The Gamaliel Test

rabban_gamliel

In the fifth chapter of Acts, as the disciples of Jesus are really beginning to pick up some momentum, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem gathers for a meeting.  The agenda is their growing concern with a small sect of Jews who have begun to follow the Way of a disgraced Rabbi named Jesus.  Their first response was to arrest the leadership of the Way on charges of heresy.  So, they put the apostles in jail, and overnight, and angel came, freeing them and commissioning them to proclaim the Gospel.  Next, the leaders decided to confront the apostles face-to-face.  “We told you not to preach Jesus anymore,” they said.  “We must obey God,” the apostles replied. Finally, fully frustrated and enraged, the council was ready to just put them all to death when a Pharisee named Gamaliel spoke up and said, among other things, “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

This wisdom has become known as the Gamaliel test.  It is a temperance move to avoid rushing to conclusions about the ongoing revelation of God in the world.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t much used by the Christian Church in the first four centuries as Christians became fond of declaring others heretics and putting whole sub-sects of people to death, but it is a test worth using as we who think we have a full grasp on what God is up to are almost universally wrong.  God is always unveiling something new for us to come to understand.  I cannot claim to live a faultless life in this regard, as I’ve been happy to jump up and down and shake my fist at innovations like Enriching our Worship and the growing trend of communion without baptism. It would behoove us all to practice patience and to use the Gamaliel test as our standard.

Title and 330 word introduction to the contrary, this post isn’t really about Gamaliel, however, as he wasn’t the first to utilize spiritual waiting as a tool for discernment.  In the first half of our Gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus provides for his disciples an example of the same principle.  While we stare down the barrel of 984 more Sundays after Pentecost, Sunday’s lesson hits about the mid-point of Luke as a post-Transfiguration Jesus “sets his face for Jerusalem.”  As a result of this new revelation of his ministry, old patterns of behavior were going to change.  No longer would Jesus and the disciples be taking long, meandering walks from place to place.  Now, Jesus was on a mission.  So, when they pass through a Samaritan city that would not welcome them, the disciples are ready to rain down holy hell on those poor Samaritans.  Jesus, in his wisdom, however, knows that it is God’s desire that the press on.

Rushing to judgment.  Assuming that my understanding of God is the only right answer.  Seeking violence and destruction.  These are not the ways of those who follow the Prince of Peace.  Instead, with Jesus as our guide and Gamaliel as an example, we ought to practice patience, to pray, listen, and discern, and to seek our place in God’s ongoing revelation in the world.

Advertisements

Finding Good in the Flat Land – a sermon

The Sermon begins at 15:35


Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that post-industrial Americans are pre-disposed against flat land.  Back when we had to rely on agriculture, people coveted long stretches of flat, rich soil, but these days, nobody ever says that they are hoping to vacation in Kansas, Iowa, or central Illinois.  We seem to prefer topography, whether it is the soft, wind-swept dunes of the coast or the majesty of the mountains rising up on the skyline.  This prejudice might explain why we tend to love reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, but only rarely get any bits of the Sermon on the Plain from Luke.

One might wonder why these two Gospel writers chose different geographic locations for Jesus’ foundational teachings.  New Testament Scholar, Ronald Allen, suggest that Luke uses the location on the “plain” or the “level place” very intentionally.[1]  In prophetic literature, the level places of this world were thought to be the home of death, disgrace, misery, hunger, and mourning.  But the prophets who spoke of God’s great redemption knew that even those level places would one day be redeemed.  In the coming Kingdom of God, no longer will the world be a place of highs and lows, haves and have nots, rich and poor, east coast, west coast, or flyover country.  Rather, the world as God intends it will be flat, all will be made level.  It is the promise of Isaiah, repurposed by John the Baptist, that the highway of God will be made when the valleys are filled in and the rough places made smooth.  On one particular level place, Jesus shared his vision of the great level place that God has been longing to create since Adam and Eve first broke relationship.

Our rare foray into the Sermon on the Plain began last week when Jesus, surrounded by a great crowd of followers from all over Judea, began to preach.  He began his Sermon on the Plain with a series of blessings and woes that essentially turned human expectation on its ear.  This morning, we get part two, which starts with Jesus doing a kind of check in with the crowd.  After that list of blessings and woes – blessed are the poor, woe to you who are laughing, and the like – I’m guessing some in the crowd were already beginning to back away from Jesus.  Looking at them, he says, “Are y’all still listening to me?”  They could certainly hear him, but were they really listening to what he had to say?  The world of Jesus’ time didn’t carry quite so many demands on one’s attention as ours does, but he knew that humans have always struggled to truly listen.

“If any of y’all are still listening to me,” Jesus went on, “I say this, love your enemies.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I want to listen to Jesus on this one.  I’d like to use my prejudice against flat land and ignore a good portion of the Sermon on the Plain, thank you very much.  We’ve had a week to recover from those blessings and woes, but for the crowd gathered on the level place, this is happening in rapid succession.  Right on the heels of “Woe to you when people speak well of you,” Jesus adds, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.”  The life to which Jesus is calling the crowd, and all of us, seems to be downright impossible.  At best, we will make ourselves to be doormats for those who want to take advantage of us.  At worst, our faith will be crushed by the impossibility of the demands that Jesus is laying upon our shoulders.  It is as if Jesus didn’t care one bit about the kinds of sermons preachers would someday have to write for late Epiphany, Year C.  Didn’t he say somewhere else that his yoke is easy and his burden is light?

Anyway, the longer I wrestled with this text this week, the more I began to wonder if the impossibility of it all might not be the whole point of the Sermon on the Plain.  The great equalizer for us all is our ability to fall into sin, to build up ourselves, and to fail to live lives that are totally devoted to love of God and love of neighbor.  Back in my old evangelical days, where we would talk more openly about our need for a savior, one of the images that got thrown around to describe the chasm that sin has put between human beings and God was trying to swim the Atlantic Ocean.  If I tried to swim the Atlantic Ocean in one go, I might, might make it a half mile before I drowned.  Ironman Triathlete Shawn Rhodes might make it three or four miles.  A few crazy fools who have swam the English Channel, might make it 20 or more miles, but all of us would fall way short of the 3,716 mile trek.  Zoomed out to view the whole thing, all of our attempts would look quite meager. The same is true of all of our attempts to follow the example of Jesus.  Our attempts, noble as they might be, will inevitably fall woefully short.

We know that no one can live up to the expectations that Jesus lays out in this sermon, but we also know that God desires to bring us all back into right relationship.  It doesn’t make sense then, that God would just leave us out here floundering all on our own.  No, what Jesus lays out here is a case for a relationship with him.  Jesus invites us to trust in him, to follow his example, and to seek a relationship with God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, and merciful to all.  It is, after all, God who sent Jesus here to begin with.  It is by God’s grace that we are invited into relationship and it is with God’s help that we can strive toward the kind of life that Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Plain.

This whole concept has been summed up in the theological idea of theosis, or the transforming effect of divine grace.  Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the mid-fourth century summed up the idea of theosis quite simply when he wrote, “God became human so that humanity might become like God.”  It is through our relationship with God, being guided by the Holy Spirit to live Christlike lives, that we can even begin to follow the difficult teaching that Jesus espouses in the Sermon on the Plain.  It is only when we find ourselves on a level playing field, all in need of the saving work of Christ, that we can begin to see the world the way God sees it, and live the way Jesus invites us to live.

Now, don’t get me wrong, none of this makes me actually like the Sermon on the Plain, but difficult as it may be, it is a teaching from which we can learn quite a bit about the dream that God has for creation and for each of us.  I may not be scheduling a vacation to central Kansas anytime soon, but this week I gained a bit more of an appreciation for the things that can happen in level places.  I pray that in the days to come, we all might experience the difficult teachings of Jesus as an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God, to trust the Holy Spirit, and to model our lives after the impossible example of Jesus, knowing that even in our feeblest attempts at love, the kingdom of God is made known on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3960 (Accessed Feb 21, 2019)

Blessings and Woes

As promised on Monday, today I feel compelled to write something coherent about Luke’s version of the beatitudes from Matthew.  As one compares the two sets of teachings, two things come immediately into focus.  First, as I noted on Monday, Luke is much more focused on the nitty gritty, real life stuff.  Second, while Matthew is focused solely on the the “Blessed are you…”s, Luke deals with both the blessing and its opposite woe.

Blessed are you who are poor | Woe to you who are rich
Blessed are you who are hungry | Woe to you who are full
Blessed are you who weep | Woe to you who are laughing
Blessed are you when people hate you | Woe to you when all speak well of you

This parallel structure indicates that Jesus was a really good rhetorical preacher, but it also helps to highlight what Jesus is doing in this scene.  The disciples, to whom Jesus is explicitly speaking, as well as the crowd, which we have to assume is still lingering in the background, would hear these words for Jesus and immediately have their minds taken to the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy.  On the heels of some pretty pointed teaching about the sabbath in Luke 6:1ff, Jesus seems to be reordering the Law by highlighting its root intention.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses sets down a list of blessings for those who “fully obey the LORD and follow all the commandments of God.”  Similarly, Moses lays out a list of curses that will fall upon all those who “do not obey the LORD and carefully follow God’s commandments.”  Over time, these blessings and curses had come to be associated with the letter of the law – be eat working on the sabbath or the very particular way in pots must be washed – but here Jesus is harkening the crowd back to their roots.

It isn’t about the letter of the law, but rather the spirit of the law.  The letter of the law has created a world in which there are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.  The letter of the law, in its current abusive incarnation, has made a class of those who are so rich that they don’t know what to do with themselves, who are so satiated and yet still want more, who look down on those who are less fortunate than themselves and laugh with scorn.  Here, Jesus calls “Horse Hockey” on those who have interpreted the law to their own economic advantage.

a20d6baf1cd9e7786dab18c355d14378

“You may be blessed now,” Jesus intimates, “but if your whole worldview is aimed at filling your barns today, that’s all you’ll ever achieve.  Instead, in the great reversal of the Kingdom, it will be those whose lives were dedicated to others, who found themselves poor and neglected, who were committed to deep relationships who will find themselves blessed.  Oh, and if you think that you can use this teaching to hold other down by some kind of promise of future redemption, you too will find yourself in amongst the woes.”

Proper Math

If I’m honest, and who would care enough to lie about such things, I much prefer Luke’s Blessings and Woes to Matthew’s Beatitudes.  I think it has to do with the visceral nature of Luke’s version of some of Jesus’ most famous teaching.  Rather than the poor in spirit being blessed, we hear from Jesus that it is, in fact, the poor who are blessed, the hungry who will be fed, and those who mourn will find themselves overcome with laughter.  If the Kingdom of God is about some kind of grand reversal, then these moves from one fully relatable state of being to its opposite helps me visualize something that is otherwise way beyond my ability to comprehend.  What’s frustrating to me is that we so rarely get to hear Luke’s version of the Blessings and Woes.

I like to consider myself something of a rubrical snob.  I think clergy should learn to read italics, if only to know what rules they are violating as the illusion of common prayer slowly fades into the mist alongside apostolic succession and Dom Gregory Dix.  I have to admit, however, that my understanding of the liturgical calendar and its partner in crime, the Lectionary, is less than adequate.

bcf

Epiphany 6, Year C, the only time when Luke 6:17-26 is appointed for the Sunday readings, is something of a lectionary anomaly.  Let’s look at the proper math.  Epiphany 6 is also known as Proper 1, but according to the rubrics on 158, Proper 1 is never actually read on a Sunday, but rather, it informs the lessons used for a celebration of the Eucharist that occur during the week following the Day of Pentecost, and even then, only if Pentecost falls on or before May 14th.  If Pentecost occurs between May 15 and May 26, there is no chance that Epiphany 6 or Proper 1 are read at all.  Only if Easter falls on or April 10 will we have the chance to read Epiphany 6, and to get Luke 6, it also has to be Year C which begins on Advent 1 of the year before a year that is divisible by 3.  Got that?

I’ve lost most you by now, I’m sure.  Please check back later this week for some real content for preaching.  Suffice it to say for now, that I’m going to savor Luke’s Blessings and Woes because by my math, I have no idea when we’ll get to hear them again.

Keep ya head up

In 2011, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the songs that in shaped rock.  The Guardian has called it one of thousand songs that everyone must hear.  And it has been running through my mind all week as I’ve read the Gospel lesson from Luke that is appointed for Advent 1C.  Tupac Shakur’s “Keep ya head up” is a song dedicated to black women, an anthem for the many who have been subjugated, violated, and treated as less than by men.  The album from which it comes is not a title I can share on this blog, but the song itself is quite clean, so I offer you the music video, should you be interested.

While it is the chorus, which features a sample from The Five Stairsteps “O-o-h Child” that has been my earworm for the week, the verses actually have something to say about apocalyptic vision that Jesus offers the crowd in Sunday’s lesson.  I’m especially drawn to these words:

It’s hard to be legit and still pay your rent
And in the end it seems I’m headin’ for the pen
I try and find my friends, but they’re blowin’ in the wind
Last night my buddy lost his whole family

It’s gonna take the man in me to conquer this insanity
It seems the rain’ll never let up
I try to keep my head up, and still keep from getting wetter
You know it’s funny when it rains, it pours

They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor
Said, there ain’t no hope for the youth
And the truth is, there ain’t no hope for the future

And then they wonder why we crazy
I blame my mother, for turnin’ my brother into a black baby
We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup
And even though you’re fed up

Huh, ya got to keep your head up

Read more: 2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up Lyrics | MetroLyrics

The world of East Harlem in the 1970s, the world in which Tupac was raised, was not that far removed from the vision that Jesus offers for the end times.  Fed up with racial profiling and police violence, the Black Panther Party, of which Tupac’s parents were both active members, was, at times, at war with the powers-that-be.  Much later in life, and now on the other side of the continent, Tupac wrote “Keep ya head up” in a situation in which not whole lot had changed.  The deck was still stacked against young African-Americans born into the poverty.  The men often took to the hustle to make enough money to eat and pay the rent.  Violence was a daily part of life.  Women, especially as featured in this song, were often left to raise children all on their own, either because the father was dead, could’t afford a baby, or had moved on to… less fertile pastures.

f08cd4

Having come out of a world that seemed like the future was absolutely hopeless, Tupac Shakur chose to write a song about keeping your head up.  As Jesus looks upon a world that seems hellbent on its own destruction, where power and might are the only things that seem to actually mean anything or hold any value, it seems just as odd that he too might tell the oppressed and the downtrodden to, in the words of Tupac Shakur, “keep ya head up.”  Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus does.  For neither of them are these words meant to be platitudes, but rather, they speak to a deep truth that even when all hope seems lost, even when you’re fed up, the only real option is to keep your head up.  Keep striving for justice, for mercy, for righteousness.  Keep speaking truth to power.  Keep claiming your own dignity and worth.  Keep your head up, because the redemption of the world is drawing near.

Is that you Jesus?

VARIOUS DR SEUSS

Zat you Santa Claus?

The Grinch tried to steal Christmas by dressing up as Santa Claus so as to go unnoticed on Christmas Eve.  At one point, while stuffing a Christmas tree up the chimney, the Grinch encounters little Cindy Lou Who who asks him, “Santie Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?”  The Grinch looked like Santa, but he didn’t seem to be acting like him, and Cindy Lou, a girl of maybe two, was quick to ask why.

This Sunday, the Lectionary gives us two of three “sayings of Jesus” that if Luke hadn’t expressly told us that Jesus said them, we’d seriously wonder about.  When Jesus doesn’t act like we think Jesus should, are we willing to be like Cindy Lou Who and ask questions?

Take, for example, the second non sequitur from Jesus that ends with this difficult sentence, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”  The whole issue of slavery aside, the idea that Jesus would encourage us to think of ourselves as “worthless” is totally foreign to the modern American reader.  We’re so used to God so loving the world and picturing Jesus as a giant Santa Claus in the sky to even begin to think that Jesus would utter this phrase.

So what do we do with it?  Well, we can dig into the translation a bit.  The Greek word translated in the NRSV as “worthless” can also mean “useless,” which doesn’t help very much.  Friberg also says it can be translated as “mere,” which feels a whole lot safer.  To be “merely” a slave seems a lot more palatable than to be a “worthless” slave.  A deep cut into exegesis takes me into the Thayer Lexicon, which describes this saying of Jesus as hyperbole.  “By an hyperbole of pious modesty in Luke 17:10 `the servant’ calls himself achreios, because, although he has done all, yet he has done nothing except what he ought to have done; accordingly he possesses no merit, and could only claim to be called `profitable,’ should he do more than what he is bound to do…”  Of course, resorting to calling it hyperbole feels like cheating my way out of a difficult saying.

There’s also the way translations have changed over the years.  From “unprofitable” in the King James and Young’s Literal to “unworthy” in the RSV, NIV, and ESV to “merely” in the CEV; it seems to be only the NRSV that takes such a hard line in translating achreios.  This makes stepping back from the Grinch Jesus a little less Joel Osteeny.  Maybe it isn’t that Jesus called us to feel worthless, but instead that he is reminding his disciples that in the Commandment to love, there is no wiggle room.  One cannot do anything more than has been asked when living into the full expectation of loving God and loving neighbor.  There is no way to do it more, only to fail and do it less.  And so, when we all is said and done, do we recognize that we have merely done our duty, or, more likely, do we give thanks for the graciousness of God who forgives us each time we fail to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It might not sound like the Jesus we are used to, but it is Jesus who invites us into love.

Who are you?

a2d3a31e255b1e22a9a61b5c96732922

There is a natural tendency to place oneself inside a story.  This is perhaps especially true in the parables that Jesus tells.  I suspect it is because they are both generic and hyperbolic, it is easy to read oneself into the story, to stay there for a while, and to feel what is happening.  Of course, who we think ourselves to be in the story will have a large impact on how we interpret it.  In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the meaning of the story can change drastically if you think of yourself as the injured traveler or the Levite, rather than everybody’s favorite Samaritan.

As we read the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man this week, I can’t help but think that the gut reaction of most listeners will be to place themselves in the role of Lazarus.  Very few people actually consider themselves to be rich.  It is very easy to push that title at least one tax bracket above our own, and given the erosion of the Middle Class and the ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have nots in the last 40 years, it isn’t too difficult to place oneself as a beggar, lying outside the gates of those who wear purple, and step over you in order to feast sumptuously everyday.

Very few of us will place ourselves in the position of the rich man, and to be Abraham would be awfully presumptuous, but this morning, as I read my usual preaching resources, I realized that I’ve always missed a character in this story.  Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, points out in her commentary that maybe our place in this story is the brothers and sisters of the rich man.  We have Moses and the Prophets.  We even have one who proclaimed a ministry of compassion and rose from the dead.  Do we have ears to hear?  Do we have eyes to see?  Or, are we too busy making excuses for our lack of compassion; pretending  instead to be the sore-covered beggar by the gate?

Who are you in this story?  The answer seems to be of eternal consequence.