Archive for May, 2008

Founded on rock

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Proper 4A
Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24: 8:14-19
Psalm 46
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31
Matthew 7:21-29

It’s interesting, switching from the BCP lectionary to the RCL. The RCL doesn’t read the OT typologically (the OT lesson isn’t chosen to complement the Gospel reading). But that means it is often difficult to weave both ideas into a sermon. This Sunday, however, we have the flood (or at least one version of it), and the house built on rock or on sand.

The image of a storm (at sea) is a common one for chaos in biblical literature (and other literature as well). The Testament of Naphtali has the boat tossed about at sea stand in for the people of God. Qumran literature uses the contrast between the storm at sea with the tower on rock, or the city surrounded with walls for living outside the community and living inside the community.

The contrast between the two builders in Matthew is a pretty standard use of the “two ways” device so common in catechism. Proverbs has Wisdom’s house, with its seven pillars and the wanton woman’s house. Even Augustine’s City of God in structured around the two ways. This story, in Matthew, comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, so the words we are to hear and do are those words.

What strikes me is that the house is built upon a rock, just like Jesus’ says he will build his church on the rock of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:18. Interestingly, the word “church” is only used twice in Matthew’s Gospel (not at all in the other Gospels): here, and at 18:17. In both places, Jesus tells his disciples (first Peter, and then all of them) that whatever they bind on earth is bound, and whatever they loose on earth is loosed (in John’s Gospel, specifically with reference to sin). In Matthew 18, the saying follows the community rule about being reconciled to a brother or sister (go first privately, then with one or two others, and then before the church). The rock on which the church is founded is the rock of reconciliation.

All of the instruction of the Sermon on the Mount has to do with living by the spirit of the law rather than the letter (you have heard it said, but I say to you). The purpose of the commandments is to make community life possible, not to give limits to acceptable and unacceptable deeds. A house built on such an idea will stand.

Even God seems to change God’s mind about destroying all flesh. Removing all flesh because of the corruption in human hearts didn’t work, so God will never do it again. God instead makes a covenant of reconciliation with Noah and his sons and all their wives and all flesh.

And, of course, Paul’s project in the letter to the Romans is to justify this new, mixed community. God’s righteousness and faithfulness to God’s covenants justifies this new way of being. It is God’s faithfulness demonstrated in Jesus’ blood (not our faith in his blood, whatever that might mean), which shows cause for this new group to exist, God being one, justifying the circumcision from faithfulness to the covenant, and the uncircumcision through God’s own faithfulness.

Living by faith?

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 3 (RCL)
Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

The Old Testament reading for this Sunday comes at the end of Isaiah’s second Servant Song, in the middle of the Book of the Restoration. While the Exiles may think that God has forgotten them, and may have forgotten Jerusalem, the prophet assures them in this passage that God has tatooed the name of Jerusalem on the palm of God’s hand. The passage goes on to describe the rebuilding and repopulation of Jerusalem. What is startling about his section of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) is the dawning universalism of the prophet. God will indeed restore Jerusalem, but this restoration will be cause of rejoicing for all people. Zion will be a light to the nations, a sign of God’s goodness to all.

The passage from Matthew comes from Q material. The Q people were engaged in a radical social experiment, defining themselves by their table fellowship with any and all. Their experiment is as surprising as the prophet’s recognition that God’s goodness extends beyond just the restoration of Zion, but to all the world.

In the passage in Matthew, Q’s Jesus asks us to compare ourselves to birds of the air and lilies of the field. Food and clothing are complex social signifiers. What food we eat, with whom we eat it, where and how we eat locate us in a complex social field. A meal on fine china with three forks and three spoons and two glasses communicates one thing, while a burger on a paper plate under a picnic shelter communicates something entirely different. Food is more than feed. A Saville row suit says something different about the wearer than jeans and a shirt.

Q’s Jesus tells us not to worry about what we eat or what we wear, but instead to compare ourselves to the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field. When Jesus gives his instructions to the 12, whom he sends out two by two, he tells them to enter any house that will have them and eat what is set before them. This would have been problematic for a Jew who observed halakah. Nothing prepared in a Gentile household would have been acceptable. Jesus goes on to instruct them to heal the sick and proclaim that the kingdom has arrived. I would argue that the healing of the sick happened at the meal. Those who had been excluded from table fellowship because of their disease were welcomed back, and in the process healed of the social aspect of the illness.

By asking us to compare ourselves to grass and birds, Jesus is asking us not to define ourselves by the social systems around us, not to locate ourselves in social patterns. We don’t very often have to live by faith. It never takes much faith for me to know that I will eat today, or that I will have clothes to wear. Many people in the world do live by faith. It takes great faith for them to have a next meal. Deb described the women in Sudan planting their seed grain when the rains began to fall. Saving that basket of seed grain and putting those grains in the ground took great faith, when they were hungry and could have eaten that grain. Perhaps Q’s Jesus is telling us that if we are willing to eat what is set before us (as do the birds of the air, for whom food is not a social signifier), we can trust that there will be food. If we are willing to wear what is available (like the flowers of the field, who outshine Solomon), there will always be something to wear.

More importantly, if we are willing to gather into a community regardless of who else is there, there will always be a community for us. Like birds and flowers, we are creatures of God, whose names God has written on the palm of God’s hand, and all the rest of it is social construct. Hard to remember that.