cursing the fig tree?

Lent 3C

Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm 103:1-11

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Again, we find in our reading from Luke what looks like at first a mish-mash of sayings: The pair of sayings about those who suffer — those whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices, and those on whom the tower of Siloam fell. Luke has Jesus ask his hearers if they think these were any more sinful than other Galileans or residents of Jerusalem. The expected answer is no. And the moral is, if you don’t repent, you likewise will perish. And then comes the marvelous little parable of the fig tree. Three years the owner of the vineyard has been looking for fruit. He tells the farmer to cut it down. No, he replies, wait one more year. I’ll dig in some manure, and then if it doesn’t bear fruit next year, cut it down.

This story has echoes of the preaching of John the Baptist: Bear fruit worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8), and even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree (Luke 3:9). In between these verses, John warns the crowd not to rely on the claim of Abraham as ancestor. Any tree not bearing fruit worthy of repentance will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

In Mark’s Gospel, we meet the fig tree as Jesus is making his way into Jerusalem. Jesus curses the tree because it has no fruit (Mark 11:12). While in Jerusalem, he cleanses the Temple. On his way back out, the disciples see the fig tree, withered (Mark 11:20). Mark is using the device of intercalation, to have the center story interpret the story split in two. The fig tree is Israel, or the Jerusalem Temple religion, and it is fruitless, and therefore cursed and withered. Recall Isaiah 5.

Luke does not bear the same animus toward the Temple as Mark does, and so has no need to have Jesus curse its existence. Luke moves the fig tree story away from the last week in Jerusalem, and turns it into this parable. In this context then, Luke is suggesting God’s patience with the Judaism of his day — let’s see what happens. Place after the two stories above, it suggests that Luke is saying to Christians, “Do you think the residents of Jerusalem, the adherents of Judaism, were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent. . .” This would be a huge shift from Mark’s understanding of Judaism, much more in line with Paul’s effort to include both strands within God’s saving plan.

The reading from 1 Corinthians would suggest much the same. If you think you are standing, watch out. This pericope is included in an argument about not partaking of the table of idols. Paul’s better off congregants wanted to continue in the social and political life of their city by accepting invitations to banquets and temples. Paul urges them not to, out of consideration for their brothers and sisters whose conscience this practice bothers. Yes, it will be hard to forgo this life, but no test you have been given is beyond humans.

Moses doesn’t want to be given the test either of working to establish a new social identity (taking the people out of Egypt). Send someone else, he says. No dice. We may think we want a burning bush experience, but the cost is high.

Responding to Tanzania

The Primates of the Anglican Communion, including TEC’s Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, have just concluded (last Wednesday) a meeting in Tanzania. They issued a communique from that meeting.

I am saddened by this communique on several levels. After the election, consent and consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, I remained optimistic that the Anglican Communion would survive as it always had. After all, we had elected a woman bishop, and while “the bonds of affection” that hold the Anglican Communion together had been strained, they had not broken.

After reading the Tanzania communique, I am not so optimistic. The Episcopal Church is chided for failure to satisfy the rest of the communion that we are living up to the Windsor Report, while the actions of those Primates who are crossing provincial boundaries to provide oversight to disaffected members of the Episcopal Church (a novelty never before countenanced in the Anglican Communion) are seen as a “pastoral response.”

Also, the Primates clearly do not understand the polity of the Episcopal Church. The communique asks our House of Bishops to provide guarantees by September 2007 that the language of Resolution B033 of the 2006 General Convention means that consents will not be given to any openly gay or lesbian person in a committed relationship elected as bishop. The House of Bishops cannot provide such guarantees. In the Episcopal Church, it is really the General Convention that has primatial authority. The Presiding Bishop only convenes the house of bishops, and that house can take no unilateral action for the Episcopal Church. I hope the house of bishops will point this fact out to the Primates.

And most deeply I am saddened that the Presiding Bishop has asked us to put the status of our GLBT brothers and sister in the faith of Jesus Christ on hold yet again. In our baptismal covenant, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being, to seek and serve Christ in all, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to strive for justice for all. While the Episcopal Church has been slow to embrace our GLBT brothers and sisters among this “all”, we have at last taken a courageous few steps out over the stormy waters of our baptism. I can only hope that we won’t sink like Peter when we see the severity of the storm, and come in for our Savior’s rebuke, “Oh, you of little faith.”

Nearly three decades ago, when I moved to a new city after college, and found myself alone and in a strange place, it was a group of gay men who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church. I heard marvelous church bells on Sunday morning, and thought church would be a good way to meet some people. I found my way to source of those bells, St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington, VT. Soon a group of men had invited me to join them for brunch after service. I was so naive that if I had known they were gay, I would never have joined them. Thank God, I hadn’t a clue. Soon I was baptized, trained as a lay reader, and the rest, they say, is history.

Along the way, God overcame my blindness, and I discovered these true friends were gay. When I moved away to Boston for Divinity School, I attended a church in Boston with a strong gay and lesbian presence. Again, I was taken in and welcomed, despite my naivety. This is the only Episcopal Church I have known, and I resent those voices trying to impoverish it by silencing the GLBT witnesses among us.

I also find it terribly ironic that the Primates communique makes repeated reference to Lambeth 1998, as represented the “consensus” among Anglicans on issues of sexuality. Lambeth 1998 also called for a 10 year listening process during which all provinces of the Communion should listen to the voices of gays and lesbians, and during the process treat them with pastoral care and sensitivity. Peter Akinola has thrown his support behind the laws of Nigeria making it a crime to be gay or lesbian. How is this listening? I believe it is time of us to stop letting ourselves be bullied by such voices. Until persons like Akinola really listen to the witness of gays and lesbians in their own churches and in the communion, they are less in compliance with Lambeth and Windsor than the Episcopal Church. I pray our Presiding Bishop will have the courage to demand fairness in further dialog within the communion.

While I am less optimistic than in 2003 that the communion will hold together, I am no less confident that this is Christ’s church, not ours. If push comes to shove, I would rather remain where I am confident that I am in communion with Christ and all his brothers and sisters, of whatever orientation, than with people who stop their ears to the richness of gifts given to this church.

And finally, I would pray that however deeply the actions of the Primates have hurt our GLBT brothers and sisters, they would know that my life and my faith would be the poorer without them. I cannot know the hurt this causes, but I pray our church will have the courage of its baptismal covenant, and I know our Savior won’t abandon us to sink in the waters if we have the faith to step out of the boat.

Tempted like as we

Lent 1C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm 91:9-15

Romans 10:5-13

Luke 4:1-13

The story of the Temptation of Jesus comes from Q (the source common to Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). According to Burton Mack (The Lost Gospel: The Story of Q), the Temptation story enters into Q in its final revision, as the Q people loose their public bearings after the Jewish Wars, and the group turns inward moral reflection. Having imagined Jesus as a child of Wisdom, they now imagine Jesus as Son of God.

This is a bold step, and begs the question, “What does it mean to be son of God?” For the Q group, even more importantly, the question must be answered, “What does it mean to have the Son of God as our founder?” The temptation story expresses what that does not mean. While it might be tempting to think have the son of god as group founder means having one’s daily bread provided miraculously, that doesn’t happen. We must still pray for (and beg or provide) daily bread. It doesn’t mean that we are going to rule the world (at least not know — perhaps at the end of time we will occupy the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel). And it does not mean that God will protect us from all harm.

As Luke takes over the Temptation from Q, he puts it to work answering questions specific to his own situation. The Temple is now gone, and while his Gospel begins and ends at the Temple, the second volume of his work ends in Rome. But his characters can be no more certain of freedom from persecution in Rome than Jesus was willing to cast himself off the Temple. Don’t put God to the test. Don’t go looking for martyrdom. Luke’s christians can not make faustian deals with the kingdoms of the world to spread their message. And they have to look to themselves for sustenance, taking care of one another, distributing bread to the widows and poor from their own resources.

Temptation lies at the beginning of a clear ministry. It answers the question of what we will not do. Choosing the passage from Deuteronomy concerning the offering of the first fruits reinforces the point of reliance on God for our ministry, but not counting on magic. Bring the first fruits and then share them with the Levite and the resident alien. This is how God will care for the landless.

The power we exercise is the power of God, but it doesn’t turn stone to bread, or bring the kingdoms of the earth to their knees, or protect us from harm. It is the power of feeding one another through offering, of changing the hearts of power, and suffering with one another in trial. Whenever the church tries to get cozy with the world’s power, a distortion of our ministry is inevitable. Luke shows us through Jesus how to avoid that.

a covenant of intimacy

Last Sunday after Epiphany

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13

Luke 9:28-36

Deb pointed out at Wednesday Bible Study something none of us had ever noticed. Moses does not veil his face to speak to the Israelites. I had always read that and assumed it was because of their fear that he veiled his face. However, it is quite clear that he unveils his face both to converse with God and then to report that conversation to the gathered people. Only as he goes about the rest of whatever he does, does he veil his face.

Presumably his face shines because some of God’s glory rubs off on him. But the people get to see that glory. They have no more fear of dying in the presence of God’s glory than does Moses. We wondered if Moses might be taking (as Israel’s representative) the role of wife in the marriage with God (cf. Hosea, and lots of other prophetic literature). When he is around the home compound, he goes unveiled (speaking with Israel — intimacy applies here as well as with God). Outside the compoud (in the camp), he veils his face.

This is his second trip up the mountain. The first time down, he smashed the tablets. Perhaps now, the covenant is seen as not just rules, but intimacy.

Fits, then, that we read 1 Cor 13, most often heard at weddings. Then we will see face to face, and recognize just as we are completely recognized.

The voice on the mountain of transfiguration says to Jesus essentially what it said to him at his baptism. By baptism, we are all children of God and transfigured. It is that intimacy that cause our faces to shine. This is not the usual moral gruel that passes for religion in America — not a covenant of rules but of intimacy with God.

The least likely

Epiphany 5C

Judges 6:11-24a

Psalm 85:7-13

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

All of the reading this week have in common a protaganist who claims to be unworthy of the task he’s called to. Gideon, Paul and Peter all claim to be unfit for their vocation from God.

That seems to be a theme in the biblical narrative. Israel, this non-people, becomes God’s chosen, with the mission of bringing God’s justice to the world. It’s a theme repeated again and again. Moses claims to be unable to gather this people to take them into their future. Isaiah, Jeremiah, even Jesus asks to be relieved.

It strikes me as odd that Jesus does so much teaching at the lake shore, and few seem to comment on the fact. Actually, the word in Greek, limne, means something like a marsh or a fen. This is no-man’s land. It’s not cultivable, its not city. It’s at the edge. Is there an echo of the people of Israel standing on the sea shore imploring God’s help before crossing over into the wilderness? It would make sense that the people attracted to the new Jesus movement would understand themselves not to fit, to be the new group of non-people, like the Hebrew slave before them.

Luke’s story of the miraculous catch of fish has a number of features in common with John’s post-resurrection story. Peter’s reaction of abnegation makes more sense in that context: after the catch of fish, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and three times commissions him to “feed my sheep,” rehabilitating him for his three denials. If this is a post-resurrection appearance, Peter is acutely aware of his own failure, and unworthiness to be a fisher of people.

Paul expresses the same unworthiness: he had persecuted the very church he is now upbuilding. Despite our own failures at whatever God calls us to (stewardship of the earth, justice for its peoples, whatever it may be), we are the ones called, and at Jesus’ word we will be successful.

Peter and his companions had success so far beyond their expectations that could leave the whole catch there on the shore (what happened to it? hopefully someone else who needed it took it, rather than it just rotting), and trust their future to God.

Local boy makes good

Epiphany 4C

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17

1 Corinthians 14:12-20

Luke 4:21-32

I find it remarkable that books like Jeremiah made it into the canon. With the resources for writing and recording often in the hands of the royal and priestly administration, it is surprising that so much of those resources would go toward preserving a book like Jeremiah, so critical of both king and priest. It serves to remind us how careful we need to be in self-critique: are we too comfortable? I’m glad I’m not Jeremiah.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians continues his instructions on speaking in tongues and spiritual matters in general. If we have become too smug in the graces God has given us, there is danger. One interesting thing to note: The NRSV asks, “How can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your [Eucharist]?” (since that one doesn’t understand tongues). The word for outsider in Greek is idiotes. It means something like a private person, a person all by him or herself. It can mean a common person, or a person unskilled. So, how can the person who occupies the place of the uninstructed, or the uninitiated say the Amen. The purpose of the liturgy then is to instruct and initiate. It’s not for the smug and learned.

Jesus begins so beautifully in Nazareth. One can almost hear the crowd saying, “He’s our boy!” at the end of the first half of his sermon. The year of Jubilee. All debts forgiven, property restored, captives freed. That’s good news for us! But then he goes on. Elijah was only sent to a widow in Zarapheth; Elisha only cured Naaman the Syrian — outsiders. The Lord’s Jubilee is meant for others. No wonder they wanted to throw him off the hill.

New wine (and lots of it!)

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 96

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Why is it that the language we use about our relationship to God is not nearly as vivid as the language used by the authors of the scriptures? The prophet compares the relationship between God and God’s people to that of a newly wed bridegroom to bride. Of course, we have to be careful of the androcentrism of the prophet, but the relationship described is one of joy and ecstasy. We tend not to be so vivid. For us, our relationship to God often seems one of duty. Too bad.

I love this passage from John’s Gospel. It is so rich — layer upon layer. You can read many layers of the life of the community as you peel back each layer. To start off, it begins, “On the third day.” If one stops right there and asks, “which third day,” it becomes clear that this is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. It captures some moment in the life of the post-resurrection community, some shift made by John’s community, at which Jesus showed up to help them make the transition.

The next phrase is “A marriage happened in Cana of Galilee.” Marriage recalls all of the language of God and God’s people married from Isaiah, Hosea and the whole Hebrew tradition. John probably wants us to be thinking in terms of the restoration of God’s people. Marriage was also problematic for the early christians. There were many groups who eschewed marriage altogether, as being too deeply implicated in the surrounding society. Such groups also tended to eschew drinking wine. They had water in their chalices at the eucharist. I wonder if John’s community was originally one of these communities. That would account for Jesus’ rather abrupt remark to his mother when she points out that wine has failed — “Woman, what is that to you and to me?”

She goes on to tell the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. He instructs to fill six (empty) stone water jars “according to the purifications of the Judeans” standing by. Stone makes them pure enough for the ritual ablutions (Lev. 11:33). Jesus tells the servants to fill them to the brim (20 to 30 gallons each according the NRSV). Then he tells them to draw some off and take it to the architriklinos, the person reclining at the head position of the three couches, the master of the feast. It was the job of the architriklinos to keep the feast moving, to make sure entertainment was appropriate, to mix the wine with water (if the architriklinos was the same as the symposiarch) and to keep everyone happy. He remarks to the groom that he has kept the beautiful wine until last.

This could be a reference to the good wine of the christian community — God has kept the best of God’s plan and promises until now. There is also an element of the wine of christian community replacing the purity designations of (some) Judean identity. It also seems to me that there is an element of wine in the chalice replacing water — John’s community at some point made the shift from being marriage denying to marriage embracing (a sacrificial understanding of the eucharist) and found this better. Or maybe they are saying to other christian communities, “Our water is way better than your wine.”

In all events, this story has been used to narrate any number of miraculous shifts within the life of the community, any number of “new wines” that won’t fit in “old skins.” The test of the transformation is whether it produces good wine. As the church faces many transformation even now, “on the third day,” to which Jesus once said, “Woman, what is that to you and me,” the question we must ask is does this new mode of identity (rites of cleansing) produce really good wine, or does it keep people (the unclean) out? Conservatively, Jesus made 120 gallons of wine. That makes for quite a party. Are we having fun yet?

revealing the mystery

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6,9

Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

It’s a shame that most of the language of the restoration of Jerusalem’s glory also involves langauge of political ascendancy. When God brings God’s people back to Jerusalem, God will re-establish the Empire as it existed in David’s time. Camels will come from all over bringing political tribute to the restored city. All the nations will worship Israel’s God. The images of peace and glory are truly attractive, but the cost is high: camels from Midian, Ephah and Sheba will bring gold and frankincense (political and religious tribute — taxes and worship); ships from Tarshish will bring gold and silver.

Third Isaiah’s images of restoration look back longingly to the glorious days of Empire. Second Isaiah’s language of the servant as a light to the Gentiles has a somewhat different emphasis. God’s uniting activity will cost God’s servant, not those to be united to God’s worship.

Matthew clearly alludes to the restoration language in Third Isaiah in his account of the eastern magicians’ homage of Jesus. In line with Matthew’s overall plan of Jesus replacing every institution of Jewish identity (Torah, food, Temple, priesthood, monarchy, etc.), here Jesus replaces the royal city. Tribute is brought to Jesus. The magicians depart to their own country by another “road” (hodos in Greek), a common nickname for the early christian movement: they have been converted.

I like Ephesians vision of things a little better. The unification of humanity into one, as co-heirs of God’s grace, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise has been God’s plan from the beginning. That mystery was hidden from prior ages, but has now been revealed through the church’s apostles and prophets, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” At the time Ephesians was written, probably in Asia Minor, Caesar was widely praised as having unified the inhabited world, having brought an end to (civil) war, and having brought the “pax Augustana.” Caesar had been elevated to the heavenly places in the Imperial Cult.

According to the author of the letter to the Ephesians, the Imperial Cult had it wrong. The church, a cosmic reality, was the mode of revelation of God’s plan for unity. This network of little groups meeting in houses all over the Mediterranean world, with little or no access to the public sphere, was what unified all people in one Body. Its importance went far beyond those locally gathered groups, even as far as the cosmic sphere. Caesar could learn a thing or two from this little church.

As our worship at our local altars links us with Christians around the world in their worship at the same altar, so we could teach Caesar a thing or two today. It’s a shame when our own internal strife prevents us from incarnating that unity. The author of the letter to the Ephesians knew full well that the church of his day wasn’t perfect, but it had a cosmic purpose. It has yet “to grow in every way into him who is [its] head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper function of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (4:15-16). That would provide the basis for all his ethical teaching. We would do well to hear that again and remember that our cosmic purpose is nothing short of the unity of humankind, not under political constraint, but in the freedom of faithfulness.

Born on the outside

Advent 4C

Micah 5:2-4

Psalm 80:1-7

Hebrews 10:5010

Luke 1:39-56

Sorry I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks. I had some papers to finish off for courses, and just didn’t find the time to get to the blog. But, the semester is over, so here I am.

This passage from Micah is very familiar to Christians. We hear it often. Matthew uses it in his Gospel to answer Herod’s answer to the magicians concerning where the Messiah would be born. It’s a very problematic text. It’s hard to figure out who is speaking to whom. It seems to me that subject and addressee change at least once in these two short verses. It’s also hard to determine when it was written. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, so it could be written in the time of Hezekiah, but there are also inclusions in Micah’s book from the time of the Exile in Babylon, so it could be about the expected return. Either way, it is unexpected. If the time frame is Hezekiah, and the threat to Judah from the north, why would the child-ruler (notice, not a king), be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. The Jerusalem monarchy and its progeny are not God’s chosen rulers. If in the Exile, again, why not a ruler from among the exiled nobility. Only the insignificant folks stayed behind in Judea. Ezra deals with the problems of intermarriage among those who remained behind. God would seem to be choosing a person of mixed heritage over the pure line of exiles. But then God has done that before — just see Ruth.

And, so we come to Luke’s story of Mary. Again, on the outside: God’s slave girl. The redemption of the slave girl echoes the laws concerning the rape of a virgin found in Deuteronomy 24. God has to redeem Mary directly, because no other redeemer was found for her.

Mary’s song is a standard format. It echoes Miriam’s song at the Red Sea, and Hannah’s song at the birth of Saul (yes, I know it says Samuel in 1 Samuel 2, but Hannah naming him because she had asked him of the Lord leads us to expect the name Saul — this is a birth story about Saul changed to Samuel when Saul fell out of favor). The ruler is unexpected.

Notice that Elizabeth is barren, like Sarah and Hannah, while Mary is unmarried. John the Baptist is the last in a line of miraculous births on the old pattern. Jesus is something entirely new. Of course, for Luke, the real interest is in the period of the Holy Spirit, which begins on Pentecost. Mary is the first evangelist of the Church. She is the Church. We sing her song, and keep it alive.

The day of the Lord

Advent 1C

Zechariah 14:4-9

Psalm 50:1-6

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-31

I suppose we have to begin Advent with a reference to the final arrival of Christ — Certainly nearly the whole of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is about how soon this will happen: with the sound of the trumpet we will be caught up into the air with Jesus. Zechariah describes a time when all the enemies of the people of God will be gathered before Jerusalem for one last battle, and God himself (yes the gender is intended) as a warrior will stand on the Mount of Olives to vindicate God’s people. Then, after these prodigies, there will be peace for ever. Luke uses imagery available in the background culture (even Stoicism describes the kosmos dissolving in fire) to describe the last days. Christians should not be worried, but rather unstoop and life up their heads for their redemption is near (unless, of course, you read the next 3 verses in which we are told to pray always for strength to flee the coming trouble).

What purpose is served by these predictions of times of gloom and doom (for everyone else) followed by times of peace for us? Such visions of the future seem to be a fixture in Judeo-Christian literature. Every age throws up its apocalypse, its gloomy future (followed or not by peace). In the seventies and eighties of the past century, it was mutually assured nuclear destruction. Now, it’s global warming. In every age, people have anticipated the worst.

For people under persecution or oppression, the apocalyptic vision serves to assure them that the oppressive force is not the true reality. Caesar only thinks he’s God. But why does such fascination persist when we are not oppressed? Why is the Left Behind series so popular? Two thoughts: such a vision serves to split the universe into good and evil (with us, of course, we hope, on the side of good, and preachers can use that for motivation to make sure we do what they think we need to do to stay on the side of good); and it absolves us of personal responsibility for changing the way things are. If it’s going to take a grand apocalyptic parousia of God to set things to rights, what can I do?

I find it interesting that we read this kind of literature from our canon at the beginning of Advent. During Advent, we are not really waiting for the final arrival of Jesus, but preparing ourselves to celebrate his first arrival. All language of the son of the human being coming on clouds with great glory notwithstanding, we are preparing to look for God arriving in small and hidden ways. We are subverting our own canon (not that I mind that). We are saying that what’s interesting about human history is already here; the divine is already among us, and is powerless, needs our protection, and won’t be swinging any swords. The grandiose has to accomodate itself to the mundane.

All the handwringing that we do, about war and peace, about global warming, or even about the ‘crisis’ in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion is misdirected if it absolves us from hope. “The world is coming to an end, so what can I do?” is not allowed. The divine is hidden here, not to be revealed out there, and requires something. I may not be able to bring down the global temperature, but I can change my habits. I may not be able to heal the Anglican Communion, but I can be attentive to communion locally. That’s where the divine is to be found. Advent reminds us we have to look for it.