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Friday, February 28, 2014

Two masters, Bob White, Lily, Rose, and Violet (A8O)

This is the last of the Sundays we will hear from the Sermon on the Mount, but don't give up hope. It comes in again on Ash Wednesday, and 5 more times on the weekdays of Lent. If it's true that the Lenten lectionary is a road map to Easter, or a crash course in Christianity as the elect approach baptismal waters (and we approach those waters to renew our vows), then the Sermon on the Mount holds a place of honor in Christian teaching about how we ought to see ourselves and one another, reverence God, and live in the world.

The first section of the Gospel today appears to be from a different track than the rest, because the first reading and psalm prepare us more directly to hear the second part of the gospel. But as I was telling folks at a talk I gave this week at the parish on baptismal promises and Lent, the first verses of Sundays gospel are one of many insights we can get from the words of Jesus in the gospel about the meaning of "Repent, and believe the good news." In preaching the reign of God, Jesus was saying, "Compare the world I am offering you under God as Father with the world you have with god as Caesar, and follow me!" Two gods, two masters, this was literally the world of the church in the first centuries of its existence, and it has been pretty much so ever since. Caesar, in Dominic Crossan's language, offers a world of "peace through violence," peace through threats, torture, tribute, and occupation. Peace, in other words, for a few, at the expense of the many. Jesus, on the other hand, offers a world of peace through justice, peace through invitation, mutuality, loving-kindness, and forgiveness.

The world of the empire of God is revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, of which this gospel is a piece. So Jesus says, "No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." With that last sentence, the rest of the story turns toward the needs of most peasants: daily bread, survival until work the next day, and the worry engendered by family responsibility. But underlying the saying as a whole is the sense that other gods are competing for the allegiance of the world, and trying to serve more than one can only lead to unhappiness, dissociation, and alienation. The empire of God, Jesus proclaims, is close at hand. What we need is metanoia, a turning-around within, and to start walking in that other realm, living as church in God's world. The "kingdom of heaven" is not, in fact, "light-years away," but as close as turning around. Its home is in this (and every) world. God is already here; it is we who have been absent.

But those first verses are not really in a different place from the rest of today's scripture message at all. Jesus wants us to turn away from god-Caesar and turn toward God-Father, but what is his God like? Is he the vengeful, jealous, violent god whom we think we know from the Old Testament, wielded like a weapon by the some preachers and some belief systems to frighten us into obedience? The answer is right in the text of the Sermon on the Mount. God is not an emperor, or a general, or a bookkeeper, or a disinterested super-scientist, but like the head of a household. What God wants is children who trust in goodness, and who act in the household like a family, and imitate their "Father in heaven."

We have heard the lovely section of Isaiah 49 today that recalls to me Carey Landry's sweet little ballad, "I Will Never Forget You," from which it is derived. God is like a mother to Israel, that is, to all of us together. But even if a mother could forget her child, God's tender loving-kindness will endure. Psalm 62 urges us to "rest in God alone," to trust at all times in God as rock, fortress, and refuge. Then comes that gospel, first the admonition about choosing your god wisely, and then the parable of the birds and flowers.

John Pilch offers a wonderful insight into hearing this gospel, one that we can't get from a casual hearing because it involves some language wordplay. The text is this:
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes?
Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor
was clothed like one of them.
What Pilch points out is that the gospel has Jesus uses a masculine noun (birds), and then says, "they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns...." Then, a feminine noun (wild flowers) and says, "they do not work or spin...." His peasant listeners would not have missed his point. I was thinking it would have been like he said, "Look out there at Bob White and Whippoor Will, you don't see them worried about their future, planting, reaping, harvesting. God still feeds them. Check out Lily, Rose, and Violet in the field — they're not spinning a new cloak or worried about how they look, but how beautiful they are!" It's a risk, Jesus knows, to rely on other people. Isolation in the world of first century Judaism was a death sentence, hence the admonition to protect widows and orphans. To be part of the group was to have a chance at survival. The mission to fashion a new world that repents or turns away from its fascination with violence and cooperation by fear and force with the civilizing strategy of Caesar, and turns instead to the task of forging relationships of trust, sacrifice, and concern for the other based on "the golden rule," another teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, will require a community choosing to live that way, and spreading the good news of a different way to others, and building more communities of love.
So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’
or ‘What are we to drink?’or ‘What are we to wear?’
All these things the pagans seek.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.
Choosing the right god, for Jesus, choosing to live in the community of Abba, aware that every single person in the world, including stranger and enemy, is a beloved daughter or son of the Father, is the beginning of this new life. It is a turning around, it is to repent and believe the good news. It is metanoia, a changing of mind, heart, attitude, and allegiance. It requires all of us together. And it requires a decision from each of us.

That decision, I submit to you, is the decision to renew our baptismal promises at Easter this year, as it was last year. The entire point of Lent, which begins this Wednesday, is to repent, that is, to turn away from sin (i.e., the strategy of violence, fear, and greed) and believe in the good news of an empire of mutuality, just relationships, love, and service. If we can find a way to do these things authentically, then we can answer yes to the questions, "Do you reject sin?" and "Do you believe in God, the Father..., Jesus Christ his only Son,...and the Holy Spirit...?"

It's all of a piece, isn't it? We don't have those Sundays any longer that "counted down" to Lent (L, "quadregisma," i.e., forty), that were called "Septuagesima" (seventy), "Sexagesima" (sixty), and my fave, "Quinquagesima" (fifty). But we could hardly ask for a better set of scriptures to lead into the season of Lent than the ones we have Sunday.
No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
Once again, Christians, it's time to make a choice.

What we're singing at St. Anne's this weekend:

Entrance: Rain Down (Cortez), because of its joyful faith that God's love will "rain down" on all of us, good and bad alike, and that we can trust in its goodness all our lives.
Psalm 62: In God Alone (Haas), because of its lovely, inviting music that leads us into calm confidence that our choice for God is the right one.
Preparation Rite: You Alone (Cooney) or Eye Has Not Seen (Haugen). "You Alone" because it takes the images from the gospel, weaves it with other scripture and St. Augustine, and leads the community to its heart's desire, the God of Jesus.
Communion: Taste and See (Moore), because the world is full of the presence of God, and that presence is goodness, and the Eucharistic meal is par excellence the place where we can experience that divine presence.
Sending Forth: Halle, Halle, Halle (Arr. Bell) - for the "burial" of the Alleluia until Easter