Friday, June 28, 2013

What's in a Name?

Scripture for the 5th Sunday of Pentecost includes I Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

TGIF is code for nearly universal gratitude in offices and workplaces when Friday arrives. I look forward to Friday as the day I try to clear my calendar and dive into the coming Sunday’s scripture, hoping to harvest something from the deep, at least a sponge to help us soak in the Word, and a few oysters worth shucking in search of the pearls that are down there somewhere.

This past Friday, as I read the psalm at morning prayer, I realized that it could have been written by the man in today’s Gospel. Listen to Psalm 88, as if he were their author:

1 O LORD, my God, my Savior, *
by day and night I cry to you.

3 For I am full of trouble; *
my life is at the brink of the grave.

7 You have laid me in the depths of the Pit, *
in dark places, and in the abyss.

8 Your anger weighs upon me heavily, *
and all your great waves overwhelm me.

9 You have put my friends far from me;
you have made me to be abhorred by them; *
I am in prison and cannot get free.

15 LORD, why have you rejected me? *
why have you hidden your face from me?

16 Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death; *
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.

17 Your blazing anger has swept over me; *
your terrors have destroyed me;

18 They surround me all day long like a flood; *
they encompass me on every side.

19 My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, *
and darkness is my only companion.

Whoever wrote these words knew the anguish of major depression; the tyranny of unwanted thoughts, actions, anxieties and impulses; and the social isolation that compounds the suffering of a person living with mental illness.

The boundless good news of this Gospel is that Jesus crosses a sea in order to reach and free this man. Healing him is Jesus’s missionary purpose in his journey: no other account of healing appears from this particular mission. It’s all about him, this man of the tombs. Jesus more than goes out of his way to find this man; Jesus and this man are able to meet and go deep, deeper than anyone else could ever go, because of who Jesus Christ is and what it means to him to save and redeem and heal. Anyone living a life conflicted by mental struggle or chronic emotional pain has good cause to be open to this Christ of God.

The early Church kept this story for two additional reasons. Alongside its gracious message of the priceless value and importance to God of every sufferer, and the delight that rises in God when the tyranny of suffering gives way to freedom and recovery, this story also makes a statement of Christology, announcing who Jesus Christ is. And it announces the most unexpected news about what God is up to in Jesus: that God’s love is not confined to the chosen people of Israel, but extended to people of every nation, culture, race, sex, class, gender, ability, and pre-existing condition.

Looking at the first of these added values of this story, it helps answer the Church’s primary question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” On this question hang the law, the prophets, the theologians, and the faith and practice of each of us. You’ll recall that the essential question Jesus put to his disciples was, “Who do you say I am?”

Essential existential questions weave their way through both testaments of the Bible. We heard such a question in the Elijah story today. The prophet Elijah is tied up in knots of fight or flight as he alternately confronts and flees the vicious behavior of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and becomes alternately frightened and vicious. To a modern eye, he looks bipolar. What does it take to reach him? Not a great wind, not an earthquake, not a wildfire; but in sheer silence Elijah finds God, finds God addressing him with a question that he cannot shake—nor should he, for it restores in him his own moral agency, his own personal responsibility, his freedom to examine his options and choose the best. The question God asks him—twice—is “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I can’t hear that question without remembering the one Jesus puts to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb on Easter morning: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Certain questions erase all the scribbling on the chalkboard and give a person a chance to start fresh. We hear two in our Gospel.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus?” Jesus is calling this man to open himself to a markedly different life; but this fellow, with what clarity he can muster, may be asking, “At what expense? What will I lose and what will I gain? I have no one now; just my daily routines and familiar haunts. This wandering teacher dismantles my life-- but will he stay to help hold me together?”

Instantly, Jesus asks him this question: “What is your name?” This gets a chilling answer: “Legion.” A Roman legion was a fighting force of five to six thousand soldiers. This man lives daily with a mob of violent impulses, voices, centrifugal forces within him that tear him apart.

But a legion is a disciplined force under orders of a higher authority. Ancient belief said that if you learned the name of the demon tyrannizing someone, you gained power over the evil spirit. Could it be that this man gives Jesus the handle it takes to reach within him and convert the wheel of the soul to centering centripetal movement inward? I think this answer gives Jesus the key he needs to unlock this man’s captivity, to quicken and enlist his cooperation. While we never hear it, this man has a name given him by someone who tried to love him, did love him, perhaps still loves him. Village playmates once called him by that name, until he withdrew or they rejected. And was there someone special whom he had loved, until it all became too much to manage?

“What is your name?” is the question that may remind him who and whose he is, the question that may quicken a sense of himself, may help reclothe him in his rightful mind.

Simultaneously going on in this Gospel story is the answer to a question posed earlier in the same chapter, en route to the country of the Gerasenes, when on the heels of a sudden storm on that lake Jesus rebuked the wind and waves and calmed his frightened disciples. “Who then is this,” they ask, “that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”

It’s as if the disciples don’t yet know how to answer that question. But in all his vulnerability, the man who lives among the tombs knows who Jesus is, calling him “Son of the Most High God.” Their healing encounter reveals yet more of the power of God at work in Jesus.

And the last of three lasting values of this story is its chronicling the mission to the non-Jewish world, the Gentiles. Sts. Peter and Paul made much of their embracing the wider world beyond Israel, specializing as apostles to the very people their upbringing had taught them to despise. But today’s Gospel reveals the actual start of this ecumenical, even interfaith, missionary movement of the Church. It started with a madman. Both St. Luke and St. Mark make it clear that this wounded healer became a forceful preacher among the Greek-speaking cities. God’s passionate care for the individual gives birth to a movement that earned praise from the pagans who reportedly exclaimed, “See how these Christians love one another!”

I know, I haven’t said a word about the pigs. Intentionally, since they’re a distracting first-century side-bar to the central story. No small matter if you were a pig farmer, but these piggies are in this story with certain cultural baggage. They represent a healthy regard for ancient Jewish law that considered pigs unclean and unfit for human contact. No pig is going to get a fair shake of a curly tail from 1st-century Jewish-Christian literature. It would have to be left for the mission to the Gentiles to discover a keener sense of ethics regarding the rights of animals, and perhaps of farmers as well. I’ll bet those are still very much works in progress. And aren’t we all?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sighting Your North Star

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Pentecost includes I Kings 21:1-21a; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

What primary values do you live by? Of all the influences that swirl around you and within you, which of them is your North Star, guiding the course of your life?

Examples—from poor through questionable to laudable-- appear in our readings today.

There’s King Ahab of the greedy eye, coveting his neighbor’s vineyard. Greed is one mighty influence.

His wife Jezebel (and did anyone after this name a daughter Jezebel?) has a conniving mind hungering for power, preferring violence as her shortcut. A violent spirit influences all who see it at work in this Queen of Eminent Domain.

And (speaking of violence) there’s the prophet Elijah, whom we met last week in the widow’s house at Zarephath. He’s shown today as someone not to mess around with. “I have found you,” he growls ominously at Ahab. There’s a long history between these two men. “I will bring disaster on you,” insists Elijah, with colorful predictions of what that will look like. Actually, as Elijah stories go, this one is PG-13 by comparison to the R story when this prophet of Yahweh single-handedly despatches several hundred prophets of the false god Baal. While that could earn him a reputation for being vindictive, he is celebrated as a great vindicator of the true God of Israel, and as the champion of the common people like Naboth the vinegrower. Bloody as it is reported to have been, Elijah’s moral compass pointed to the North Star of God’s righteous judgement and persistent justice.

Some people live, understand their world, and make their choices through the terms and logic of law. St. Paul devotes most of his letters to revealing the futility of letting religious law be our primary influence as Christians.

And to reinforce that lesson, a Pharisee appears in our Gospel. This disciplined, principled, civilized, responsible man has invited Jesus to come to his table to eat a meal. What happens next reveals the values that Jesus lives by.

A woman of the city enters, uninvited. We could spend some time looking up that phrase “woman of the city” in a Greek lexicon, but I’ll guess that wouldn’t change our hunch that we know what’s happening here. Two cultures are colliding, crashing, conflicting. No, make that three. Catch what’s happening to each.

First, the host watches his plans for the evening fall apart. The earnest discussion he intended to have with the street preacher Jesus has been replaced by what the Pharisee must experience as spontaneous theater, fully out of his control unless he chooses to make an ugly scene of it.

Second, the woman barely gets to open that jar she carries. She is so flooded with gratitude for what has already happened in the public ministry of Jesus, that as she approaches him she breaks into crying the tears of the redeemed and the relieved. The context for this? Just verses before, Jesus has been declared a friend of tax collectors and sinners and they know that this is true: he loves them.

And third, Jesus is laying down his life like a bridge over troubled water, between these two distant residents of their one neighborhood. Like the other guests at table, he is reclining on pillows, supported by his left arm, eating with his right hand from a mat on which bowls and platters of food are arranged, his feet pointing away from the mat. And around that perimeter of feet (try to remember that image next Maundy Thursday, when we wash feet) was a larger circle of street people and neighbors who had come to watch the meal. In a culture with limited opportunities for private entertainment, people flocked to occasions that could be turned into free public entertainment.

If this banquet was set in an interior room, neighbors were ringing the walls. Just as likely, it was an outdoor courtyard, and they were draped on the railings, taking it all in by sound and sight, wishing it could be by hand and mouth.

This really was open street theater, and each of our three key players experiences it uniquely.

The Pharisee stiffens from years of training. The woman releases her pain from a lifetime of abuse. Jesus deftly reaches them both, reaches within their souls, relates them to each other.

But where are we in this story? How do we relate to Simon the Pharisee? Can we admit to being just as sure in our knowing within our own world of relationships that this person or that person is a sinner? Do our assumptions about people (who they really are, what kind of man or woman?) get us in any less trouble than he finds himself in? Do we contain ourselves in superiority as he does, and so close down (as he does) from opening our hearts to strangers, losing each opportunity to open ourselves more and more to God?

And do we have the courage of this woman who allows her tears to bathe the feet of Jesus—trusting him to care, bonding herself to him in her honesty and his compassion—the courage of this woman who, letting down her hair to wipe his feet, spotlights her public crossing of boundaries meant to keep the sexes separate? Her actions are as if she takes a diamond to the glass that separates woman from man, and scratches a great arc on the windowpane; she has pressed so hard that when Jesus touches, the glass falls and they reach through the frame where hand finds hand.

The host is scandalized, first by the woman, then by Jesus who allows her behavior; together, they shatter the social conventions known to every person in that room. How will the Pharisee respond? How would you respond?

Even before he does, how deftly Jesus maneuvers the moment. The host hasn’t yet opened his mouth, but Jesus reads his face and is aware of what he’s thinking. So, listen to a commentator: “At banquets and feasts it was common for the host or guests to pose riddles for one another in a contest of wit and wisdom. Jesus poses for Simon a riddle based on the convention of patron-client relationships.” Notice, a benevolent patron, a point not to be lost on Simon as Jesus tells this story of a resourceful person who declares amnesty, forgiving all parties involved. Generosity like this goes beyond what the law demands. Jesus, by the way, is generously helping Simon save face in the midst of all this scandalizing. Jesus loves Simon, as prickly as Simon is.

Then Jesus teaches Simon that the impact of forgiveness seems to vary from person to person, in direct proportion to how much debt they’ve had forgiven. Grudgingly, Simon admits that he gets it. But Jesus has, by his riddle, sprung the trap that now catches Simon. “Jesus
exposes the contrast between Simon’s lack of hospitality and the woman’s selfless adoration of Jesus.” A good host would provide water and a servant to wash a guest’s feet. A host might embrace and kiss a guest, could freshen a traveler by anointing him with oil. Simon had done none of these things; the woman had provided all, completing the host’s role for him.

As he teaches Simon (and, of course, the crowd encircling them, a crowd that includes you and me), Jesus says that this woman’s loving act is evidence that she has been forgiven much. He celebrates this fact by announcing her absolution: “Your sins are forgiven! Your faith has saved you. You are free. Choose wisely. Go in peace.”

But don’t you have a hunch that she’ll be among the disciples who stay with and follow Jesus?

Simon could have gone to bed that night contenting himself with the memory that Jesus had implied that his host had, of course, little to be forgiven. But that is not what Jesus said, or meant. Jesus was reaching into Simon to free the power of insight to recognize his own need to be forgiven the weightier sins of a cold and neglectful heart shut by fear, prejudice, contempt, perhaps self-hatred.

What primary values do you live by? Of all the influences that swirl around you and within you, which of them is your North Star, guiding the course of your life?

The commentator mentioned in this sermon is R. Alan Culpepper, in “The New Interpreter’s
Bible”, Vol. IX, pp. 168-173. Abingdon Press, 1995.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

2000 Years Later, Commencement Morning

Scripture read this morning, Commencement Day at Williams College here, included Galatians 1:1-12 and Luke 7:1-10

There are two portions of Christian scripture, each nearly two thousand years old. Isn’t it satisfying to stand at this end of that timeline, purged of the temptation to curse gospels contrary to our own? To live in a world where slavery has been completely eradicated? To have evolved to the point where human worthiness is no longer determined by a person’s wealth and what he or she chooses to do with it?

Hmm. I guess not. We are still a work in progress. The ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us, and it is a universe of tasks requiring us to keep reaching for the skills and commitments and alliances that are needed. The Book of Common Prayer defines the mission of the Church: To restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The universal all-embracing Christ is ready for the task, ready to join all people of good will and a yearning for peace that is built of justice. He is ready also to equip us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

What more is needed? Another two thousand years? Our first double-millennium in the common era suggests that time alone is not the deciding factor. The pivotal power is the one named in today’s Gospel, the attitude demonstrated by this Roman centurion about whom Jesus says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such trust.”

An officer of the imperial army, the centurion knows what it means to be under higher authority, answerable above, and so he recognizes that Jesus is under the authority of God. This is the basis for his trust that Jesus can and will help him. They both want the same thing in this moment: healing. So trust bridges a vast gulf, worlds of difference, uniting these men in a common purpose.

Yes, I reached for a word other than “faith” yet intimately related: trust. Trust is the active ingredient in faith, the vital core that makes belief matter, the broader power, the one that restores unity between sacred and secular, between the Kingdom of God and human society. All that the ministry of reconciliation requires entails trust: skills, commitments, and alliances all need to be trusted to become enough, to become effective by the arithmetic of grace, God’s ability to multiply loaves and fishes, to breathe spirit and truth into our dust and clay, animating the material by the spiritual, revealing opportunity in crisis.

No one would have expected Jesus to raise up a Roman centurion as an exemplar of faith, but he does. The authority of this army officer depends upon the trustworthiness of those one hundred soldiers he commands, and upon the loyalty of his household slaves. The centurion helps form and train and reinforce these attitudes and commitments by his trusting them, his people. And his word is enough to accomplish this shaping. His word can be a gracious word: he appears to care about his slave’s wellbeing and he has shown generosity, even love, to the religious community he has been sent to control. Two thousand years later, it is often by afterthought that our own occupying armies discover gracious ways to earn a degree of trust from local communities.

Certain attitudes expressed in these scriptures upset us. Heaping curses on other people’s gospels, accepting slavery as a given, gaining respect in worldly ways that only the wealthy can afford. Even more upsetting, these issues are still with us as evidence of an unreconciled world. The use and abuse of sacred texts enshrining such attitudes has even sabotaged the ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us.

The camel’s snout has poked its way into the tent of the Bible. Enough of the ancient world remains embedded in some texts that we must be alert to inherited ignorance, narrow-mindedness, prejudice, the denial of universal human rights, and the unjust distribution of wealth. The Church must be mindful of its responsibility to hear and declare its own sacred texts critically and honestly.

And humbly, given the evidence that reconciliation is a longterm commitment.

And passionately, confident that the priorities of God’s Word are enlightenment, justice, and peace.

And the Church must declare its message creatively, lest we miss the moment we are given: now, the precious present of the new creation.

Our very dear friends in the Class of 2013 are about to walk through the open gates of now to invest their powers of trust in the skills, commitments, and alliances that can help reconcile a world still stuck on the horns of prejudice, injustice, and greed. May they keep growing in awareness that this great work belongs to both God and them.