Wednesday, January 26, 2011

For Epiphany 4

In the prophet Micah, it finally all comes down to three things – justice, kindness and humble companionship with God. And in Matthew’s rendition of the teaching of Jesus, we learn how deeply God is committed to those three things.  To hunger and thirst for righteousness, to practice mercy, and to foster a personal habit of meekness is so profoundly at the heart of God’s desire for us that Jesus proclaims that such actions are “blessed”.  Already blessed. It isn’t that they will be blessed – “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” Nope. Pie now, pie here for the meek, the merciful and those who hunger for God’s righteousness, for those who “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

Justice, kindness and humble companionship are, however, demanding practices. The demand of justice requires of us that we not see ourselves as more entitled to the abundance of the earth than the other, even the Other whom we find different or frightening, or whose customs and habits we find difficult to understand or affirm. In his song, “Justice”, Bruce Cockburn sings, “Everybody wants to see justice done …on somebody else.” But in Scripture, justice is not something “done on somebody else”, but something done, first of all within oneself, and then on behalf of the Other. Justice is not for sentimentalists. Its demands can be abrasive. To be sure, the abrasion is not the abrasion of concrete sidewalks and fragile skin. It is, rather, of steel wool or sandpaper restoring the beauty of our life together by removing the stains of injustice that conceal or distort what is beautiful and good in our companionship with one another. Still, for all that, it is abrasion, and it can rough us up before it smooths us out.

Kindness calls for something like the same kind of imagination, of seeing another in her or his own terms, and not as a prop or extra in my own story. A series of deaths and funerals in the past week or so has made it plainer to me that when we have some idea about the struggles and losses in the life of one another, our capacity for kindness grows. A recent conversation with a friend recovering from cancer suggests to me that kindness can be nourished by our own self-awareness as well. She told me that when someone is rude or aggressive at the checkout, she thinks, “Well, you didn’t learn this year that you have cancer.” I think what she meant is that brushing up against your own vulnerability puts things in perspective, and inclines a person to be careful about the vulnerability of another.

Humility calls for another kind of imagination – the capacity to let the world exist apart from my story, and to consent to God’s sovereignty in telling the world’s story from beginning to end. Walking humbly with God means giving up my desire to usurp God’s sovereignty and turn the whole world into a story about me. There was a world before I turned up, and there will be a world after I exit, and as I walk across the stage, I will perhaps discover a worthwhile errand to engage me in caring for the world. But it sure isn’t all about me.

To live by the ethic of justice, kindness and humility is indeed to inhabit a blessing. It is a blessing because this is the ethic of God’s kingdom. It might not “pay off”. As a matter of fact, we will probably incur some cost in living by this ethic. As we clamber from one rung on the ladder up to the next the next, carelessness, indifference and entitlement may seem a useful ethic for getting to the top. But it’s lonely at the top, and the blessings are all at the bottom.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

For Epiphany 2

Simon and Andrew are seekers, followers of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and mentor. They are part of a reform movement within Jewish national life, a movement that seeks to restore the faithfulness of Israel to the mission of God. In the synoptic gospels, the movement’s direction and the heart of the matter is described as “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God”, and Jesus is the focal figure who proclaims and enacts that kingdom and its ethic of love and justice. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus inaugurates something; his death and resurrection come to be understood as the embodiment of the sacrificial love in which the kingdom is founded, and the vindication of that love in the resurrection.

In this fourth gospel, the focus shifts from “the Kingdom” to “the Lamb”. Much of what formed us as disciples in the church of the last several centuries has taken its cue from this shift, interpreting Jesus almost exclusively in terms of the atoning sacrifice (the lamb) of God – God’s self-offering in the Word incarnate.  “For God so loved the world….”

In much of western Christianity, however, God’s self-offering has been distorted by a lens of guilt and punishment; we have offended against “the law” and the just judge must sentence us. But the just judge makes a sacrifice of his son to endure our death sentence. It’s all so objective, so cold, and so distant from any real understanding of the sacrificial death of Jesus.

A more ancient way of understanding Jesus as God’s self-offering – the lamb of God – is in terms of covenant broken and restored in a divine-human act of cooperation. Because Jesus who dies on the cross is not the disembodied Word, but the Word become flesh (as John has taken pains to describe him the opening words of his Gospel) the cross becomes a meeting place at which the divine and the human join in sacrifice. That word, “sacrifice” does not mean “giving up” or “enduring pain”, but “making holy”. In this act of shared – of covenantal – love, human holiness is restored in the mending of the divine-human covenant.

I’ve found that’s how it actually works, by the way, in human relationships. There is not, in my experience of harm inflicted or endured, some objective “law” that has been broken, but instead a relationship that has come apart. Every time I’ve imagined that someone has needed to “make it right” with me, it has turned out that “making it right” is something that involves both sides of a broken covenant. And every time I have tried to “make it right” with another, it has become clear that, without that other’s willing participation, including forgiveness, the relationship remains torn. Torn relationships cannot be mended from one side or the other alone, but only in a shared commitment to mend together, in a matrix of remorse and forgiveness – of justice and love – that is costly to both sides. This commitment to justice on the part of the offender, and to love on the part of the one who is wronged, is the basis of reconciliation, of the restoration of a covenant torn by carelessness, fear, or greed.

It is also, of course, the ethic of the kingdom, the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and embodied as he mended the torn covenant and restored the holy purpose we share with God.  For God so loved the world….

Saturday, January 8, 2011

For the Baptism of Jesus - January 9, 2011

Sometimes it feels as if all the lectionary gives us is sound-bites from the gospels. Because of that, it’s easy to see them as a collection of pixels instead of as a coherent picture of the ministry, death, and resurrection of the one we identify as the governing authority (“lord”) in our lives and in our life together. And sometimes we interpret Jesus so as to align with our preconceptions, rather than allowing his story to challenge them, break them open, and bring something new to light.  I wonder if that’s why, for example, we ask why Jesus had to be baptized if he was without sin. That is, I wonder if, having decided that baptism is all about washing sin away, we are confused by Jesus’ own baptism by John. I wonder if we might be willing to grant some authority to scripture and allow its account of Jesus’ life and ministry to change our minds about baptism.

At the beginning of the events that bracket Jesus’ baptism are two identical proclamations:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John is the first to speak these words (Mt. 3.2), and Jesus is the second (Mt. 4.17). What separates the two proclamations is the baptism of Jesus, his forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations that come at the end of that fast.

That order of events suggests that Jesus’ baptism is a kind of pivot or fulcrum, and that we are invited to understand baptism in a new way, not just as a ritual washing to cleanse from sin, but also as initiation into a community whose purpose is to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God. (Matthew’s habit of referring to the kingdom as “of heaven” (rather than “of God”) may be related, some scholars believe, to his primarily Jewish audience, from who the name “God” is not to be uttered.

Intriguingly, John plays “straight man” to this transformation of the meaning of baptism. Within the structure of the narrative, John appears to share the common awareness of Jesus as “without sin”. As a result, he believes that Jesus has things backwards, that the sinless one should baptize the sinner, and not vice-versa. But Jesus, for whom baptism is a public embrace of the renewed and renewing community who proclaim and enact the kingdom, insists that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

All righteousness. I wonder, then, if we can understand the righteousness communicated in baptism both in John’s and in Jesus’ way. According to John, we come to baptism as people on whom the grime of illusion, selfishness and greed accumulates, and God bathes us. And according to Jesus we come as people called to participate in God’s mission, to speak boldly of a kingdom not ruled by fear – the kingdom “of heaven”, the kingdom “of God”, and to enact that kingdom in our life together, sharing in God’s life in and for the world.  The church, then, is more than a washed community; we are also a community that offers God a church ready to proclaim and enact God’s reign of love and justice. And we proclaim and enact that kingdom as having “come near”, as something that can shape and inform the life of the world now in this time and here in this place.

In the forty days between his baptism and his own first words of public ministry – “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, Jesus endures hunger and testing. Matthew’s gospel tells us that this hunger and testing is directed by “the Spirit”. I wonder if we might see this time in the life of God’s church as a time like that, a time directed by the Spirit, a time of hunger and testing out of which God’s church will emerge renewed and confident to proclaim and enact God’s kingdom.