As a note, my original sermon appears below; however, our youth and adult mission team had just returned from Clendenin West Virginia and planned to flash mob the worship service. In a "first ever at Grace" moment, they flash mobbed the end of this sermon to Audio Adrenaline's "Get Down." Stay tuned ... video to follow!
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel is one of those ones that make a preacher think, “OK … a familiar parable … OH NO! A familiar parable!!” This story is so well-beloved and so colorful, that is captures our imagination and has become part of our popular culture. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the “Good Samaritan?” There are lots of hospitals with that name (one is even part of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). We have “Good Samaritan” laws to protect the liability of those who stop to render aid to people in need. There’s even a “Good Sam” RV club – short for Good Samaritan. The problem with this being so familiar is we think we know what this is about … it’s about the Samaritan, right? Well … no … not really.
The story opens in the Traveling Narrative where Jesus is heading to Jerusalem. He encounters a lawyer whose intention appears to be adversarial – he is going to test Jesus. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Mark and Matthew have a rich young man asking this question – Luke tells us he’s a lawyer. No matter … the question appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus, being a good rabbi, answers the question with a question: “What is in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds with quoting part of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” and then he tacks on one of the good parts of Leviticus: “…and your neighbor as yourself.” Good answer! Jesus tells him “do this and you will live.” But the lawyer seems to want to parse words and drills down on who is his neighbor … and Jesus launches into the parable.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” – This literally was a downhill journey. Jerusalem sits at 2,500 feet above sea level and Jericho about 800 feet. It is a descent to an encounter with “robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” Jesus then takes a dig at the temple religious system of the day: a priest and a levite (both who are on their way to perform their temple duties), pass by on the other side. Now to touch a dead body would have been to defile them, so they had their reasons. Then we have the Samaritan comes upon the scene and renders aid in a most extravagant way: he washes the wounds of the half-dead man with wine and dresses them with oil, puts him on his animal, takes him to an inn and pays for absolutely everything (I’ll be his wife was thrilled to get THAT Visa bill!). When rabbi Jesus asks the lawyer who acted like the neighbor, he replies, “The one who showed mercy” and Jesus admonishes him to “Go and do likewise.”
The problem arises when we take that closing line “Go and do likewise” and loop it back to the initial question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We can end up with a troubling conclusion: Just do nice and merciful things and you will inherit eternal life. Whoops! That would be a form of works righteousness – and that’s a big problem because there is no salvation in it! If our good works of mercy could have saved us, we would have been saved about 15 minutes after Moses came down from Sinai. Doing good works and merciful works is not inherently bad – it just won’t save you. Our works need to be understood as an expression of thanksgiving for what God has done for us rather than understood as some “brownie points for God” program where we earn our way into eternal life.
So I want to pick up this parable, shake the dirt off the roots, and look at it from another angle. Let’s just say the priest, the levite and the Samaritan are not the central focus of this story. Instead, the focus, the Christ figure in this text, is the half-dead guy on the side of the road. Now admittedly, this is not a sexy way to market the story! We’d rather it be about a Good Samaritan, wouldn’t we? Besides, if you named your hospital “Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital,” who would go there??!! “Yeah, I think I’m having a heart attack. Take me to Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital – stat!” Not going to happen. But I digress…
The reason this is the Christ figure gets more obvious when we think of the story in context. Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem for a showdown. He will be stripped, beaten, flogged and left for half-dead by the political/religious authorities … and then they will finish the job on the cross! The insiders, the priest and levite, want nothing to do with Jesus and they will be part of the power structure that will kill him.
We’re not quite sure of where Jesus is when he tells this story. We know he’s not yet in Jerusalem and, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he is actually in Samaria when he tells this story. That would make it even more juicy! You see good pious Jews consider Samaritans … well … scumbags. Why? Well, the roots go waaaay back … all the way to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE (yeah, these guys know how to hold a long grudge!). When the Northern Kingdom fell, Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser III (what a great name for a king, eh?) deported all of the leadership in the Northern Kingdom to other parts of the Assyrian empire. He then brought foreigners from other conquered lands and Assyria into Israel to run the governmental affairs in Israel and, more importantly, to intermarry with the locals and thus pull off an ethnic and religious genocide. These mixed race people became the Samaritans. Let’s just say, if the TV, and Facebook were around … we’d have a little girl pouring Cheerios on her Samaritan dad and a major flame war online over it!
OK … so the Samaritans are hated by the Jews … but this is why this guy stops and the others don’t. See he’s a loser … big “L” on his forehead. He’s considered scum of the earth and out of his loser-outsider status, he can connect with the half-dead guy by the side of the road. He has compassion because HE is the half-dead guy too! He gets it … from one loser to another.
You see salvation, real salvation, isn’t about how many good works we do, or how gifted we are, or having the right connections, or living in the “right” neighborhood, or driving the “right” car, or having professional success, or anything else this world tries to tell you matters. It … does … not … matter!! What matters is being last, lost, little, least and lifeless … and reaching others who are last, lost, little, least and lifeless too. The saving grace is our Savior took on “loser status” by dying on a cross so that we might inherit eternal life.
This is good news because you and I don’t have to have our act together … not at all. We reach each other out of our loser-ness – not out of our strength. We die, and rise, and die, and rise … and Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, is the one who showed us how. He showed us that we can trust that when things look like they are going down the toilet and we are falling apart and messed up, that God’s economy will use it for God’s glory and that nothing, absolutely nothing, is wasted and it will all be made new.
So fellow losers – welcome to what it means to bear the cross of Christ. Take it up and carry it in your bodies and souls – out those doors into your community. Be the half-dead guys and gals for all the other half-dead guys and gals who need to hear the words of life Christ offers us and them.
“Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him.”
Have you ever had someone steal your identity? Now we normally think of this as the “somebody stole my social security card number and took out credit cards in my name” or “somebody got my debit card and drained my bank account” kind of a thing. But if we crack open the definition beyond financial transactions to include such things as email spoofing where your email address is compromised and all your friends get a Viagra ad with your name on it, or your Facebook or Twitter accounts get hacked and all kinds of weird stuff shows up on your feed … now how many of you can say you’ve been the victim of identity theft? Deacon Tom had this happen with his email account. I got an email that he was in Barcelona and got rolled for his money and needed me to wire him some funds. Now if they’d have said Edinboro Scotland … I might have taken the bait!
The first time I ever had my identity stolen was when my debit card was compromised. I downloaded my account activity into Quicken and lo and behold … my account had been drained … in … Barcelona! Hey … wait a minute! No worries … it was a coincidence. What I remember, though, is how vulnerable and violated I felt. What a trespass of boundaries and by someone I did not know!! All of the strategies I had used to keep my card safe had failed (it was, very likely, an inside job through the vast network of banking that now handles our transactions). The bank was very understanding and they refunded the money and handled any overdrafts … but it was still a hassle!
Identity theft is something we can all relate to at some level. Some outside entity attempts to rob us of our name, our reputation, and seeks to exploit it for their own gain. This is exactly what has happened to the demon possessed man in our story today.
This story appears in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), each telling with some slightly differing details. Mark tells us the man cut himself with stones. Matthew, who always like to double things, does so with his rendition – if one demoniac is good, two must be better, right? If we are honest with ourselves, this whole idea of demon possession is something we’d rather not talk about. When we think of demon possession, we often go down the road of Hollywood movies: The Exorcist, The Rite, or something along those lines. I will tell you that this kind of extreme demonic possession does exist … but it is very rare. So to connect us with this story in a more helpful way, I want to take off the Hollywood frame and let’s think of it as identity theft.
Why identity theft? Well, because Jesus specifically asks the man’s name but the response doesn’t come from the man, it comes from one of the demons: “Legion.” There is something terribly tragic going on here. This man has lost his name … his identity has been stolen. He isn’t identified as Joseph, or Elijah, or Simon – what possesses him identifies him. He is known by what enslaves him. I want you to consider two things. First, evil has two aims: forget God and forget who you are. Forget God and forget who you are … and not necessarily in that order. If the devil can get you to forget who you are, you will eventually forget God too because you will forget in whose image you are made. If you forget God first, you will forget the greater meaning and purpose of who you are and who you were created to be. Second, demons are not necessarily little red guys with pitchforks – they are anything which claims your soul.
So this Gerasene man has forgotten who he is and only his demons can answer for him. “Legion” they say. This isn’t a name it is a military term referring to a unit of Roman soldiers – 6,000 soldiers to be exact. This guy wasn’t just demon possessed – he was occupied! And so are we. We too are “Legion” … for our demons are many. We all have demons that plague us. It’s easy to point to something obvious like addictions and know they try to claim our soul. Whether that is alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, tobacco, eating disorders … all attempt to claim us and destroy our true identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. They might even cause people to label us so that we become known by our demons: drunk, junkie, slut, black sheep of the family. These are the obvious examples, but demons are often far more subtle: they can even be things that look really good like being professionally successful, having wealth or social status. When we obsess on these things and, in essence, make them an idol, we forget God … and then our identity as children of God is stolen.
Now in our story, we get to that place where the demons beg Jesus not to go back to the abyss and ask to go into a herd of pigs. Admittedly this sounds weird and some of us are really feeling sorry for the pigs; however, for a first century Jewish audience, this is the comic relief part of the story and full of irony. The man is unclean (remember, he’s Gentile) and is occupied by unclean spirits who beg to go into the unclean animals (pigs) and then rush into the water … which is a means of cleansing! It’s like a giant porcine mikvah bath. What Jesus is doing is naming and claiming the authority over that which had stolen the identity of this man. Then the swineherders go out and tell the townsfolk what happened and they return to find the formerly demon possessed man clothed and in his right mind.
And this scares them to death! Why? We might think they’d be overjoyed at this. But think about it. This guy living in the tombs and howling at the moon allowed the community to ignore their own demons, their own identity thieves. They could point to this guy, I mean he was the poster child for the demonic, and say to themselves, “Well, I may have my issues, but I’m at least as not as bad as he is!” We are creatures of rationalization, aren’t we? And what happens when the poster child gets well? Oh no! Now I have to deal with my own stuff! Well who wants to do that? The community doesn’t want any part of this at all and they send Jesus away.
Understandably, the man wants to go with Jesus. Why not? Get a fresh start somewhere far away from this one horse town where people still want to remember him as he used to be. But no, Jesus tells him he needs to go back to the town and back to his people and tell them what God has done for him. Why? Because he has gospel to tell – he has good news. Anyone who has worked a 12-step program knows this! Step 12 is share the news that healing is possible – share your good news with others who suffer. But be prepared: not everyone wants to hear it. For some, the known demonic identity thieves are less frightening than the unknown ones of living a whole and healed life. Some folks don’t want to get well. It’s tragic but true. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, there are people who do want to be healed! And they need you to tell them what God has done for YOU. This is what we are being asked to do: go and tell.
We come here as “Legion” for we all have powers which try to rob us of our identity as beloved daughters and sons of God. Each of us comes back to this place, to this community, each week to face our demons and ask for God to cast them out. And as we walk this healing journey, miracles happen and we find ourselves clothed in Christ and in our right minds. And Christ tells us to go out and share our story with others who desperately want to hear that they too can be healed. This is the power of what God has done for you and me … now go and tell.
When I was 26 years old, I served as the president of the Frederick County chapter of the National Organization for Women. We were very involved in the legislative process in Maryland to bring about parity and equal rights for women and men. We also were involved in community events to help raise awareness of gender equality issues. One event we attended was a women’s fair held at Frederick Community College. I remember being there with Lynn Burkett, who had been president before me, and Carol Antonowicz, whom I would later work with at Hospice of Washington County. The three of us were staffing a table at this fair when a woman walked up to our table and asked me if I was a member of NOW. I said, “Yes, I’m Anjel.” I held out my hand to shake hers and she refused to shake my hand. She then went on to say, “Well, I used to be a member of NOW until I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” At that point, I knew this conversation was headed downhill fast … and all at the name of Jesus, mind you. The woman went on to say, “Once I accepted the truth of Jesus Christ, I knew that what NOW teaches is a lie. God IS a MAN! And I will pray for your soul.” With that, she turned on her heels and walked away.
I was absolutely stunned and left speechless. I know, this must come as a shock to many of you – me speechless and all – but what do you say to something like that? I must confess that my capacity to come up with snappy answers wasn’t as finely honed at 26 as it is today, but even today I don’t think there’s much I could say to this comment. I remember turning around to Lynn and Carol who were just as gob smacked as I was. Lynn said, “What WAS that?!” I said, “I don’t know. I talked to God this morning and she didn’t say anything about being a dude!” Well, we did get a laugh out of that.
God is a man? Really??!! I’m sure if this woman came into Grace Church last week, she would have been shocked by my Pentecost sermon and my pointing out that the Holy Spirit is referred to in scripture by feminine names!
Today is Trinity Sunday: a day when we honor the mystery of the God who is spoken of as Triune – three persons in unity of being as one God. It’s been said that the biggest mistake a preacher can make on Trinity Sunday is to try and explain the Trinity, and many of you have watched the video I posted on my Facebook page with St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies. No matter how you try to illustrate the Trinity, you always end up in heresy. So I just will suffice it to say that Trinity is mystery which cannot be comprehended.
Father Richard Rohr speaks of Trinity as a type of Christian koan (koh-ahn). A koan is a Buddhist concept and consists of a riddle which cannot be solved: the most famous koan being, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” These riddles are designed to short-circuit the left side of our brain. The left side is the logic center which tries to make sense out of everything. We cannot enter a contemplative mindset when the left side of the brain is overfunctioning – which is how most of us operate in our Western culture. A koan is meant to frustrate the logic center until it just declares, “This makes NO sense … I quit!” That’s when the right side of the brain, the contemplative side, says, “Oh thank God you’ve finally shut up! Now we can settle down and listen for God.” So this idea of Trinity is one of those koans: a mystery which can be contemplated but never understood. It is a way of saying something true about God, but also knowing that speaking of God as Trinity is still not everything which can be said about God. We can never say all that can be said. But I am game for exploring and, hopefully, expanding how we think about the mystery of God.
Let’s start with gender. If we take our scripture seriously, we confess a Triune God which includes both masculine and feminine characteristics. God the Father, the creator of all things in heaven and on earth, is admittedly masculine imagery. We have God the Son in Jesus Christ who, while biologically male in this lifetime, exhibited many emotional feminine qualities and engaged women in conversation as equals – not a common practice in 1st century Palestine. And then we have God the Holy Spirit, or shekhina or elohim ruach, names which are feminine and who often operates in more subtle, feminine ways. So, if God has integrated both the masculine and feminine, what does this say? One author had the chutzpah to suggest that embodying both masculine and feminine makes God a drag queen! Admittedly, this was a little off the hook, even for me; but, I am willing to say this makes God transgendered in the classic sense of the word: transcendent of gender. And if God has embraced all genders so as to transcend this issue, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to image God as embracing the closely tied issues of gender and sexual identity as part of the creation God loves.
Let’s think about what else God may be embracing and including. If we pay attention to the life of Jesus Christ, there is a point where he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:8) If this is so, Jesus speaks of himself as being homeless. If this is true, then our Triune God has embraced the homeless.
We also hear that Jesus was born to an unwed teenage mother. While Joseph stepped up to the plate to claim Jesus as his son, the birth narratives were written, in part, to address the legitimacy of Jesus’ lineage. So our Triune God has embraced those whom society might dare to call “illegitimate.”
We also hear in the Gospel of Luke, that there were women who accompanied Jesus and who provided for Jesus and the disciples “out of their resources.” The women were bankrolling the operation! Again, if we take our scriptures seriously, this means that Jesus and the disciples were recipients of what we might call 1st century Palestinian “welfare.” Now we have a Triune God who has embraced the economic vulnerability of welfare recipients.
And then there’s that whole crucifixion thing … admittedly, a big deal for those of us who proclaim Christ crucified and risen. When we hear of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, what’s clear is that the marks of crucifixion are still on him: they didn’t heal or disappear. Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas in the Gospel of John: “Put your fingers here. Place your hand in my side.” Even in Mark, which has no resurrection appearance of Jesus but a promise he will meet them in Galilee, the messenger at the tomb says, “You seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.” The way the Greek can be rendered, the messenger’s words can also be translated, “You seek Jesus the crucified one.” Crucifixion becomes part of who he is – ever crucified. So it appears the Triune God has embraced woundedness, and even disability.
Have you noticed a pattern here? The Triune God appears to have embraced and included all matters of gender, the economic vulnerability of homelessness and poverty, and even injury and disability. God has taken in everything that, if we’re honest, scares us to death! We are afraid of injury, disability, the vulnerability of losing our homes or being on welfare, and things about our gender and sexuality give us the yips! But God, being God and all, draws all of this in, embraces and includes it all. And if God has deemed it well to include all of the things which frighten us, why should we fear anything?
This Triune God is bigger than anything we can possibly say: bigger than Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Bigger and more expansive that my little pea brain can even begin to understand. But the love that is so deep, and broad, and high which can and does embrace all of our darkest places and deepest fears is good news for all of us. Nobody sits outside the reach of God.
St. Columba of Iona, that great Celtic saint of the 6th century, gave us another Christian koan. He said, “The nature of God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” It seems to me that the Christian church for many centuries has proclaimed the opposite by drawing circumferences everywhere – circumferences which kept some people out regardless of the evidence of the wideness of God’s embrace. As a result, the center of this sort of Christianity is … nowhere. I truly believe one of the great charisms of our Anglican heritage at this moment in time, is to reclaim Columba’s vision of God whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. And it is up to us to carry that message into a world that is weary of exclusions and who longs for God’s center – God’s very heart. By virtue of your baptism, you embody this reality of God’s presence with you and through you. You have a mission to share this with others wherever you go: to your schools, your workplaces, your relationships. You and I have work to do … let’s get to it, shall we?
Pentecost … a day that strikes terror into the hearts of lectors everywhere! (Pam – feel – ee – uh … ???) It’s the day often called the “birthday of the Church” and we hear about how the promised “Advocate” shows up in a rather spectacular way: the rush of a violent wind, fire on the head, speaking in strange languages (“No, really, we’re not drunk!”). What in the world is going on here?!
Admittedly, this story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can make Episcopalians really nervous … downright twitchy. I mean, it’s just so not Anglican! We’re known for being “people of the Book” – and I don’t mean the Bible. We like our worship orderly, don’t we? And I speak for myself when I say that I need the structure of the prayer book and the tangible Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament – but I suspect a few of you need it too. Left to my own devices, and my own personal ADD fueled mental gerbil wheel, my worship of God would be reminiscent of a balloon blown up and then let go – pfffth … flying around the room – lots of energy expended without a whole lot of direction! So this whole messy outpouring of the Spirit makes me nervous but conversely is the very person of the Trinity who captivates, loves and makes me new … over and over again.
One of the paradoxes of the Church is that Pentecost marks the beginning of the season we call “ordinary time.” We close the Easter season with this extraordinary story of the Holy Spirit infusing the disciples and sending them into the world in the power of that same Spirit to spread the Gospel with joy … and then we call it “ordinary time.” Really?! What is ordinary about that?? There’s nothing ordinary about it! If we followed truth in advertising precepts, we would do better to call it Spirit-infused Time, or Saturated Time, or Emmanuel “God-with-us” Time. It is anything but ordinary.
Between our disquietude about the messiness and unpredictability of the Spirit and our attempts to box it in with words like “ordinary,” we can be in a place where we get the whole Pentecost thing wrong. It may be precisely because this outpouring of the Holy Spirit doesn't follow our nice, neat rules that we tend to hear this story and compartmentalize it as a specific, particular event that happened in one time and place … in Jerusalem, 50 days after Passover (remember, Pentecost was a Jewish holiday first and we co-opted it). If we hold to that belief, we certainly keep God in a nice neat box, don’t we? But I am here to tell you, the Holy Spirit isn’t about to let you keep your nice, neat little god boxed up because the Spirit has been poured out in many times and in many places and she is still at work!
She?! Yes … you heard me right … she. While the Greek word for Spirit is gender neutral, the Hebrew words describing the Spirit are distinctly feminine. Now this just doesn’t square with the images of God in language which have been foist upon us in our patriarchal culture which elevates masculine attributes as preferable and desirable and downplays, or even denigrates, feminine traits. But if we are to take God seriously as Christians, we need to take seriously that the Spirit is a Lady … but she’s not “ladylike” in the patriarchal sense at all! She isn’t sitting down and being docile, quiet, and submissive at all. While the Spirit is not domineering and controlling, she is seductive and loving. She doesn’t shout … she whispers in your ear and pulls you towards her into new life – a life greater than you could ever have dreamed of or imagined! The Spirit doesn’t follow nice neat rules – she’s not one of the good old boys. She moves where she will – she’s unpredictable. She will take your nice, neat, orderly world and disrupt it … not because she wants to harm you, but because she wants to free you by loving you. The problem is your limited definitions of the Divine are getting in the way. She’s the one who surprises you because just when you think you are going to reencounter God the Father … you find her standing there with her arms open wide to catch you in a passionate embrace! She is the one who will lead you into all Truth … and draw you in so that you can fall in love with God … perhaps for the very first time in your whole life. This is heady stuff: It feels like a drunken revelry but without the hangover! And it is life giving for you, for me, and for the world.
Holy Spirit, Hagias Pneuma, Ruach Elohim – whatever you call her – is here … alive and well among us and lovingly drawing us out of our shell. She is moving here at Grace Church … can you see it? I can! When I came here, there were about 15 people here on any given Sunday. There was no youth group. Coffee hour rarely happened (much to my caffeinated chagrin). There was no choir … for that matter, we didn’t have an organist either! We were members of the BEACON but our contributions towards that ministry were small and sporadic. Things felt … well … predictable … dare I say, ordinary …didn’t they?
God’s Spirit wasn’t going to let us stay there forever. The Spirit was ready to draw us into a loving embrace and help us give birth to something new – something extraordinary hidden in the ordinary. It wasn’t experienced as the “rush of a violent wind” as much as it was the gentle whisper of love in your ears. It was the Spirit’s whispering the sweet nothings – words of love from the God who drew you here. “Come to me. You’re burdened and you are weary. Lay it down and rest.” “Come to me. Your heart is broken. Let me love you into wholeness.” “Come to me. You are addicted to that which cannot give life and will never love you back. Let me love you into freedom and life.” “Come to me. You are dispossessed and a stranger. Let me welcome you home.” Whatever brought you here was the work of the Spirit and having fallen in love with God, you are finding ways to embrace others with that same love.
Pentecost is happening … right here … right now. We are loving God and each other through the Spirit and this is creating a new community where no one is a stranger and there are no outsiders. The joy we are experiencing is a manifestation of the Spirit. She’s the one who is building this community: bringing music to our ears and hearts through our music ministers and choir, laughter in activities like spaghetti dinners, beautiful worship which could not happen without the ministries of our acolytes and altar guild, opening doors to healing through our Wednesday healing service and the AA group which meets here, preparing our youth and adult missionaries to go and share her love (God’s love) in West Virginia this summer. As individuals and as a community, she is raising us from the dead! This is not ordinary! This is extraordinary!!
When the Spirit infuses us like this, we cannot help but see our world and our relationships with new eyes. Everything … absolutely everything … becomes extraordinary. Our everyday lives become extraordinary. Work becomes extraordinary; our lovers become extraordinary. The food we eat, the books we read, the people we meet, the homeless, the disabled, those with mental illness … all become extraordinary precisely because the Spirit has infused all of this creation … you, me, all of it. And this is the message we take into the world and I believe with all my heart it is one the world desperately needs to hear. The world is extraordinary because it is saturated with the Holy Spirit and she wants to draw all of creation into this loving embrace of life. And she has commissioned us to go into the world and be the incarnation of that message. This feels scary because it means the Spirit will move you out of your comfortable box by confronting and deconstructing all your prejudices, fears and limitations. But oh, when she does, she will sweep you off of your feet into the love of God which will never let you go.
The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska and member of the Choctaw nation, shared the following observation on his Facebook page last Wednesday:
I met a man yesterday who had been in prison for twenty-four years for a crime he did not commit. Intentional racism and an indifferent system had condemned him to the violent world of maximum security. And yet he was set free ten years before his release. God found him in prison. God healed him of his rage. God gave him hope. In time, organizations who fight for justice proved him innocent. Now he lives to serve the One who loved him against all the odds. Faith is not the soft sentiment of a suburban soul, but a power stronger than any force on Earth.
A timely reflection on the meaning of freedom in light of this week’s reading from the Book of Acts. This marvelous and vivid story of Paul and Silas in Philippi comes to us in this season of Ascensiontide – the time between the departure of the earthly person of Jesus and the coming of the “power from on high” which is promised in Christ and celebrated at Pentecost. We are hearing a story not only about the early Church, but one about what freedom looks like in the Reign of God.
We live in a country founded on the principals of freedom. Sadly, the concept of freedom often gets misconstrued. You see, there are two types of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is often how freedom is expressed in our culture. This is the kind of freedom wherein we believe we can do whatever we want to and nobody is going to compel us to do what we don’t want to do. Unfortunately, this interpretation of freedom will, when all is said and done, land us in a ditch. Why? Because it is inherently selfish and exploitative – it has no regard for our responsibilities towards others and is destructive. “Freedom to,” conversely, is a different kind of freedom – one which liberates us to be completely authentic and in so doing allows us to live for God and for others. Paul often spoke of this as a paradox: in being a slave to Christ, he experiences ultimate freedom.
Today’s story from Acts is a story about slavery and freedom. And as we hear it unfold again, pay attention to who is really free … it isn’t always who you think it is! Luke’s narrative indicates that he is an eyewitness to the events which unfold through the use of first person pronouns like “we” and “us” and he tells us they went to Philippi “a Roman colony.” This isn’t just any Roman colony – it is the site of a decisive and historic battle between the forces of the Emperor Octavian and Marc Antony and the murderers of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. With the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian rewarded his senior troops with land in the region. So this was a city full of retired military officers – a “capital ‘R’” Roman colony, if you will where law and order prevail. Paul, Silas and Luke are all headed for the place of prayer when they meet a slave girl with a spirit of divination.
This girl is triply enslaved: she is owned by others who are making a killing off of her fortune telling abilities, she is enslaved by this demonic spirit, and she is female with no rights of her own. Ironically, she speaks a truth: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” It shouldn’t surprise us that demons speak truth about God – Jesus often is called out by demons for who he really is in the Gospel narratives. She says Paul and Silas will “proclaim to you a way of salvation” – in Greek the word for salvation, sozo, has another meaning: to be healed. But after a few days of having this girl being a walking advertisement for them, Paul gets annoyed and performs an exorcism. The girl is freed from the captivity of the demon. She is healed … but there is a price.
The girl’s owners, seeing that their business interests had been compromised, seize Paul and Silas and appeal to the governmental authorities over the loss of their profits (hmmm … government and business in collusion … doesn’t that sound remarkably contemporary!). The girl’s owners portray Paul and Silas as foreigners, outsiders, whose customs are unlawful and, by extension, contemptuous. They whip the crowd into a frenzy of xenophobic hatred and the magistrates have Paul and Silas flogged (remember that … there’s a twist coming later!). Paul and Silas are then thrown into the innermost chamber of the prison and locked in shackles.
By all accounts, our protagonists are prisoners … but are they really? While their outward appearance is that of imprisonment, their inward spirits are anything but shackled! Paul and Silas spend their time singing praises to God – not laments for how poorly they are being treated. The other prisoners and the jailer too are listening to Paul and Silas as they sing and pray. And then an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, opens the doors of the cells and breaks the chains of those imprisoned. The jailer, who up until this point appears to be in a state of freedom, draws his sword to kill himself as this was the only honorable thing to do. Evidently, he isn’t as free as we think. He too is enslaved by a system which would demand his life for a career failure.
At this point, the tables are turned. Paul and Silas, who outwardly appear imprisoned, do nothing to save their own skin and escape. If they had bought into the idea of “freedom from,” they would have booked it out of there! But they didn’t. They knew what “freedom to” meant – it meant that they were there for the jailer’s salvation too. They stay put, and we can surmise the other prisoners do too. The jailer, shocked that the prisoners would act this way, asks what he must do to be saved. Perhaps in that moment, the jailer realizes he is imprisoned by the oppression of Rome too. Paul and Silas tell him to believe on the Lord Jesus and he and his household will be saved. Notice it isn’t just the jailer, but also his whole household who will be saved. Paul and Silas have offered an exit ramp, an “opt-out” if you will, to a system which enslaves and oppresses this jailer and his whole household. The jailer, in a remarkable transformation, brings Paul and Silas to his home and tends their wounds. He and his household are baptized and all share a meal together and are rejoicing in their newfound freedom as believers in Christ.
But the story really doesn’t end there (yes, I think the revised common lectionary ended this way too soon!). Luke goes on to tell us:
When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
Now the shock value of these passages isn’t always clear to the contemporary listener. The magistrates send the police in to quietly let Paul, Silas and Luke go free. Paul not only points out the injustice of being punished in public but dismissed in private, but he also states (for the first time in Acts) that he and Silas are Roman citizens. This is HUGE!! Roman law forbade the public flogging of Roman citizens! So who is the prisoner now? I suggest it’s the magistrates who, having given into the xenophobic, mob mentality of the crowd, violated their own laws by not checking on Paul and Silas’ immigration status. Paul and his companions are now, in a great reversal of fortune, demanding a personal apology from the authorities and a personal escort out of the prison … and they’re not leaving until they get it. Talk about non-violent resistance! Don’t you just love this??!! And … they get it! The magistrates come and make a personal apology and then they are politely asked … asked mind you … to leave the city. But, not so fast, before they depart Philippi, they go to visit Lydia one more time – they will leave the city when they are ready and not before!
This story is a reminder that for Christians, freedom isn’t a matter of outward circumstances as much as it is a matter of spiritual disposition. For Paul, Silas and the man Bishop Charleston speaks of, it is about God in Christ finding them and setting them free from the things of this world which bind and oppress them. All of us face powers in the world and in our lives which can enslave us. We can be held captive by racism, sexism, homophobia, economic forces, self-loathing over any number of issues, addictions of all types, immigration status … the list goes on and on. But the message of this story from Acts is that God in Christ is giving us an exit ramp – a way out – of all which subjugates us. In baptism, we are set free to live for Christ by living for others. It is a radically alternate reality where God finds us, heals us, and gives us hope. And in being liberated, we have the freedom to serve the One who loves us against all the odds.
Language is a terrible way to communicate … but, unfortunately, we’re stuck with it. We humans are built with an innate need to be in relationship and find connections with each other. We do this by communicating and this largely involves the use of language. But without a foundation of shared experience between two people, it is difficult to communicate an experience to another person. Let me give you an illustration: my husband and I spent time together in Germany, specifically in Bavaria. We have spent time together in my ancestral home of Nurnburg. Because we have a shared experience of that place, if I say “Lebkuchen” to my husband … he knows exactly what that experience is. Now some of you know what Lebkuchen is, but unless you’ve been in the Marktplatz in Nurnburg and eaten Nurnburger Lebkuchen … well, you haven’t had the real deal! Now, if Stuart or I were to try and explain to any of you who have not been in the Marktplatz in Nurnburg and eaten Nurnburger Lebkuchen … well … it is hard to explain. I can tell you what ingredients are in that cookie and you might be able to approximate the taste from your own memory of the ingredients or perhaps from having eaten something similar your grandmother made … but it just isn’t the same thing as being in the Nurnburger Marktplatz and eating Lebkuchen.
Now if language fails us in something so simple as communicating the experience of eating a food in a particular place, just imagine how it fails us when we are talking about the things of the Divine realm! Mystical experiences are downright impossible to transmit in the limited sphere of language. And when we grasp that, we can better understand why some of our Bible stories sound … well … weird. Today’s readings about the ascension of Jesus are just that – weird! Luke, who wrote both the gospel bearing his name and the second volume follow up we call the Book of Acts, is doing his level best to tell us about something mystical in the Divine realm and he’s hamstrung by the limits of language. The gospels of Luke and Matthew all end with Jesus giving a final discourse and John tells of Jesus in conversation with Peter; however, only Luke specifically mentions Jesus’ physical departure. And he uses the imagery which he derives from his Jewish heritage especially the image of Elijah being taken up bodily into heaven by a whirlwind. While we don’t get the whirlwind in this story, we hear he “was carried up into heaven” … and the passive voice reminds us God is behind this action. Of course this has given us all kinds of artistic images of the disciples looking up and Jesus floating away from them.
Former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, remarked upon how we have come to view the Ascension this way:
"Many western Christians have been embarrassed about the Ascension over the years, because they have thought of heaven and earth in the wrong way. We have supposed that the first-century Christians thought of ‘heaven’ as a place up in the sky, within our space-time universe, and that they imagined Jesus as a kind of primitive space-traveler heading upwards to sit beside God somewhere a few miles away up in the sky. And we have told ourselves this story about the early Christians within an implicit modernist framework in which God and the world are in any case a long way away from one another, so that if Jesus has gone to be with God – whatever that means – we understand that he has left us behind, that he is now far away in another dimension altogether. And we have then thought that the point of this story is that we, too, will one day go off to this same place called ‘heaven’, leaving earth behind for good. But this way of understanding the Ascension is, quite simply, wrong on all counts." (“Spirit of Truth” – Rt. Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright, preached Pentecost, 2007 in Durham Cathedral).
This image of Jesus “flying off into ‘heaven’” in conjunction with dispensationalist rapture theology so endemic to our American culture presses upon our deepest anxiety that the disciples, and by extension we, have somehow been abandoned by the Lord and our job now is just to hang out until we can evacuate the planet too. But is that really what Luke is trying to say?
If we take seriously what Luke tells us about the disciple’s response to this event, it seems that abandonment is not what’s happening here. They are not grieving or depressed over this event. Not at all! They went back to Jerusalem rejoicing and were in the temple praising God. Clearly, Luke wants us to know the disciples experienced this event as one of rejoicing and expectation. This is not a replay of the crucifixion. It appears that what Luke is attempting to convey within the limitations of language is that the relationship between the disciples and Jesus had fundamentally changed – it had been transformed. Jesus, the flesh and blood human being who had embodied the fullness of God, was no longer going to be here as he had been. Jesus departed but Christ did not.
We sometimes forget that “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ last name. We would be more accurate to call him Jesus, the Christ. And it is important to make the distinction between Christ, who is a member of the Trinity (yet another mystery where words fail us … come back in a couple of weeks and we’ll talk about that one!) and Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth, the human being who lived in a particular place and time in history. The two are not the same! While they intersected in a particular time and place for a purpose, they are not the same. Christ has always been and always will be. Jesus embodied the Christ for a few brief years in a mystical act of God which bound the created to the Creator through a profoundly redemptive act. And just because Jesus, the historical human being, is no longer with us in the same way he was with his disciples after the resurrection, Christ is still with us, working among us and through us.
This is why we continue to proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … which is what is depicted in this painting by one of our recently confirmed members, Lee Falk. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again (in Latin in the painting) is the affirmation that the ascension of Jesus has not changed the presence of the Christ among us. We see three verbs in three tenses. Christ has died recalls the historic past event of his death. Christ is risen proclaims the current and continuing reality of the resurrection. Christ will come again is a promise of the future realization of the fullness of the Reign of God to come. In this acclamation, past, present and future collide … perhaps even collapse … into the present – right now. I have heard it said that the definition of eternity is “now” – no past to regret, no future to obsess over – just now. And Christ is present … right here … right now. Contrary to our collective anxiety or just downright bad theology, the ascension of Jesus is Luke’s way of reminding us that while Jesus will not be with us bodily, Christ hasn’t gone anywhere. Christ is still with the disciples. Christ is still with us. And power from “on high” is coming.
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John echo the words we heard last week from Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and our lectionary text is foreshadowing Jesus’ departure on Ascension Day followed by the celebration of Pentecost when the promised Advocate makes a rather dramatic appearance to the disciples and indeed all of Jerusalem. Today is also Rogation Sunday which, in the Anglican world, is our ecclesial version of Earth Day. Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare meaning “to ask” and it is a time when we ask God’s blessing on the soil and seeds and the crops to come from them. Originally, the major Rogation Day celebrated in the western Church was April 25th – three days after the much later secular celebration of Earth Day was instituted. Coincidence? I think not. But today, we celebrate Rogation Sunday as the Sixth Sunday of Easter and the season of Rogationtide extends from now through this Wednesday.
The impending departure of Jesus in the ascension may seem incongruous with Rogationtide at first glance. But in pondering these two things in my scattered and slightly ADD mind, I do believe there is a connection between the two and it coheres with our popular obsession with the eschaton – the end of all time. We Americans are fascinated the end of all things. We know, at some point, it will happen. Scientists tell us that at some future time, our planet and galaxy and sun will cease to exist. Some believe it will be the explosion of the sun while others surmise it will come as a result of a wandering black hole. But more colorfully, our scriptures speak of a time when all things as we know them today will come to an end – and some corners of Christianity have raised this specter to an art form. I am, of course, speaking of what’s known as “rapture theology.” Many of you have heard of the “rapture” and it has captured our cultural imagination through Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of books which have been made into movies. Essentially, it is a reknitting of a handful of scripture texts from Revelation, the prophecies of Daniel, and one particular verse from 1st Thessalonians about how those who are alive will be “caught up in the clouds together with them [those who have already died] to meet the Lord in the air.” Taking these texts together (and especially putting emphasis on the last one), people like John Nelson Darby and Edward Irving developed the idea of Dispensationalism wherein the belief that Christ would come again to take up the believers in the Church into heaven and then leave for a 1,000 period of tribulation where Satan would rule the earth, and then come back again at the end of the tribulation to take those who are “true believers” and cast into the lake of fire those who do not believe. Interestingly, the concept of the “rapture” does not appear in any serious biblical scholarship until the 1830’s. In the grand scope of Biblical scholarship and tradition, it is a new innovation.
And … it is wrong. It is heresy! “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again … and then leave … and then come again” is NOT what we proclaim as the Church. Much of what has been reinterpreted as the rapture are verses we historically associate with the resurrection of the righteous. And even the resurrection of the righteous is not some sort of celestial evacuation plan. God has not and will not abandon the earth! Let’s go back to the Gospel: Jesus says, “we will come to them and make our home with them.” The vision of John tells of the New Jerusalem says it will come to us – we will not be taken to it. The Church has historically taught that the resurrection will be for all of creation – not just people … all of creation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth – God is redeeming all of this because God loves all of this.
This is where Rogationtide fits into our readings. One of the dangers of rapture theology is a rejection of the care of creation. In a twisted logic, there are some who posit that we do not need to care for the earth because if we trash the planet and make it unsustainable, it doesn’t matter. Since God loves us and a loving God will not allow us to live on an unsustainable planet, destroying the earth will actually bring about the second coming of Christ sooner. Now there are all sorts of problems with this thinking not the least of which is we have lots of evidence that God allows us to live with the tragic consequences of our actions and does not swoop in to rescue us from our own stupidity. Trashing the planet to trigger the second coming is putting the Lord our God to the test … and testing God is consistently condemned in scripture. Instead, our readings today remind us that the home of God is with us – with mortals. God has not given up on us or the creation God made and loves. We are called to care for the earth and all of its creatures. When we are baptized, we renounce the sinful view of creation as something to be exploited and consumed for our pleasure and we affirm our God-given role as stewards of God’s good creation. It’s stewardship! And this radical view of our role in the care of creation shapes our choices because we are God’s people and God in Christ isn’t giving up on us or the earth. We don’t recycle because it’s a nice thing to do – we do it because it’s how we honor God and God’s creation. We don’t conserve electricity just because we save some money. We conserve electricity because it lowers the pollution levels in God’s creation and saves the lungs of God’s people. We support sustainability not just because it’s a neat idea but because we are called to care for God’s creation and God’s people.
In the Gospel reading Jesus says, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’” Going away yet also, simultaneously, coming to you. Admittedly, this makes no rational sense whatsoever. But in the life of faith, rationality is wayyyy overrated! Jesus’ words are a paradox designed to get us beyond our rational brains. While he will not be with the disciples in the same way, he has promised the Advocate will be coming to remind them of everything. This early hint at the mystery of the Trinity – that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one and yet distinct – is a way of saying that Jesus the Christ not only will leave the disciples but will be with them in a new and transformed way. Those who subscribe to rapture theology focus only on the going away part which preys upon our anxieties of abandonment and attempts to impress us with fearful images of what being “left behind” would look like. They neglect the second part of this sentence: that Christ simultaneously is coming to us and has promised that he and the Father will come to us and make their home with us. Rather than fear the end of all things and reject the creation which God loves, we are called to heed Christ’s command to love one another and, by extension, to love the creation which God loves. And so on this Rogation Sunday, we do well to live in the hope of the resurrection, the confidence that we are not orphaned or left behind in any way, and trust that God in Christ has come to us to make his home with us.
I had a strange experience this past Friday night. I was all alone with nothing to do. I’ve spent 24 years married and 18 of those raising kids. I can’t remember what it’s like to be alone with nothing to do! Thankfully, I got over it when I remembered that I had some movies dialed up on Netflix that I hadn’t yet seen … you know, the kinds that don’t have the words “Disney” and “Pixar” on them. Remember, I’ve been a mom for a looong time!
So I sat down to watch an older film I hadn’t yet seen. No, not the Battleship Potemkin … I saw that one in college. I watched Cry, the Beloved Country. Many of you have probably already seen it (like I said, I’m a little behind), but for those of you who haven’t it is the story of two men living in South Africa in the 1940’s. Richard Harris plays a wealthy, European landholder who lives in the rural Natal Province. James Earl Jones plays an Anglican priest living in the same region. Both have sons and both sons leave their fathers to journey to a far country: Johannesburg. Both sons reject the ways of their fathers. The wealthy son of privilege rejects his father’s bigotry and imperialism to work for racial reconciliation. The son of the Anglican priest rejects his father’s Christian morals and becomes a petty criminal. The father’s stories intersect when the son of the Anglican priest kills the landholder’s son. It was rather ironic to think I was watching this knowing the gospel reading was on the Prodigal Son this week! No coincidences in the Kingdom, are there?
In a scene near the end of the film, after the son of the Anglican priest is convicted of murder, the older priest confides in his priest colleague who has helped him in his search for lost family members in Johannesburg. The old priest tells his friend that if there is no mercy for his son and he is to die for this crime, he will go up to the mountain to pray. He then reveals he’s only done this twice in his life: once when his son Absalom was ill as a young boy and once when he was tempted to commit adultery. The old priest then says, “I have never confessed that to anyone before.”
Confession: the laying bare of the truth of our lives. It is a sacrament of the Church and at Grace it becomes quite prominent during Lent as we open our worship with the Penitential Order
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.”
OK, I know you are thinking, “Wait a minute. I don’t remember that last line.” That’s right, you don’t. It was part of the original prayer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote in 1552 and it was in the prayer up until the 1979 revision when it was stricken. Call me “old school,” but I think we are the poorer for it being removed. There is no health in us. We are for all intents and purposes … dead. And death is at the heart of the story of the Prodigal Son.
Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon calls the parable of the Prodigal Son a “festival of death.” What a juxtaposition of words! He notes that everyone, with the exception of the older brother, dies in this story – at least figuratively. It opens with the death of the father. “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” Arrogant little twit, isn’t he? Even today we bristle at the impudence of this son. He essentially says, “Put the will into effect right now and drop dead old man.” And the amazing thing is … the father does it. He divides his property – in Greek his “bios” (from which we get the word “biology”) which means “life” – between them. He cuts himself in two and pours his life out … and drops dead (at least socially). Both sons receive their inheritance – the older getting his two thirds share and the younger his one third according to the law.
The younger one then journeys to a far country where he squanders his property in dissolute living. Translations vary on this: profligate living, dissolute living, riotous living. But Luke is speaking about much more than blowing the cash. He says the son squandered his ouisias – his substance. He wasted his substance – he wasted himself: physically, emotionally, spiritually … and the money ran out. Oh I’m sure he had a grand old time: booze, broads, gambling … whatever vices you can imagine, they haven’t really changed in 2,000 years. He wastes himself and hits, in the parlance of addiction and recovery, rock bottom. A famine comes on the land and he is reduced to taking a job slopping hogs. For a nice Jewish boy, this is as low as you can go! His life, whatever he may have tried to make of it, was over. He was dead. And he figures this out as he eyes up the hog slop and thinks, “Hey, I could eat that.” He comes to himself – he wises up – and realizes his father’s hired hands have plenty to eat. He knows he can’t return and expect to be treated like a son, so he cooks up a plan. He’ll try to wangle his way in as a hired hand. Maybe the old boy will fall for it. He even comes up with his line: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
But as he returns, the stench of the pig sty still clinging to his body, his father sees him and runs to greet him. How scandalous! No self-respecting father would do that to a son who had dissed him so badly. But wait … the father is dead. He doesn’t care about appearances! All he cares about is extravagant love … a love that can only be set free when we admit we are dead. The father throws his arms around his son and the son then dies on the spot. He says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Period. Full stop. End of sentence. No more conniving. No more games. He’s dead and he knows it. That is confession!
Confession is the admission we are dead and no effort on our part can save us. Confession is not an apology. Too often there is confusion about this. If your confession prayer consists of a litany of all your personal peccadillos and screw ups only to find that next week, your list is about the same as it was last week, then you are stuck in apology mode. Confession is when we say, “Almighty God, I am dead as evidenced by …” and then fill in the blank with those things done and left undone. When we admit we are dead, and only when we admit it, can God’s grace ever have a chance of entering our lives. If we don’t admit we are dead, we’ll never let the grace in because we think we can do life on our terms. Once you admit you are dead and God’s grace enters your life, then and only then can real healing begin, real reconciliation happen and real love be set free. It’s only then when the real celebration – the party – can begin.
So now we have a dead father, a dead younger son, a dead fatted calf, and a big old party going on. Then … cue the music … in walks the older son. Captain Buzzkill himself reporting for duty! This son hasn’t figured out he’s dead. And is he ticked off! He’s been the dutiful son, the one who played by the rules. He has a whole balance sheet of debits and credits. If there’s a “brownie point” system, he’s got it. And the favor shown to this younger son really burns his backside. You see, he wants to keep score. And before we admit we are dead, we want to keep score too. We’ll keep our own balance sheet of who wronged us and how we’re going to get even, won’t we? But the father, after getting the upbraiding by his older son, says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life …” Your brother has dropped dead and come to the party. He leaves us wondering whether or not the older son will drop dead too. Drop dead to an egocentric life of score keeping and resentments. Drop dead so that he can truly live. Will he drop dead? More importantly … will you … drop … dead?
Is it just me, or are there times you just want to put a question mark after the Gospel proclamation: “The Gospel of the Lord??” Or even after the responsorial: “Praise to you Lord Christ??” Today is one of those Gospel readings. Blood mingled with pagan sacrifices, towers falling on people, cutting down fruit trees. Not the stuff of comfort to be sure.
This is one of those “hard readings” of the Gospel where judgment and wrath seem to be forefront. But the problem with this reading is we are stepping into the middle of a conversation which begins way back at Luke 12.1. Jesus is traveling towards Jerusalem and there is an ongoing conversation happening. Jesus is giving a long talk punctuated by a series of parables and teachings. He starts out with parables and teachings relevant to the current times: Parable of the rich fool, anxieties about earthly things, storing treasures in heaven. But then he moves on to talking about reading the signs of the times and necessity to repent or perish in preparation for the end times. He then closes this discourse with the parable of the fig tree. Repentance is a recurring theme in Luke’s gospel – he talks about it more than any other gospel writer. Repentance, in the Greek, means to “turn around” – to pull a “180” so to speak. It is the process by which we turn and return to God.
The crowd tells Jesus of some Galileans who were killed by Pilate and their blood was mingled with pagan sacrifices. In an honor/shame society, this was a really good way to shame one’s enemies. Jesus in his response essentially says that these people were no worse sinners than anyone else (including his audience). He even offers up another shocking example of 18 people killed when a tower fell on them (sounds like something out of a tabloid newspaper, doesn’t it?). He says their sins are no worse than that of others. In these two examples, Jesus essentially tells them that sin is a universal condition and tragedies happen. And we know that sin can be the cause of tragedy and suffering. But Jesus does break the connection between tragedies and punishments. These tragedies were not a punishment by God on these people.
What is curious, and I confess I don’t really know where Jesus is going with this, is his linking these instances to repentance: “But unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” It almost sounds like Jesus is dangling a carrot with some divine cause and effect – if you repent, you won’t perish as they did. Now we know from our experience this doesn’t make any sense. We know all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We also know that tragedies strike whether one repents or not. I confess I’m not clear at all about this link Jesus appears to be making, but I cannot accept it as some quid pro quo transactional theology.
We do know there will be a time of judgment when God will establish perfect justice – a time when all things will be set right. There is both some comfort and disquietude about this. While we long for God’s perfect justice and trust it will set creation right, we also live with the discomfort of knowing our actions, especially how we treat each other and creation, will be judged. Jesus may well be using the example of these tragedies to remind his hearers that judgment will come and since they are still alive, they have the opportunity to repent and turn back to God – unlike those who have already died.
Jesus’ call to repentance is a reminder that repenting, turning around, is a lifelong and constant process. It is not a one time “repent or perish” idea. Instead, it is a day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute thing. The way the verb repent appears in the Greek implies it is not a sure thing that we will repent, but if we do, it needs to be an ongoing action – a lifestyle of repentance. We must keep turning back to God continuously because we are so good at continuously turning away from God!
All of this leads up to the parable of the barren fig tree which ends this commentary on sin, tragedy and repentance on a note of grace. A vineyard owner plants a fig tree and comes to look for figs and finds none. He unloads on the gardener about how he’s come looking for figs for three years and finds none: “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener replies by begging for one more year. He asks for time to work the soil and fertilize it and then see if it will bear fruit. If it does, well and fine; if it does not, then cut it down.
It is tempting to allegorize this story and assign roles to the characters. Often we cast God in the “owner” role and Jesus in the “gardener” role; however, I’m not so sure that Jesus needs to protect the “fig tree” (whatever it represents) from an angry God who wants to give up on it.
I come from a land where fig trees grow. Now I’m no expert on them by any means, but I do know it takes 4-5 years for a fig tree to produce fruit. It strikes me as odd that the landowner would be so impatient. After all, he is also a vineyard owner and grape vines take 5-7 years to produce fruit. This guy should have patience written all over him! Instead, he condemns the poor fig tree before it has a chance … “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”
So, rather than cast the landowner as God … let’s pick this parable up and turn it around and look at it from another angle, shall we? Perhaps the impatient landowner … is us – humanity. Are we impatient? I know I am! The fig tree can be any situation or relationship which we expect to bear fruit. And don’t we sometimes get impatient about that? Especially when the relationships or situations are complicated or messy? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that one should stay involved in a destructive relationship or situation at all. Sometimes cutting it down – ending something which is death dealing – is exactly what we need to do. But there are those times when cutting the fig tree down is not called for … at least not yet.
God in Christ, as the gardener, may be asking our patience with the situation or relationship. Let God dig around the roots, bring the nourishment of prayer and sacraments, and give it some time to see if this fig tree will bear fruit. If it does, well and good; if not, then you can cut it down.
There is a reminder in the parable that there will be a time of judgment – a time when cutting down a barren tree is the best option. Your fig tree may be a relationship that needs to end. It may be a toxic family you need to walk away from to move on and live your life fully. It may be a job situation which has grown intolerable and is not improving. There are plenty of examples of situations which will not bear fruit – at least not the fruit of the Spirit which brings life. However, the parable reminds us not to act in haste and be attentive to God’s leading and timing rather than our own anxiety and impatience.
A lifestyle of repentance and patience – day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute – is one which leads back to God. It is the means whereby we become open to God nourishment of our souls that we might bear the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.
The Feast of Epiphany gives us a moment to pause and look both forward and back. As we look back, it’s fitting to ask ourselves, “What do we know about the Christmas story?” Now, if you’re reaction to that question is, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” that’s not the Christmas story I’m talking about. It would be more accurate to say, “What do we know about the Christmas stories?” because there are two distinctly different narratives in Luke and Matthew.
In truth, we are most familiar with Luke as he gives us a much more elaborate telling. We begin with Zechariah learning that his barren wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby. He’s so surprised he’s struck dumb and cannot speak. Then the angel Gabriel from heaven came, and tells Mary she’ll be having a baby and drops the dime on the whole Elizabeth being pregnant thing. Mary goes to see Elizabeth whose baby leaps in her womb and exclaims “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior” etc., etc. Then Mary returns to Nazareth and there’s this whole botched government census that sends them to Bethlehem where there’s no room at the inn. Mary gives birth in a barn and lays Jesus in the feeding trough. Then the angels we have heard on high come singing sweetly through the night to some shepherds who go to see this wondrous sight. And Mary keeps all these things and ponders them in her heart.
Luke is telling a story for a largely Gentile audience and fills his narrative with all kinds of heartwarming familial encounters. If Luke is the Leave It To Beaver kind of story, Matthew is more like Dark Shadows. Matthew’s telling isn’t a heartwarming story at all. Matthew crafts his narrative for a dominantly Jewish audience and is concerned with convincing them of why Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. His story is much more spartan, more dark and even more sinister. After giving us the genealogy of Jesus and his Davidic heritage, we hear that Joseph learns about Mary’s pregnancy and vows to divorce her. Now angels in Matthew’s story communicate not by showing up in fields like in Luke, but in dreams – and especially to Joseph who, like his ancestor in Genesis, interprets his dreams. Joseph sees an angel in a dream who tells him not to be afraid and to take Mary as his wife, and so he does. Then Jesus is born and wise men come from the east inquiring of Herod about a new king. They are directed to Bethlehem by the religious leaders where they find Jesus at home with his mother. They give their gifts and, again in dreams, receive an angelic message not to return to Herod but to leave by another way. Herod, in turn, finds out he’s been duped and orders the execution of all children under the age of two in Bethlehem. Once again, angels warn Joseph to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt to escape. In the first two chapters, Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills prophecies from Micah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah – all to make the case to his Jewish audience – but it is a much darker story with lots of fear, violence and exile.
So now it’s time for a pop quiz: How many wise men were there? Was it A) Zero, because if they really were “wise” they would have brought more practical gifts like casseroles and diapers; B) Three, because we all know that from the “rubber cigar” carol; C) 42, because that is the answer to life, the universe and everything; or D) we have no clue! OK … I know I planted the “rubber cigar” carol in your heads, but the answer isn’t three. There were three gifts but we can’t assume three people brought them. And while both zero and 42 are amusing answers, the answer really is D … we don’t know. Matthew just says “wise men” came from the east. We really don’t even know if they were exclusively men. The word magoi in Greek is the plural of magos which is a masculine noun; however, just because a noun is masculine does not imply that the subjects being spoken of were exclusively male. This word “magoi” gets Anglicized into “magi” in some translations, from which we get the words “magic” and “magician.” This word does not mean “kings” in any sense (even though you still have the “rubber cigar” carol running through your head). Our Western ideal of casting them as “kings” comes from a much later tradition and, I daresay, one which trended towards trying to romanticize the Matthean text – perhaps to soften the darkness of the story. This word “magoi” which gets translated “wise men” really carries a more negative connotation to a Jewish hearer of this story. Magi were astrologers and fortune tellers – gypsies, tramps and thieves to borrow Cher’s old song. They were foreigners and of a shady and questionable kind. They engaged in soothsaying, which was specifically prohibited by Jewish law. The other references to “magos” in the New Testament comes from the Book of Acts and they are not flattering at all (Peter calls one of them a “child of the devil”). The shady foreigners bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – very expensive gifts and, one might wonder, by what ill-gotten gains had these soothsayers acquired such wealth?
To me, the magi and their gifts appear tell us something of what it means to bring our gifts to the Christ child. It’s tempting to concentrate on the expensive and flashy gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh as representative of bringing the best of ourselves to lay before the Christ child. But in my experience, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Our human temptation is to polish the apple and bring the best of ourselves – all the respectable parts – to lay before our Lord. We’d really rather not lay before him the messy bits, would we? Like Adam and Eve, we hide in the garden and hope that God doesn’t figure out we’re naked. Each of us has things we’d really rather not lay before the Christ child – messy and ugly bits of our lives. We’d rather not give Christ our brokenness, our illness, our impatience, our ingratitude, our weakness, our addictions, our dishonesty, our sin. No, we’d rather hold onto that and try to hide it – regardless of how futile hiding it is!
But let’s remember the Magi. They brought themselves – even though their ways were anathema to the Jews and looked down upon. They didn’t just bring spiffy gifts, they brought themselves and all their messiness – all the stuff a pious Jew would have rejected. And this is the mystery of the incarnational gospel: that God doesn’t just want what we think is our best, God wants all the messy bits too! In fact, as Dame Julian of Norwich rightly pointed out, God wants to love us completely, sins and all, because without our sins God would not have had to become one of us.
But this is scary stuff. We are often duped into believing in the God who’s just waiting there to smite us – to annihilate us for our shortcomings – and so we play a game of trying to hide them. It’s a futile game. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We are afraid to put our whole self out there and give it all over. The irony is, that when life knocks the supports out from underneath us and we actually do fall into the hands of the living God, when we land we don’t find harsh punishment at all but instead we find grace, peace and mercy (which is about the time we slap ourselves in the forehead and wonder why we were so fearful in the first place!).
If anything, Matthew’s narrative of shady foreigners with gifts against a backdrop of fear, death and exile is a reminder to us that God in Christ is not only with us in the messy fearful places but invites us all to come to him regardless of who or what we are. We are invited right where we are, just as we are, spiffy gifts and total train wrecks that we are. We don’t have to get our act together to come to the Christ child – we just need to come! We are not to hold back anything – Christ wants all of us, even the messy bits! In the words of Anglo-Catholic poet Christina Rosetti’s carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,”
What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.