Monday, July 26, 2010

On Building Barns

Barn envy. Now there are a lot of different types of envy in the world, but there is none stronger in me than barn envy. I hadn't heard the term before it was brought to my attention by Chris Simoneau, a member of our vestry, here at St. Paul's. When he said it I finally had a name for that covetousness I feel when I drive by a barn with a motorcycle or woodshop behind those giant doors. I have barn envy. I want a giant space to fill with projects, hobbies, and an old antique car that I can work on on weekends. I want a barn. I have barn envy.

When I read our passage for this coming Sunday, it makes me wonder if my barn envy is anything like THAT guy's barn envy. If I'm honest with myself, then the answer is probably 'yes' and 'no'. Jesus' terrifying parable in Luke 12:13-21 (and it is pretty darn scary) is about a man who has a conversation with himself about his financial security. He figures he's got nothing to do with himself other than build a bigger barn to house all of his abundant produce. Just as he's filled to the brim with smug self-satisfaction (and corn apparently) God shows up and demands the guy's life! (See article on Mean Jesus! ;) )

“Luke 12:16 - 21 "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

First, let me say that this is not God's punishment for building barns, sheds or outdoor storage in general. Second, it's a PARABLE. The point of the story after this first pass isn't the sin of barn envy as much as it's an issue of barn myopia. The story is a warning about the danger of the splendid isolation that's possible when we are convinced that our needs are the only needs in the world that matter. This man had a great harvest and probably adequate barn space to handle a harvest big enough to suit his personal needs. But instead of contemplating the greater community or even his abutters, he tears down the old barn, builds a bigger one, and sets up to never worry about HIS material necessities ever again. And there's the problem.

Is it wrong to build barns? No. Is it wrong to build barns without considering the needs of those around you? Yes. If a barn (read company, family, house, church, organization or whatever) isolates you from God and your neighbor, then the "barn" you are building is dangerous for your soul. Remember the conversation that lead to the parable in the first place! A man asks Jesus to arbitrate between he and his brother about their father's inheritance. They have a broken relationship! Money (the barn) has isolated them from one another to the point they need a non-family member to come in and arbitrate! God doesn't want us to build barns if the barn means broken relationship. Barn envy isn't a fatal disorder, but if we're not careful barn envy can and will distract us from God and the ones we love.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mean Jesus

I have fifteen minutes to spend on this post, and while I don't having anything ground breaking or particularly mad to offer my readers I would like to offer an observation from our bible study this morning on the Gospel of Mark. It's a very simple yet profound notion that one of our small band brought forward: Jesus was mean. I laughed. It's true. He was mean. And by 'mean' they meant he was human. He was pointed and direct; at times offensive and impatient or better...exasperated. (This is especially true of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.)

The portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is not of a man who lives in the serene calm of otherworldliness. Jesus is rough, he's tumble. He's got something important to say and he's going to say it. He has something important to do and he's going to do it. He's driven. He's unapologetic. He's never diplomatic. (Except with the give unto Caesar thing. ;) )

He offended sensibilities and he does the same now. It's hard to appropriate this 'mean' Jesus. We like nice Jesus or pleasant Jesus. We like play with the dog and kick the soccer ball around Jesus. We like Jesus when he's on our side. We like him when he agrees with us or fits our mold. We don't like mean people and we don't like Mean Jesus. Problem is that the Gospels give us a really much more interesting portrait of Jesus of Nazareth than Godspell or The Greatest Story Ever Told. What does Mean Jesus mean?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Problem of Preaching and Good News

What does Gospel actually mean? For those of you with some background in Greek you know that the word itself literally means "good news" but the Gospel of Luke never technically calls itself a Gospel. Only the Gospel of Mark uses the term gospel to describe itself in its opening verses. If we look a little deeper we'll notice that a simple word search shows that the word gospel only shows up twice in Luke 9:6 and Luke 20:1. (The Book of Acts will more than triple the number of uses to a whopping 7 times! [note sarcasm])

What I find interesting in the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts is that 'gospel' is almost always something preached. You don't get this good news from the mouth of Jesus or even the disciples without it being preached. And therein lies the modern irony of the Christian gospel. Twenty-first century North Americans don't associate the word or act of preaching with anything good at all. Preaching is synonymous with moralizing and moralizing means that the preacher is pronouncing judgement. There's nothing 'good' about the news preaching brings to the minds of most non-Christians because preaching is by definition an act of self-righteous judgement.

What a distance between the message of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and the modern 'flinch' reflex where preaching is involved or mentioned! In the Gospel of Luke (especially the 10th chapter I've been studying) Jesus is speaking about a reorientation of the human heart toward a deeper love of God and a deeper love of neighbor. Maybe the 'good news' of this message is that there is a different way to live and act in the world with one another without standing in judgement of whether our fellow human beings hit the mark or don't. Deeper love of God and deeper love of neighbor seem so far from modern preaching. How can we preach 'gospel' without becoming the judgmental moralists that preaching presupposes?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mary Has Chosen the Better Part

The big idea of the 10th chapter of Luke up and until this point has been the nature of true discipleship. The chapter begins with the sending of the 70 out into the places where Jesus desired to go. The disciples go and find that like Jesus they are able to cast out demons and cure diseases. They come back understandably astounded by these miraculous things. Jesus then tells them not to stay too focused on these things, but to be aware that the most important thing is to be written into the book of heaven.

The next section of chapter 10 includes the story of the lawyer and the Good Samaritan. Here it would seem that the while the lawyer understands the surface requirements of the law “Love God and love neighbor” he doesn’t understand that, in the eyes of Jesus, the love of neighbor entails a core sense of mercy and compassion among all of the people...even those who should be hated, despised, and ultimately rejected.
Then we arrive at this very interesting little bit about Jesus coming into the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Jesus is invited into the house (Much like the 70 are invited into houses and seemingly the household is eager to hear about the kingdom of God. He won’t be scraping off any dust any time soon.) Then there appears to be a domestic disagreement between Mary and Martha (at least from Martha’s point of view.) Mary is not helping out in the preparations of hospitality as she should.
Luke Timothy Johnson writes in Sacra Pagina: Luke that this is a great breech of etiquette on the part of Martha. Martha has enlisted the help of a stranger to settle a family dispute. Thus Martha ironically has violated the very same domestic hospitality that she blames Mary of having violated herself.
The question then here is, "Is this the point?" Is Jesus pointing out that the more important work of the disciple is not to worry about the surface obligations or the product of the work at hand, but rather to engage the guest who has come into the house? The important thing is not the hospitality being provided, but the guest being feted. This would seem interesting in the notion of discipleship that seems to be playing out in the course of the 10th chapter of Luke. Discipleship is about a climate of interiority that stays focused on the foundational notion of God’s love for the disciple over and against the works that defeat Satan (Luke 10:17-20), an inner sense of mercy that transcends soci-political-racial and class division to see in the “other” in need the identity of the neighbor that allows one to fulfill the law (Luke 10:36&37), and here finally a reprioritization of daily living to notice the one necessary thing which is the good portion that Mary has chosen. (Luke 10:42)
N.T. Wright in Luke for Everyone writes some interesting notes on this passage. He points to the fact that there is a great transgression going on on Mary’s part. In her world to sit at the feet of a teacher was the place of men only. Therefore, for her to do this would be scandalous in Martha’s sense of right and wrong. Wright focuses in on the fact that Luke has a propensity for breaking down the boundaries that exist between men and women; Jew and Greek; slave and free. Mary has taken the equal place of a man at the feet of Jesus and thus recast the notions that Martha knows too well and by which Martha is ultimately circumscribed. For Wright this passage isn’t about the "active vs. spiritual" Christian as many interpreters have thought. Instead it’s about the abundant love of God flowing in and through all people giving everyone access to the kingdom of God.
I.H. Marshall in NIGTC: The Gospel of Luke includes this passage in a grouping entitled “The Characteristics of Discipleship.”
- (40) The interest shifts back to Martha. The verb PERISPAOMAI means in the passive ‘to be pulled, dragged away’, hence ‘to becomedistracted, busy, overburdened’...The implication is that Martha wished to hear Jesus but was prevented from doing so by the pressure of providing hospitality.” p.452
[The implication of this gospel story for parishes is just astounding. How often are parishes so concerned about getting the work of ministry done that they forget to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen and learn? Distracted by Ministry would be a great title for a book! ;) Ministry and hospitality can become a distraction from choosing the better part.]
I wonder if this story isn’t all that unlike the Good Samaritan...Martha and the lawyer occupying the same basic role with Mary as the Samaritan. The lawyer asked Jesus a question about the law. In doing this he was trying to affirm that Jesus believed the way that he did. He was looking for Jesus to give the same answer. “How do I inherit eternal life? Love God and love neighbor. At question in that story was the character of the love of God and the love of neighbor not the outward action.
Was it love for those who are my neighbors in the sense of first century Jewish religious and purity expectations or was it in terms of a spirit of mercy that sees all suffering as a moment to demonstrate love? Love of God and love of neighbor for the Lawyer and Martha is the satisfaction of the encoded obligation. The lawyer fulfills the letter of the Law of Moses, while Martha fulfills the letter of the Law of the Matriarch. Like the lawyer Martha believes she is doing the righteous thing, but in reality (like the lawyer) she’s missing the deeper notion of the Kingdom of God. She has completed the obligation of the “law” but in so doing she’s missed the grace of loving her neighbor in this case it's Jesus himself and he's sitting in her kitchen.

Mary's better part (and by extension the Good Samaritan's too) is to reject the righteous obligations that distract us from our God. Whether he's teaching about the Kingdom in the living room or lying by the side of the road rejected by those who had righteous reasons for leaving him there we can choose the better part.