June 30, 2010

Three Funerals and a Wedding

by Doug Lee
Galatians 6:7-16

Maple syrup has no business running off my pancakes into the sausage links. Sweet and spicy don’t belong together. It’s a violation of the natural order of things.

This was my settled culinary worldview until something unexpected happened on a visit to Mexico City. At the mercado, my family ordered a heaping cup of sweet, succulent mango. But because we had crossed the border, the mango slices came with a liberal dusting of chili powder. Mango with chili sounded like an unnatural combination. But after we tried it, we couldn’t get enough of it. The union of spicy and sweet created something new and beautiful: a bold, vibrant flavor standing out from the drab palette of tastes we were accustomed to.

We’re used to Paul speaking of the cross as the center of his theology: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ….” The cross has become conventional for us, our theological “meat and potatoes.” But what we may not be used to is the bold and vibrant way that Paul speaks of the cross intersecting with realities we would normally keep separate.

Paul applies crucifixion language to himself almost as often as he uses it of Christ: “…by which the world has been crucified to me, and I have been crucified to the world.” In Paul’s way of looking at the world, we not only look back in time at Christ’s death to find our identity; somehow we also share in Christ’s death in the present. Paul said earlier, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (2:19-20).

And if this were not enough, Paul also speaks about the crucifixion of the world. In the death of Christ, the old world itself has died, along with its old ways of death and bondage.

Craig Koester says, “Three deaths have occurred: Christ died, the world died, Paul died.” All of the old antagonisms and their bitterness stored up for generations: dead. All of the old ways of measuring ourselves and one another: dead. All of the fleshly definitions of who is in and who is out: dead.

But if the cross represents three deaths, it also heralds a new beginning. Christ died, Paul died, the world died. But God raised Christ, and He will bring that triumphant reversal to fulfillment in every other sphere. Because Christ is risen, we, together with creation, will be raised to new life. Paul’s gospel heralds nothing less than a total overturning until all things are made new. “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” In the new creation, Christ and his people will be united as groom married to his bride. Christ’s people are not merely Israel of the flesh, the Hebrew people, but they will be “his peoples” (Revelation 21:3), a vast community reconciled in the cross across all fleshly divisions and raised to resurrection life in Christ.

Three deaths have occurred. But in the end, Christ, his people, and a new creation will be married, sharing resurrection life, together in perfect communion.

So earth-shattering, so cataclysmic is the event of the cross that Paul understands that Christ has taken us over the border into a new land in which unimaginable things are possible and bold, new flavors are to be tasted. In this new land, all the reference points we have lived by have been torn down. The old boundary of circumcised and uncircumcised has been obliterated. Paul’s storehouse of spiritual accolades (like ours) is so much barnyard manure. There is no more living off the past because the past is rotting and the life of the future is erupting if we have eyes to see it.

Because of this, those things that didn’t seem to go together in the old regime are now brought together. Suffering and joy can flow together. Weakness is no longer to be avoided; it is the only thing Paul longs to boast of.

For us, life in the new state of affairs may appear highly abstract because we hear Paul say, “I was crucified with Christ.” Christ died, I died, end of story. But what he actually says is “I have been crucified with Christ.” The cataclysmic event begun at Golgotha isn’t over. It is being carried out in an ongoing way in and through Paul and now us. In some sense, he is saying, “I am crucified with Christ”. When Paul says, “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” it means that Paul daily reaffirms severing his allegiance to all powers apart from Christ. Everyday he regards their threats and promises as having no potency. Being crucified with Christ and to the world is an ongoing life-style. Paul’s suffering is his ongoing participation in the reality of cross and new creation.

On this Independence Day, we who have been crucified with Christ would do well to allow Paul’s bold way of speaking of the cross to shatter our definitions of who is in and who is out, who belongs to our community and who doesn’t. Identities based on law and immigration status have expired because Christ has taken us over the border.


June 23, 2010

Freedom and Obedience

by Jake Wilson
Galatians 5:1, 13-26

In Bound to be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism Reinhard Hütter notes that speech about freedom often confuses different types of freedom. The freedom of autonomy differs from political freedom which differs still from Christian freedom. Hütter structures his book around three different modes of being free: free to be Church, free to live with God, and free to speak ecumenically. This week, as the congregation hears Paul proclaim “For freedom Christ has set us free” the preacher will do well to help the congregation discover that Paul is boasting of the freedom to be Church.

The Lectionary Epistle reading offers us an amalgamation of verses from Galatians that begins in chapter 5 verse 1, skips 11 verses, and resumes in verse 13. The first verse of chapter 5 is treated variously by different translations and commentaries as either the climax of Paul’s argument against the agitators or the beginning of an ethical exhortation to live out the implications of Paul’s argument (compare for example the different treatments this verse receives in the NRSV and the NIV). The latter seems to be the leaning of the Lectionary given that it separates 5.1 from the preceding verses, skips over 5.2-12 and begins again with Paul’s instructions that the Galatians become servants to one another through love. However, we should be wary of separating 5.1 from the preceding arguments. Without the proper context, and especially with this reading coming so close to the 4th of July holiday the congregation will be tempted to hear Paul speaking of freedom as autonomy or democracy rather than the freedom to be Church.

The first verse of chapter 5 works well as both the climax of the preceding argument and a transition toward life freed to be Church. As the climax to the preceding argument we can see that the freedom that Christ has won for us is freedom from slavery to sin, the elemental spirits of the world (4.3), and the Law (4.9-10; 4.24). Taken as the end of Paul’s larger argument (3.1-4.31) against the necessity of observing the Law, Paul’s opening declaration helps us to name that from which we have been freed.

However, the freedom that Christ has won for us is not a purely negative freedom. The agitators were more than likely arguing that apart from the observance of the Law these new Galatian converts were being left with no moral guidance, no markers or directions for their communal life. Despite their deep misunderstandings of the Gospel, these ancient agitators did at least recognize that freedom as autonomy (self-law) could be dangerously destructive to life in community. Paul anticipates this line of argument and responds (“But I say!”) in verses 13-26. This is where 5.1 can be fruitfully considered an introduction to verses 13-26 as Paul’s discourse on life in the Spirit shows us the freedom for which we have been set free.

That Christ has set us free to be Church can be seen in Paul’s contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. In verse 13 Paul explicitly states that the freedom Christ has won for us is not freedom for self-indulgence. Paul goes on to list the works of the flesh which include idolatry, hatred, and discord among others. All of these works of the flesh are destructive to life in community and the freedom to be Church. When Paul concludes with a warning that those who engage in such actions will not inherit the Kingdom of God, it can be read not so much a threat of punishment for such actions but rather as a statement of the obvious. Life in the Kingdom of God cannot be sustained by the acts of the sinful nature. There is simply no place for envy, ambition or hatred in the Kingdom to which the Church points.

In contrast to the destructive works of flesh, the freedom to be Church is sustained by the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience…these are the marks of individuals and communities who live in the freedom that only God can offer. That these gifts are fruits and not works reminds us that they are cultivated in us by the Holy Spirit and not achieved through our own efforts.

Within the Church freedom and obedience are bound together. In the case of our reading from Galatians, freedom to be Church is bound to our being obedient to the on-going work of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is to be that community that is led by the Holy Spirit as evidenced by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Paul ends this section of the letter with the impassioned plea “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” This week may the people of God hear that a life guided by the Spirit is indeed bound to be free.


June 15, 2010

Zealous for the Lord

by Janice Love
I Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42 & 43, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

I admit to admiration for Elijah’s zeal for the LORD, though perhaps not always for his methods. His dedication to Yahweh is absolute. He is on the run for his life now because of it, feeling alone and exhausted; tired of the compromises with idols, evil and the powers that be which Israel continues to make. But Yahweh, thank God, has not given up on us yet…

In my life of service in and for the church thus far, I have come to a profound appreciation for Baptism. The renunciations and vows are deep and powerful and grace filled and not to be taken lightly. There is the much needed reminder that we are one in, and only in, Christ Jesus and not a collection of individuals. This is God on God’s terms, not my own. I have recently begun to make Baptism books for the persons baptized in our congregation. The books contain a page for those witnesses present to sign, a place for photos taken, the Apostle’s Creed, the vows undertaken (I will, with God’s help) and a quote from the Galatians text for this coming Sunday:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

(Galatians 3: 27-28)

…have clothed yourselves with Christ.

This is an intriguing metaphor to reflect on. As we teach our children with patience and much (much) practice to dress their bodies – the tag goes in the back, make sure your zipper is done up, put that lace through this loop – for protection and dignity, so we are called to teach them, through what we do as church, with patience and much practice, that in our Baptism we become clothed with Christ…

In Sunday’s gospel text we encounter a man who runs around naked, whose neighbourhood is death, whose only company a legion of demons. His people try to help, keeping him in chains but the demons make him break them, driving him to run wild in the wild. He is in so much trouble that only God can get him out of it…so much trouble. Jesus, having just commanded nature in the calming of the storm out on the lake to the astonishment and wonderings of the disciples, “Who then is this…?”, commands the demons to come out of the man. The demons shout out the answer to the disciples’ previous question…Jesus, Son of the Most High God.

We put this on; it goes this way: it is Christ who commands – nature, the unnatural, us. This protects us from following the commands of that which would lead us in the paths of death.

The man, whose name we never learn, is healed, made whole, restored in relationship with others, clothed and sits at the feet of Christ.

We put this on; it goes this way: it is Christ who enters without hesitation into suffering, who heals and transforms. We are the company of folk, of all kinds, who sit at the feet of Christ, healed and made whole. This makes us not afraid to enter the suffering of the world too.

There is much speech that occurs in this text. Commands and declarations made, begging, witnessing, and finally, proclaiming. There is no guarantee that the witnessing and proclamation will be well received. Here, in contrast to the reception given Jesus’ actions in Luke 7 (vs.16), fear and fear alone results – keeping this guy around might just not be good for business. But Jesus does not give up on them and leaves behind a most devoted witness and proclaimer, the healed man himself, who at the end makes an even greater declaration as to who Christ is: when instructed to declare how much God has done for him, he declares how much Jesus has done for him.

We put this on; it goes this way: Christ Jesus is the good news that the suffering world aches and longs for, like that thirsty deer we saw last Sunday making its way down to the lake for a much needed drink on a hot, dry day. Jesus calls us to be zealous, grace filled proclaimers of this good news and puts us where he needs us to be.

We are to put on Christ as easily as we put on our clothes in the morning and go out in the dignity, love and grace that affords us for the glory of God and for the sake of the suffering world God so loves.


June 07, 2010

Wrath and Mercy, Law and Grace

by Debra Dean Murphy
Third Sunday After Pentecost – 13 June 2010
1 Kings 21:1-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3 (Revised Common Lectionary)

The readings for this Sunday, taken all together, create some unsettling tensions.

The passage from 1 Kings recounts the refusal of Naboth the Jezreelite to sell his vineyard to his neighbor, King Ahab. When the king goes home to sulk about this, his wife Jezebel takes charge and soon enough a property dispute has led to a crime scene: Naboth is wrongly defamed and summarily executed. Ahab gets his vineyard after all.

Psalm 5 reads something like Naboth’s own prayer from beyond the grave in which he petitions Yahweh to “give heed to my sighing . . . for you are not a God who delights in wickedness . . . you destroy those who speak lies” (vv. 1, 4, 6). Back in 1 Kings, the shocking story does indeed conclude with a chilling warning delivered to Ahab by the prophet Elijah: “I will bring disaster on you” (v. 21a).

Over and against these Old Testament texts (to put the matter contentiously), are the readings from Galatians and Luke. In the gospel lesson, another woman takes center stage: the “sinner” who disrupts a dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee by weeping at Jesus’ feet, bathing his feet with her tears, drying them, kissing them, and anointing them with ointment. Through the centuries this unnamed woman has been interpreted as something of a Jezebel: a “loose” woman with a past and no sense of her proper place.

When the host objects to the woman’s behavior (he’s the only one to do so in Luke’s version of the story; the other three gospels describe the scene differently), Jesus defends her. He admires her hospitality and commends her “great love” (v. 47). And whatever sins she has committed he forgives forthwith, sending her out in peace.

A surface reading of the Galatians text can reinforce old, unchecked tendencies that pit the Old Testament’s alleged preoccupation with sin, judgment, and the wrath of God against the New’s purported emphasis on grace, love, and forgiveness. Some have imagined that Paul, in his testy epistle to the disciples at Galatia (and in other letters), renounces the whole of Israel’s scripture and tradition along with the particular practice of circumcising Gentile converts. But Paul is no supersessionist. For him, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth constitute a continuation of Israel’s life with God. Paul’s theology is less doctrinal than narratival: he locates the Church within the story of Israel’s election, judgment, and redemption. The old divisions do not hold; law versus grace turns out to be a false fight.

On its own, the story of Ahab, Naboth, and Jezebel offers an instructive word about the abuses of institutional power and the legitimate grievances of those who are powerless—a word that couldn’t be more timely in this era of corporate greed and irresponsibility.  But the lectionary asks us to read 1 Kings in concert with Luke 7. It juxtaposes the stories of two sinful women—one whose sins are left unnamed; the other’s all too vividly reported. It asks us to consider harsh judgment: both Elijah’s condemnation of “what is evil in the sight of the LORD” and Jesus’ stinging rebuke of Simon’s lack of generosity and hospitality.  And it shows us, through Jesus’ words and actions and Paul’s reading of Scripture and the Cross, that Jesus sides with the sinner every time. Every sinner. 

The readings for this Sunday, taken all together, create some unsettling tensions. But they are worth our time and attention and may tell us something about how wrath and mercy, law and grace, are—for those who claim the name “Christian”—always of a piece.


June 01, 2010

All Things Shining

by Brian Volck
Revised Common Lectionary, Second Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 17: 8-16, 17-24; Luke 7:11-17  / Catholic Lectionary, Feast of Corpus Christi: Genesis 14:18-20, Luke 9:11-17

Ordinary time. Words not crafted to stir the soul. “Ordinary” here, of course, refers to the numbering of Sundays outside of festal and penitential seasons, but that’s far too abstract to make up for its dull connotations. Even in times of sadness, we may feel new life in Easter season. It’s far more difficult when spring is past.  

The liturgical color for Ordinary Time is green. Green for life, growth, renewal. Focusing on the ordinary, the Humean predicament of “one damn thing after another,” it’s easy – perhaps inevitable – to miss how life’s greenness marks our lives as cottonwoods in the desert line a river or tap an aquifer.

I suspect it’s always been the case, but steady bad news makes it difficult to ignore the mess we’ve made of the ordinary. No longer content merely to sacrifice the lives of our children or the tops of mountains for the material comforts of a fossil-fueled economy, we lay waste oceans – over an already designated “dead zone” – in ways our words have yet to capture. Less a “spill” than a “spew,” less an “accident” than a predictable event, the baleful consequences of extractive science are made, not for the first or last time, visible.

Our earthly governments grow more frayed, polarized, impotent. Great changes are underway, changes which elected leaders seem oblivious to or willfully ignorant of.   Perhaps there have been times of more uncivil and counterproductive political discourse, but that’s cold comfort amid the ongoing shouting matches over empty coffers, failing institutions, and alleged fixes that largely draw on proven failures.

The church, too, is in ruins. Need I number its many failings?

It’s hard to see, then, how Sunday’s readings respond to the mess we’ve made of the ordinary. The Revised Common Lectionary tells of individual healing: Elijah raising the widow’s son, Jesus doing likewise in Nain. The Catholic Lectionary, marking the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, features meals: Melchizedek’s enigmatic offering and Jesus feeding five thousand. All the stories join human basics (life, food) and glorifying God; healing presence as doxology.

None of the protagonists, Jesus included, offer comprehensive plans, manifestos, or political platforms. Attending to the ordinary world in its brokenness, they glorify the Father through and with their response. There’s neither division nor opposition here; responding to the broken ordinary and praising God are inseparable as the mingled waters of great tributaries downstream from their confluence.

In Terrence Malick’s luminous 1998 movie, The Thin Red Line, a frightened recruit, Private Train, wonders if the human suffering and natural brokenness he sees everywhere in Guadalcanal signify,”…an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”

At movie’s end, he knows he’s lived through more suffering and brokenness than most ever will and resolves to live better. Among his fellow soldiers he again wonders, ‘Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?”

The films final words are his, spoken – to whom remains unclear – as the green island where suffering and death reigned disappears in the boat’s wake: “Oh, my soul! Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

Has Private Train found waters where the broken ordinary and God’s glory flow together? Malick’s too fine an artist to make it clear. At the heart of his artistry, Malick juxtaposes profoundly evocative showing with a paucity of explicit telling.

After 2000 years of Christianity, we often read the gospels more as explicit telling rather than evocative showing.  I’m not arguing for relativism or an “anything goes” interpretative strategy. I’m merely reminding Christians of the artistry at Scripture’s heart. Which is more powerful: telling us to meet others in their need and to give God praise, or showing us Melchizedek, Elijah, and the Word Incarnate simultaneously meeting ordinary human need and praising the Father?  

Perhaps this is the challenge of Ordinary Time: through grace, to meet and heal the broken world in precisely the same gesture as we glorify God, to be fully alive in the world God has made and we have marred, to find, even in our brokenness, all things shining.