A Provocation: Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: July 30, 2017: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

From 2017.
“The parable requires us to learn to analyze every promise until we see the problem lying latent in it. The parable also trains us to believe that every problem carries a promise in its depths.”

provokingthegospel

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
13:31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

13:32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

13:33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

13:45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;

13:46 on finding one pearl of…

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A Provocation: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 19, 2020: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24 Another parable he put before them;
            he said:
                 The dominion of the heavens was compared to a person
                 who sows beautiful seeds in his field.
25                  While the people were sleeping,
                           this enemy came
                                he sowed poisonous weeds 
                                in the midst of the grain and went away.
26                 When the grass sprouted
                     and made fruit,
                          then appeared also the poisonous weeds.
27                When the slaves of the master of the house came
                    they said to him:
                         haShem,
                              didn’t you sow beautiful seed in your field?
                                   Where did it get poisonous weeds from?
28               He said to them:
                        An enemy,
                        a person did this.
                   The slaves are saying to him:
                        So, do you want us to go out and gather them?
29               He said:
                        No
                             lest in gathering the poisonous weeds you should uproot
                                  with them
                             the grain.
30                    Let both grow together
                             up until the harvest:
                                  in the time of the harvest
                                  I will say to the harvesters:
                                       Gather first the poisonous weeds;
                                       bind them into bundles
                                            to burn them up.
                                       The grain gather into my barn.

36     Then leaving the crowds, 
         he came into his house.
         They came to him,
              the disciples did,
         they said:
              Make quite clear to us the parable of the poisonous weeds of the field.
37     He answered;
         he said:
              The one who sowed the beautiful seed
                   is the son of adam.
38          The field is the beautiful world.
              The beautiful seed,
                   these are the sons of the dominion.
              The poisonous weeds are the sons of the worthless one.
39          The enemy,
                   the enemy who sowed them is the prosecutor.
              The harvest is the completion of the aeon.
              The harvesters are messengers.
40               So just as the poisonous weeds are gathered
                        and in fire burnt up,
                             thus it will be in the completion of the aeon:
41                              the son of adam will send out his messengers;
                                  they will gather out of his dominion
                                       all scandals
                                       and those undermining Torah;
42                                        they will throw them into the fiery furnace.
                                                 There
                                                 there will be wailing and the gnashing of teeth.
43                              Then the strictly observant will shine
                                       like the sun
                                            in the dominion of their father.
               The one who has ears should hear.

Jesus was a storyteller. That’s not too surprising: Jesus is Jewish, and the Jewish faith has its roots sunk deep in the stories that make up Scripture. We call them parables, which sounds somehow religious, but they are stories. In some important ways, all stories are parables. They are always up to something, something more than you might first think.

Joachim Jeremias, the finest parables scholar of his generation, listened hard to the parables. Jeremias took seriously the durability of stories: he knew that for all of the ways we put our individual stamp on the stories we tell (or the jokes), still the structure of the original story persists. This mattered for Jeremias because he was not listening just to a little anecdote with a religious message. Jeremias was listening to a story that had its origin in the mouth of Jesus. He expected to hear the ipsissima vox Jesu, the actual living voice of Jesus still telling these old, lovely stories. Scholars are a little less optimistic about “original forms” or original voices, but it’s still worth reflecting: when you listen to one of these stories that Jesus told, you are being drawn into a narrative web that he first spun.

Adolf Jülicher, a half-century earlier, also listened closely to these old stories. He was also the finest parable scholar of his generation, and his listening is fascinating because, in some ways, he listens the way narrative scholars listen these days. Jülicher listened to the way the story opened itself to its hearers, the way it worked on people who listened to it.

Traditional scholarship read the parables as allegories, as extended coded similes. That handed interpreters the task of linking each element of the little story with elements in the world of the audience, whether ancient or contemporary, depending on the interpreter. You can see why: that process starts already in the gospels themselves, which present Jesus as the first allegorizer. “The one who sowed the beautiful seed is the son of adam,” he says, and we are off to the allegorical races.

Jülicher listened just to the stories themselves and let them shape how he heard them. He argued that stories have a single, central impact on their audiences. They have ONE point, not a whole roster of allegorical applications.

I find this way of listening to the stories endlessly productive. Jülicher (and most interpreters, truth be told) may imagine that the ONE point of a parable is forever the same, once it is found. I don’t think that. I find the moment that I hear a story to generate the ONE point fully as much as the story itself. WHEN you hear is as powerful as WHAT you hear.

And so I listen to this story about wheat and poisonous weeds again this time. I appreciate all the ways I have heard this story in past moments of listening. And this year I find myself struck by the idea that there are people in the world who are poisonous weeds. I could name some if you asked me. I could probably name quite a few.

But I find myself struck by the way the end of Matthew’s gospel undercuts this divisive assumption. At the end of the parable, the weed-people are separated out and burned. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, there are people who see Jesus raised from the dead, but still doubt (a weedy behavior in Matthew’s story up to that point). But at the end of Matthew’s gospel the weed-people who doubt are not gathered and burned, they are sent out to baptize and teach.

What if this little story has among its collection of SINGLE points the effect of calling out our love of being the GOOD SEED among all the weeds? What if the effect of the story is to call us on our tendency to imagine that problems could be solved if only we could burn the weed-people who cause us so much trouble? What if the weedy problem that needs solving is our willingness to identify those who ought to be burned?

That’d be awkward.

I do not imagine that every idea is as good as every other one, nor every ideology, nor every person. But what if ONE point of the parable is that we are stuck with each other until a point outside of any imaginable time. There will never be a congregation without people who are certain that we are wrong (even as we return that favor). There will never be a workplace that does not require us to work toward a shared goal in the company of people with whom we share nothing else. We will never have the option of first selecting the perfect partners, the perfect congregants, the perfect candidate or boss or set of friends.

We are stuck with each other. And we share the same set of problems that must be solved, even if we understand those problems differently. It’s time we got on with solving those problems, I think.

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday After Pentecost: July 23, 2017: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Anger and contempt are even more a feature of our landscape these days. This piece, from three years ago, is worth another look.

provokingthegospel

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
13:24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;

13:25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

13:26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

13:27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’

13:28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’

13:29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.

13:30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers…

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A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 16, 2017: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

From three years ago. Hope in the real world.

provokingthegospel

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.

13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.

13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold…

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A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: July 9, 2017: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

My post from three years ago, worth another look.

provokingthegospel

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
11:16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;

11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

11:25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the…

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A Provocation: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: July 5, 2020: Romans 7:15-25a

7:15 I do not understand my own actions. 
For I do not do what I want, 
but I do the very thing I hate.

7:16 Now if I do what I do not want, 
I agree that the law is good.

7:17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, 
but sin that dwells within me.

7:18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, 
that is, 
in my flesh. 
I can will what is right, 
but I cannot do it.

7:19 For I do not do the good I want, 
but the evil I do not want is what I do.

7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, 
it is no longer I that do it, 
but sin that dwells within me.

7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, 
evil lies close at hand.

7:22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,

7:23 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.

7:24 Wretched man that I am! 
Who will rescue me from this body of death?

7:25a Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Lutheran theologians love this passage. We have found it amenable to our basic theology, that God alone can save, since humans need to be delivered from “this body of death” because we “do not do the good [we] want, but the evil [we] do not what is what [we] do.” On this reading, Sin is an ontological force with eschatological impact (I have said that in recents posts, as well), which means that there is a puzzle at the heart of human action. For all our strength, and for all our good intentions, we find ourselves doing damage when we aim to do good.

This is a strong theology, worthy of respect. It produces useful insights.

But it is not the only way of reading Paul’s words in Romans 7.

The key to another way to read comes in Paul’s statement in v. 16:

Now if I do what I do not want, 
I agree that the law is good.

The first thing to consider is that, for all his help to Lutheran theology, Paul was not a Lutheran. He was Jewish. And that means that when he talks about “law” you should translate the word as “Torah,” which is something very different from what Lutherans mean when we talk about Law over against Gospel. In that antagonistic opposition, only the Gospel makes alive, and the Law only kills. As a result, some Lutherans read v. 16, and then imagine that it is a good thing that God gave us Law so that it could kill us.

Jews do not imagine things that way. Lutherans should listen when Jewish theologians notice the danger that comes with imagining that God wants to kill us and that we should see this as good.

Before you fire off a volley of passages from the Bible or regale me with a flurry of stories in which killing might be somehow good, please remember that I read the Bible as vigorously as you do, and that my narrative imagination is probably as strong as anyone’s. I know those passages, too, and I have long reflected on those stories.

From Jewish friends and interpreters I have learned to hear v. 16 differently, and in a way I (as a Lutheran) find illuminating.

For instance:

Now, if I find myself wanting to do something, and still not doing it, I have just agreed that the practice of studying Torah is both good and constructive. Studying Torah, the rabbis teach, forms us so that we have a sense of what is worth doing (and worth avoiding) that goes beyond our natural self-serving ego-centrism. So, the fact that I find myself critiquing my own behavior is evidence that a life devoted to Torah pays off very well indeed. It means that I do not have to wait only for someone else to call me on my mistakes. Learning Torah makes me able to do that, as well. That is good.

Lutherans and Jews might just agree about this, so far.

Verse 18 is where they will part company. Lutherans like the customary English translation that affirms that “nothing good dwells within me.” But that is not really what Paul has said in v. 18. In Greek he says:

οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ οἰκεῖ ἐν ἐμοί, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ σαρκί μου, ἀγαθόν…

This is better translated as “For I know that it does not dwell in me (that is to say, in my body) ἀγαθόν does not dwell there.” The word in Greek (ἀγαθόν) is common, and complicated. It refers to that which is admirable. It refers to noble behavior. It refers to what an earlier generation might have called “being worthy,” living a life of real worth. Paul is saying that human being is an accomplishment, a work of art, even. He means what we mean when, confronted with people acting like idiots, we say, “Who raised those people, anyway?” He is referring to what we also observe when we notice that nurses act like nurses and pastors act like pastors. He is pointing to the reason that friends of mine who have been in the Marines sometimes have Semper Fi bumper stickers on their cars: once a Marine, always a Marine.

Paul is not saying that nothing good inheres in human nature. Far from it. He is saying that the people we admire are people who, through training or good up-bringing, have gone beyond just doing what is comfortable or easy. That takes training.

I find myself thinking about this a lot lately. We are again realizing how deep racism runs in this country, where human beings were held as slaves until very recently, where the Confederate battle flag was added to state flags in southern states as a protest against desegregation in the 1950s.

I think we are all thinking about this. In differing ways, to be sure, but I think we are all wrestling with how we respond to the call to become anti-racist. That is not a simple matter. A person called in to a radio show and asked: “Am I right? Are we now supposed to say ‘Black’ instead of ‘African-American?'” People talk about the efforts they have devoted to “seeing the person, not the color.” Sometimes they quote Dr. King and talk about the “content of their character.” We will not do well in this present moment if we write off their distress as hypocrisy. If for no other reason than such a dismissal is far too easy and far too lazy.

I was listening this morning to Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being. This is a fascinating on-going discussion about things that matter. (Go find it online at: https://onbeing.org/ ). Today Tippett was talking with Jason Reynolds, an author that my son put me onto. (My son was right: Reynolds is remarkable. Read his work.). They were talking about what it is, and is not, to be anti-racist. They were noticing some of the same things that we all have wrestled with. I will quote Reynolds’ reply at some length.

Reynolds:Not like that, Krista. I know the language is tripping you out. [laughs] What I’m saying is, — there’s no finish line, is what I’m saying. There’s no finish line. So there’s no finish line. There’s this idea that people are gonna read this book, or they’re gonna read all the books, and then, all of a sudden, they’re going to “be” anti-racist. And what I’m saying is — and that’s also a very American thing, this idea that there are winners and losers, that there’s a binary that we live in, a bifurcation when it comes to that which is a failure and that which is victorious. The truth of the matter is, this is about journeymen, journeyfolk. Our job is to constantly be pressing toward a thing. But that thing is ever elusive. And the reason why it is ever elusive is because the world, and humanity, continues to evolve. And because it continues to evolve, the things that complicate our lives evolve with it. And so we have to be vigilant, to continue to figure out what the new versions of these ailments are so that we can continue to tear down that house. But there’s no end goal. There’s no — and I think that’s how humanity and anti-racism connect.

I think Reynolds has, in one swing, hit both what is so unsettling about this moment in our wrestling with racism and what is at stake for Paul in Romans. There is no finish line. There is no stopping point, no place where we can arrive and then just not have to think about it anymore. If we could just get the language right, then we would be not-racist. If we could just have enough Black friends, friends with whom we just laugh and scheme and plan and tell dumb jokes, friends whom we think of just as friends, then we would be demonstrably not-racist. There are many finish lines that we dream up, not usually consciously.

If we imagine that there is a finish line that we can reach and stop, we will say with Paul: ” O wretched man that I am!” And then we will call in to radio shows and ask questions that will sound odd and uncomfortable.

I think we all feel odd and uncomfortable these days. Wrestling with race is that difficult. The language changes. We work legitimately hard at the political task of correcting injustice and improving the functioning of police forces, and then realize that the roll call of young black men killed in police custody continues to grow and that our political efforts have been blunted and turned into a a tacit defense of the status quo. We hear the pain and anger and even rage expressed by our friends and we realize that they have never for a moment had the opportunity (or desire) to be “color-blind.”

Reynolds is especially helpful at this point. He says:

Our job is to constantly be pressing toward a thing. But that thing is ever elusive. And the reason why it is ever elusive is because the world, and humanity, continues to evolve. And because it continues to evolve, the things that complicate our lives evolve with it.

The world, and our life in it, continues to evolve. Wrestling with racism continues to evolve. Paul, as a Jew, understands this. He knows that we are captive to the past and to our own self-serving egotism. He also knows that God has always understood that. So if the question on the table is: “Who will deliver us?”, the response is: God will, because our captivity is not a surprise to God. Likewise, if the question on the table is: “How can we carry on this odd, difficult, unsettling, risky conversation about race?”, the response is related: God will, and we will sustain each other. It will be odd and unsettling, and the risks will be real, but God will sustain us because people like Reynolds will remind us that there is no finish line. And, as we engage each other, we will sustain each other.

And that is the real reason I think Jewish readings of this passage are more helpful than Lutheran readings (as much as I have learned from them). This may be a matter of ontology, the way things really are, but it is not settled by appealing to eschatology, the endpoint or finish line. This is a matter of working out the practice of Torah, which shapes us as human beings.

We will still find our selves doing what we would not choose to do, and saying what we never should have said. And we will engage, again and again, in the daily work of faithfulness. Because, to my ear, that what the work of anti-racism comes down to: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God and each other.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: June 28, 2020: Romans 6:12-23

6:12 Therefore, 
do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, 
to make you obey their passions.

6:13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, 
but present yourselves to God 
as those who have been brought from death to life, 
and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.

6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, 
since you are not under law but under grace.

6:15 What then? 
Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? 
By no means!

6:16 Do you not know that 
if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, 
you are slaves of the one whom you obey, 
either of sin, 
which leads to death, 
or of obedience, 
which leads to righteousness?

6:17 But thanks be to God that you, 
having once been slaves of sin, 
have become obedient 
from the heart 
to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted,

6:18 and that you, 
having been set free from sin, 
have become slaves of righteousness.

6:19 I am speaking in human terms 
because of your natural limitations. 
For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity 
and to greater and greater iniquity, 
so now present your members as slaves to righteousness 
for sanctification.

6:20 When you were slaves of sin, 
you were free in regard to righteousness.

6:21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? 
The end of those things is death.

6:22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, 
the advantage you get is sanctification. 
The end is eternal life.

6:23 For the wages of sin is death, 
but the free gift of God is eternal life 
in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Two things catch my eye immediately. The first is that this passage from Romans uses enslavement as a metaphor. This is, of course, a letter than knows nothing of the race-based enslavement that was still practiced in the United States a couple of decades before my grandfather was born. The difference does matter. Slaves were numerous in the ancient Mediterranean world, some were prisoners taken in war, some were debtors, some were just born into it. Slaves made up a significant percentage of the population (perhaps even as high as 40%), and people with power saw that economic structure as both normal and advantageous. Even people who did not own other people understood that that was just the way society was organized.

Once an evil and unjust social structure is transformed into something based on race, the evil is compounded, and the injustice screams for redress.

And it is worth noting that enslavement provides, in this passage, an image of an evil that has been escaped. Paul assumes that holding people as slaves is common and normal, but also assumes that freedom from enslavement is a positive good.

Of course, once this “common and normal” injustice is linked to race, the matter of achieving freedom is complicated. Those with power, in fact, invent race as a way of justifying their privilege and preserving it. In such a system, anyone whose skin is black is created (by the people with power and privilege) as a person who OUGHT to be held as a slave.

The difference between then and now does indeed matter. But we only live now (just as Paul only lived in his “now.” And in our present moment, enslavement is not a metaphor. It is a memory just barely out of the reach of people born when my grandfather was a child. It is a reality that still hunts people in our present world. This morning I learned on the news that Bubba Wallace, a Black man who is a NASCAR driver, found a noose hanging in his garage. Lynching is a crime that seeks to preserve the “right” of white people to perform violence, torture, and murder on people who are Black.

“Perform” is an important word in this sentence. It is a perverse kind of theatre: the performance creates a reality that seeks to impose itself on the world in which we live. This perverse kind of theatre seeks to recreate race-based enslavement by allowing “masters” to “lay it on well” (to quote Robert E. Lee) when flogging Black people. (Wesley Norris, “Testimony of Wesley Norris”, National Anti-Slavery Standard, April 14, 1866.)

The fact that lynching is still performed means that this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans cannot be read casually, especially by white people.

The second thing that caught my eye was the way enslavement is used metaphorically in this passage.

This passage is one of the foundations for the way Lutheran theology reads its understanding of sin: sin (or, Sin) is not a matter of specific errors that can (and must) be corrected. Sin, for Lutheran theology, is an ontological reality with eschatological consequences. It is understood to fatally infect each and every human being and to be unaffected by our efforts to eradicate it.

This powerful understanding of Sin shapes the way Lutheran theologians talk about the place of racism in American society. A few weeks ago I shared on Facebook a meme I had run across: It’s Not Black Against White; It’s Us Against Racists.” I approve of that sentiment.

A friend, a highly skilled Lutheran theologian, disagreed with me. He pointed out that racism infects all of us and needs to be addressed by each of us through careful self-examination.

He, of course, is right. The way a Lutheran theologian would be right about this.

But I think that he is also wrong.

I do not care at all about NASCAR races. I’ve never seen one, even on television, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I have friends who love racing. Good for them. I do not care about NASCAR, but I care deeply about catching and punishing the racist who hung the noose in Bubba Wallace’s garage. I care deeply about blocking the racist schemes that rig voting procedures so that Black voters are disadvantaged. And I care deeply about calling out anyone (president or not) who makes racist tropes acceptable in public. When such things go on, my ethical conclusion is that all of us have to act together to oppose the racists who want to normalize their aggressive bias.

My friend is right, and he is wrong, I think. I think there are two separate issues at stake here. Racism runs deep and it infects all of us whose lives and advantages are shaped by the institution of race-based enslavement of people, now just 150 years out of public practice and full “legality” in the United States. The invention of “race” needed to maintain that system of power and privilege runs as deep as our DNA and we each and all have a responsibility to root it out. But as we do that long, painstaking work, we also have to confront, as a society, the acts of overt violence committed by actual active racists. I am sure that final elimination of such acts will require that we all engage in that long, painstaking work, but I am not going to hold my breath until racists with nooses can be brought to see the light. For now, while we listen and work and vote and examine ourselves, we also just have to block the racists. I will worry about their hearts and minds later.

And I will worry about how my own heart and mind gives them liberty to hang a noose in a driver’s garage.

And so I read Paul’s letter. And it seems to me that he also sees that there are two tasks in front of his readers, who are the non-Jewish apprentices to messianic faithfulness who live in and amongst the larger Jewish community (which is a mixture of non-messianist and messianist people). Paul says to them: You once served a system of power that leads only to death. He calls that system of power by a strong theological name: Sin.

He is, of course, speaking of the system, not the individual sins. He is speaking of the Roman order, that enforced its power and privilege through the use of violence, an example of which was shown when Rome lynched the messiah. Another example of this enforced system was the holding of slaves, whose forced obedience cemented the power and privilege of the Roman elite.

Which means, by the way, that Paul’s argument is that his audience has been set free from having privilege and power. Think about that slowly.

You have been changed, Paul says. You have been made free. Your nature has been altered by the free gift of God. So far, so Lutheran.

But Paul also tells these Roman changelings that this change of nature is not some mystical, invisible change that allows you to live the way you formerly did. He notes that they “have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” The phrase “from the heart” indicates that Paul thinks that the miracle promised by Jeremiah has come to pass, but the rest of v.17 is simpler, and more important. The “form of teaching” that he talks about is plain everyday Torah observance. Jewish thought has never been too impressed with mystical invisibility. Jewish life focuses on the nuts and bolts of doing Torah, and expects that these simple acts will shape you into a person who lives a life that points to the God who loves all of Creation.

Paul says: a miracle has happened here, and appears to believe that a change so basic could only be accomplished through a miracle. He was not going to hold his breath until Roman privilege surrendered. But Paul is also saying that, in the messy aftermath of that miracle, the way forward follows Torah. Do the good that Torah teaches: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. But also, block the bad that Torah also blocks.

And so the takeaway from Romans 6? Don’t be a racist. Put more biblically: No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness. And block racists and their vicious acts. Such acts lead to greater and greater iniquity, and finally result in death. We have had enough death.

Maybe we will succeed in rooting out racism. Maybe there will be a miracle. But until it is clear that such a miracle has happened, do Torah. Do Torah. Do Torah.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: July 2, 2017: Matthew 10:40-42

To be a Christ-ian is to be involved in the work of the messiah: turning the world right-side-up. This is a moment to reflect slowly and effectively on what that will require.

provokingthegospel

Matthew 10:40-42
10:40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

10:41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;

10:42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

A Question or Two:

  • What is a prophet’s reward?
  • What is a righteous person’s reward?

Some Longer Reflections:

Again a scene about welcome.  This time the welcome is shared, distributed.

This is also a scene about reward, which is tied to welcome, and therefore is shared and distributed as is welcome.

It makes sense that those sent out are linked with those…

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A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2020: Matthew 10:24-39

     24     A disciple is not over the teacher
              Nor is the slave over his master.
25               It is enough for the disciple
                        that he become like his teacher,
                        and the slave like his master.
                   If they called the master of the house
                        Beelzebul
                   how much more the members of the household?
26     So do not fear them:
              nothing is hidden
                   that will not be revealed;
              nothing secret
                   that will not be known.
27                    What I say to you all
                             in the dark,
                                  you will say in the light.
                        What you hear into the ear,
                             proclaim on the house.
28     Stop being afraid
              because of those who kill the body,
                   the life they are not able to kill.
         Continue to fear more the one who is able
              both life and body to destroy in Gehenna.
29     Aren’t two sparrows offered for sale at 1/2 penny?
              One of them does not fall on the earth
                   without your father.
30          Of you even the hairs of your head
                   all are counted.
31     Stop being afraid.
              You are worth more than many sparrows.
32     Anyone who agrees with me
              before people
         I also will agree with him
              before my father
                   my father in the heavens.
33     Whoever denies me before people,
              I also will deny him before my father
                   my father in the heavens.
34     Do not suppose
              that I came to throw peace on the earth.
                   I did not come to throw peace,
                        but rather a sword.
35                    I came to divide 
                             a person against his father
                             a daughter against her mother
                             a bride against her inlaws.
36                    A person’s enemies?:
                             the members of his household.
37                              The one who loves father
                                       or mother
                                  over me
                                       is not worthy of me.
                                  The one who loves son
                                       or daughter
                                  over me
                                       is not worthy of me.
38     Who does not receive his cross
              and follow after me
         is not worthy of me.
39     The one who found his life
              will destroy it;
         the one who destroyed his life
              because of me
         will find it.

The easiest thing to do is to cause division. The second easiest thing is to scold people for causing division.

All you have to do to cause division is to begin with the assumption that you understand more than anybody has ever understood. This takes several forms. If you are old, you can begin with the assumption that anyone younger than you is simply too green, too naive, too idealistic to really get it. If you are young, you can begin with the assumption that your intense experience of the current chaos has everyone as baffled as you are. If you are progressive, you can begin with the assumption that anyone less passionate than you are is refusing to respond to the crisis of racism in this country. If you are conservative, you can begin by assuming that anyone who says Black Lives Matter is a violent terrorist of the sort that your favorite “news” outlet warned you about. If you argue that it is time to defund the police department in Minneapolis, you can begin by hearing questions about policy and procedure as obstructionism. If you object to proposals that call for defunding, you can begin by refusing to listen to the nuanced arguments that are offered under the “defunding” slogan, which did indeed catch your eye.

You will have noticed that I structured each of these instances as a two-sided opposition: either this side or that side. If you look at the world as if it were always and only a two-sided opposition, it is even easier to cause division. Binary oppositions require you to choose sides, and they do NOT require you to listen.

It is easy to tear the world apart if you don’t listen.

And so now we can commence scolding each other for tearing the world apart. That is easy. And we love to do it.

I think the scolding is more dangerous than the picking of sides. The scolding too often comes down to just wanting everything and everyone to settle down and just let things go back to normal. This is easiest to see when the scolders are comfortable and privileged.

I am old enough to have seen many waves of impassioned calls for root-level reform sweep through our politics.

I am old enough to have noticed a pattern:

  • At first the calls are ignored.
  • If the calls for reform do not go away, timid proposals are offered.
  • If these proposals to make cosmetic changes are rejected, then politicians become increasingly passionate themselves.
  • Senators who had scoffed at the initial calls for reform go on the record as recognizing the life-changing crisis of the moment and promise to convene task forces and working groups.
  • Sometimes those groups even come forward with proposals.
  • And occasionally those proposals are even substantive and are implemented.
  • And then those serious attempts at root-level reform are weakened, step by step, by executive orders, or disingenuous signing statements, or by the stubborn efforts of entrenched powers.

You can study the decades-long history of attempts at reforming the police force in Minneapolis to see every part of this pattern. Real, substantive reform is finally blunted and blocked by entrenched privilege and power.

And then we go back to scolding people for demanding change.

In this scene from Matthew’s story, Jesus promises division. He promises even violence, since a sword is never a metaphor.

He promises violent division because he, as messiah, is engaged in the work of turning the world right-side-up.

That needs to be thought about carefully. If turning the world right-side-up were simply the work of ideology, then it would be impossible to distinguish the messiah from all the binary-opposites who refuse to listen to each other. There will be the usual violence between partisans, sometimes set off by instigators who have been waiting for such a moment to start their own private revolution.

I think the work of the messiah is more important, and more difficult than that. The work of the messiah pushes always for justice. The work of the messiah recognizes always that privilege and power will attempt to wait out and overturn anything that is inconvenient. And the work of the messiah refuses to stop pushing for justice, for equity, and for an end to any system that holds people as slaves, or tries to pretend that such things never really happened.

That is why there will be violence.

When it becomes clear that it will not work to wait out the demand for reform, those in charge of protecting power and privilege will work to stamp out what they cannot wait out.

This is where all this becomes difficult and dangerous. The easiest thing is to choose sides and go to war. And the second easiest thing is to scold for choosing sides.

The work of the messiah is harder than either of those options. The work of the messiah honors the complexity of the problems we face, and refuses to let that complexity be the pretext for, once again, doing nothing while pretending to make valiant efforts. The work of the messiah begins by listening to people whose experience of the world we cannot understand. My grandparents came to the United States in the belly of a boat, in steerage, but their experience of desperate hardship does not compare to the experience of people who were captured, chained, and sold.

My mother’s father was scorned and called a “Bohunk” who was stealing jobs from real Americans, but his experience does not compare to the experience of people who have to learn, over and over, that white men who murder people during a church Bible study survive (and are even taken out to eat), while black men who are accused of passing a phony $20 bill, or of selling loose cigarettes, or who are jogging down the street, are murdered, and the murderers historically go free most all of the time.

My friends who have family members in Law Enforcement know that every shift could be the one they fear, the one where everything turns violent, the one you don’t come home from, but even this unimaginable experience does not compare with the experience of my friends who have this same worry every time their son walks to the store or drives to work or jaywalks.

The work of the messiah requires listening, and then working until real change is made. The work of messiah requires being vigilant so that this difficult will not simply be undone once the spotlight is no longer on the problem.

The work of the messiah requires learning, over and over, that this is why the messiah Christians follow could only do that work by being raised from death after being lynched by the forces of power and privilege, the forces that know that what they can’t wait out they have to stamp out. The only answer to such power and privilege comes with the stubbornness of the resurrection.

The work of the messiah requires the resurrection.

A Provocation: Third Sunday After Pentecost: June 25, 2017: Matthew 10:24-39

It is surprising how much today is like three years ago. And disturbing. So the question remains: is God engaged in turning the world right-side-up?

provokingthegospel

Matthew 10:24-39
10:24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;

10:25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

10:26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

10:27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

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