The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings

Today’s readings introduce a series of readings in the books of Job and Hebrews. In the Gospel readings in Mark, Jesus continues his march towards Jerusalem, accompanied by the apostles who continue to argue over whose name will be in the biggest lights on the marquee. I’ll comment briefly on the first two readings and devote the bulk of the sermon to the Gospel.

Job

The book tells the story of a paradigmatically righteous man who suffers massively and undeservedly. The book doesn’t explain why, although it soundly rejects a number of bad explanations. Instead, the book focuses on more immediate questions: how do we respond to such suffering, either our own or our neighbor’s? What does this suffering say about humanity? About God? (Is God good in any meaningful sense, or just very powerful?) Do we only serve God as long as we perceive it to be profitable? We’ll be in Job most of October; if you read about a chapter or two a day you’ll be able to engage the Sunday readings at a more satisfying level.

Hebrews

Hebrews is one of the least accessible books in the New Testament. It was usually ascribed to Paul, who was almost certainly not its author. It seems to assume that its audience is in danger of abandoning faith in Jesus for some other form of Judaism. In any case, the bulk of the book is devoted to Jesus’ superiority. In the process, it offers perspectives that Christians throughout the centuries have found illuminating and encouraging.

For instance, in the second half of the 20th Century, Christians sought –as they have in every time and place—for ways of speaking of Jesus that resonated with their hearts. One of these: Jesus our Brother. Not: our God, our Lord, our Master –all true enough—but Jesus our Brother. And it was in this prickly epistle that we found the richest resources to develop this image: the one who “is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters,” the one who shared our flesh and blood. Jesus is our Brother, who can help us when we suffer and are tested, because he suffered and was tested too; one of the few human beings worthy to be Job’s brother.

Hebrews is significantly shorter than Job; reading a chapter every other day or so should keep you current with the Sunday selections.

Matthew

One of the jokes about my people, the Scots, is that if there are three of us, there’ll be four political parties. This could have been said of the Jews of Jesus’ day, as illustrated by today’s reading. Moses permitted divorce; on what grounds could a man seek divorce? The School of Shammai said: only for unchastity; the School of Hillel said: for practically anything, including burning the roast. The Pharisees wanted to know what Jesus thought.

Jesus asks what Moses commanded; they reply citing the provision for a certificate of divorce. Jesus interprets that as a concession to their hardness of heart, and returns to the creation story: “‘the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

That certainly sounds as though Jesus is taking a position to the right of Shammai: there are no grounds on which a man could seek a divorce.

So that’s all we need to say about that? Hardly. Matthew tells the same story as Mark, but in his story Jesus says “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” So in Matthew, Rabbi Jesus aligns with Rabbi Shammai. Paul takes up marriage in his first letter to the Corinthians—we read this in the Daily Office in the last couple of weeks—and permits divorce and remarriage in the case of a Christian whose non-Christian spouse wants out.

So how do we respond to the NT as a whole? Over time the Greek-speaking Eastern Church and the Latin-speaking Western Church came to give quite different answers. The Western Church understood Jesus words as transmitted by Mark as canon law: no divorce. Unfortunately, what that often ended up meaning was that if you were well-connected (money helped), you could get an annulment, and if you weren’t, then you could either divorce & remarry or continue to receive Holy Communion, but not both. The Eastern Church read the same texts and concluded that marriages could die, and so divorce and remarriage were permitted as tragic concessions to our continuing hardness of heart. The history of the Western Church has been a history of gradually approaching the Eastern Church’s position; although some parts –most notably the Roman Catholics—continue to prohibit divorce.

Marriages can die. This certainly rings true. But does it really take Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark seriously? Well, yes, for I think what Jesus is doing here is like what he does in the Sermon on the Mount: “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;” “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Does this mean we adjust our laws accordingly? No. Jesus is, I think, making two points: we must not fall into the trap of equating obeying the law with goodness, because anyone with half a brain can figure out how to satisfy the law and still do evil. Second, if we tightened up the law to eliminate this problem, most of us would be locked up.

More broadly, the various ways we Christians have read today’s Gospel is a prime example of the danger of taking a single text as the basis for doctrine or church law without attending to the rest of Scripture!

Returning to Paul, while Paul has his opinions—and bless him for acknowledging them to be opinions and not trying to pass them off as Gospel Truth—he’s clear that both the single and married states are vocations, callings in which we can reflect God’s holiness. So, at a marriage, we’re asked “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” And we respond: “We will.” And we’re reminded of this obligation to mutual support as we celebrate marriage anniversaries. Sadly, there are no liturgical affirmations of this obligation to uphold those whose vocation is the single life. (Perhaps the folk thinking about Prayer Book revision could think about that!) But the obligation’s there, the obligation to uphold each other in either state, married or single. Perhaps today’s text can encourage us to take this obligation more seriously, to listen each other more carefully, to live as brothers and sisters in this new family Jesus is shaping, to do better than Job’s friends, who, hovering just offstage, can’t wait to tell Job what he’s done wrong.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Help us, Lord, to become masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. And, take our hearts and set them on fire. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

Masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others: that’s where we’ll end up; it will take some time to get there.

The first reading is the Lectionary’s only selection from the Book of Esther, the story of God’s saving the Jews from Haman’s genocidal attack throughout the Persian Empire through a Jewess named Esther. It’s a gem of a short story, filled with sharp humor, and is the basis for the Jewish feast of Purim, or Lots, which next year [2022] will be celebrated on March 16.

It is also a subversive story. When Cyrus the Persian gave the Jews permission to return home from exile toward the end of the 6th Century bc, Jewish leadership was united in urging, exhorting, guilting the Jews to return. Isaiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: all agree that Good Jews belong on the road back to Jerusalem. Esther is one of the Bad Jews who didn’t make the trip, and whom we encounter in Susa, the Persian capital. Obviously, God will be attending to the Good Jews, and not to Jews like Esther. But when this threat of genocide comes, deliverance comes not from Jerusalem, but from Susa. If there were ever a tale warning us against writing some portion of the Body of Christ off, it’s this one.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus, one suspects, has been reading Esther.

Our second lesson is the last part of the Epistle of James, in which James speaks to us of patience and the tongue.

Patience.Ambrose Bierce, probably in The Devil’s Dictionary, says “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” So we exercise patience when we don’t have other options. James’ vision of patience is quite different. The future is assured because Jesus is coming. There will be a rich harvest, so we can settle into the farmer’s patience. And, James reminds us, Jesus is coming as judge, so judging is something we don’t need to do and are positively forbidden to do.

But some people require so much patience! Yes; us –and God is patient with us. If, by the way, we don’t think that God has to exercise extraordinary patience with us, we don’t know ourselves very well, and are either very young or in a very dangerous place spiritually. So, our exercises in patience with others become a matter of exercising the same patience that we know we need from God. And, notice, the last thing we want from God is any hint of condescension. Are we in the company of an obnoxious person? Well, we have an excellent opportunity to mirror the patience we need from God.

The tongue. A couple chapters ago James warned us of its dangers; here, in an unguarded display of hope, he turns to its positive uses. Three points to notice:

  • Echoing Jesus, he warns us against oaths. Our ordinary speech should be trustworthy, so that “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is quite unnecessary. And have you noticed how often our speech betrays this problem. “Speaking frankly…”: so the rest of the time you aren’t? “Honestly…”; and what was I hearing before? “To be perfectly truthful…”
  • We use the tongue to bring our illnesses before the community and before God. “Are any…sick? They should call for the elders of the church…” Illness is not a private matter; if one of us is sick, all are affected. As we pray for the sick, we’re saying “God, this is our problem, not simply their problem. “The Lord will raise them up.” ‘Raise up’ is used both for healing and for resurrection. We do not know how God will respond to any particular request for healing. We pray for healing both because we can do no other, and because, bringing the sick to Jesus, there is no better place we can bring them.
  • We properly use the tongue to bring back those who wander from the truth. This sounds quite foreign to us, because we’re used to thinking of each person as having a rather large sphere marked “private” and live in a culture that constantly tells us that one person’s truth is not another’s. Ironically, the same society that hungers for community encourages us to act as strangers to each other. I have no interest in bringing in judging through the back door. But not judging is not the same thing as remaining silent. When we see a brother or sister acting self-destructively, we need to risk saying something. If our society can manage “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” we Christians should be able to take the principle a bit further. There are, in other words, things worse than conflict, and one of them is watching someone taking a wrong turn and saying nothing.

Our Gospel comes from that part of Mark that is structured thematically by Jesus’ repeated warnings of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” says Jesus, and Mark follows this warning with stories of the disciples arguing over who’s greatest, trying to silence those who don’t follow them, etc. The human hands into which Jesus is most immediately betrayed are the disciples’!

Jesus follows his rebuke to the disciples regarding their treatment of others with exhortations regarding their treatment of themselves. The ruthlessness they’ve displayed towards others needs to be focused on themselves: If your hand, your foot, your eye, causes you to stumble, cut it off, tear it out.

One of society’s most seductive promises is “you can have it all.” It shows up in songs, as the goal of various self-help schemes. A women’s organization that should know better will even sell you a t-shirt for your daughter: “Girls can have it all.”

Nope. We have to choose, and the higher we aim, the more we have to give up. A relatively innocuous example of a literal enactment of Jesus words was provided by the NFL defensive back Ronnie Lott, who had the tip of his left pinky finger amputated during the offseason so he wouldn’t risk injuring it in the future and miss more football games. Any sort of excellence demands hours of practice and preparation, time that’s simply not available for other things. “OK, so I’ll aim low” –and the price of that is soul-destroying boredom.

More fundamentally, Jesus’ words are about paying attention to the choices we have. Rather than spending our energy on the faults of others; we might spend our energy on the choices we have regarding how we live before God. Here some ruthlessness isn’t a bad thing, being as attentive to our life before God as the new car owner is to the sound of the engine, or the photographer is to the cleanliness of her lenses.

Why? Because the stuff that destroys us and those around us often starts so innocently. There are so many good reasons to complain; it is so natural. But over time we can spend more and more time complaining, until there is no longer a person complaining, just an incessant complaint. Again, the disciples’ “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him…”: well, they don’t have much power and that “someone” is probably safe. But at the end of that line lie all the diabolical instruments of torture of the inquisition.

Bottom line: we have more power, more choices than we imagine. We may not appear center-stage to deliver our people as did Esther. All of us can pray, as did our brother Elijah, and thereby transformed the weather and the politics of Israel. And all of us daily make decisions: how much slack do I cut those around me; how much slack do I cut myself? Those around me: a lot, as God cuts us a lot of slack. Myself: very little, for little decisions add up, for good or ill, and at the last day I hope to be one who seeks, rather than avoids, God’s gaze.

Help us, Lord, to become masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. And, take our hearts and set them on fire. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

[The prayer that bookends this sermon I learned from Fr. George F. Regas during our time at All Saints in Pasadena, California, who entered into glory on January 3 of this year.]

New wine & old wineskins

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Jesus; Mk. 2:22).

This little proverb’s immediate context is a dispute about fasting, and possibly it’s just about that. But it resonates throughout the larger context of Mark’s entire Gospel, inviting us to hear the passion narrative itself as new wine into old wineskins, with the wine and skins both lost (Jesus crucified; the Temple veil ripped open also as a sign of its coming destruction). Pulling the camera back further to take in Paul’s letters: the struggle to keep both the new wine of the Gospel and the old wineskins of its adherents intact (“What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ [1 Cor. 1:12]).

I suspect that an account of how the New Testament tries to keep wine and wineskins intact would be multi-dimensional. It would include the various ways in which Paul speaks of metamorphosis, e.g., “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). It would include the metaphor of new birth, for Nicodemus certainly grasps the scope of the challenge (Jn 3:4). And, earlier in the Gospels, John the Baptist.

John’s task: to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Mk. 1:3). What I hadn’t realized until I came at John via the wine/wineskins parable is that a crucial part of preparing the way was bridging the gap between popular expectations of God’s promised future and Jesus. The gap doesn’t disappear: even John wonders whether Jesus is the coming one (Matt 11:1-6). And there’s enough of a gap between popular expectations and John that perhaps the bulk of the religious authorities end up on the far shore (Mark 11:27-33). Nevertheless, John’s warnings that the status quo is unsustainable and that more compassion/justice is needed (Luke 3:7-14) can get folk moving in the right direction, even while leaving aside the more contentious questions of whether established notions of justice/righteousness need revision (they do), and whether outsiders will receive God’s mercy (they will). So John, unpalatable in so many ways, is a fundamental expression of God’s mercy or—to switch frames—God’s marketing. From popular expectations to Jesus: no way. From popular expectations to John to Jesus: that happens. “Prepare the way of the Lord” indeed.

Preserve both the new wine and the old wineskins? Borrowing from Billie Holiday, The difficult God’ll do right now; the impossible will take a little while.

The Delicacy of Wisdom

“But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). That bit from last week’s Daily Office readings surprised me. Far better, I thought (from later in the same letter) “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (13:12). What is Paul thinking?

That got me rereading the first few chapters of the letter. Paul describes two sorts of wisdom, the world’s wisdom, in which it makes perfect sense to crucify Jesus, and God’s wisdom, in which the crucified Jesus is the cornerstone. It’s not an abstract contrast since the conflicts in Corinth are driven by that same world’s wisdom.

So “But we have the mind of Christ” is right at the tipping-point. On the one hand, if this were not true of Paul’s audience they wouldn’t be self-identifying as Christian. They’ve confessed the crucified Jesus as their cornerstone. On the other hand, their continued pursuit of status and power evidenced in their conflicts shows that this “mind of Christ” hasn’t penetrated very deeply. “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (3:1). They’re at the tipping point; which way will they go?

The delicacy of wisdom. What’s playing out in Corinth is like what Jesus described in the parable of the sower. The word (like wisdom) is powerful; the word (like wisdom) is delicate. And most of us are such a surprising mix of soils! Or again, as Solomon and his editors observed, there’s such a fine line between wisdom and folly:

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes. (Prov 26:4-5)

In Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark Watts notices that Mark juxtaposes Jesus’ two-stage healing of the blind man (“I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”) with Peter’s confession (“You are the Messiah”) and suggests that Mark wants us to notice that Peter’s understanding is about as precise as “like trees, walking.”

We confess Jesus as the Messiah. That’s much better than nothing, but as Mark’s story shows, it’s the beginning, not the climax, of our story. Wisdom is like that. We’re (always?) at the tipping point; which way will we go?

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings

This morning our second reading from James will receive most of our attention. But, having just heard the Gospel, let’s start there. Jesus heals a girl possessed by a demon and a man both deaf and mute. Jesus was able to meet them in their need; Jesus is able to meet us in our need. That’s the starting point and foundation for everything else our texts want to tell us today.

It would be simpler if our sickness were confined to the body. Unfortunately, our souls are equally vulnerable, and vulnerable specifically to the temptation to be friends with both God and the world, James’ main concern. Let’s see what James has for us this week.

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” A rich man and a poor man come into the sanctuary: if we treat them differently, we don’t believe in Jesus. For James, as for the rest of the New Testament, believing in Jesus isn’t believing things about Jesus, or even showing up at church every week. Believing in Jesus is following Jesus, doing what he said to do.

Now, my guess is that if James came here he’d like what he saw with respect to the particular issue he raises at the beginning of our reading. The issue underlying that particular issue is an opportunity for growth. That’s the issue of whether when we come together we’re simply mirroring the ways of relating we learned out there—sucking up to the rich and keeping the poor at arm’s length is only an example—or whether we’re learning new ways of relating to each other. Believing in Jesus is letting Jesus make us into the sort of parish whose common life is light and salt to the world around us.

This is why we say that believing in Jesus not something one can do alone, anymore than one can tango alone or play ping-pong alone. If God were out to save isolated souls, that could be done alone. But God’s going for all the marbles, all the human family, and for that God needs parishes that are light and salt.

Let’s return to James, for there are three other items in the text to attend to, the second of which will involve a major detour, and then we’re done.

‘Favoritism’ in the first verse in the Greek text is a direct allusion to Lev 19:15: “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” At multiple points in his letter James works from Moses’ law in general and Leviticus 19 in particular. When he speaks of the “royal law” (v.8) he is probably referring to all the Mosaic law. We tend to assume that after Jesus Moses is of simply historical interest; the New Testament understands that Jesus makes possible a life-giving implementation of Moses –but with some important shifts.

James, emphasizing the folly of favoritism, has some hard things to say about the rich. Since James here too is simply reading his reality through the lenses of the Old Testament, this is where we detour through our first reading from Proverbs, which ended with “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.”

What does the Book of Proverbs want to tell us about wealth? This is worth asking, because within the Old Testament Proverbs presents the most detailed analysis, and because the New Testament simply assumes Proverbs. Why reinvent the wheel?

  • Wealth means power: “7 The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” (See also 17:8; 18:23; 19:7). We could start anywhere; we start here to remind ourselves that Proverbs knows our world.
  • Wealth is the result of diligence. This is often what comes to mind when we think of Proverbs and wealth. (See 10:4; 20:4.) The portraits of the lazy are quite merciless, e.g., “13 The lazy person says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’”
  • Wealth is God’s reward. “4 The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.” (See 10:22; 13:21,22; 22:9). Recall Genesis, which makes the more basic point that all the sources of wealth come from God’s hand, whether the gold underground or the fertility which comes with God’s blessing.

The problem is, when folk think about Proverbs and wealth, this is often about as far as they get. It’s very neat, very tidy, but only half true. Here’s the other half:

  • Wealth tends to dull the senses, so that we easily overestimate the status and security it brings. Proverbs includes “2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all” because we tend to forget it. (See also 29:13).
  • Wealth can be seized: “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (13:23). So discernment is necessary. If someone is wealthy we don’t know immediately if it’s the result of honest labor or crime; if someone is poor we don’t know immediately if it’s the result of being robbed or sloth. (Other books in the Bible remind us that other factors come into play.) A careful reading of Proverbs undercuts both the conservative assumption that the rich are probably virtuous and the liberal/populist assumption that the rich are probably vicious.
  • Some things are more valuable than wealth: “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it” (15:16; see also 15:17; 16:8,19; 17:1). Why does Proverbs want to tell us that? Not because it romanticizes poverty. But because, I think, Proverbs knows that sometimes these are the sorts of choices which need to be made, and wants us prepared also in these situations to choose rightly.
  • Because wealth is from a generous God, it is properly used generously. “26 All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back” (21:26; see also 11.4,24,26; 14.31; 21.13,21; 28.27). Pragmatically, the best defense against the temptations of wealth is generosity. Theologically, here again ethics are simply a matter of the proper imitation of God. To the avaricious God simply says “What part of ‘I am generous’ don’t you understand?”

James has harsh words for the rich because they’ve forgotten this second half of Proverbs’teaching. The point of including this summary of Proverbs’ teaching on wealth here is to give us all an opportunity to measure our attitudes against Proverbs’.

Faith & Works. Toward the end of our text (v.14) James explicitly contrasts faith and works. He is not changing the subject; he is simply saying in more general terms what he has been saying in specific terms: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

“Faith without works is dead.” Two thousand years later, we can also observe that faith without works splinters easily. The works of faith are precisely the works needed to keep sinful men and women around one Table: patience, forgiveness, humility. Where these are lacking, Jesus’ followers splinter. World-wide there are now some 38,000 separate Christian denominations.

We can’t do much about that figure. We can do more about it closer to home. Patience, forgiveness, humility are hard work, particularly with regard to Episcopalians with whom we disagree. These works of faith are even harder with regard to members of the parish with whom we disagree. But James has laid it on the line for us: the test of our faith is the works that enable us to continue to live together and learn from each other.

The danger of this homily is that it sound like a lot of stick and not much carrot. So I’ll end, as I began, with the carrot: we work to stay together because Jesus has assured us that together we’ll continue to encounter him, the one who cast the demon out of the Syrophoenician’s daughter, the one who restored ears and vocal chords to the man from the Decapolis, the one who can name, bear, and finally cure our illnesses. Come, Lord Jesus.

Wondering about Mark 12:18-34

More wondering occasioned by our parish’s Mark study…

The challenge re paying taxes the Pharisees and Herodians put to Jesus sizzles and perfectly fits the scene Mark’s painted (12:13-17). In contrast, the Sadducees’ question (12:18-27) and the interchange with the scribe (12:28-34) seem anticlimactic. What might be going on?

We know little about the Sadducees, so, guesswork! Not believing in the resurrection, they think that it takes a special kind of stupid for Jesus to set himself on a collision course with the authorities. They express this, indirectly, with the question they pose out of indolent curiosity. But for Jesus and the Markan readers, an existential question: if no resurrection, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Jesus, answering directly, pulls out all the stops.

The interchange with the scribe. Matthew and Luke see the anticlimax problem, make the scribe an adversary (Mt 22:34-40), with Luke placing the story at an earlier point to segue to the Good Samaritan parable (Lk 10:25-28). Perhaps Mark is using the story to circle back to the challenge Jesus left unanswered (“By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” 11:28) to give a partial answer: what do the Jews owe to God? Jesus is doing “these things” to love God and neighbor. And, looking ahead, the interchange invites the reader to contemplate the actions of the protagonists in Mark 14-15: who is loving God and neighbor (or not) and what does that love look like?

There’s a possible corollary to this in the scribe’s response (“and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’– this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” 12:33). Readers properly wonder what theological frames Mark might be offering to understand the Passion, and OT sacrifice is often suggested as a or the frame. Are the scribe’s words a nudge to understand the Passion first in terms of love?

Wondering about the Mark 4 Parables

Wondering occasioned by our parish’s Mark study…

As far as I can see, the parables aren’t announcing any sort of change in what God’s reign is like. All four look like possible ways of understanding segments of the history reflected in the OT—with the spectacular harvest as eschatological a reality in the one Testament as in the other. Where’s the secret/mystery?

What is “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11)?

And looking again at some commentaries, I doubt that there’s any single answer to this question.

A preliminary answer: Human response matters; nevertheless, the word will bear satisfying and surprising fruit. 

Clarifications: (1) Human response matters, not simply to the particular humans involved (“Will I be in or out?”), but to the overall success of the project. See the Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7.)

(2) “Nevertheless” not because God is the Author and the story can end however the author wants, but because God is more creative, persistent, committed (e.g., Isa 42:14-17).

(3) This mystery does not represent a change in divine strategy, so these parables are an appropriate lens for rereading the OT.

Corollaries: (1) The Mark 4 parables are a counterpoint to celebrations of the power of the divine word (Isa 55:8-11Wis 18:14-16, etc.). The celebrations are true enough; also true: the word is vulnerable.
Divine/human agency. I’m intrigued by the ways Mark explores this question, e.g., unbelief as limiting Jesus’ options (6:5-6 in Nazareth), unbelief not necessarily ending the conversation (9:24 the epileptic boy’s father). Isaiah 56-66 seems to keep the two in tension, with some texts highlighting divine agency, e.g., 63:1-6, others, human, e.g., 56:1-2. Divine agency seems to receive more emphasis. From what little I’ve read of Orthodox writers, their notion of divine/human synergy looks promising.

(2) The Mark 4 parables reject readings of the OT that expect a Borg-like divine entrance to set things right (“Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.”), readings that even the disciples were slow to give up (FireNow?)

As an imaginative portrayal, I like Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It’s been too long since I read it, but if I recall correctly Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker has some important observations re how artistic integrity limits the author’s freedom vis à vis the characters.

On a more personal level, st least three days in any given week I wonder if the value God apparently places on human freedom isn’t too costly for God and humanity. I can only conclude that God sees more value, takes more joy, in this creation in its present state, than I do. In any case, the litmus test for any serious hymnal revision is whether it includes Billie Holiday’s “Crazy he calls me” (“The difficult I’ll do right now / The impossible will take a little while”) as a portrait of God the Lover.

(3) Divine omnipotence does not override divine priorities. Human freedom seems to be one such priority. Ironically, some (most?) of the ringing celebrations of omnipotence, e.g., Isa 40:12-26, are prompted by the divine collision with human freedom, e.g., Isa 40:27. If God is omnipotent, God is also often flummoxed (Isa 5:4Mk 6:6a).

Puzzles: (1) The growing seed and mustard seed parables seem to imply some sort of cumulative progress, a progress not obvious in the histories of Israel and the Church. (Recall the Preacher!) On the other hand, real progress in specific areas (slavery, status of women).

(2) Is the “must” in Mk 8:31 related significantly to these issues of the power/vulnerability of the word (Corollary 1) and the divine priority of human freedom (Corollary 3)?

(3) Also re that “must:” how does the servant’s obedience (Isa 52:13-53:12) relate to the joyful celebrations surrounding it (52:7-1054:1-17). Perhaps “Isaiah” is saying as much as he/she knows.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Welcome, again, to John’s account of Jesus’ debrief after the feeding of the multitude. Last week we focused on one of its two primary themes, Jesus as God’s definitive word, and, goosed on by Paul, looked at what that word encouraged us to do (and not do) with our tongues. Today the assigned verses focus on the second theme, Jesus as received in the Holy Eucharist. We’ll start and end there, and in between notice what the other readings do with the theme of wisdom.

In contrast to the other three Gospels, John, as you probably recall, does not narrate Jesus’ introduction of the Holy Eucharist the night of his arrest. In John’s Gospel Jesus’ introduction of the Holy Eucharist is in today’s text. The language is explicit, perhaps too explicit for our translators, for in v.54 Jesus switches from the normal verb ‘to eat’ (esthiō) to trōgō, which in most contexts we’d translate as ‘gnaw’ or ‘chew’. But perhaps the more important observation: this sacrament is fundamentally relational: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” So while there’s some truth to Ignatius’ description of it as “the medicine of immortality”—Ignatius the bishop martyred in the 2nd century—it’s a potentially misleading description if it distracts us from the relationship Jesus is seeking to nurture.

This relational character of the Eucharist dovetails with Jesus’ extended vine/branches metaphor. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” If we had only this metaphor, we might think that bearing fruit was an automatic process. But, of course, we have the stories of the disciples, which make it clear that the process is hardly automatic. We need to pay attention to Jesus as God’s definitive word (last week’s theme), acquire—to use the Bible’s language—wisdom. Which brings us to our other readings.

Solomon. Solomon asks for an “understanding mind.” That’s not a bad translation, but misses a lot. A literal translation: “a listening heart.” We often associate wisdom with the mouth, and it’s certainly true that we can show ourselves to be wise or foolish by what we say. But the mouth isn’t the organ through which wisdom is acquired. That, Israel and its neighbors were convinced, is the ear, and they might have something to teach us.

A listening heart. Listening doesn’t come easily to us. Here’s William Stringfellow, who entered into glory March 2, 1985, too recently to be included in our calendar. “Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives self to another’s word, making self accessible and vulnerable to that word.”

A listening heart. The New Testament doesn’t say much about a listening heart, not because it’s not important, but because it’s assumed.

Moving on to Ephesians, there are a couple of things we might observe about its focus on wisdom. The first is found just before today’s reading as well as in v.17:

10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.
17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

“Try to find out.” I like what one commentator, Markus Barth, does with this: “a careful examination is carried out: it is not only man’s mind that is engaged in the scrutiny, but also his eyes, his hands and sometimes an instrument.… [it] implies much more than merely an intellectual procedure and achievement; it describes a personal, existential, perhaps critical relationship between him who searches and decides, and the person or object that is scrutinized.” It’s learning by doing, reflected in Jesus’ words “When any man’s will is to do his [God’s] will, he shall learn whether the teaching [of Christ] is from God” (Jn 7:17) (Ephesians 4-6, p.605).

What does that mean? It means that there are important things that I don’t know. There are important things that I don’t know. Let’s try saying that together: There are important things that I don’t know.

There are important things that I know. And there are important things that I don’t know, including important dimensions of “what is pleasing to the Lord,” of—returning to Jesus’ metaphor—bearing fruit.

Speaking of important things I don’t know, there’s v.20: “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything.” At all times and for everything? If we asked Paul why, I think he’d give us two reasons. First, because it’s in the hardest moments that we learn about ourselves things we wouldn’t learn otherwise, things we need to know. Second, because there’s no moment which cannot be the starting point for God’s love and glory to be experienced. Not that I easily remember either of those answers…

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” So I come with gratitude to the Table, for with Jesus there is life, and my best shot at continuing to learn.

Let’s give the last word to the Fifth Gospel, Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isa. 55:1-2)

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

“Speaking the truth in love…” That was from last week’s reading, and, repeated in today’s, is the thematic thread for these reflections.

Our first reading from Second Samuel needs a bit of set-up. Last Sunday in Nathan’s oracle following David’s murder of Uriah and taking of Bathsheba, his wife, we heard “Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.” But as the story unfolds it’s clear that the trouble might equally well be the result of David’s choices. It starts with Amnon, a son of David by one wife, and Absalom and Tamar, son and daughter of David by another wife. Amnon desires Tamar. She resists. After forcing himself on her, his desire turns to loathing, and he sends her away. As for David, we’re told “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn” (13:21). Let that sink in. The narrator hardly needs to tell us that the atmosphere at court is toxic, and that all the available choices for the protagonists may be bad. (Parenthetically, we’re warned against looking to David as a model for “speaking the truth in love” in this stretch of his career.)

Absalom, Tamar’s brother, bides his time, and when the opportunity presents itself, murders Amnon. A brief exile follows, and on his return, Absalom starts laying the groundwork for a coup. As our reading opens the coup’s well underway, Absalom having won the first sets, but David preparing to take the match. Against David’s express orders, Joab, David’s general, ever the pragmatist, executes Absalom on the battlefield, and David is overtaken with grief.

Had the reading continued a bit further we’d have heard one of the few examples of “speaking the truth in love” in this stretch of David’s story (Nathan’s oracle being the other one that comes to mind). Reading the verses immediately following:

It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” The troops stole into the city that day as soldiers steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Then Joab came into the house to the king, and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you. You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the LORD, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.”

Risky for Joab: had anyone piped up about Joab’s personal role in Absalom’s death David might well have demanded Joab’s head. But Joab loved David and said what needed to be said.

Between David’s love for Amnon, David’s love for Absalom, and Joab’s love for David, we could spend the rest of our time wondering about the demands of love. Minimally, it can be more than a little messy, not a bad warning as we move to our other texts!

“I am the bread of life.” Pretty much from the start readers have found it difficult to decide whether the metaphor points to Jesus as God’s definitive word or to the Eucharist. I think it’s likely that the answer is BOTH, with today’s text pointing more toward Jesus as God’s definitive word, and next week’s text (the next chunk of the same chapter in John) pointing more toward Jesus as received in the Eucharist.

I think that’s a really interesting ambiguity. Recall that even today scientists and philosophers have no good answer to how our mental and physical worlds connect. Jesus, Bread of Life, speaks to both halves of that puzzle. Jesus, received in Word and Sacrament. Sadly, Christians have frequently argued about whether it’s Word or Sacrament that’s more important. Jesus’ words here seem to render those arguments pointless. We need to receive Jesus in Word; we need to receive Jesus in Sacrament.

Notice that here the focus is on Jesus as God’s definitive word, rather than on the content of that word. We’ll circle back to Jesus in a bit for one example of the content. Now, over to the second reading.

In the verses immediately prior to our second reading Paul highlights Jesus as God’s definitive word. “That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.” (4:20-21). And the content of Jesus’ teaching Paul focuses is about how we live together, particularly as our tongues come into play.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” What might we observe about this portion of the letter?

First, it’s a remarkably candid—if not brutal—portrait of Paul’s assumed audience. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths… Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” He’s not talking about how the pagans act, or how his audience used to act. This is a community in which “kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” are not just optional extras, but essential so the whole thing doesn’t blow apart. It’s the sort of description that might have us heading for the nearest exit—until the penny drops that as long as Jesus is in the business of saving sinners, this can be as good as it gets.

Second, not surprisingly, “speak the truth to our neighbors” comes into clearest focus toward the end of our reading: “and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” “Gave himself up,” not so that we don’t have to, but so that we, powered by the Holy Spirit, can do it as often as necessary for the sake of our neighbors.

So, third, “speak the truth to our neighbors” is the polar opposite of what is often our first impulse: weaponize truth, let ‘em have it right between the eyes. Or, in Paul’s language, “speak the truth to our neighbors” is not to be confused with the over-abundance of “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander.”

Recall Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees who brought to him the woman “caught in the very act of committing adultery” (John 7:53b-8:11). True enough, but a classic example of weaponizing truth, partial (where was the man?) and seeking to destroy—the woman, and, for that matter, Jesus. Jesus will have none of that: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus, God’s definitive word to us, and the content of that word includes attention to our inclination to weaponize truth.

Fourth—the next-to-the-last point—Paul’s instruction is remarkably optimistic if we compare it with, say, the Letter of James. “…the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:6-8). But by God’s grace with the power of the Spirit, Paul sees the tongue as potentially giving grace to those who hear, the tongue of every member of Christ’s Body as sacramental, giving grace. And James, when he calms down, might even agree.

Fifth, while Paul is speaking in the present tense, these instructions necessarily assume a temporal dimension. Recall Second Samuel. When Nathan and Joab speak hard truths to David, they have some shared history that makes it worth David’s time to listen to them. How we speak now also affects how we can be heard (or not) in the future.

“Speaking the truth in love…” “speak the truth to our neighbors” There’s caution in Paul’s words. Not having left childhood completely behind (recall last week’s reading) we too easily confuse speaking the truth with “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander.” But there’s hope in Paul’s words, for the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus’ ministry has “sealed us for the day of redemption.” The week lies ahead. In fear and trembling let’s discover what the Spirit might do with our tongues.

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

What a combination of readings! We might title two of them “The Morning after the Night Before,” so let’s start there.

Last week we heard the story of Jesus feeding the large crowd. The starting point there as in the David story is divine generosity. Recall how Nathan’s oracle begins: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.” Now the crowd has followed Jesus, and Jesus tries for a debrief: what was that all about?

Jesus leads with this: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” That’s an interesting, and an important challenge. Nothing wrong with eating one’s fill, but if the conversation—if the relationship—stays at that level, it doesn’t have much of a future. It’s where many of Jesus’ interactions with folk—then and now—start, with our needs as we define them. And Jesus, being generous, will start there. But if that’s where things stay—my needs as I define them—then there’s about as much future there as in any relationship. Within that model Jesus is at most one of many possible means to fulfill my ends.

Jesus’ statement gives us a way of wondering about how David got so badly off track. “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house…” David more than got his fill, but did he wonder about what the Lord wanted out of the relationship? Perhaps not often enough. Not often enough for Uriah the Hittite to still be alive. But David chose not to disappear Nathan for his unwelcome words. David chose to repent—recall our psalm. So David ends as a figure of hope, and as a model for the serious acts of repentance most of us need from time to time.

A bit later in the conversation with the crowd: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” ‘Believe’ is a slippery word. In contexts like this it’s more than thinking certain things are true. Here believing is pretty much synonymous with trusting. (Think, parenthetically, about the Creed. It’s not simply a matter of affirming that these things are true, but of trusting the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, putting my weight on these relationships, letting my past, present, and future be defined by these relationships.) Again, believing is more than a hoop I’m supposed to jump through. How easy it is for baptism or confirmation to become hoops! That works about as well as treating marriage as a hoop, rather than as setting the agenda for the rest of one’s life. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Believing in Jesus, trusting Jesus: paying attention to what Jesus is up to, letting him turn our world upside down and inside out multiple times so that at last we become human.

Become human, or, in Paul’s language, “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” And because God is generous, because, as Paul spells out, God has showered all of us with gifts, this is doable. We’re on a trajectory toward life. Hallelujah? Hallelujah!

Now, in closing, two things to notice about Paul’s vision. First, this life “worthy of the calling” is inescapably corporate. This contrasts with the scripts that reduce the faith to me and Jesus, which in Episcopal circles can translate into “my spirituality is my affair and all I ask of others is that they not make noise.” This life is corporate. The gifts I receive are gifts my neighbor needs and vice versa. Aristotle got it right: the human being is a political animal, an animal of the polis, and it’s worth getting that right. The endgame is a banquet, a celebration, and who wants to party alone?

Second, as many teams are discovering again over in Tokyo, when you’re on the right trajectory, you don’t take your foot off the gas. Notice Paul’s language: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up.” To shamelessly mix metaphors, we may be on the right trajectory, but we’re not out of the woods. “Grow up,” for our own sake and for the sake of the Uriahs among us. And over the next two Sundays we’ll hear Paul getting pretty specific as to how this growing up happens.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” In the coming week we’ll have multiple opportunities to do that work; may we stay awake enough to recognize them.