Sunday, July 14, 2013

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

You might say Leviticus is the least read book of the Bible. One of my professors called it ‘scriptural Sominex,” referring to the over-the-counter sleep aid popular south of the border. It is a treasure trove of obscure and arcane laws, largely ignored and mostly forgotten.

Too bad, really, because some are quite useful. Looking only at Leviticus 19, you will find these goodies:

Stand up in the presence of the aged, and show respect for the elderly.

Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity.

Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them.
Don’t put tattoo marks on yourselves.

Don’t mate different kinds of animals. Don’t plant your field with two kinds of seed. Don’t wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

Don’t turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

‘Hold it,’ you say, ‘isn’t that half of the Great Commandment, Jesus’ most concise statement of a life of faith, found in the New Testament?’ It is. But it’s also a quote from Leviticus, with the first half—the love God half—found in Deuteronomy 6.

You see, Jesus loved the scriptures in a way that we often fail to recognize. When he and his disciples weren’t singing Psalms, he was quoting the Bible, interpreting the Bible, promoting the Bible, and in this case—lifting up a couple of passages that summarized the whole thing.

Except in Luke, where he didn’t. You see, the Great Commandment actually appears three times in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. And for Matthew and Mark, Jesus is being interviewed by an expert in the law and provides the two-part summary that we call the Great Commandment:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

That’s Matthew 22, and Jesus’ learned friend is apparently dumbstruck, or at least the evangelist decides not to record his response. Mark 12, however, records the response of this expert in the law, and the blessing that follows. “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right.”

Of course he’s right, he’s Jesus. Nevertheless, they agree, and we see in both Matthew and Mark the same pattern where someone seeks the answer and Jesus provides the answer.

So these are Jesus’ words then, or at least Jesus quoting his favourite verses from the Torah. But listen again to Luke 10, and we see that the focus has shifted providing the answer to seeking an answer from the questioner:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

Only then does the Great Commandment emerge—from the lips of this unnamed teacher of the law.

If you kept going in philosophy, rather than dropping it after the first class as I did, you will recognize this process as the socratic method of inquiry. It is a question-based pursuit of truth whereby the teacher provides questions rather than answers, and in doing so trains the mind of the student to ask their own interior questions as they ponder a given question. Rather than say ‘here’s the truth’ as Jesus is presented in Matthew and Mark, the Lukan Jesus says “How do you read it?”

This does at least two things: First, it requires the student to delve into their own understanding and sift through ideas, to make choices among all the possible ways of explaining the truth of salvation as expressed in the Law, the first five books of the Bible.

Second, it requires the teacher-become-student to apply the wisdom found in the Bible to his own experience: in effect, answering the question ‘what is truth for you?’ Theorists call this andragogy, using the experience of an adult learner to further understanding. In other words, when teacher meets teacher in Luke 10, Jesus draws on the wisdom and experience of this man to pursue truth. And it works.

Sadly, the dialogue ends. The dialogue ends in Luke when Jesus says “do this and you will live.” So for today I want to continue the dialogue, and explore a possible direction that might add truth to truth, or at least paint a picture of one of the challenges of remaining faithful.

What if Jesus asked us which is harder, part A or part B? Is it harder to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and you mind and your strength’ or to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’?

First, I might say ‘remember Friday?’ After a week that only ark-builders could comprehend, Friday was the perfect summer day. Warm, sunny, hardly humid at all, in that sweet-spot in the mid 20’s—in a word—perfect. It is hard not to love the Maker of Heaven and Earth on a perfect summer day. I sat on a patio with my son in the late-afternoon, and talked about drywall: what more can I say?

And loving your neighbour? That seems easy too. Or at least our volunteers in the drop-in make it look easy. Administrative Yodas, ground-beef-Julia Childs, gracious servers and hosts: every volunteer brings devotion and grace to the task of loving our neighbours, and the world is better for it. Yes, there may be challenging moments, and every volunteer can name one or two, but they keep coming back week-by-week, happy to help.

So loving God is easy most days, and loving our neighbour is really not that hard, so how do we answer this vexing question of column A or B, loving God or loving your neighbour as yourself? Loving God or loving your neighbour as yourself?

Well there it is, hiding in plain sight. I’m willing to bet that the most challenging part of the equation for most of us is in the ‘as yourself.’ Self-love, that terribly ambiguous concept that we each must wrestle with has to be about the most difficult thing to manage as we are busy loving God and loving whoever we define as neighbour. 

Many will say we have too much self-love. That excessive love of self is a great sin, and that the point of the Christian life is to let go of self-love and transfer that love on to others. Sounds good, except Jesus just give his maximum blessing to loving neighbour as you love yourself. He didn’t say ‘more than’ or ‘rather than,’ he said ‘love them as you love yourself.

I take this to mean that heathy love of self is critical to being able love others. And without dabbling too deeply into psychology, it seems to make sense. Someone who can’t stand themselves, doesn’t value themselves as a child of God, is hardly going to be equipped to love others. In the same way, when you haven’t experienced forgiveness can you forgive, or extend grace if you’ve never felt grace, and so on.

For too long we have been reading this as ‘you selfishly love yourself, of course, so now extend that love to your neighbour instead.’ But I think Jesus is saying the opposite. ‘Learn to truly love yourself, in spite of what you think, or what others say, and then and only then will you have the inner resources to truly love your neighbour, and those closest to you.’

Then Jesus said ‘do this, and you will live.’ You will live better, and more completely, and more peacefully with yourself and others, and then you can truly love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. Amen.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two[a] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. 3 Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. 4 Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
5 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ 6 If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. 7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.
8 “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’

We are a household of two papers. Carmen reads the local newspaper, I read the national newspaper. Together we have formed a news co-op, highlighting the things that other paper doesn’t cover.

My co-op partner described two stories to me this week, weirdly similar stories that seem to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that our society is going to hell-in-a-handbasket. And no, I didn’t just swear in church, since both hell and handbasket’s are real (though I’ve never actually seen a handbasket).

Both stories appeared in an advice column, something that mercifully doesn’t appear in my newspaper, so I only hear about it when the column is truly outrageous. I’ll let you decide for yourself if the descriptor fits.

The first story was from a disgruntled bride, who posted a complaint on Facebook, directed at a couple who attended her wedding. The bride suggested that perhaps she had offended them somehow—why else would they give a lousy $100 as a gift? ‘Your dinners alone cost $400,’ the bride continued, ‘and let’s not forget the cost of the open bar.’ You can’t make this stuff up.

The second story was from a parent, with an unhappy child, because the child didn’t like a gift received at a recent party. The parent sent the gift back to company, and paid shipping, and now wondered if it would be appropriate to ask the gift-giver for a cheque to cover the cost of the shipping and suggest another gift for the sad little kid.

Am I the only one who sees these as apocalyptic signs of the end of all things? The complete collapse of western civilization? Or as the great moral theologian Bill Murray asked, ‘will we soon see cats and dogs living together?’

At one time someone might suggest that they were going to follow some incredibly foolish course of action and someone near to them might say, ‘no, that’s just rude,’ or ‘that would be incredibly foolish.’ Instead, these things do occur, or at least appear in a nationally syndicated advice column.

We, however, have the Bible to teach us to be gracious, and accept gifts in the spirit in they are given. It is one of the largely overlooked lessons in Luke 10, overshadowed by this detailed description the of early evangelical ministry of the twelve disciples. But not today, for the passage is more than a primer of how to extend the ministry of Jesus, it is an lesson in how to be polite.

The context is the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In chapter nine he sends the twelve out on a sort of trial run—to see how they do—and then receive more wisdom before the real mission begins. He feeds the five thousand, he warms them about his death (twice) and he is transfigured. And immediately after he describes the true cost of being his follower, he sends out seventy-two more.

The first set of instructions, at the beginning of chapter nine, are more concise and designed to give an outline of the mission. He gives them tasks (proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick), some advice on how to pack (light) and what to do when the welcome is not warm. It has same feel as the first time you tell a kid to clean their room: you don’t give them detailed instructions, in part, because you want to see if they can figure it out.

So the first set of instructions are brief and task oriented, while the second set seems to add a moral dimension, less about what to do and more about how to be. Part of the contrast could be the difference between sending out the first twelve and sending out 72 more, but I think it has more to do with refining the instructions, deciding what to highlight and what to let go, what will be truly helpful and what may simply get in the way.

But first, Jesus must set the tone. “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says, “but the workers are few.” Only God can open the heart to this ministry, both as the messenger and the recipient, and therefore we must pray. It seems little has changed from the beginning: cities and towns are filled with people who need to hear the life-altering message of Jesus’ compassion and love, yet the messengers are few. Our job is to encourage each other in this ministry and help each other develop the language of love that says ‘God has an answer for the very thing that is troubling you—spoken through Jesus.’

Next he says “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” And while the opposition may be great, and the desire to quit may be strong, there are things you can do to remain focused: “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals,” he says, “and do not greet anyone on the road.” in other words, the less stuff and the less stalling you do, the more effective your ministry will be.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ Begin with the assumption that people are open to this message of new life you share. “If someone who promotes peace is there,” Jesus says, “your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” In other words, you will not always be successful, even when your intentions are pure and your approach is good, but you will know in your heart that you have done your best.

And then Jesus teaches them to be polite: “Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages.” But a worker (in the Kingdom) cannot say “I prefer shiraz over merlot” or “steak would be nicer than burgers tonight.” And “do not move around from house to house,” because this may cause confusion, and convince some that you really didn’t enjoy their hospitality.

Unconvinced they understood how important these lesson on politeness were, Jesus says it once more: “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you.” This kind of emphasis is more than a burgers and merlot problem, it is a lesson about how you receive a gift. And this takes us back to the newspaper problem. Gratitude is learned, because the instinctive response seems to be “I don’t like it.” But that doesn’t matter, because it’s a gift. And beside, if someone added a post to Facebook every they received a wedding gift they didn’t like, you wouldn’t be able to find the site for all the toasters and steak knives.

Then finally, Jesus turns to the heart of the matter: preaching the Kingdom of God. “After you heal the sick, tell them ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’

So welcome or unwelcome, the message is the same. Whether a gift is received graciously or the response is ‘I don’t like it’ the message of the Kingdom is the same. Whether you are happy with your meal and the lumpy bed in the guest room, the message that the Kingdom of God is near is still the message we share.

And this can be taken two ways. The first is the eternal nature of the message, that we live in the tension between the Lord who says ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’ and also says ‘the Kingdom of God has come near.’ So which is it? Clearly it is both, and we have to deal with the ambiguity of living in the ‘great not yet’ and the very realm that lives deep within us. This is what the Psalmist meant when he said “you have made them little less than angels” (Ps 8). We are nearly filled with God, yet wait for a time of completion.

The second approach to hearing the same message, whether welcome or unwelcome, is that it doesn’t really matter how the message is received. Yes, we carry on the next house or town, and yes, we shake the dust off out feet, but God is still present to these people. The Kingdom is still near, whether it fits our schedule or our preferences or not.

I’ll leave you with a favourite quote, often misattributed to Carl Jung, in part because he loved it so much. It appeared in Latin over his front door and later in his tombstone. It turns out to be an ancient Spartan proverb rediscovered by the Erasmus, made famous by Jung: ‘Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.’ Or more simply, ‘Called or uncalled, God is here.’ Thanks be to God. Amen.

Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit