Jesus, the subversive

Note: At yesterday morning’s service, as I ended my sermon, an additional word about the appointed gospel (Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52) occurred to me, which I shared during announcements. It rarely surprises me when things other than what I intended to say come to mind, for I am a person of constant second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth…on and on) thoughts. I cannot recreate precisely what I said, but it was something like this…

Jesus launched a movement, going out into his first century world to share in word and deed the near presence of the kingdom of heaven, indeed, of God. The church, founded on Jesus’ life and labor, is an institution. Throughout human history, whatever the endeavor, in the transition from precipitating origin to permanent organization, something can be lost. At times, I wonder whether we, two millennia later, run the risk of domesticating Jesus, thus, losing any sense of his radical, revolutionary nature. Looking again at this morning’s series of five parables, I focus on the first three, for they reveal, expose Jesus’ subversive edginess.

Jesus, as a storyteller, as all good storytellers, employed familiar images and ideas, which his listeners readily recognized. Yet he frequently, outrageously turned those images and ideas on their proverbial heads, catching people unawares, arresting their attention. I picture Jesus leading us to a comfortable chair in which a long, sharp tack is embedded, inviting us to sit, all the while hoping we have not lost our sensitivity to new ways of thinking, of seeing our lives and world.

So, today…

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree where birds make their nests. No, it doesn’t! The mustard seed is small, but the mustard plant is no tree, but a weed (a shocking comparison when the fabled cedars of Lebanon would be a far better image!) that, spreading quickly, is difficult, impossible to uproot. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman (a shocking comparison in a first century patriarchal society!) mixing yeast (another shocking comparison, for yeast was an ancient symbol of unrighteousness!) in three measures of flour, which was a vast amount, yielding bread able to feed multitudes. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure in a field (so far, so good!) that a man finds, then hides (uh oh!), then sells all of his possessions and buys the field; all of which amounts to thievery! In Jesus day, a similar parable was in circulation. A man had a field with a buried treasure, but he did not know it. He died, bequeathing the field to his son, who later sold it. The buyer, plowing the field, discovered the treasure.[1] This version of the tale eliminates the immorality. Jesus, in his telling, retains it. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom! It is treasure, yet one, once found, that always calls, challenges, confronts us with choices between righteousness and unrighteousness.

Ah, Jesus, a storyteller with the soul of a subversive!

 

Illustrations:

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Footnote:

[1] Gospel of Thomas 109

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have we understood?

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. They answer, “Yes!”

Sometimes I wonder about Jesus’ disciples. So quick to reply to a question of cosmic significance of the meaning of life, the nature of God, the character of the kingdom of heaven; all said, the meaning, nature, and character of life with God.

But the disciples were disciples. Students. They had come to Jesus to learn from him. And sometimes they seem like the children of any classroom. Faced with a question and with the approval of the teacher hanging in the balance, they either remain silent hoping one of them will speak up, usually the impetuous Peter, bearing for all of them the weight of judgment or, in boisterous solidarity, blurt out an answer hoping their unanimity will count for something.

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. All these parables piled one upon another? (Parable, as I shared with you last Sunday, from the Greek, parabole; literally a thing tossed alongside. Not the reality itself, but a story, a parallel image to help us understand that reality; here, the kingdom of heaven.)

“Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. Then comes the point of the question. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Huh? I confess that I don’t know what this means. I do have some guesses. And that, too, is the point.

None of us knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. About anything. About people. Others or ourselves. About life. This one or any other. All we have is our guesses. Our perceptions and presumptions about the reality around us, which are like parables; things we toss alongside to help us understand our experience.

Looking again at this odd saying of Jesus, my guess is that he is the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. He is the master of the household who, in his teaching, brings what is new out of what is old; new interpretations, new meanings from old, well known images and ideas.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven, the life of God, our life with God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows expansively, invasively everywhere or yeast that makes bread rise in bountiful measure or hidden treasure or fine pearls, priceless and worth every effort to obtain or fish nets that catch and hold all fish or all of the above.

So, let me toss some things alongside our reality.

The kingdom of heaven is like this Sunday morning when we, all alike in our shared humanity, yet each of us different in our individuality, come together to make community, gathered in this sacred space that, like a net, holds us all.

The kingdom of heaven is like this morning’s Holy Eucharist when we take what is familiar, bread and wine that we have made from creation’s ancient gifts of grain and grapes, and offer them to God with timeless words, “take, bless, break, give”, that we might partake of spiritual food to be strengthened anew to be like Jesus…that we may go out into the world as scribes trained for the kingdom, sharing with all the treasure of life with God.

Have we understood all this?

seemingly

(Jesus) entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10.38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)

Today, according to the Episcopal Church calendar, is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I love these two sisters and the Bible’s honest portrayal of a bit of domestic discord; a seemingly fussy Martha fuming at a seemingly indolent Mary for not lending a hand in the kitchen.

I say “seemingly”, first, in defense of both. Each, in her way, offered the sacred duty of hospitality to Jesus. Martha in her meal preparation (though perhaps in her harried state, raising a banging-pots-and-pans ruckus!). Mary in her attentive (and, in her era, as a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, radical) act of listening to Jesus’ teaching.

I say “seemingly”, secondly, in defense of Mary. For many years, whenever I’ve preached this text, whatever my intended point, most folk (their perceptions, I think, consciously or unconsciously influenced by a Protestant work ethic) take sides, applauding Martha’s industry whilst demeaning Mary’s lethargy; though there are a few who see in Mary a model disciple of one who sits to learn God’s word, eventually rising to do God’s will.

Whether Martha or Mary, in this choosing, championing one over the other, I observe that we humans have an affection or at least an appreciation for the seeming (ah, there’s a form of that word again!) certainty of either-or. As I read and reflect on this story, I choose both-and; Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the active and contemplative aspects of our human nature.

By application, I experience daily, no, constantly an inner tension between my human doing and my human being. To date, given my formative and engrained familial tutelage, my doing has framed my sense of my self far more than my being; though my intuition tells me it should be the other way ‘round! So, refusing to choose one or the other, what if I sought to become an active contemplative and a contemplative actor? What if, in all of my doing, I always sought to bring to conscious remembrance and guidance the teachings of Jesus? What if, in all of my study of God’s word, I always sought to envision what it would look like if, when I was doing it?

My dearest sisters, Martha and Mary, whether in the scripture or within me, I love you. Each and both. Equally. So, together let us sit to learn and rise to do, always and in all ways.

 

Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft  (1632-1675)

reputation

Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

On January 10, 1989, I was installed as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC. The presider at that grand occasion was the then Bishop of Washington, the late, great John Thomas Walker.[1]

John Thomas Walker

John, a man of abiding faith and unassailable courage, was an institutional and social reformer of the first order; waging the good fight of inclusion in a church and a world that then wrestled, and sadly still grapples, at times, unrepentantly, with the issues, the realities of discrimination of all sorts. Though having risen to a lofty position, John, genuinely humble, did not think of himself, in the words of the Apostle, more highly than he ought.[2] He also was exceedingly insightful and gracious; able to make his point with a subtle turn of phrase and an earnest smile and without bludgeoning the hearts and minds of those with whom he disagreed (a characteristic mournfully missing from today’s American public political and ecclesial arenas).

This last noble trait comes to mind. During my installation, John, discerning (and keen to temper) my then overweening sense of self, whispered in my ear, “Remember, Paul, one’s good reputation in the eyes of the world is oft maintained by the silence of family and friends.” I recall being taken aback, not sure entirely what he meant, yet sensing an inner resonance of truth. O’er the years, many times, I’ve reflected on John’s good counsel. Indeed, those who know, for better and for worse, one’s behind-the-scenes persona, by their reticence, serve to uphold one’s best-foot-forward public image. And, a long time ago, I added “the silence of one’s enemies”, who, I believe, view us sometimes with a less than charitable clear-eyed honesty than our families and friends.

A friend and fellow priest, Rob Brown, recently shared a perception he had received from another, which I, in pondering, consider searingly, starkly spot-on: “Everyone has three selves. A public self known to the world, a private self known by kith and kin, and a secret self known only to one’s self.”

Speaking always and only for myself, this is true for me. I have a public face, which, though I’d like to believe in major part is sincere, is an outward expression of how I’d like to be viewed by others. I have a private face, which exposes more of my shadow-world, my ignoble traits, chiefly selfishness. And, yes, I have a secret self of thoughts and feelings, reflections and reminiscences to which I dare not give air and, deeper, those that are beyond the reach of my daily consciousness, appearing in the startling, scarifying images of dreams, nightmares. In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of the psalmist: Who can detect their errors? Cleanse me from my hidden faults.[3]

I wonder, too, as I look at myself in the mirror, knowing all that I know about me, including my awareness of what may lurk unseen and unknown within, how do I, who can maintain no silence from myself, preserve my good reputation with myself? In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of my namesake Apostle: I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[4] And, in this, believing, knowing I cannot maintain my good reputation, for I have none, I, throwing myself afresh on the grace and mercy of a loving God, sing with Paul: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord![5]

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Right Reverend John Thomas Walker (1925-1989), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (1977-1989) and Dean of the Washington National Cathedral (1978-1989).

[2] Romans 12.3

[3] Psalm 19.12

[4] Romans 7.21-24

[5] Romans 7.25

vocation & vacation

Sirius

Early July through mid-August, generally associated with the rising of Sirius (the Dog Star), encompasses much of the summer’s hottest, most inclement “dog days.” All South Carolinians know this. Latter-July through August also is the occasion of the final flings of summer travel and recreation before the annual reality of the return to school and work. This puts me in mind of the essential, ineradicable connection between labor and rest.

Vocation, from the Latin vocare, “to call”, refers to our working occupations or professions, and vacation, from the Latin vacare, “to empty” or “to vacate”, to our leisure or release, usually temporary, from our labors.

A full and well-rounded life, I believe, embraces both. In this, I am reminded of the gospels’ witness to the rhythmic cycle of Jesus’ public ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing always preceded and followed by his moments of prayerful solitude. In this recognition, I confess that for much of my life, I’ve been far more generous in giving my time and energy, my careful attention, even conscious appreciation to vocation than vacation.

During most of the 35+ years of my full-time ministry, I had the benefit of 4 weeks of vacation; the days of which, being thoughtful (or so I thought!), I sought to intersperse throughout the calendar year – a few days, a long weekend, and week or two here or there. It was my bride and ever-sage counselor Pontheolla who encouraged (read: required!) that we use the bulk of our annual leave at one time, saying, expressive of her enlightened self-interest, “Paul, it takes you at least a week, sometimes more to unwind. When we go away for only a few days, it’s no vacation for either of us!” True. Very true.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

Still, now in retirement, as I shared previously in this space, I’ve entered my “rehirement”, serving the marvelous community of folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, as their part-time priest-in-charge. I love them. I love what I do. And though long ago I realized I am a human being and not a human doing, what I do forms and frames a large part of my sense of who I am. Always has. Always, I presume, will. This means “vocating” remains easier for me to do and to be than “vacating.”

 

Photographs: Sirius by Akira Fujii and my photograph of the facade of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC (October 2015)

the truest heavenly harvest

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43 and the Wisdom of Solomon 12.13, 16-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Imagine. You walk into a room and catch the tail-end of a conversation. You hear what’s being said, but without the preceding context you’re not sure what is meant. You can continue to listen, hoping you’ll finally get it or, being assertive, inquire: “What are you talking about?” Whenever I’ve had the temerity to ask, sometimes, on hearing the answer, it seemed to me that the conversation and its supposed context weren’t at all connected!

This is what occurs to me when I reflect on this morning’s parable.

The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus’ explanation is so severely dualistic – Son of Man or the devil, good or bad seed, wheat or weeds, the righteous or evildoers – that it doesn’t follow the parable. It’s almost a non sequitur!

Now, in one historical contextual sense, it makes sense. When Matthew wrote his gospel about a generation and a half after Jesus, there were intense conflicts within the Christian community between insiders and outsiders over matters of governance. (This always happens when a dynamic movement begins to undergo the process toward permanence, transforming into an institution.) So, no surprise, the explanation of the parable, which, I believe, is Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, is strikingly either-or.

Now, in a world fuzzy with ambiguity, a little certainty is refreshing, restoring our sense of clarity and security. And in the life of the church, many, perhaps most people are attracted to a proclamation of clear conviction and firm belief. I’d be willing to bet that if I stood outside of our door on Sunday mornings, stopping traffic on Main Street, declaring to all who would listen, “Follow me inside! I’ll show you the bright light of salvation and the solution to all your problems!”, I’d have some, maybe lots of takers! Far more than if I said what I believe: “Come with me and let us together stumble our way toward the light of God’s truth through the fog of life’s ambiguities.”

Yes, a bit of certainty can be attractive, even magnetic! The problem? Life, the world, you and I aren’t like that. We don’t live or, I believe, thrive in hermetically-sealed existences of the purity of clarity. Things, we are complex, thus stubbornly resistant to an either-or reductionism.

This brings us back to the parable about wheat and weeds left to grow together until the harvest.

A parable, from the Greek, para, alongside, and ballo, to throw, is a story tossed next to us; a metaphor that stands parallel to our lives that we, not having been hit in the head directly, might turn aside to see more clearly something that is hard to articulate and perhaps harder to accept. This is why I think that Matthew’s interpretation of the parable, altogether too head-on, doesn’t reflect Jesus’ intent, which, I think, is this…

The field represents anyone and any community. In everyone and in every community, there exists wheat and weeds; that which is healthy and unhealthy, beneficial and harmful, productive and destructive. The harvest, that moment of judgment as to what is which and which is what, will come. At the end of our lives, when we no longer will have the opportunity, the ability to think and feel, to speak and act, to review and revise, to change and correct, no longer leaving undone those things we ought to have done, some estimation or reckoning of our lives will be made; perhaps by us if we are conscious of our coming end and surely by others. Yet while we are in this world, we are bidden to learn, to discern and decide, how to live together with ourselves and with others; all, both wheat and weed, that is in us and in them. We are bidden to learn how to be like God of whom Solomon speaks whose power of judgment is the forbearance of mercy, whose righteousness is kindness.

If we and the whole world would learn live together like that, then the truest harvest will have come, and we will behold a glimpse of the fulfillment of that petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

Illustration: The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

honesty

For the past few months or so, whilst approaching, then turning, now being 65 (and all the American societal associations that attend this historic age-marker), I’ve spent a goodly part of my daily morning meditations focusing, increasingly more than I have before, on my mortality. My reflections have been deepened by the July 17th first anniversary of the death of Tim Veney, my dearest male friend, truly my proverbial “brother from another mother”, who departed this life at the far-far-too-soon age of 66. Taken together, I, an inveterate existentialist, have been led to ask myself, more than I have before, that conventional question of identity: Who am I?

On the beneficial side, sensing an internal movement, I’m aware that I’m progressing farther along my personal pilgrimage of continuing to become my authentic, honest-to-goodness, honest-with-others, honest-to-God self. In this, I’ve also encountered disappointment with myself that I’m not better than I would like to be; indeed, that, by now, I’m not better than I already would have liked to have been. At times, when good health and God’s help seem, are beyond my grasp, I confess that my despair overwhelms my prayers.

Yesterday, Pat, an old (or rather I should, I’d better say long-lived) friend, called. She asked me to pray with her about a pressing concern. Being dear friends, I felt free to respond honestly. “I’m in a dark place,” adding, only somewhat in jest, channeling Voltaire, “God and I may not be on speaking terms today.” Pat, one of the most compassionate, discerning, and prayerful people I know, laughed and said, “I understand.” Then, without a hint of self-righteousness, she told me that when she’s in a similar place she prays with greater earnest. “I dare to face of my own disappointment, even disbelief, because it’s about me being honest, yes, with God, and with me.”

I thank my dear friend for her helpful, healing word. She, perhaps without intending it, reminded me that the risk of honesty is not in risking honesty or, at least, the risk of honesty doesn’t end once honesty is risked. Rather, it begins and remains. Even more, Pat reaffirmed for me that being honest, which, at times, rather paradoxically, feels like, is like dying, is one essential element of the truest living of continuing to become who I am meant to be, might be, can be.