February 24, 2010

Enduring Desire

by Doug Lee
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Having passed through the devil’s testing in the wilderness in last week’s lectionary text from Luke, Jesus contends next with testing that takes on a decidedly more human and communal face. 

Some friendly Pharisees counsel Jesus to get out of Dodge before the menacing Herod devours him. That villain has already imprisoned and executed Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, and even the not-so astute can foresee that Jesus will share a similar fate should he linger within Herod’s jurisdiction. Discretion is the better part of valor, says conventional wisdom. Dodge the threat, and live to preach another day. 

Jesus himself can see that Jerusalem, the axis around which all of Israel and world history revolves, has turned its back on him and that a prophet’s death awaits him should he complete his journey to the center. Self-preservation dictates that he pull up short of the city and ward off the rejection of those who ought most to receive him.

Even while Jesus “desires” to save his people, Herod “wants” to kill him and Jerusalem “wills” to refuse rescue. By employing the same word in all three cases, Luke sums up the conflict Jesus faces as a clash of desires.

Amid the clamor of this age and the wreckage within the Church’s life, the voice of prudence reverberates within our souls. Our fragile desire to live out the ways of the Kingdom is continually threatened by the desires of others to crush or resist our own. The collision of these desires provokes our stronger, more developed, self-protective reflex. Retain control of your life, and live to fight another day. Maintain your distance from the fray, and preserve your dignity.

Often our self-preservation appears to be the very opposite of disengagement. Our distance takes the form of denunciation of the ills we see, both within the Church and without. Those of us entrusted with formal authority within the Church as well as other forms of social capital (that would be most North American Christians) can employ such power to further insulate ourselves by disparaging those who threaten or stand apart from us.

But Jesus demonstrates that the true prophetic vocation is not one of distance or denunciation. Jesus does not hurl diatribes at people from afar or shield himself from their coldblooded rejection. Instead of closing himself off from a wounded heart, he opens himself wide, like a mother hen spreading her wings for her brood to find shelter from devouring predators. Jesus continues to pursue the redemption of those who reject him even at the risk of making himself vulnerable. The following passage in Luke has Jesus sharing a meal with Pharisees whose lives are constructed in opposition to the ways of the Kingdom. Though misunderstood and rejected, Jesus is undeterred in holding out salvation.

Where our desire to be faithful to our ecclesial vocation gets blunted or thrown off course by the desires of enemies or fellow believers, Jesus persists. He will continue laboring “today, tomorrow, and on the third day” until he finishes his work. What fuels his desire when all signs point to its fruitlessness?

Jesus discloses what steels his will by saying that he “must” be on his way. Divine necessity, the current of God’s desire to redeem that runs through Luke’s gospel, propels Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus’ desire is replenished within His Father’s.

When Abram’s will falters against the tide of unbelief, God supplies him with a numinous demonstration of His determination. In the ancient rite, the two parties were to walk between slaughtered animals as a solemn promise to uphold their part in the covenant. But Abram sleeps, and the Lord walks alone between the carcasses. The Lord alone will bear the burden of bringing to completion what He has promised. Divine determination will fuel Abram’s own will to go on.

Paul’s words to the Philippians usher us back into a more recognizable congregational context. Where Jesus laments over the intransigence of the City, Paul weeps over the enemies of the cross of Christ. Paul’s lament is not for the waywardness of the world but the Church. What greater tragedy is there than when the Church is named an enemy of the cross because she will not find shelter within the vulnerability of her Savior?

Yet Paul goes on, and he invites us to do so also: “Stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Against the onslaught of fearsome desires, our resolve to be faithful endures only as it finds its life within God’s faithful determination. We can run to be gathered together under the arms of Christ, even as they are held out in love upon the cross toward a resistant people.


February 15, 2010

How Well Do We Let Scripture Claim Us?

by Jenny Williams
Luke 4:1-13

One of the interpretations of this text that I have favored in recent years is that Jesus resisted temptation to do even things that have good results.  If he turns stones into bread, he can feed the hungry people in the whole world.  If he gives his allegiance to the devil, the whole world will belong to Jesus in an instant.  If he jumps from the temple pinnacle, God will perform a flashy miracle, which could show people who Jesus really is.  This interpretation has served me well in the last few years, as I am person who is tempted to commit to or engage in too many things—especially endeavors that will produce good results. 

And yet, in a week when I am confronted with this text, I have too many things to do.  I live in an out-of-the-way place in West Virginia yet am part of a connectional church, and so I have to drive pretty far to get to mandatory meetings and events.  So this week, I have a pastors’ meeting on Tuesday (a 2 hour drive time one way—and that’s without any new snowfall) and on Friday an all day workshop which touches on an area of continuing education that I really need (3 hours one way.)  In between I have a Shrove Tuesday event at my church followed by hosting the speaker overnight in my home; an Ash Wednesday service the next night (for which I still have things to prepare); a Church Council meeting Thursday night. In fact, the week is so busy with these and my regular responsibilities that I have asked my husband to preach for me this Sunday because I had no idea how I was going to write a decent sermon this week.

The irony of facing this text this week produces for me more questions than answers.  I’m doing too much, but following the way of the cross means suffering.  Is doing too much pastor-stuff the right kind of suffering?  Are the things I am doing a distraction from my purpose as a servant of Christ, or are they the fulfillment of that purpose?  Have I failed to let scripture lay its claim on me?  Or maybe I am exhibiting the same lack of understanding of Scripture that the devil does in his scriptural smackdown with Jesus.  Should I—a person who has come to be pretty good at discerning whether or not to take on new commitments—cut myself some slack for this one unusually busy week, especially given that this week in the church year has greater demands than most other weeks?    I’m certainly not practicing what I would normally preach this week.  Which raises the question of pastoral integrity for the preacher.       

Any way you slice it, I’m tempted by something similar to what Jesus was tempted with:  doing things that are good.  Thankfully for the most part, I’m not involved in these events because of the results they’ll produce (with the exception of the continuing ed event).  Worship on Ash Wednesday is not for “results” but for the gathered people of God to acknowledge both our mortality and sinfulness in the face of God’s holiness—a message I clearly need to hear.  Only God can redeem our broken and sinful lives.  I suppose God has a lot of work to do with me this week.   


February 09, 2010

Unrealistic Stories and Beginning…Again

by Brian Volck
Transfiguration Sunday (Revised Common Lectionary): Luke 9:28-36, (37-43); Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Catholic Lectionary): Luke 6:17, 20-26

On this Sunday before Lent, when Christian traditions have every reason to be on the same page (the Orthodox, too, begin the Great Lent this coming week) it seems the lectionaries are going in different directions. The Revised Common Lectionary reads Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, while Catholics read Luke’s rendering of the Beatitudes.

Yet these two very different stories – one strangely apocalyptic, the other a pastoral exhortation – both speak to a reality of lived Christianity: the tension between a Kingdom already here and (for all appearances) not yet, between promise and pleroma.

In the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John discover that the body of a Jewish peasant rabbi heading toward a humiliating execution is also the radiant fullness of God’s chosen Son, taking place of honor between the embodied Law and Prophets. Peter, that slow-witted and impulsive “Rock,” doesn’t get it, proposing a practical – if stupid – solution to insoluble mystery. (I love Peter for making painfully clear that even blockheads like me aren’t beyond hope.)  And then, the momentary vision is over and the very real body of a first century Jew is what the disciples see and touch and follow. 

But note the coda (vv. 37-43): the disciples, who should have been embodying the Kingdom, have once again made fools of themselves, earning Jesus’ rebuke (“You faithless and perverse generation”).  Anyone who imagines the New Testament is written to make the Church feel really good about its behavior is a very inattentive reader.  

Compare this to Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” where Jesus addresses the poor, hungry and weeping directly, calling them “happy.” (“Markarioi oi ptochoi” (6:20b) translates most directly as “Happy are you destitute;” Luke’s Jesus is not gesturing toward Quaker simplicity or “spiritual poverty.”) I have to admit, I don’t get it.  If you understand how the destitute, the hungry and the weeping are happy, please explain it to me. Sure, they’re promised the Kingdom, along with satisfaction and laughter, but what’s that to them now?  

Yet there it is, in Jesus’ words.  And to drive the paradox home, Luke’s Jesus then addresses the rest of us – the rich, the satisfied, the laughing – and he’s not giving a pep talk.  Not that we deserve one. We, who sometimes call ourselves the Church and far more rarely live what we say, usually agree with Mordred’s observation in the musical, Camelot: “It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt.”   As the disciples (that’s us again) mutter in another context (Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man), “Who then can be saved?” Who, indeed?

Neither of these passages seems, to us at least, terribly realistic or applicable to everyday life, so it’s no surprise Christians spend so much time and effort explaining them away. The Transfiguration dissolves into a spiritual looking-glass, is rendered otherworldly, or tossed aside with a twist of the historical-critical knife. The Beatitudes become an impossible demand, a roundabout way of stating the social gospel or a mistake in eschatological timing. The result is a double voice: one a Church Lady cooing, “Ah, isn’t that Jesus special,” and the other, a gruff traffic cop waving his nightstick at us and growling, “Keep on moving; there’s nothing to see here.”   

Which brings us, oddly enough, to Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. That the US President’s message surprised anyone is a mystery to me.  Candidate Obama told David Brooks in 2007 that Reinhold Niebuhr was “one of my favorite philosophers.” (At least Mr. Obama, unlike his immediate predecessor, offers some lived evidence of actually having read his “favorite philosopher.”)  Brooks' April 26 op-ed that year went on to note:

On the one hand, Obama hates, as Niebuhr certainly would have, the grand Bushian rhetoric about ridding the world of evil and tyranny and transforming the Middle East. But he also dislikes liberal muddle-headedness on power politics. In The Audacity of Hope, he says liberal objectives like withdrawing from Iraq, stopping AIDS and working more closely with our allies may be laudable, ‘but they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy.’
Perhaps a Niebuhrian, rather than a pacifist or a disciplined adherent of Just War theory (see Dan Bell’s “Just War as Christian Discipleship”), is the only sort of thoughtful Christian (as Mr. Obama claims to be) who can be elected President.  Mr. Obama, by virtue of his office, must ensure the continued existence of the United States (or, at minimum, its government), whatever the cost.  Accordingly, he claims the right to wage and escalate war , significantly expand nuclear weapons research, and target US citizens for assassination

As a Niebuhrian, Mr. Obama brings a complex, tragic vision to bear on world events while draping a cloak of political necessity about the shoulders of lethal violence, claiming that the US “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms…not because we seek to impose our will…(but rather)…out of enlightened self-interest.” (See here and here for what evidence he presumably has in mind, the first source mostly laudatory, the second somewhat more nuanced.)

While honoring the witness of peaceable religious leaders like the Hindu Gandhi or the Christian Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Obama is aware, as President of the United States, that nonviolence isn’t up to the task of running a world power.  Indeed, Mr. Obama explicitly contrasts his secular obligation to selectively employ lethal mass violence with religious justifications for war, which he absolutely condemns.

Christians, at least the magisterial sort, don’t have a great track record here.  We’ve blown our credibility countless times, leaving us the twin tasks of repentance and fidelity.  There remains a vast legacy of blood for which Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox must repent and make restitution, and equivocating about “two swords,” “dispensations,” or “impossible ideals” will never negate the magnitude of our collective sin.

Beyond that remains the much more daunting task of beginning – again or for the first time – to live peaceably, no longer in control of our destiny or the world’s. Christians inherit from our Jewish elders a faith in the God of new beginnings.  No matter how often we visit evil for evil or begrudgingly spend our mercy as if we were over our heads in debt, God always offers his wayward people the completely undeserved opportunity to begin…again.        

Yet note Mr. Obama’s classic Niebuhrian distinction: people of faith ought never kill, while defenders of democracy and “enlightened self interest” perpetually must.  Mr. Obama goes on to draw a theological point which discreetly pushes the burden of living peaceably away from the secular state: “the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

It’s a rather bland way for Mr. Obama conclude his obligatory lecture on why killing for peace is justified and killing for God isn’t.  Bland and, for a professed Christian like Mr. Obama, dubious. 

Not that I favor of religious violence, mind you. My point, rather, is that Mr. Obama is an inattentive reader of scripture.   Jesus is recorded as saying this “one rule” (cf. Luke 6:31), but I recall other “rules” Jesus placed much closer to the heart of those who would follow him, such as:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."  (Mark 12:30-31),
or the “rules” with which Luke’s Jesus prefaces the so-called “golden rule”:

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  (Luke 6:27-30)
Sure, Jesus “rules” are no way to run a country (or and empire), but they’re what Christians are commanded to do.  Not that Christians do it well or often try.  Generations have proposed practical solutions to bridge the chasm between Jesus’ mysterious words and the way we assume we must live. Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” does better than many, maintaining agape as an ideal toward which individuals must and societies and states can strive, while accepting that justice is an elastic goal that secular societies and states sometimes approximate through lethal mass violence.

It’s perfectly reasonable, eminently practical, refreshingly realistic.  It lessens the tension we (may) feel when comparing gospel demands to the way we live now, closing the distance between present reality and promised fullness. And for those less willing than Niebuhr to see the infinite tragedy in his own solution, it makes it possible to confine Jesus, Moses and Elijah in tents of our own making, to have our wealth and laugh at the same time.

It even works pretty well, even if it’s not what Jesus says, urges, commands.

Ay, there’s the rub. 

Living the way Jesus says is likely to get us killed, perhaps horribly so, just as he was.  It’s certainly no way to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. I know I’m not ready to live Jesus’ way and you don’t look so eager yourself. 

Yet you and I and the rest of the Church stand here, on the cusp of Lent, the season where we follow the one who commanded us to love our enemies to a brutal death and – so we are told – unimaginable triumph. This is the story into which we are baptized. This is the story we are called together to tell and live. This is the story we understand to be true, even if it appears utterly “unrealistic.”  This is our story, the one we’ve gotten wrong and betrayed countless times before.  This is where we begin…again.


And Now, Please Rise…

Andy Alexis-Baker at Jesus Radicals calls our attention to a disappointing change in policy at Goshen College. Please consider Andy’s suggested responses in the concluding update.


February 02, 2010

On Becoming a Seraph

by Jake Wilson
The sixth chapter of Isaiah concludes the opening section of the book with a vision of God and the calling of a prophet. In the year that King Uzziah died Isaiah is gifted with a vision of God in the Temple. The vision offers relatively few details of God’s appearance. All we are told is that the Lord was sitting on a throne, high and lofty and that the hem of his robe filed the Temple. The understated nature of this vision of God (compared to Revelation 1:12-16 for example), displays the challenge of describing God’s ineffable majesty.

Where Isaiah fails (rightly) to describe God, the text devotes more than three times as much space to God’s attendants, the Seraphs. The Seraphs are six winged angelic beings, likely serpentine in form, who eternally proclaim God’s holiness. Their only appearance in the Bible is here in Isaiah chapter six (although similar angelic attendants appear in Revelation 4:8). As servants of the holy God their other worldly appearance proclaims bodily what they also proclaim with their song; all who follow the triune God are called be holy as he is holy. The amount of space given to the description of the Seraphs should alert us to their importance for the preaching of this text.

Although we are told this text narrates the event of a vision we could just as appropriately name the event a performance as it is the song of the Seraphs which gives meaning and direction to the theophony. As the Seraphs attend the triune God, they call to one another singing:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of his glory.

Their song proclaims the holiness of the triune God with such power that the foundations of the Temple are shaken. The force of their proclamation, coupled with God’s presence, calls forth an immediate response of fear and trembling from Isaiah.
This text is instructive for the Church in that the people of God are called to become like Seraphs. It is the task of the Church to proclaim God’s holiness with such power and beauty that world is shaken to its foundation. This proclamation is accomplished through our embodiment of an other-worldly form of life that includes our appearance and our speech. The Seraphs not only proclaim God’s holiness, as six winged snakes of fire, they are holy. So must the Church live out the holiness it proclaims.

The witness that the Church’s life provides is meant to call forth a response akin to Isaiah’s in two ways. The holiness of God’s people helps to convict the world of its true identity. In revealing himself through the Church, the holy God confronts the surrounding world with its own brokenness. Conversely, just as the song of the Seraphs helped move Isaiah to a place of joining in the work of proclamation (“Here I am, send me…”) so the proclamation of God’s holiness through the life of the Church calls others to join in.

In the Communion liturgy of The United Methodist Church, after a litany of the mighty works of God in creating the heavens and the earth, in calling a chosen people and sending them the prophets, the celebrant calls upon the congregation to join in the celebration with these words:

And so, with your people on earth, and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

This is not an isolated moment within the celebration of the Eucharist but rather a summation of the task of the Church in all times and all places. We are called to join the company of heaven in praise and proclamation. This week, the preacher will call the congregation to become Seraphs.