Sunday, June 27, 2010

C: Proper 8

   Luke 9:51-62
            I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

We are well into summertime now, and for most middle-class North Americans, one of the rituals of summertime is taking a trip.  Our primeval ancestors were wanderers, nomads, and so there’s something that just appeals to us at a gut level about packing bags and boarding an airplane or a train, or, hitting the open road in the family car. In fact, travelling is so much one our basic instincts, that the notion of a journey has become one of the most powerful and oft-used metaphors in human language. It serves as a symbol for life itself—we speak of the journey from the cradle to the grave. We also use the journey-metaphor for experiences within life: the “journey” from sickness to health, or one’s “trip” through the educational system. St Luke’s gospel makes a special point of drawing our attention to the beginning of the final climactic journey of Jesus’ life, the trip from Galilee, in the north, down to Jerusalem, where he was crucified, buried, and resurrected.  “When the days drew near for Jesus to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
And as Jesus travels, on foot, toward Jerusalem, he is not by any means alone. There are those, both his “regular” disciples, and others along the way, who follow him.  “Following Jesus.” This is an expression that we’ve simply adopted into our religious vocabulary, almost to the point of no longer taking notice of what it means. When he walked bodily on earth, those who followed Jesus did so physically, and, in many cases, spiritually as well. And in terms of following Jesus spiritually, our calling and our opportunity is no different than theirs. And following Jesus is not only for the chosen few, the spiritually elite, the really religious.  It is for each and every one of us who has been adopted into the family of God through faith and baptism. 

When Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, he sets out through the territory of Samaria.  The Samaritans, you know, were ethnically and religiously related to the Jews, and precisely because of that close relation,  there were sharp differences and hostility between the two groups.  So it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to Jesus when the advance scouts that he sent into the next town to make arrangements for food and lodging report that the natives were less than friendly. In fact, it’s safe to say that these disciples are a tad peeved at the reception they’d gotten, because their recommendation to Jesus is that fire be called down from heaven and the town destroyed!  As you might imagine, Jesus not only doesn’t take their advice, but he reprimands them rather sharply.  We don’t have the exact words he used, but, as far as we’re concerned, the point is clear:  Following Jesus cannot be equated with arrogantly thumbing one’s nose at those who don’t.  Christians are not the storm troopers of the kingdom of God! 

So after sparing one Samaritan village a baptism by fire, Jesus and his followers head on down the road to the next village.  Along the way a man comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Now this sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn’t it?  I mean, to get a volunteer without having to go begging ... that idea warms the heart of anybody involved in church work! But does Jesus say, “Great! Glad to have you aboard —here’s a pledge card”?  No.  He responds rather cryptically: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus had just been refused lodging in a Samaritan town, so his point is well taken!  He wants his would-be follower to realize that there’s a cost involved in following him. Common conceptions of material security—of knowing where our food and shelter is going to come from—need to be surrendered, let go of. 

Now this means different things to different people. We are not all called to take vows of poverty. But we are all called to stewardship—to the realization that we don’t own anything.  We’re caretakers, trustees.  Every breath that we draw is on loan to us from God.  As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we travel light. We’re like military families who realize that, wherever they live, they’re going to yet get moved, and possibly with very little notice. 

A little later, it was Jesus who was doing the asking.  “To another, he said, ‘Follow me’.”  That man wanted to follow Jesus, but there was something he thought he needed to take care of first.  “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” It sounds like Jesus kind of caught him at a bad time.  Pious Jews, you know, always try to bury their dead before sundown on the day they die, and it’s considered a solemn social obligation of surviving family members to see that this is done. So the man was not asking for a great deal of time!  And this makes Jesus’ answer seem all the more ... well, cold, at least, if not actually cruel.  “Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In high school English, most of us learn about a literary device called hyperbole, intentional exaggeration for the purpose of driving home a point. I think that’s what Jesus is doing here, and the point he’s trying to drive home is this:  No other obligation can be allowed to interfere with following Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we get our identity, our sense of who we are, from following Jesus. Our status in human society—whether it’s educational, financial, cultural, marital, or whatever—is irrelevant in comparison.

The final would-be follower of Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem that Luke tells us about is another volunteer.  “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ reply is similar to his previous one:  “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Even as we realize that Jesus is again employing literary hyperbole here, it’s still a hard saying. It seems to strike at the heart of the natural bonds of human affection that are so precious to us. But, again, Jesus wants us to realize the serious nature of what it means to be his disciple, to be his follower on the journey. When you or I go to borrow money to buy a house, the bank will demand a first mortgage on that property. If we default on our payments, the bank with the first mortgage gets to sell the house and pay itself off before any other creditors with liens on it. They have to line up behind the bank. Following Jesus works the same way. If we want to be his follower, we have to give Jesus first claim on our lives. Any other commitments or involvements have to line up behind and be consistent with his prior claim. 

It’s always a great temptation for us to filter out aspects of Jesus’ message and teaching that are difficult or uncomfortable.  After all, there are plenty of alternatives, within what he said and did, that are comforting and uplifting.  But the risk we run, if we yield to that temptation, is that we’ll end up with a tame, bland, gutless religion that goes down smoothly and has no aftertaste, free of any edge or bite, and therefore also free of any truth, reality, or power. Real Christianity, full-bodied Christianity, is bracing and attention-getting.  It’s radical—not radical in the sense of eccentric or crazy—although the world will think of us that way at times—but radical in the literal sense of the word, which means “having to do with the root.” The faith we profess has to do with the core, the center, the root of what it means to exist as a human being. A tree, as we know, is no healthier than its root system. If following Jesus is not at the root of who we are, then we will not be able to stick with him for the whole journey. We won’t make it to Jerusalem. We’ll turn aside to feel superior to those who have chosen not to make the journey with us, or to worry about our status in human society, or to take care of competing, but secondary, obligations, and we’ll find that we’ve lost sight of him as he’s rounded the bend, leaving us in the dust. Make no mistake: Just as there was a cross in Jesus’ future when he set his face to go to Jerusalem, so there is a cross in the future of those who would follow him on his journey. But Jesus himself is with us every step of the way, there’s also a crown on the other side of the cross, and what an adventure it is! I have decided to follow Jesus ... no turning back, no turning back. Amen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

C: Proper 6

Luke 7:36-50

Psalm 32:1-8

In the middle of the gospel account we just read, Jesus tells a brief story. Two guys each owe serious money to a third guy. One of them owes the equivalent of about $4,000 in today’s money. The other one owes ten times that amount—roughly $40,000. Both of the debts were due and payable in full—like a balloon payment. No mention is made of refinancing or lowering the interest rate or anything like that. And neither of the debtors has the available cash to take care of their obligation. Now, in that society, the creditor would have been completely within his rights to have both of the debtors thrown into jail for nonpayment. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he writes off both debts, completely forgiving the entire amount. Remember—one owes $4,000 and the other $40,000. So which one, Jesus asks—which one is going to be more grateful; which debtor is going to feel more warm fuzzies toward the forgiving creditor?

This little parable is, of course, intended to illustrate that God’s forgiveness is abundant and extensive. The more we sin, the more God is able to forgive. There’s no amount of sinning that can outstrip God’s capacity for wiping the slate clean when we own up to our sins and turn away from them and ask him to forgive us. Some of us have a deep and penetrating sense of our own sinfulness, a sense of having let God down in a big way. We can pray with the Psalmist, “My sin is ever before me,” and “my wounds stink and fester by reason of my foolishness”—we can pray those words from the Psalms, and really mean them from the bottom of our hearts. Such persons identify readily with the debtor who was forgiven a debt that equaled more than a year’s wages. Others among us—let’s face it—have consciences that are less tender. We acknowledge the fact of our own sinfulness, but it’s more of an intellectual conviction than something we feel intensely in the gut. We don’t naturally feel guilty; we have to work at it! Such persons may find it easier to identify with the debtor who was forgiven the lesser amount—about six weeks worth of work at ten dollars an hour.

Either way, however—whether we see and feel ourselves as the $4,000 debtor or the $40,000 debtor—either way, the important thing is that we take seriously the magnitude of God’s love for us. This is more difficult than it sounds, because we have no model, no analogy, in our experience of human love that can help us understand God’s love. Human love is imperfect. More often than not, it lets us down. More often than not, it is conditional and limited. We may tell those whom we love otherwise, and we may really mean it when we do so. But we’re fallible, and we can’t always live up to our intentions. In a sort of cruel irony, the more we love somebody, the more likely we are to disappoint them, the more our love is subject to malfunction and failure.

So, it’s easy to imagine that God’s forgiveness is flawed in the same way, that it’s restricted and difficult to attain. After all, the human forgiveness with which we are most familiar is very often whimsical—here today and gone tomorrow and back again the next day. The human forgiveness with which we are most familiar is usually good for a limited number of refills. If we keep on committing the same offense against the same person, even if they forgive us once or twice or three times, eventually they’re going to wise up, or their patience is going to run out, or both. The human forgiveness with which we are most familiar almost always has an exclusion clause —certain offenses are not covered. If you don’t believe me, just watch a few TV interviews with crime victims and their families.

Consequently, since our understanding of love and forgiveness is determined by our experience of human love and forgiveness, and since our vision of God’s love and forgiveness is thereby clouded, our own capacity for love is constricted. Our own ability to both give and receive love is constricted by fear. Our own ability to both give and receive forgiveness is constricted by shame. Of course, fear and shame rarely show up as themselves; they usually appear in the form of selfishness or arrogance, or disguise themselves as prudence and good business sense. But whether we see it as shame and fear, or selfishness and “common sense,” it is a restricted experience of human love that gives us a restricted view of God’s love which causes us to be unable to love and forgive ourselves and others.

So today’s Good News is good news indeed. It’s the clear message that God’s forgiveness is abundant and God’s forgiveness is extensive. God’s forgiveness is not dependent on his mood; it’s grounded in his very nature. God’s forgiveness never runs dry; however much we sin, as long as we repent and return to the Lord, his forgiveness is sufficient to cover our need. And there’s no exclusion clause as far as God’s forgiveness is concerned; whatever we’ve done, it’s forgivable. Whatever we’ve done, it can be expunged from our record. This has got to come as welcome news whether we are among those who feel the full weight of our guilt 24/7, or are among those who have to accept our guilt as a matter of fact, not something we feel deeply.

But there’s more: God’s forgiveness covers not only your sins and my sins, but, as we pray in the liturgy, “the sins of the world.” Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins the world. God’s forgiveness extends not just to the personal sins of individuals, but to the world’s own cosmic woundedness—the social structures that no one person is responsible for, but which “corrupt and destroy to creatures of God.”

And what does this all mean? To be forgiven is to be liberated. To be forgiven is to be set free. God’s love and forgiveness sets us free to love without condition and to forgive with abandon. The model for this is the unnamed woman in today’s gospel. Jesus goes into the house of Simon the Pharisee in response to a dinner invitation. As was the custom then, he’s reclining while he eats, supporting himself on one elbow. So his feet were accessible to the woman who slipped through the virtually non-existent security at small-town social events and started kissing his feet and pouring ointment on them. The text merely tells us that she was a known “sinner,” but the clear implication is that she was a prostitute, an occupation that was no more reputable then than it is today. She knew that she had been forgiven a great deal. She was acutely aware of her own sinfulness, that her sins were plentiful and substantial. And she also knew herself to have been set free, liberated, to love Jesus without shame, without fear, without regard to propriety or common sense, but with absolute abandon. She is our model. She is an icon of today’s Good News. The more deeply we apprehend the depth and length and breadth of God’s forgiving love, the more we are set free to love God, to love ourselves, to love others, to love the entire created order. What a marvelous opportunity this is! Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.