House of Bishops

The House of Bishops, meeting in Texas this past week, have issued a set of “Mind of the House” resolutions. Reading them, I was greatly encourage by the clarity with which the Bishops spoke their mind. Often, resolutions coming from the House of Bishops are couched in language aimed at being acceptable to all. One often comes away not quite sure what the mind of the house is. This time, they were just as clear as can be.

In particular, in responding to the Primates Pastoral Scheme proposed in Dar es Salaam, the Bishops are clear in their rejection of it. The Scheme, which was already pretty much in place before PB Katharine Jefferts Schori even arrived in Dar es Salaam, called for the creation of a committee, of which she and her appointees would have been a minority, whose job would be to appoint a Primatial Vicar for those dioceses in TEC who have difficulty with Katharine being Primate.

The Bishops rightly decline to participate in this scheme, pointing out that for the first time in our history since we separated from the Papacy in the 16th century, this scheme would replace the local governance of a church by its own bishops, priests, deacons and laity, with governance by a distant and unaccountable group of prelates. Here, I believe they have put their finger on precisely what is at issue in this whole brouhaha since 2003: Are we Anglican or not? Are we governed locally or not? That was the issue in 1525 (not Henry’s divorce).

They also point out that the ultimatum issued by the Primates that TEC be banned from Anglican gatherings if we don’t get our house in order by September 30, 2007, only perpetuates one of the worst sins of Western culture: the willingness to break relationships when they get difficult. This sin, they point out, is what threatens marriage and all other relationships.

They also say just as clearly as can be said that gay and lesbian persons are full participants in the life of the Church. I guess we finally mean it: The Episcopal Church welcomes you. I’ haven’t often been prouder to be an Episcopalian than when reading these resolutions. Now we just have to be equally clear when September 30 rolls around.

Destroying the vineyard

Lent 5C

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:8-14
Luke 20:9-19

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2006 authorized a change from the Prayer Book Lectionary to the Revised Common Lectionary to be effected by Advent 1 2007. There are times I wish we had switched earlier. This is one of those times. The parable of the tenants and the vineyard is one of those episodes that could be dropped from the canon.

The passage from Isaiah is perfectly lovely. The prophet is imagining the return from exile as a new Exodus. Just as God made a path for God’s people through the mighty waters as they came out of Egypt, so will God do equally great things to bring them back from exile. This idea has to be set securely alongside the passage from Luke. We must remember that God’s promises are never null.

The parable of the tenants and the vineyard refers the reader back to Isaiah 5. In Isaiah 5, the prophet sings a song of his beloved and his vineyard. God (the beloved) has planted a vineyard on Mt Zion. He has cleared it of stones, built a tower in it, dug a wine press in it, built a wall around it, and then has come looking for fruit but finds only wild grapes. God has come looking for righteousness and find bloodshed. The prophet goes on to say that the vineyard is Jerusalem and Judah. God will tear down the wall around his vineyard, let it go to weed and give it over to grazing, because of its unfruitfulness. Clearly the prophet is struggling to understand Jerusalem’s impending doom.

In Luke’s variation (taken almost completely from Mark), God sends servants (prophets) to God’s vineyard (Jerusalem). The tenants mistreat some and kill others. Finally, God sends God’s son — surely they will respect God’s son and give God some of the fruit. Of course, they don’t. The decide that if they kill the son, the vineyard will be theirs, so they throw him out of vineyard and kill him. Therefore, we are told, God will kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. The vineyard is no longer Jerusalem, but the promises given to God’s people, which have now been taken from Jews and given to Christians (according to the parable). We have shifted from punishing an unfruitful vineyard, to killing tenants and giving the vineyard to others.

It is hard to know how to treat this parable, other than simply to argue against it. Maybe our response as Christians is to give the vineyard back — to tell God we don’t want it on these conditions. Maybe our response is to cultivate another vineyard cleared by our own labor. At any event, we ought to be giving the fruit away, just as fast as it grows, perhaps inviting all to share the wine it produces.

The Revised Common Lectionary has John’s account of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet. I’ll look forward to preaching on that three years from now.

The prodigal son

Lent 4C

Joshua 4:19-24; 5:9-12

Psalm 34:1-8

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Luke 15:11-32

In my research, I have noticed with interest how often stories of water crossing are linked with stories of meals. Here in a covenant renewal ceremony narrated in Joshua, we have the crossing of the Jordan linked with the first celebration of the Passover in the new land. It is perhaps a little surprising that the body of water crossed is the Jordan and not the Red Sea, but the haggadic nature of the tale is unmistakable: when your children ask in times to come “What is the meaning of these twelve stones?” you will tell them. . . I wonder if baptism in the Jordan (cum John the Baptist) signaled the arrival of the eschatological feast (they ate the produce of the land and the manna ceased)?

In Luke, we have our favorite story, but I suspect more people identify with the older brother than with the younger. When he comes in from the fields, he hears symphonies and choruses, music of Greek comedies and tragedies (worship). Gentile Christians are enjoying a party with the father. He refuses to enter. Luke leaves the story unresolved: does he at last come to the feast, or not? The only way to miss the party is our own refusal to enter.

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.