Thursday, February 24, 2011

For Epiphany 8

There’s a radical edge to Jesus that familiarity can obscure. We love to hear him say, “Consider the lilies”.  It’s good advice against fretting and worrying – a comforting insight.  We might easily miss what comes before and after it.

What comes before is the kind of stern clarity that Jesus expresses from time to time. You can’t he says, have it both ways. What follows is his insistence the his followers distinguish ourselves from the worried Gentile preoccupation with food and clothing and entrust ourselves to the care of God.  So we can’t just treat this “lilies” passage simply as advice for coping in lives that are otherwise committed to business as usual. What is at stake, Jesus insists, is the fundamental orientation of our lives. Will we live our lives and direct our energy towards God, or towards wealth? That is, will we seek first the kingdom of God, or will we serve the other kingdom – the kingdom governed by greed, governed by fear? It’s not a choice that churches have always made clear. In fact, for long stretches of our history, we have tried to have it both ways – making our living in the kingdom of greed and fear, setting aside some time on Sundays for God, and praying “thy kingdom come” with a secret hope that it won’t, at least not yet.

I wonder centuries of partnership with empires (both political and economic) have caused us to  forget or lay aside the radical decision that precedes the comforting  advice.  “Decision” – de-cidere – means, after all, “to cut away”.  Can’t have it both ways. Have we allowed one part of Jesus’ message, the comfort, to overshadow the more demanding invitation to repentance?

Because repentance has been his message since the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. His first public proclamation (Repent, for the kingdom has come near) might help us to remember that Jesus isn’t here simply to help us find comfort within a broken world, but also to invite us to become part of its healing – its redemption. When we turn from a kingdom governed by stuff, status and power – and by the powerful fear that we might lose them – and take on the ethic of compassion and justice that govern the kingdom of God, we are in the world in a new and transformative way. I think it was pretty hard for our churches to teach this sort of repentance while colluding with empires, and maybe that’s why we reduced the scope of repentance to a few pretty well universal human frailties associated with appetites.

The truly good news is that the empires don’t want or need our collusion any more. So we’re free to tell people what Jesus asks us to tell them, instead of just the part of his truth that passes imperial inspection. We’re released from our own bondage to the kingdoms of this world, and we’re free to proclaim Jesus’ call to repentance and offer of redemption – to enter into the healing of purpose that allows us to participate in God’s mission in and for the world.  The empires once welcomed our carols, but they never welcomed the fullness of our proclamation.

But that proclamation has been kept alive, sometimes in surprising places – in Anabaptist traditions including Moravians and Mennonites, in Christian liberation movements, and on the fringes of the formerly mainline churches. And we know that Gandhi, a Hindu, loved the Sermon on the Mount, and quoted from it extensively and often. Though he thought about becoming a Christian at one point, he encountered, before he could get in the church door, rejection on the basis of his race. And so, later in life, when asked by a Christian missionary why he quoted the words of Christ so much, but refused to become a Christian, he replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

For Epiphany 7

Many of us, I think, have an idea about holiness that associates it with a disembodied spirituality that denies the gift of the body and the holiness of the physical world. When we think “holy” we think “heaven”, not “earth”. The heavy influence of Greek thought on Christian understanding has often invited us to think of history as a shadowy stand-in for more “spiritual” realities.

But in today’s Hebrew Scripture, holiness is clearly associated with the actions of bodies in history.  God speaks: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” What follows is not a strategy to skirt history, to escape the world, or how to transcend our bodies. Instead, we learn a way of engaging the world – of acting in our bodies, of participating in history – that is holy. 

Don’t reap to the edges of your field or go through the field again to pick up what you missed the first time. Don’t strip all the grapes from the vines or pick up the ones that have fallen. Leave some for the poor and the alien who will come after you and pick up what you leave behind. The field is not yours alone. The vines are not yours alone. Why? “I am the Lord your God.”  That is to say, loyalty to the holy God means commitment to these holy practices.

Other practices follow – labour relations, care for the vulnerable, and an economy in which one may not profit by the blood of another. No vengeance and no grudges. No contempt for kin or turning a blind eye to your neighbour's injustice. These, says God, are the holy practices.

So we have a choice to make, but only one. Either we are a people of God, of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebekah, of Rachel, of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, of Elijah, Elisha, of the prophets, of John the Baptist and of Jesus of Nazareth – or we are not. If we are that people, we will live in the world as stewards of God’s purposes, reflecting the generosity, compassion and justice of our God. It’s not an option. If we do not do these holy things, we are not God’s holy people. 

There are other gods – lots of them. And they make a compelling case, some of them, for our loyalty. They promise us security or status. They promise us freedom and pleasure. They promise us power and comfort and terrific stuff – boats, bicycles, home theatre, cruises and second homes. They tell us to reap to the edge of every field and not to miss a grape that we can use for our own present or future advantage. They sometimes call themselves “common sense” and pose as revolutionary.

But the gods are not revolutionary. They are the same old gods who have ruled and ruined human lives since the dawn of history. Both the Qu'ran and Jewish midrash tell us that Abraham’s father had a little idol business in Haran – making statues of the gods that ruled and ruined the lives of their devotees. Before Abraham set out on the journey of faith, the journey “to the land that I will show you”, he destroyed the idols in his father’s shop. “I am the Lord your God.”

And the gods are not sensible. They do not tell us the truth – that we are holy, and that our deepest satisfaction will come in a working partnership with the holy God in whose image we are made, and whose purpose we share. This is the God who knows us, who holds us in the palm of his hand, who calls us by name and who guides us home to our true, eternal and holy life with God. As for the other gods, to quote Bruce Cockburn – “All they know is the price of lunch.”