at heart he was a true believer in God’s work of creation, a true believe that God’s grace was about the healing and reconciling of all of humanity. At the end of the film, we hear Baldwin say,

The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and that you will trust me more than you do now, that we will trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe in the new Jerusalem. I really do believe that we can all become better than we are, I know we can, but the price is enormous.[ii]

James Baldwin was able to say that, with that kind of hope and realistic optimism because he knew these stories of Jesus upending privilege just to heal some unnamed woman who had been sick for 18 years. James Baldwin, and all of us, were watching Jesus that day, and James Baldwin, and surely all of us, were among the crowd who rejoiced.

Fire and Perseverence

Proper 15 C; August 18, 2013
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

It seems impossible to be reminded of the end of the world on such a glorious mid-August morning as yesterday, but the New York Times managed to do it. According to an op-ed writer, the Palisades of the Hudson, just north of the George Washington Bridge, are “a reminder of a cataclysm and mass extinction.”

The cliffs were once underground channels of molten rock that fed widespread volcanic eruptions 200 million years ago as the supercontinent Pangaea pulled apart at the seams. The eruptions covered more than four million square miles with basalt lava and belched vast amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur into the atmosphere. Brief volcanic winters followed, but the eruptions also set off an ocean-acidifying, global-warming catastrophe that wiped out three-quarters of life on earth. This was the end-Triassic extinction, which cleared the way for the dinosaurs and their domination of the planet for the next 136 million years, before a giant asteroid struck Mexico and ended their reign.

Really? Do I really need to be reminded of all of this on a serene, crystal clear morning, as I sip my coffee and look out at my garden? And then, of course, the even-worse kicker:

“In terms of global warming and ocean acidification,” … the rate of change during the end-Triassic extinction “was comparable to what we’re doing today.”[i]

Today, it seems, you can run but you cannot hide. In the gospel, Jesus seems to forget that his nickname is “Prince of Peace”[ii] – the words of hope our very same prophet Isaiah wrote when he was not bitterly condemning us for faithlessness and violence, telling us how God will destroy the very garden he gave us to
live in because we have become sour and wild. This theme is echoed in Psalm 80, a psalm of communal lament: God has abandoned us, left our gardens and communities desolate, and we beg God for help. With God-given leadership, we say, we will never turn away from God, we promise. Restore us, give us life, God, give us light, and we shall be saved.

At the same time that these Bible readings take us simultaneously to ancient history and to the futuristic end of time, we are grabbed and brought to today: Egypt is all over these lessons: violence, bloodshed, familial fighting, endless division and conflict. The Epistle to the Hebrews is ripped from the headlines: torture, flogging, chains and imprisonment, stoned to death, destitute, tormented, wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and holds in the ground. “I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus said – fire, the prophet’s way to speak of the judgment of God. Can you not see the signs of these times, Jesus asked the crowd who came to hear the Prince of Peace. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky – you can read the stock reports and the housing sales and the consumer price index; you even know what the fossils are telling you in the geologic record of billions of years ago – but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

As much as we might NOT want to read these things in the Bible, here indeed they are and always have been. Difficult texts, yes, but real. No easy answers. Our lives and times, troubling and tormented, laid bare. The wounds in our human nature revealed. Our micro-troubles, with our personal shortcomings – anger with our families, unhappiness at work, sickness, greed, envy – all that and more wrought large, on a global scale. God shines klieg lights on all the bad stuff.

We are relieved to find one human in this whole bunch of prophets and lamenters: the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. What a blessing to find someone who puts all these hard times in context, who finds meaning and redemption even in the midst of terror and despair. “By faith,” when terrible things happen, we are not destroyed. The Epistle to the Hebrews puts us in the middle of that great stream of time, where we see the struggles of those who have gone before right here next to ours and connected as well to those who will come after us. We run toward the promises of God, the goal we have always sought, the story of God and humanity and this whole created order that is still unfolding. We cannot pretend that things we do not like are not happening, for this writer reminds us that it is in the midst of even the most terrible of circumstances that God’s story is revealed, God’s truth is made known, God’s grace surrounds us.

Jesus told us to pray that God’s kingdom and God’s will would be done. It was no more finished when Jesus walked the earth, died and rose from the dead than it is now. But for Jesus, and for us, if we would but read the signs around us, in our times, we would see that God’s purposes are unfolding, even now, even here, even in our own lives, as those purposes unfolded in the lives of those the writer to the Hebrews calls the
pioneers of faith.

Short of stopping global warming or negotiating a peaceful settlement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military, what can we do, even in the midst of our own challenges, to work toward that Kingdom goal Jesus set for us? To align ourselves with the purposes of God? To keep faith with those who have run this race before, and to pass on to those who come after us this same promise of God’s grace that we have received?

Remember you have been in the ditch

Proper 10; July 14, 2013
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

There are two stories here. The first story is about a lawyer who wants to do the right thing. He wants to know the rules, so he can obey them. He wants to know how he can live the good life, how to be a good person. The law will tell him how to live.

So here is this lawyer, just trying to get it all straight: love God, love neighbor, okay. We’re agreed. Yes, Jesus says. Then the lawyer says, “Who IS my neighbor?” Listen to how the contemporary theologian Frederick Buechner paraphrases the answer the lawyer wants:

A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.[i]

You get the sense that Luke thinks this is the answer that the lawyer wants Jesus to give to his question. But instead, Jesus tells a story.

Read the passage again and think about it: Who is the main character of this story within a story?
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

The man in the ditch is the main character of the story. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus says, A man was on the road, was beat up by robbers and thrown into a ditch, left for dead.
When the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells this story about a man in pretty desperate need of a neighbor. Jesus tells the lawyer a story about himself, about a man looking for a neighbor. The man lying in a ditch is not going to find anyone remotely like him walking by, if you have to rely on people remotely like yourself to help you when you are in need. The only person who is going to help you is going to be a stranger, and that stranger might even be one of your enemies. The priest, the Levite, the Samaritan – none of them would be pre-disposed to think of a man bleeding and left for dead in a ditch would be their neighbor.

Jesus tells the story this way to shock us into realizing that we are the ones "… lying in that ditch, and we desperately need our enemy to forget what he’s been taught and what he understands his rights to be. He needs to forget the risk and the robbers, and stop and help us in our need."[ii]

We are the ones who need a neighbor.

There are a lot of ditch stories in spiritual literature. Julian of Norwich, in the 14th century, told a story about a Lord and a servant. The Lord sent the servant on an errand, but like our man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the servant fell in a ditch, and so could not obey the master. In Julian’s day, sin, and the inevitability of sin, was a big matter. People reading her story would assume that the Lord would be angry and punish the servant for falling into the ditch. But no, Julian wrote, that is not the way God is; God loves the servant. “Sin is necessary,” she wrote – life is full of ditches we fall into, that we get pushed into, that we even jump into; “sin is necessary, but all will be well.” “God is not now one thing, now another,” she wrote, “now loving to the saved, now angry to the damned, but always the same, always love.”

The Magdalene Community, in Nashville, is a community of women who have survived lives of violence, prostitution and drug abuse. These women have developed a rule of life, kind of like a 12-step program, kind of like a religious order. In their little book, Find Your Way Home, they describe this, Step No. 17:
Remember You Have Been in the Ditch

The ditch is the place where I was beat up and beat down, with busted lips and black eyes. The ditch was where I was raped and was crying and screaming and thinking no one could hear.
My sister was rescued from a ditch. Her bus crashed while crossing over a bridge in Cameroon, Africa. She was going there to help teach and ended up being pulled from death by a kind stranger who happened to be travelling behind the bus. I will never forget how quickly she went from being there as a helper to desperately needing the help of others. If I let myself have the luxury of contemplation, the image of my sister being pulled from the ditch leaves me forever grateful.
Who are you to tell me I have done wrong? I’m asking, who are you to say that you will pray for me and that help is just around the bend? Just who are you to say that you are sorry that stuff happens and that I should stop whining? The only way I can know you is if you tell me you have been in the ditch, too.[iii]

Who is my neighbor, the lawyer asked Jesus. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” Jesus answered. Your neighbor, says Jesus, is the man who, against all odds, is the one who helps you out of the ditch.

[i] Frederick Buechner, from Wishful Thinking, quoted in the Frederick Buechner Blog,
[iii] Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart by the Women of Magdalene, with Becca Stevens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), pp. 79-80
Photographs from the Thistle Farms website, where you can find out more about the work of the Magadalene community, and how these women have changed their lives.

The kingdom of heaven has come near to you

Proper 9C; July 7, 2013
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 66
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

There is a scene from a movie that sticks vividly in my mind. It’s from Merlin, a made-for-tv version of the King Arthur legend, told from the point of view of the wizard, Merlin. After a lifetime of having his life, and the lives of good people, damaged by Queen Mab – a deliciously evil Celtic goddess – Merlin realizes that if everyone turns their backs on Mab, if they just go on with their lives as though she did not exist, then she would lose her power over them. She would not exist if no one followed her devious schemes into violence, deception and death.

One way to look at evil is that it is a figment of our imaginations. Satan, or Mab, in her made-for-tv incarnation anyway, are creatures of human myth, personifications of a seemingly insatiable demand for murder and revenge. They seem to offer humans privilege but it is all a scheme to enhance their power.
While the 70 are out on their mission to preach the Good News, Jesus receives a vision of Satan cast down “from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Could it be that this very mission, this sending out of simple earnest folk, two by two, signals the end of the stranglehold of Satan over us? Could it mean that our imagination is now freed from this personification of evil that keeps demanding violence and blood sacrifice? From this creature of our own making that gave voice to an insatiable desire for vengeance? “The kingdom of God has come near to you,” Jesus told the apostles to say to everyone, even those who ran them out of town. “The kingdom of God has come near to you, whether you listen to me our not.”

The apostles turned their backs on the seductive power of Satan, and Satan, always more alive in the human imagination than in God’s, began to fade into oblivion. But even the defeat of Satan is not really the point of Jesus’ mission: it is to ready all who are willing to listen for their citizenship in this new kingdom, this new way of being, that is already here.

If Jesus came here today and commissioned the 70 of us to go out into Onondaga County two by two, it would not be that unlike the mission of the 70 in the gospel. Like them, we would be sent out to places we knew, and to places where we were strangers. Scholars say Jesus sent the 70 into Samaria, to Jews who had broken with mainstream Judaism and to whom Jesus offered an invitation to restoration to the community. We would also be sent into hostile territory, to a society that does not want to hear much of Jesus’ message. It’s best to travel lightly into such danger, and to be ready to move on when rejected. We might be visiting neighborhoods where drive-by shootings happen, or panhandlers accost you. We might be in very comfortable places, where people politely turn away from us, certain that their lives are together and they don’t need to hear the words we have to bring.

When the apostles said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” many people turned away way. A society ruled not by violence and threat, not by the “haves” lording it over the “have-nots,” but by justice and mercy, generosity and abundance, seemed inconceivable; a nice fairy tale, but, no thanks, that’s not the way our world works.

Many did listen, however. The gospel reports that the 70 came back to Jesus reporting success, and Jesus told them his vision: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” It worked. People listened. They moved into the new reality. They were healed of infirmities, relationships were reconciled, they turned their back on the power violence and the fear of violence held over them.

The Kingdom of heaven has come near to us. We know it comes near when we notice when people choose conversation over confrontation, reconciliation over retribution, generosity over greed, solidarity over selfishness.

When I was in campus ministry, some of my students were counselors at the diocesan summer camp. One week the campers were nearly all from tough neighborhoods in Chicago. The counselors had to break up a lot of fights; gang signs were flashing right and left. A few kids were sent home. But at moments when the counselors needed to calm the kids down, when the culture of violence and revenge was getting just too seductive and powerful, the camp musician started playing a song on his guitar. The children would stop what they were doing, gather in a circle and hold hands. “They just loved that song,” he told me. “It would always calm them right down.”

It’s a simple song. I don’t know the words, but the meaning is clear, to those who are willing to hear it: “The kingdom of heaven has come near to you.” And when that circle gathered, and those young, frightened people held hands and sang and swayed, Jesus had a vision: “I watched Satan fall from heaven in a flash of lightning.” It’s possible, even today, even now, for even us to go out on Jesus’ mission and to come back, rejoicing.

Suburbs: Garden or Grave -- or the place from where we start

Proper 8-C; June 30, 2013
1 Kings 2:1, 6-14
Psalm 77
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

In the early 1960s, there were two popular books by then-young theologians. One was The Secular City[i], which talked about how little American society seemed to care about religion, or God, or the church – that we were moving into a “post-religious society.” 

The other was The Suburban Captivity of the Churches[ii], which described how Protestant churches had fled their cities of origin and had become captive to the nice life of the suburbs -- the place where middle class values reigned, where American choices were equal to God’s choices, where Jesus was secure, and kind, and comforting. Indeed, the church itself was the place to be comfortable, to be friends with people like “us.” This security allowed us to be “nice” to “our neighbors” and of course we had chosen just who those neighbors were. Looking back, we can see a dialog between these two books: one of the reasons one theologian noticed that fewer people were taking the church seriously and preferring a “secular city” to a religious world view was that the church had become something that it was not supposed to become, something that Jesus had never intended it to become: a safe place, an orderly place, a place with no poor people, no conflicts, no challenges.

Well, some 50 years later, times have changed. Instead of increasing secularization, society has become increasingly religious. Part of the reason is the richness America receives from immigrants from all over the world: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and of course Christians from all those places that used to be colonies. Soon after those books were published, the 1960s and ‘70s erupted in times of great upheaval – and so people began to realize that religious texts and faith were relevant – could provide guidance in troubling times.

Ah but there is the rub – and perhaps the explanation to the mindset of “the suburban captivity.” These biblical texts, these words and stories about Jesus, are often themselves troubling. Jesus seems to be offering us comfort at the same time he challenges us to leave everything that is comfortable behind. No wonder people want the church to be a place of order and calm; if we took this Jesus too seriously, what kind of trouble would we invite?

The Jesus we encounter in this week’s Gospel is serious and stern. We are not yet half-way through the Gospel of Luke, but already Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, toward his confrontation with the powers and principalities, toward his passion and death. Jesus’ mission is serious and spare: he has no possessions, not even a place to call home. Whoever follows him is required to take up a similar strict regimen: “Let the dead bury their own dead” – the disciples are not even allowed the bare minimum of fealty to their families – “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” If Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, so then are the faces of his disciples – and of all of us who even today consider ourselves followers of Jesus.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the story of Superman was popular, and last night we saw the 2013 version. If the 1970s Superman was The Secular City version, slightly detached and ironic, then this Superman takes us right back to that decade where religious, political and social values all coincided. Superman, the ultimate undocumented immigrant, is indeed the All-American hero, very handsome, and very nice, and very sure that the power he so mightily uses is in the service of peace, justice and the American Way – and although they skirt the issue in the movie, they do make it appear that even God blesses his deeds of power. In the movie, Superman spends the first 33 years of his life getting ready for his big debut as the savior of the world.

Humanity has never had any shortage of “superman” types who purported to be saviors of the world – empires, and armies, and strong men abounded in the first century as in the modern era. But note that the Bible does not use those images when it talks about what Jesus brings.

The passage we read today from Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds me of another text from the 1960s: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Remember that when Paul found Jesus, he lost everything else: his status, his job, his comfort zone of being a Jew with power to persecute others. Paul here recognizes that when he lost all those things, he found freedom. He became a disciple of Jesus long after he knew that following Jesus meant following him to his death. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who reads these texts very closely, noticed that when you read today’s Gospel and this passage from Paul together, as we do today, you see that following Jesus does bring freedom but freedom 

… of a very peculiar kind. It is not self-indulgent freedom, but freedom that enhances the neighborhood. The sum of the new freedom is “love of neighbor” …[iii]

Fifty years after the original Superman, do we really need another muscle-bound hero? It seems that the challenges of our day call us to be different kinds of freedom-loving heros – indeed, to be freedom-loving neighbors, people who take the power and blessing which comes from following Jesus to tie together our communities, to reach out to our neighbors in need. There is one line I did like in the new Superman movie. Clark Kent’s earthly father assures him that “he was sent here to make this world a better place.” I agree with that. There is no better reason to be on earth than to work for its transformation into the kind of place God created it to be. This suburban church, which can capture us with its serenity and beauty, should be our launching pad to go out and do that very thing.

[i] Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (1965), Collier Books
[ii] Gibson Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches: An Analysis of Protestant Responsibility in an Expanding Metropolis (1961), Doubleday
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, “June 27: Discipleship is No Picnic,” A Cast of Emancipated Characters, from Sojourners Magazine, June 2010 (Vol. 39, No. 6, pp. 48). Living the Word.