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Second Sunday in Lent

Romans 4:1-17 and Genesis 12:1-4

Why Abram? Abram—this figure who emerges into story out of the dusk at the edge of time, was and is recognized as the ancestor of God’s covenant people Israel, and the promises of God were inherited through him—history turned, the world turned, on God’s relationship with this man, and his descendants. 

But for a moment at which it understands such cosmic importance, Genesis is puzzlingly bare when it comes to the encounter of God and the man.

Abram enters the story at the end of a genealogy. Noah has a son named Shem, and Shem begat Arpachshad, who begat Shelah, who begat Eber, who begat Peleg, who begat Reu, who begat Serug, who begat Nahor, who had a son named Terah. And they all live a long time and, somewhere in there, everybody decides to stop filling the earth, and to focus on building a tall brick, flood-proof city, and God scatters them and confuses their languages instead. So Terah, one of these scattered families, is living out at Ur of the Chaldees, and he becomes the father of three sons, and one of them was named Abram.

That’s the story: a person named Abram, born someplace in bronze-age Mesopotamia. He had a wife named Sarai, who was unable to have children. He traveled with his father, and with his fatherless nephew Lot to Haran. And God starts talking to him. and makes this extravagant promise: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Later, God will promise childless Abram and Sarai, descendants and numberless as the stars, a family through whom, all the families of the earth would be blessed.

Genesis has absolutely nothing to say about why it was him. Which is a frustrating story. There must be a reason, right? Something heroic or holy or particularly useful about Abram and Sarai, that marked them out to be great the patriarch and matriarch, the foundation of a whole people. This seems like a reward for something. And much closer to the time of Jesus, there’s literature that offers a kind-of explanatory prequel. In one version, Abram comes to believe in God of heaven, and burns all the idols of his clan, and has to go on the run to the land of Haran.

And that’s why Paul starts writing about Abraham—because he recognizes that the silence of Genesis is the meaning; the absence of a reason for why its Abram becomes a way to make sense of his experience of Jesus.(1) He’s out among Gentiles, encountering again and again the power and love of God tangibly reshaping people who, to him, wouldn’t have seemed like very worthy recipients for the love and concern of God, but there it was.

What Paul has to say about the law and about works and wages, about righteousness and faith and the promise resting on grace—we can get tangled in that. But its Paul is working, arguing, pushing toward what he knows: that something has happened through the cross and empty tomb that made a new human family possible and real. He could see it.   

And now, the idea of boundaries to the realm where God could act or would act, insider and outsiders, worthy and unworthy, was just nonsense. What did inside and outside mean in the presence of the God in whom [Abraham] believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.(2) 

What Abraham discovered was what Paul had discovered: the God who had sparked life in the beginning for no purpose but the overflowing of love, now pouring out gift of new peace, new identity, new family, without any sensible reason.

I recently read a short blurb about a young woman who had a moment of facebook fame after she shared a story about a plant. A succulent. The sort of sweet, radiating little succulent you find in hipster coffee shops and guest bathrooms. She, for some reason, loved this little plant. She kept it in a sunny window. She had researched and kept an optimal watering schedule to encourage it. For two years. And then she decided it was probably time to re-pot it. So she got a new pot, and as she began to transplant it, the old pot broke. Inside, no soil, just a block of white styrofoam. It was fake. She had been nurturing a fake plant for two years. Home Depot heard about it and gave her a bunch of real plants. So, the journalist asked her what she had done with the fake. She said “I figured I loved it for two years; why quit now?”

I think those who are weary, would be grateful for a friend who would be humiliated by a fake plant and repot it and go on anyway. Our tendency is to love things in response to their being what we need them to be, love as exchange, as reciprocity. And on some level, we expect to be loved like that, which is an exhausting part of our finitude. And if you are looking for rest, there’s a flicker of gospel in that story.

God determined to risk love for us before we were, and to go on loving even if it meant all the pain of the world.(3) But we don’t even have to go down the theological road of saying that God loves us in spite of us, because Paul’s point is this: what we do between us matters enormously, but that categories like deserving and undeserving, worthy and unworthy, simply collapse before Christ; God in Christ Jesus says yes to you. And there is always a way back, and always more life.

Notes

1 In Paul, Paula Fredriksen suggests Paul’s assertion about the faith of Abraham is happened perhaps in dialog with other understandings of the Abraham story that attributed his calling to his righteous behavior. See p 105.

2 For understanding the explicit connection between the Abram story, and Paul’s conception of his mission to the Gentiles and the creative capacity of God, I’m thankful for John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, especially pp. 479-490.

3 The idea that God experiences all the pain of the world is widely explored but, for me, a particularly resonant expression of the phrase comes in a passage from Helen Wadell’s book Peter Abelard, quoted in Rowan Williams’ The Sign and the Sacrifice. Abelard and Thibault come across a snared, dying rabbit and Abelard, cradling it, is overcome by its suffering. And the two mean have this extraordinary dialog about the suffering of Jesus on cross, in which Thibault points to a dark ring in a cut tree and says that the cross is like that: it appears to be a singular moment, but the ring runs up and down the whole length of the trunk. Abelard looks down at the rabbit and says “you think that all this…all the pain in the world, was Christ’s cross?” And Thibault responds, “God’s cross…And it goes on.”

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Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103

The Ash Wednesday Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount,  which is nothing less than Jesus teaching a way of choosing life, a way of righteousness like the righteousness of God. And life, it turns out, is hard to choose. It looks like the refusal of violence, but violence is so seductive, so cathartic. It looks like a radical reconsideration of what’s ours to possess, when security is so easily justifiable. It looks like choosing mercy. It looks like choosing peace. It looks like being changed by love, so that the surrender to the call of love present in Jesus, becomes the pattern of our lives. 

We want to do well. We want to do well so much that, even when we’re confronted with the reality that this is not what our lives look like, we take hold of the possibility that we could at least do well at admitting it, grieving that our aspiration to righteousness isn’t working out.

That desire to do well can create a kind of screen between us and those around us, and that hides us from ourselves.  

This is why Jesus has so much to say in warning those who wanted to follow him about doing things like, say, marking their faces so that others can see they are fasting.  

Where, then, is there blessing and possibility in this thing we’re gathered to do today with ashes? 

Perhaps, for a blessed moment, to stop. To stop trying to do well, and stop trying to escape. 

Made from dust, we are returning to dust. Right now the life-spring in our cells is uncoiling.  We are creatures, made inextricable from bodies. We are blessed by God to live a while and then we die and, if we really sit down in it, most of the pious, romantic, sentimental things we say about death, shatter against it. 

Sin is real, and we are bound up in it. We suffer it, and we wound God. We wound our brothers and sisters. We forget them. We craft stories in which their pain isn’t real, or in which they don’t exist at all. 

There’s a place by the Cane River in Louisiana called Oakland, where, for generations, people were enslaved to grow cotton. I was there on a hot, empty day and the ranger and I stood and talked a long time, looking out across the fields to a far wood. Out there, somewhere, was a burying ground. 

Among the enslaved had been man with extraordinary gifts as a blacksmith named Henry Solomon. He made what was needed on the place and, when the people of Oakland died, he fashioned wrought iron crosses, drawing the metal out into delicate tendrils, tendrils into hearts, to mark the graves. But nobody knows just where. In the 1930s, because she thought they would be fine decorations, a descendent of the people who owned the buried, pulled the crosses up to put in her garden.

Our days are like the grass…

When the wind goes over it, it is gone, 

and its place shall know it no more.

In Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, he quotes the German painter Anselm Keifer saying, “I think there is no innocent landscape.” And that seems to be true, within and without. 

Its hard to look at it, through our fear and shame over the inescapability of ourselves. We’re constantly selecting and arranging and interpreting evidence into stories, and those stories filter everything else that comes in, and that’s how we construct ourselves as persons.

To actually, faithfully, look at ourselves— to accept that we are seen and known by God, is to recognize that these are stories. To give them up, and accept that beneath them is something shockingly bare, is more vulnerability that we can, most of the time, stand. That’s why we need today. 

Here’s the thing, and its the truth: you are dust. We are dust. 

And what if you could just stand in that, in all the agonizing need of that, before the God who loves you; who’s merciful goodness pursues you; who knows whereof we are made; who remembers that we are that we are dust. 

And there are much worse things to be than dust: inescapably of a piece, and bound into relationships, with all that God made and called good. We have been emplaced, given a home, and fellowship, and Christ calls us into memory of this.

You cannot be less than dust. And that does not mean that everything is alright. Things are broken. But the God of creation has come down into flesh, knowing what we are. God has chosen to become a part of this, bound into a body of dust, to fashion in us hearts unafraid to be blessed as what we are: the soil of creation. 

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The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus, sits down with his disciples and the crowd and, in Matthew’s mind, sits down with Matthew’s church. He Begins to teach. Its not an incidental detail that Matthew sees him sitting down on a mountainside when he takes up the Torah, the law that, in Israel’s tradition, Moses brought down the mountain to give to the people of God. Matthew sees Jesus, now on this mountain, taking that word, that law and giving it again to live in a radically new community, in the last days of history at the edge of the kingdom.

‘You shall not murder.’ There is the commandment. Jesus takes it, and tells his listeners they must keep a still more rigorous way, beyond its letter: I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.

You have heard that it was said,‘You shall not commit adultery.’
There is the commandment. Jesus takes it and tells his listeners they must keep a more rigorous way: everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ There is the commandment of Moses. He takes it and teaches that if anyone divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew’s understanding seems to be that Jesus taught that marriage could only be broken by adultery. If a man divorced a woman and she was compelled to remarry, that was still adultery—a relationship outside the first marriage—but it was the man who divorced her who bore the guilt. That very complexity speaks to how the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew’s telling of it are deeply embedded in the particular circumstances of a place, were about flourishing life in the complexity of a place: Palestine of the first century. And all our interpretations, our centuries of layered interpretations, these are embedded in lived experience too. That’s where inspiration happens. And where wounding happens.

I wonder if some of you grew up with your experience of desire, of delight in someone else, condemned as lust—something to be put away, cut off. For some of you, divorce is part of your story. Leaving, loosing a marriage and finding love and getting married again to someone else is part of your story. I wonder if this text has been placed around your neck by somebody. Even now, this text is used to argue that cruelty and abuse are no grounds for dissolving and escaping a relationship—not argued in the abstract, but spoken into the face of actual heartbroken people.

We diminish ourselves if we take pieces of our Scripture and put them away. But we are not the Church unless we are seeking how, if this is a living Word of the God who’s love and mercy we have seen in the face and cross of Jesus, this Scripture breathes love, breathes compassion, breathes joy into us, in our lives and bodies.

Jesus speaks of a way to be together, a way to live out our deep longing to be connected and known, which is the image of the Trinity in us. We can can only be human tangled up with others. Jesus speaks about a way to be faithful to one another, to care for each other, to be steadfast for each other,in ways that make the risk of opening ourselves possible. That is the thread—the thread that runs through Jesus’ warning against anger that cuts us off from one another. It runs through the concreteness of Jesus’ sense of marriage as absolute entwinement. And it runs through the way Jesus speaks about lust (and I must note here how indebted I am to Bromleigh Mcleneghan and Laurie Jungling who have, along with Archbishop Williams, helped me enormously in my thinking about this difficult idea). Lust is not the inborn sense of delight that we embodied ones have in each other—thats part of the gift—but desire disconnected from regarding a person as a person. Lust isn’t, as Margaret Farley writes, really a “response to, or union with, or affirmation of” a person at all. As much as we think about it as a matter of eyes, its a kind of unseeing, a reflection of our need where all the gorgeous, complex, longing of another person’s heart is. Its a kind of hiding from the holy risk of knowing and being known. Nothing is risked, nothing is known. And in that way lust is unfaithfulness to this person, and to ourselves.

There’s another way that the divine promise of knowing and being known runs through this passage. And it has to do with the very idea of our anger, our desire, our thoughts being seen by God.

That idea first terrified me when I was in second grade. A friend was over and we were playing in my bedroom, facing each other across a pile of legos. Whatever I was building broke, and I spat out the first phoneme of a very, very significant word before tearing off. He stared at me, mouth slack. Instantly desperate to escape the judgement in his face, I blurted, “I didn’t say it!” And he said with terrible, flat, solemnity, “you thought it.” And he went on: God knew I thought it. And it was sin to even think it, and God would need to somehow understand that I was very sorry. Honestly, people, this is how our personal theology happens.

And I was sorry. I didn’t want to be a kid who said or thought that word. And I was really freaked out that God was watching thoughts in my head, and that I could get in trouble for what was in there. That seemed completely unmanageable. Especially because every time I thought about how sorry I was, and decided to express that in some silent way to God, I would also think of that word. It did not disappear; it was still floating in mind, right in front of God. And this is what it can sound like, and this is what it can do when the good news we get is that God knows our secret thoughts. That might be exactly how it feels to you when, almost every Sunday, about the first thing we do is declare it as a cosmic fact that, to God all hearts are open, all desires known. No secrets are hid.

Words are only bad in our way of using them, by what we use them to build or break between us. At the same time, I look back and wish there was some way my seven-year-old self could have been shown how that almost-word was a little upwelling of the anger at myself over my inability to get things right, that would boil over into the lives of other people. I think there was something in me seen by God, and something God longed for me to know. And I wish that knowing I how was seen had also meant knowing that I really, really wasn’t alone.

To say that all hearts are open, all desires known, is not a warning. Its good news. You are not a secret, though, it feels that way. There are places in us that we are desperately afraid are corrupted, that we want to hide, that we believe are disqualifying. There are the places in us that we want desperately to be seen, but nobody will ever, ever, ever ask the question that lets us say it. And could we even make it understandable? This is what Elizabeth Cady Stanton once, with staggering insight, described as the “immeasurable solitude of self.” But it is not, in fact, true solitude, which she herself acknowledged: it is a solitude into which “only omniscience is permitted to enter.”

The point is not that God is watching your thoughts and you need to have better thoughts. The point is that God is always our companion, everywhere in the vast inner reaches of ourselves. And everything there is transparent to grace.

How does that companionship change us? How does recognizing that our innermost thoughts and everything in their basement, are seen by Christ, and that the perfect judgment and perfect mercy of God is always happening for us moment by moment, thought by thought, change us? That, friends, is how Jesus transforms us into free people, shaped to love and forgive and delight in each other.