Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sixth after Pentecost

Proper 8C1  Galatians 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62

The 51st verse of chapter 9 marks a major turning point in Luke’s gospel: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”   

The story of the earthly ministry of Jesus begins in Luke in Chapters 3 and 4--at his Baptism in the Jordan and Temptation in the Wilderness--and then continues as Jesus gathers his disciples and begins his work of preaching and teaching and healing, miracles and exorcisms, all in the region around the Sea of Galilee, little towns like Nazareth and Capernaum and Cana.  At the beginning of Chapter 9 this first phase of his ministry comes to a dramatic high point at the Mountaintop of the Transfiguration, as Jesus is revealed in all his transcendent glory. 

And then they come down from the mountain.  “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” 

The last leg of the journey to the Cross that began on that holy night in Bethlehem many years before.  The Lord returning to his Temple, as prophesied by Isaiah and announced by John the Baptist, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  It’s almost like a liturgical procession—but not one filled with song and praise and celebration, except for that brief, deceptive moment on Palm Sunday.  Instead, it becomes a long march into ever deeper darkness.    A hard road, to be marked by an ever-rising tide of rejection, conflict, opposition, plots and intrigue.   A gathering murderous storm.  All the forces of evil and sin and death rallying for their last stand.

Jesus has spent these past months and years, teaching and preaching and preparing his disciples for what was to come, for a life of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “costly discipleship.”  For what it’s going to be like to live in him and for him, with one foot still in this world.  Costly Discipleship.  For Jerusalem and Holy Week, and then for what lies beyond, in the years and centuries to come.   If this is what they do to the teacher, so it will be for his students.  Continuing in our own present time in Iraq and Syria with ISIS, in East Africa with Al Shabab and Boko Haram.  It always is unsafe to be a Christian somewhere. 

So his preaching and teaching and his prayers for them, giving shape and direction to his church . . . .   To build them up, to encourage them and guide and sustain them in the coming days and in all the generations to come.  And now here we are, Luke 9:51, and that preparation is going to be put to the test, its first test, as we can see just in the very first incident on the first day of the journey.    And I guess we would say on the first time out for these disciples, for the life of the church—well: not a passing score.  It’s actually almost embarrassing.

Jesus and company leave their hometowns, and as the first day of travel comes to an end they approach a Samaritan village.  Some run ahead to make arrangements--to seek a resting place, somewhere to stay the night, perhaps an evening meal . . .  but they are refused, turned away, rejected.  Not clear that these villagers had any particular idea who Jesus was.  Just that this was a party of Jews on their way to Jerusalem.  Reason enough in the context of ethnic and religious prejudice between Jews and Samaritans to shut the door and put up the “No Vacancy” signs.  We don’t want your kind around here.

(Perhaps as a side note--we as readers of this gospel will pause here for a moment of context, as we recall that just a little while later along this road to Jerusalem Jesus is going to tell his disciples in Luke chapter 10, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Just to keep this morning’s story in mind when we get to that parable in our lectionary reading in a couple of weeks.)

In any event, our Samaritan villagers here are for sure violating traditional norms and customs of Middle Eastern hospitality—but I guess we could say that compared to what was coming for Jesus and his friends this is really not all that big a deal.  It’s not Good Friday yet.  So what is so interesting is the reaction of the disciples.  They go ballistic!  Over the top!  They immediately want Jesus to call down a fiery blast from the heavens to consume the village, to sweep them all up, men, women, boys and girls, to wipe every last one of them in one horrible punishing and incinerating pulse from the face of the earth.   Wow.  Talk about a short fuse!  None of that classic Anglican “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit, that’s for sure . . . .  And so maybe we can hear Jesus sigh--like a schoolteacher looking over the weekly quiz after the kids have had their first lesson in fractions.  Clearly we’re going to have to spend some more time working with this bunch.   I mean, is anybody paying attention?   

Just a few days before these very same disciples had all sat with him as he preached.  From Luke,  Chapter 6,  in what we sometimes call his great Sermon on the Plain (usually appointed for us in the lectionary on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C, but we didn’t hear this reading this year because Easter was so early.  Perhaps we remember it from three years ago, or from other times when we’ve read  and studied Luke’s gospel.)   Words for his disciples, his church, all of us.  

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt . . . .  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same . . . .  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” 

Needless to say, it’s hard to find much in there about a destroying fire raining down from on high upon those who reject us.

Echo in the reading from Galatians 5 as we heard it this morning as our first lesson:  the Old Adam and the “works of the flesh”--  Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing.  A partial list, but we get the idea.  (We all did get the idea, right?)  

Killing our enemies, or even wishing them dead, or even in our own hearts and minds stripping from them their dignity and humanity and value--anything short of love and prayer for them--that’s not Kingdom living.  It’s where we are with the disciples as we come to the first night on the journey to Jerusalem, but it’s not where Jesus wants to leave us.  Not who we are, who we would pray that we are becoming, as we are walking with him along this road.  What we learned from him—what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit.”  A great list:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

This Luke 9 moment on the first day of the journey to Jerusalem made me think some in the past couple of weeks about the angry times we live in.  Politically, socially.  Divisions and polarization, from every side and point on the spectrum, left and right, conservatives and liberals, and fueled at least in part by the instantaneous reactivity of politically segmented media and the white-hot rhetoric of social media.  Rage and more rage.  The election cycle here, and perhaps reflected in the election in Britain this past week as well.   All kinds of anger and polarization.

And so, again, a memo to myself, with this incident at the Samaritan village in the background.  The disciples miss the boat big-time.  But Jesus doesn’t leave them there.  “Let’s keep going,” he tells them, and see what we can find together down the road.”  A yellow post-it for the mirror, to see in the morning while I’m shaving and getting ready to head out into the day.  Stick close to Jesus.  Listen.  Pay attention.  Learn from him.   Fortunately, he’s not leaving us on the first day of the journey.  We still have miles to go; he’s not finished with us yet.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fourth after Pentecost

Proper 6C-1, Luke 7: 36 – 8:3

 One of the earliest Christian prayers we have is preserved in the New Testament the Aramaic language of Jesus and the first disciples.  Paul quotes it at the end of First Corinthians.   “Marana tha.”  It’s an imperative.  Literally, “Lord, come!”   An urgent prayer echoing from those first days, for Christ’s return, for judgment and for the full expression of the Kingdom of God.  As these new Christians are isolated, persecuted, struggling day by day.  A prayer to God to come and set things right.   Now.  “Marana tha.”

 Howard Thurman, the great African American theologian who was so influential for Dr. Martin Luther King, wrote a fascinating and challenging book called “Jesus and the Dispossessed” in which he talked about the heart and soul and authentic essence of the Christian gospel as a word of hope and meaning for “the man whose back is against the wall.”  A great phrase.  “The man whose back is against the wall.”  Thurman wasn’t interested in comfortable establishment religiosity.  Not faith as a hobby, not about having an interest in “spirituality” or about heading out on a pleasant Sunday morning to “enjoy a worship service.”   Instead, he says, if this story, this gospel, is about anything, it is about who is going to be there for you when no one else is or can be.   When you’re at the end of your rope.  Nowhere to hide.  When it’s Jesus or nothing.    That’s the only prayer in the Prayer Book he’s interested in.   “Come !  I need you, Lord, and I need you now.”   

It’s not that we don’t reference that prayer in the settled and routine life of the church, at least as we share in the formal liturgy and creed.  “He will come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.”  That sounds like a good thing, but as we recite it in the Nicene Creed on Sundays pretty much every week perhaps without quite the edge in our voices that those first Christians had in their longing for his return.  Or as perhaps our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Nigeria might pray the prayer today.  Looking down the road for the approaching terrors of ISIS or Boko Haram.  Waking up every morning, to the first thought: Let it be today!  “Come quickly, Lord.”    The cries of the crowds in the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:  “Hosanna.”  Which doesn’t mean “hurray for Jesus!”    It means, “Lord save us.”    We’re drowning out here.   Image of the church like Peter after his brief attempt to step out of the boat and to  follow Jesus across the water of the Sea of Galilee.   Slipping under the waves:  “Reach out to take my hand, Jesus, before I’m lost . . . .

Which maybe is one of the reasons this moment in our reading this morning,  in Luke 7, strikes us somewhat uncomfortably, as Jesus is invited to dinner by the rabbi of the local synagogue.  We’re reminded in a way  as a parallel but also a contrasting moment of the beautiful and tender moment in John’s gospel on the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and then wipes them with her hair.  But this is different.  Not in a safe place, a close circle of friends.   Here the woman’s approach to Jesus is public, and full of risk.

We see this contrast: on one hand the host, this village rabbi,  who has received Jesus into his own home, but who doesn’t even seem to get what a big deal that is or could be.  It’s like Jesus should be grateful to him, not the other way around.   And then on the other  hand this almost overwhelming gesture by the woman.  The outpouring of her heart.  The woman is a stranger and unknown to Jesus, though she seems to be well-known in the community and by the rabbi, and not in a good way.  A sinner.    Nothing more than that is specified.   Apparently it’s really not important how or why she is labeled in that way--some kind of sin.  Some moral offense perhaps, lying, cheating, stealing, unchastity in her singleness, infidelity in her marriage, or perhaps she has some ritual uncleanness.  We just don’t know, and neither it seems does Jesus.  The point isn’t why she’s desperate.  It’s just that she’s desperate.  For her life cannot go on as it has been.  She’s trapped in her sin, sliding into quicksand, weighed down by an overwhelming weight.  And so her extravagant gesture in the very presence of those in the community who have known her sin first hand.  Heads shaking; eyes rolling. “Of all people, what is she doing in here?”

The woman is exposed and vulnerable and humiliated.  But in her humiliation she pays no attention.  In a way, she is in perfect agreement with the rabbi.   She doesn’t belong there.  She doesn’t “belong” anywhere.  She is filled with remorse, with grief, with regret.   A stranger, an alien in her own village, in her own family.  She doesn’t want to be told that she’s o.k., that everything is fine.  It’s not.  We don’t know the details, but we can see it as we watch the scene play out.  She needs a complete reset.  She needs to be forgiven.   And nothing else matters.  

Thurman could have been talking about her.  Her “back is against the wall.”  She’s at the end of her rope.  The cost here of this moment not simply the cost of the expensive oil but even more the emotional pain and psychological trauma, as fingers are pointed, as she is exposed before them.  But she’s entirely willing to pay whatever it costs.  To get to this place.  Sometimes when we have sinned perhaps we have the strategy to lie low, to hide-out, or to move, to find a fresh start somewhere else.  The last thing we want to do is to be forced to deal with the reality of our shame in public, to be encircled by those who know just how bad we are, just what we have done.

But there she is.  And she doesn’t care.  She doesn’t react to the comments of the rabbi.  She doesn’t even seem to look up.  She’s heard it all before, and she knows that it’s true.  That she is a sinner.  Think of the speech the Prodigal Son practices on his way home to the Father.  I have sinned against God and against you, and deserve nothing.  She needs something to happen, this woman of the village.  She has just one focus.  She puts it all out there, every last bit of it.  Holds nothing back.  The cost is real, the pain of her life and the humiliation of her life are real,  and if the rabbi’s words of condemnation cut deeply, no matter: all of that fades in the brighter light of what she knows, deep down, as the most important reality of her life—which is that she needs a savior.  She needs mercy.  Grace.  Forgiveness.  A fresh start.  She needs Jesus.   And she needs him now.  “Marana tha.”   Come, Lord. 

She has repented of her sin and has only this one desire, the desire to walk again in the path of God’s friendship and blessing.  To be absolved.  To be reconciled to the Father.  To have things set right.  Now.  And she knows, somehow, somehow, that he is the door, Jesus, the gate, the way forward.   And how does she come to know this?  What memories of Bible stories as a child and the prayers of her family as she grew up, times of worship in that local synagogue, the life of friends and family.  And now she’s heard something about this man—about what he has been saying, about what has been happening around him.  Demons cast out, the sick given healing, words and blessings of grace and mercy that don’t just fade away into the air, but that seem to take hold and become real.  And so nothing else matters, nothing at all.  No cost is too great, no humiliation too painful to face.  For her now it’s Jesus and only Jesus.   Who alone can speak the word of light and life into her darkness.

When she heard Jesus was coming, nothing could keep her away.  And just as that Prodigal Son was swept up into the arms of his Father before he could even begin to speak the words he had been practicing along the road, so for her.  And if we would open our minds and hearts to hear with her what he said:  “your faith has saved you; go in peace.”   To have feel with her the lifting of that weight.  With her, to be able to breathe again. 

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.