Saturday, June 18, 2005

Flying Without a Net; Living in the Leap

Suffering and rejection are the summary expression of Jesus' cross. Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled. That it is Peter, the rock of the church, who incurs guilt here immediately after his own confession to Jesus Christ and after his appointment by Jesus, means that from its very inception the church itself has taken offense at the suffering Christ. It neither wants such a Lord nor does it, as the Church of Christ, want its Lord to force upon it the law of suffering.

This makes it necessary for Jesus to relate clearly and unequivocally to his own disciples the "must" of suffering. Just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross...being expelled, despised, and abandoned by people in one's suffering, as we find in the unending lament of the psalmist, is an essential feature of the suffering of the cross, yet one no longer comprehensible to a form of Christian life unable to distinguish between bourgeois and Christian existence. -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

St. Teresa of Avila, the story goes, was hastily leaving a convent one night -- actually, she had been kicked out of it, after attempting to reform its complacent and unspiritual sisters -- when the wheel of her donkey cart hit a ditch along the road and sent the good saint sprawling into the mud. As she sat in the ditch, covered in muck, Teresa is said to have prayed to Christ, "Lord, if this is how you treat your followers, it's no wonder that you have so few of them."

Yet this is indeed the scenario that Christ foresaw for his followers in Matthew's Gospel. The first hearers and readers of this Gospel were members of a Jewish Christian community around 70 AD who, in the wake of Rome's defeat of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, found themselves being expelled from their synagogues, as the larger Jewish community grappled with how to live faithfully in their new religious and political reality. Some commentators suggest that Jesus' comments about rejection and persecution did not actually originate with Jesus, but were redacted into the story because of this situation. But I can't help but think that Jesus and his disciples lived every day with the realization that proclaiming the inbreaking Reign of God was countercultural enough to put them at serious odds with the powers that be; I'm sure this was grist for more than one campfire conversation.

In any event, in last Sunday's and this Sunday's lesson both, we find Jesus warning his listeners that his message of reconciliation, of inclusion, of re-imaging community according to the values of God's Reign, was dangerous stuff. He talks about being called before the political authorities. He talks about being rejected by religious authorities. And, this week, he talks about, in this most family-minded of cultures, being rejected even by one's own kin. His message: Follow me, and you will lose whatever comfort, protection and group identity afforded to you in this world by political, cultural and familial power brokers who want to tell you who you are, how you should live, what you should think and what you should believe. Follow me and you fly without a net.

I suspect that a lot of clergypeople who follow the lectionary decided to preach on the epistle lesson, from Romans, instead today -- good, stern stuff about sin that plays well to the pew, especially since that's easily transferrable to Those Other, Bad People Out There -- or offer a painless paen to dads for Father's Day.

As Bonhoeffer notes in the quote above, the Church over the past two milennia has lost its grip on the radicality of the Gospel; it's become, in many cases, just an amen choir to the agendas of government, bourgeois society and its own internal quest for temporal power. And woe to the person (as St. Teresa, Martin Luther, Oscar Romero and countless others have found out) who actually seeks to refocus the Church on its original Christ-commissioned work in the world.

So...with all that in mind...why would any sane, non-masochistic individual sign onto the Jesus program?

Because that's where Jesus is. That's where God is. And that's where God's beloved anawim, or "little people" are -- all those who have been, in various ways, marginalized, disempowered, wounded, even crushed by political, cultural and tribal forces.

"Do not worry..." "...have no fear..." "Do not fear..." "So do not be afraid..." The same Jesus who prepares his followers for what to expect from the dominant culture also assures us of God's presence and saving power as we work for God's Reign. And instead of the safety net we think we can count on from playing by the rules as dictated by the powers and principalities, Jesus offers us the vision of a fathering/mothering God whose love and care extends even to a fallen sparrow, much less to the wounded friends and followers of God's Anointed One; who knows each hair on our heads; who offers, as one of the epistles puts it, the life that is life.

Flying without a net? Living in the leap. That's Jesus' challenge to us.

Lesbia Weeping Over a Sparrow, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema Posted by Hello


J.C. Fisher said...

Yours is a better sermon than I heard this morning, I'm afraid.

I love my priest---and he's generally a pretty good preacher. His sermon this morning was decent . . . till it flew off the rails right at the end. He said that "Christians, both left and right, are now being persecuted in this society", and I actually gasped (hopefully below-breath, but I'm not sure!) "Whaa??"

. . . and I was sitting behind him (and to the right), in full-view of the congregation, as acolyte! Eek. (I then closed my eyes, and pray'd it would end SOON. God deigned to grant my request. *g*)

Oh well: can't win 'em all . . .

LutheranChik said...

Maybe he meant persecution by other Christians? in, "Lord, save me from your followers"?...I'd give an "amen" to that.;-)

greg said...

We had a good sermon yesterday, and it was on the Gospel passage. Our Vicar never hesitates to just dive right in. There were two thrusts to her sermon, one personal and the other general.

The personal thrust was very moving. She related how she had announced to her family on Father's Day 1996 that she was going to Seminary to become a Lutheran pastor. Given that she comes from a devout Catholic family (Irish mother, Polish father), her parents didn't take this too well. Like they didn't speak to her for a couple of years after she started seminary. And she thought to herself many times that somehow her call just couldn't be real, because no way would God tear up a family like this. But slowly, over the years, her parents have become reconciled to her choice. This Spring they came down to our church to hear their daughter preach (a trip of about 1000 miles), and to meet the congregation. About an hour before the sermon yesterday (as we learned in the sermon) her dad called her up. He said he didn't want to wait for her to call him, but wanted to call first to tell her not to feel guilty for not being with him on Father's day. He told her that he loved her very much, and didn't wish for her to be anywhere besides where she was. I believe that the vicar was crying a little bit when she got to this part, but it was hard to tell because so were most of the rest of us. So you see, she was definitely tuned in to the "setting parents against children" part of the reading.

The second part of the sermon I also liked. She said that Jesus was sort of like those guys on "Trading Spaces." He shows up in your home (or church) with a chainsaw and says "You know, these walls have *got* to come down, because your house is just *way* too small for my table." I just love that picture.

LutheranChik said...

Greg: I love that line! (Imagining The CEO doing the Ty thing...) I might have to "borrow" that image.;-)