Sunday, June 29, 2008

Biblical Family Values, pt. 2

Proper 8-A June 29, 2008 St. Paul’s
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13 Romans 6:12-23 Matthew 10:40-42

As I was driving down Pleasant Street on Friday, I saw a boy sitting at his lemonade stand. His hand-written sign said a cup of lemonade was 25 cents. I almost stopped. Seth and Laura used to do lemonade stands, and Simon has great plans for one this summer.

As enterprises go, lemonade stands don’t make a lot of money. Simon did figure out that he needed someone to front the initial investment, but after that he could be on his own, replenishing his supplies out of his profits. But even so – you probably couldn’t say that Bill Gates starting Microsoft was like that little boy on Pleasant Street with his lemonade stand. Lemonade just isn’t the same as a revolutionary software system.

The part of Pleasant Street where the little boy had set up his stand was one of the not particularly pleasant blocks of Pleasant Street. You could say, then, that that little boy was a prophet: he saw, on his block of Pleasant Street, that that was the sort of place where people would need a cup of lemonade. He also saw Pleasant Street as a place where people would stop and drink some lemonade, and he’d get a quarter and maybe a nice conversation out of it. That little boy saw hope on Pleasant Street. He saw Pleasant Street the way all of us would like to see Pleasant Street. He saw Pleasant Street the way God sees Pleasant Street.

No one sets out to be a prophet; prophets can only be recognized from the outside, when people see their prophet-nature in what they say and what they do. That little boy didn’t set out to be a prophet; he just set out a lemonade stand. But he is a prophet. He sees Pleasant Street as it is going to be. The little boy is a prophet of the resurrection.

There is another little boy in our lessons today: Isaac. If you thought things were bad for Ishmael last week, sent out with his mother into the wilderness to die, then you will have your breath taken away by this story. God tells Abraham to take his remaining son, the one on whom he and Sarah have placed all their ancient hopes, to Mt. Moriah, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering.

What images this story raises in all of our minds, what questions about the motives of God, the obedience of Abraham – cruel? Foolish? Mindless? What kind of God is this – is God, this God, no better than the other cruel desert ones he seeks to replace with his majesty and omnipotence, with all his talk about making great nations from these two sons. Those desert gods demanded cruel sacrifices all the time; was this God to be no different?

Amazingly, I think Abraham trudged up that mountain with confidence. He had known death – he and Sarah were as good as dead when God told them they would have a son. If God could pull life out of death once before, he would do it again. “Where is the lamb?” Isaac asked. “God will provide,” Abraham answered. It is nearly impossible for us to get inside that sense of utter confidence, the confidence of one who lives now on the other side of death, the place where tragedy is no longer a possibility. Abraham is one who expects the impossible.

God did provide. In the binding of Isaac, that near-death experience, the impossible occurred. God proved that God was not going to be one of those blood-thirsty desert gods, but a God who kept promises, who gave life, who pulled life out of death, a God of resurrection, a God of hope.

In cups of water, or cups of lemonade, a prophet is one who brings us tangible proof of God’s promises of hope. Prophets come from where we least expect them, and when we least expect them – when we, like Abraham and Sarah, are as good as dead. Prophets with lemonade stands point the way to a tree-lined, safe, drug- and crime-free Pleasant Street. Can we dare to hope? Could Abraham?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Biblical Family Values

Proper 7-A June 22, 2008 St. Paul’s

Genesis 21:8-21 Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

No matter what Hallmark says, you just can’t reduce the Bible to a greeting card. Family values? Just what kind of Biblical family values do we glean from patriarch Abraham and matriarch Sarah?

Because of his wife’s jealousy of the “other woman,” Abraham casts his first-born son into the wilderness to die. Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman who is the child's mother, has run out of food and water. She lays the exhausted, parched and famished boy under a bush, and says, to no one, for there is no witness to this act, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." She then cries aloud and weeps.

This could be a scene from contemporary Darfur, or from countless desperate places on our planet today, where mothers and children are abandoned by family, by warring governments, by economic forces beyond their control, and sent out to many kinds of wilderness to die.

If the day's Gospel lesson reflects Jesus’ “family values,” it does not fare much better. "I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." Jesus declares. "One's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me."

This passage comes from a section in the Gospel of Matthew concerning discipleship: what does it mean to follow Jesus? What would it look like in my life, the disciples are asking themselves, to take part in the breaking in of this kingdom of heaven? What does it mean to take up my cross, to lose my life, to understand God not as the bringer of peace but as the wielder of a sword?

As important as family is to us today, our modern ears cannot hear it quite the same way as Jesus’ followers would have. We moderns are all about “ME,” about self-actualization and self-realization. We strike out on our own, we value independence and self-reliance: the Lone Ranger, the pioneer on the frontier, the corporate raider, the “Army of One.” But in the world in which Jesus lived, you were not an individual apart from your family. Your family gave you your identity, gave you not just your name but your place in the community and in the world, and your family protected you from that world. Your family was a good thing, a precious thing; you didn’t just strike out on your own. Jesus isn’t some 1960s hippie cult leader telling you to tune in, turn on, drop out, from a family that oppresses, abuses or bores you.

There were plenty of bad things in first century Palestine, plenty of things that Jesus might exhort you to leave behind, but the family was not one of them. The Romans were bad, because they were an occupying army in your homeland. The temple authorities were bad, because they colluded with the Romans in exchange for privilege and protection. The civil bureaucracy was bad, because it taxed the people nearly to death. Indeed, death and fear were the operative social norms. The family was the refuge from all that. No one could survive without a family.

So when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is asking the disciples to leave behind one of the few institutions in society that works. Jesus’ call upsets every apple cart there is, and then he says, don’t worry. Don’t be anxious. Consider the lilies, remember the sparrows. The kingdom of heaven means the whole world is about to be re-ordered. Everything will be uncovered. There will be no more secrets, no more power brokers, or back-room deals. This news is so good that it must be shouted from the rooftops – no matter what the consequences. No matter how many authorities you anger, no matter how many armies they unleash. God’s kingdom HAS to challenge this kingdom, and even the blessed and good family, the loving parents, the bonds of affection and kinship – even these can get in the way of this truth of God which cuts like a sword. The new thing which God is doing is even deeper, even more important, even more powerful that the deepest, most important and most powerful parts of our lives, the parts of our lives that make us most truly human. God is a sword which pares away even our relationships, our kinships, our families.

Where is God taking us with this confusing, and maybe even terrifying, lesson? Is discipleship some sort of desert wilderness? Are we called to be like Hagar and Ishmael, stumbling around until the water runs out, cut off from family and security and hope and the future?

Look again at this astounding story of Hagar and Ishmael – and God. Even though God has apparently blessed the dismissal of the two into the wilderness, God will not let them suffer. The voice of the angel of God raises Hagar’s hopes, and promises that even this discarded son of Abraham will be the father of many nations. Even these two hopeless creatures, these outcasts and discards, this tiny remnant of a broken family will have a great future in store. Abraham may have cast out Ishmael but God stayed with him.

If Jesus calls us as disciples to turn away from even the good parts of our lives, if they distract and keep us from the gospel, it is because being a disciple leads us into so much more. We see this broken world now as Jesus sees it. Freed from our own particularity, we can act as perhaps Jesus would have us act. We can even take our families with us. We can see the Hagars and Ishmaels of today, in the countless desert places, the violent streets, the lonely corners. We can resolve to be that angel of God who shouts from the rooftops that it doesn’t have to be this way, the angel who brings God’s gifts of water, sustenance and hope to a world that too often cries in despair.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

From June 2-9, I attended CREDO, the program sponsored by the Church Pension Fund. It was great. I wrote about it in the posting for the Feminist Theology blog. In this piece, I am both critical of the leadership of the Episcopal Church and laudatory about the Pension Fund -- kind of a funny position for a feminist, or an ordained one. So if it doesn't run, I'll post it here. Here's my sermon for the Sunday before I went away ...

Proper 4; Pentecost 3-A
June 1, 2008, St. Paul’s
Genesis 6: 9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
Ps. 31
Romans 3:21-25a, 28
Matthew 7: 21-29

As a child, I always liked these stories. What vivid images of danger and safety are evoked from the story of faithful Noah building the ark. And then the story of the two houses on a beach – the same beach as setting for a story from the Arabian nights, where a man through a bottle containing a genie into the sea …

This story of the two houses – one wisely built where it would not wash away, the other hastily thrown up where winds and floods would wash it away – is a metaphor for faith – and it seems to imply that faith in God is like building a house. Once you’ve got it built, you’re set for life. Once you’ve figured out your faith, likewise, you’re set for life.

Isn’t that Noah’s story? The story of faith set for life? The righteous and blameless Noah, who followed through on God’s preposterous command, to build a ship and load it up, two by two, with all the creatures of the earth?

I used to think that being grown up meant getting somewhere, having things all built, all set up, all organized. I would think that once I was grown up, I’d always have movers move me; I’d never have to rent a U-Haul again!!

Well, being grown up is no more about having it all figured out and all set than faith is about building a house. Yet that may not be what this gospel story is telling us. Faith is about living a life – and life is a journey of faith. Life is a journey in a crowded boat, with a mess of creatures not your friends or relations, setting off into a choppy and dangerous sea.

Well now, what do you mean, you might say. Noah walked with God, and Matthew says it all here: Jesus likes the wise person who has built a house on a rock: firm, solid, unchanging.

But there is another chapter in Matthew – chapter 25 – where Jesus uses the same dualism, the eternal life, eternal punishment consequence for behavior. Remember: “the king will say to those on his right hand, come, you blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.” And what is the mark of those blessed ones? They fed the hungry, visited the sick and imprisoned, gave drink to the thirsty and shelter to the needy.

And this from chapter 25 – practically the same phrases as in today’s gospel: “Then he will say to those on his left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The cursed are the ones who turned away from the needy and destitute – perhaps because they were so concerned to get their lives all organized and set, that they did not hear what Jesus was really saying.

The gospel of Matthew really emphasizes choice, judgment, either-or. Jesus in the gospel of Matthew doesn’t let us just slide by on our laurels; Jesus calls us to act, to make decisions at every step along the way. If faith is about building a house on a rock, it’s a house that is never finished. It’s a life full of surprises, changes, new challenges and opportunities all along the way. There will always be one more hungry person – and a choice to be made about whether to take care of this one or pass by.

In the words of an old hymn, Jesus calls us o’ve the tumult of our lives wild, restless sea. Noah knew that call and followed it, preposterous as it may have seemed. Jesus calls us not to success but to faithfulness, to faith-full-ness, to a life lived fully and faith-fully, choosing and deciding and listening to what Jesus is saying all along the way.