Monday, October 23, 2017

Which Law Is The Greatest?

Yesterday, we heard Jesus silence the Pharisees with his clever and revealing response to their question about taxes. When he said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God's," they were amazed, which is to say awestruck or dumbfounded. They had nothing to say. Our lectionary skips over the Sadducees' attempt to test Jesus by asking him a complicated hypothetical question about the resurrection and Jesus' successful retort. This week, the Pharisees again will pick up the cause and try to humiliate Jesus (Matt 22:34-46). Remember, Matthew 21 and 22 recall Jesus' triumphal and controversial entry into Jerusalem and the upheaval it caused. All of the religious authorities have been trying to show the crowds that Jesus is merely a pretended. Their questions about authority and their legalistic traps have been attempts to get him to misstep.

In Sunday's gospel lesson, the Pharisees will ask Jesus which commandment is the greatest, and his reply is particularly familiar to those of us who regularly worship in a Rite I service. It's love God with everything you've got and love your neighbor as yourself. I take that answer for granted. I've been taught this two-fold summary of the Law since I was a kid. Today, however, I wonder what the audience would have expected him to say. I wonder why they were so amazed at what has become for us such a familiar distillation of the Mosaic Law.

It's Monday morning, and I haven't checked any commentaries yet, but I recall someone writing that this two-part summary wasn't something Jesus invented. It's insightful for sure, but ever since the Deuteronomistic Historian compiled his work after the Babylonian Exile, Jewish scholars have taught us to look at the Law from a 50,000-foot elevation. This was the trend in Jewish scholarship that focused less on the minutia and more on the spirit behind the laws. This leads to the two-tablet summary of the Ten Commandments: #s 1-4 have to do with God and #s 5-10 have to do with each other. Often in stained-glass windows, you can see Moses holding tablets that group them like this. (Occasionally, #4 on observing the sabbath gets lumped in with 5-10. Also, some artists prefer to divide them up evenly instead of theologically.)

So where's the debate? What sort of trap were the Pharisees setting for Jesus? What is the trick behind this lawyer's question? If we assume that most rabbis would have been familiar with this two-part summary of the law, what sort of answer did they think Jesus would give?

Partly, I wonder whether they were expecting him to take this opportunity to declare that some of the laws weren't important. He had already confronted the religious authorities about the importance of fasting in Matthew 11. He had demonstrated his willingness to come into contact with lepers and other unclean individuals (e.g. Matt. 8). He had repeatedly violated society's understanding of sabbath requirements (e.g. Matt 12). Maybe his opponents expected him to say, "Well, since you asked, we can surely disregard this part and that part." But, of course, he didn't say that.

Maybe Matthew is making the point that Jesus was obedient to the law in ways that the Pharisees never considered. Maybe the point isn't really the trap that they supposedly set for him but the opportunity to demonstrate his spiritually significant approach to the law. Or maybe the Pharisees did expect Jesus to struggle to find an answer. Maybe the two-fold summary wasn't as popular as I think it was. Maybe they were waiting for him to say, "You shall have no other gods but me," so that they could reply, "What about all the rest, you law-breaking trouble-maker!" But that doesn't seem right to me.

This week, as I consider what God is saying to God's people, I find myself wanting to go beyond the trap that the Pharisees set and ask why Jesus' attitude toward the law remains central to our relationship with God. Why do we summarize the law this way every Sunday in our Rite I worship? Why do we need to be reminded that the life God invites us to embrace is one of loving God and loving our neighbor? How is that the place where abundant life is to be found?

Inseparable Wealth: Everything Is God's

October 22, 2017 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself in a bit of a verbal trap. For the last three Sundays, he has been telling parables about disobedient sons, wicked tenants, and ungrateful wedding guests, and the religious authorities are tired of it. They’re tired of Jesus telling stories that make them look like self-righteous fools, so they approach him with a question of their own: “Tell us, Rabbi—sincere, faithful, impartial rabbi that you are—is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” In front of almost any audience, that would be a tricky question. Remember that the Jewish people lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire and that they would have struggled each day to find the right balance between worshiping their own God and respecting the authority of the emperor who called himself a god. But Matthew lets us know that this particular situation was even more treacherous than usual.

The Pharisees had gone out of their way to bring some Herodians with them. We know who the Pharisees were—strictly observant Jews who were known and revered for their fastidious faithfulness. The Herodians are a little trickier to pin down. As far as we can tell, they were a group of Jesus’ contemporaries who supported Herod the Great and his successors, which means that they were a political party loyal to Herod’s children and dedicated to the preservation of their power. The Roman Empire had chosen Herod and his descendants to administer the Palestinian territory, to keep peace in the region, and, above all else, to collect taxes and send the revenues back to Rome’s coffers. In other words, the super-religious Pharisees, who resented Roman rule in Judea, brought some Roman sympathizers with them and then, in front of the whole group, asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

It was a little like being at the Thanksgiving table and having your mother remark, “Son, I think your wife’s cornbread dressing might be even better than mine. What do you think? Is hers better?” Or maybe it was like being a candidate in an Alabama parish’s search for a new rector and having one of a dozen people ask whether you cheer for Auburn or Alabama. As soon as the question was asked, everyone fell silent and leaned forward to hear what sort of answer would be given. For Jesus, there was no right answer. If he had said, “Yes, of course we have to pay our taxes,” the Pharisees would label him as a mealy-mouthed rabbi who cared more about staying out of trouble than standing up for God’s people. If he had said, “I recognize no authority but that of my father in heaven,” the Herodians would brand him a traitor and have him arrested for sedition. But Jesus wasn’t willing to accept the trap that they had laid for him.

“Show me the coin used to pay the tax,” Jesus said to them. When they brought it to him, he asked, “Whose head is this and whose title?” That was easy enough, they thought to themselves. “The emperor’s,” they replied. And Jesus said, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” If that sounds like a clever response, it is, but, if you think that it’s clever because Jesus is giving us a helpful, careful way of divvying up what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, you’ve missed the point. Matthew tells us that the people “were amazed,” when they heard Jesus’ response. They weren’t amazed because of how wise the answer was. They were amazed because they didn’t know what to say. The word that is translated for us as “amazed” also means “awestruck” or “dumbfounded.”

Clearly the coin belonged to the emperor. It was his face on it—his graven image that made the coin itself a violation of the second commandment. The coin and the tax that it represented were claimed by Caesar. But just because the emperor claims something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also belong to God. As soon as the words came out of Jesus mouth, the people knew. That’s why they were amazed. They recognized that Jesus had presented to them the same sort of verbal trap that they had laid out for him. It didn’t matter whose image and title were on the coin. It didn’t matter whose law required that the tax be paid. Even if the emperor wanted the coin for himself and even if the people were willing to give it to him, it still belonged to God.

Everything belongs to God. They knew it, and we know it, too. It doesn’t matter whether we mail it off to Uncle Sam or keep it in our bank account. It doesn’t matter whether we put it in the offering plate or use it to buy lottery tickets, booze, and women. The question for us isn’t to whom it belongs. It all belongs to God. The question is how we will decide use it.

People don’t like it when preachers and lay leaders talk about money, and this is the time of the year when they seem to talk about it a lot. I think the reason that we don’t like it is because people in my position typically ask the same sort of guilt-laden, grace-denied question that the Pharisees and Herodians asked of Jesus. In some form or another, it sounds like, “How much of your money are you supposed to give to God?” But that’s a trap that can’t really be answered. The question implies that we can separate what belongs to us and to the government and to our creditors from what belongs to God. I don’t want to ask that kind of question because I don’t believe that there is any room for “should” or “ought” or “supposed to” in the gospel. Instead, I want to invite you to ask yourself what God is calling you to do with God’s money.

When we remember that it all belongs to God and we stop thinking about stewardship as a tax on the blessings we have been given, we discover what it means to dedicate joyfully our resources to the transformation that God is carrying out in our lives, in this parish, in our community, and around the world. You aren’t being judged on whether you give more to the emperor than you give to God. You are being invited to use God’s money to make God’s kingdom come—in your heart, in this church, and in the world. You don’t get to choose to whom the money belongs. It already belongs to God. But you do get to choose how you will use it, and that choice belongs exclusively to you.

My family and I have found that by giving away more and more of our income we have learned what it means to dedicate our whole lives to God. This year, we gave the first 13% of our income as a pledge to this church in addition to our gifts to the diocese, to other charities, and to the capital campaign. That kind of giving has taught us what it means to trust that God will take care of us. We don’t worry about money or my job or our retirement or even about putting four kids through college. Instead, we’ve found a financial discipline that enables faith to take those worries away. We hear God asking us to dedicate our whole selves to the work of making God’s kingdom a reality here on earth, and our giving is how we begin to make our whole selves available to answer that call. And this year, like every year, we want to grow even more in that part of ourselves that we give back to God.

God isn’t asking you to give a particular amount, and neither am I. Instead, God is asking for your whole life to belong to him, and it’s my job as your priest to invite you to see that. God wants you to experience the transformation that God’s kingdom brings, and your gifts are part of what makes that transformation happen. The money, the time, and the energy at your disposal already belong to God. How much of them you will give is up to you. What portion of God’s blessings is God inviting you to devote to that kingdom’s work? What percentage of your life is God calling you to give back to him? This week, spend some time praying about the coming of God’s kingdom and your part in it. Don’t ask God how much you should give. Instead, ask God to show you how much you can give. Ask him to show you what it means to belong completely to God. Next Sunday during church, we will pass out pledge cards and decide together how much of ourselves we will devote to what God is doing at St. John’s. My hope and prayer is that all of us will know what means to belong completely to God and the freedom and faith that flow from that truth.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Ignatius of Antioch, Lion-Ground Wheat

Feast of Ignatius of Antioch - October 17, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

So committed was Ignatius of Antioch to the Way of Jesus that, as he travelled to Rome under soldiers' guard, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome urging them not to interfere with his upcoming martyrdom by wild beasts. Even if he was to be ripped apart by lions, he saw his own execution as an opportunity to demonstrate to other Christians an example of the fulfillment of their proclamation that to follow Christ is to suffer for Christ's sake.

Sometimes we exaggerate when we tell the stories of saints, but this part seems to be real. While travelling to Rome from Syria, Ignatius wrote letters to various Christian communities across the Empire, of which we have seven. In addition to embracing his own death, Ignatius wrote about the importance of the historical Jesus, rejecting the pre-Docetist claims that Jesus was divine only and not truly human. He implore the early Christians to remain united to one another in Eucharistic fellowship, which he described as "the medicine of immortality." Stressing the need for unity, he even coined the phrase "catholic church." It was this understanding of salvation through unity with Christ and with Christ's Body--both in its Eucharistic presence and its incarnation as the church--that gave Ignatius confidence as he approached his death in Rome. For him, salvation meant facing even a grisly death without fear because of the confidence imputed to those who truly belonged to Christ as members of his body. This kind of devotion led to non-historical traditions like Ignatius being one of the children whom Jesus welcomed even though the disciples would have forbidden it. Can't you imagine how someone so transformed by the Body of Christ might have actually been embraced by it as a little child?

What does it mean to have faith like that? What does it mean for salvation to be not only a ticket to heaven but a confidence in the face of great persecution? On the Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we pray, "Almighty God, we praise your Name for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray, the willing tribute of our lives and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of your Son Jesus Christ." Ignatius must have been certifiably crazy to anticipate his martyrdom in the jaws of lions with joy. Countless Christians, who likewise were brutally killed for their faith, must have been absolutely insane to endure such suffering for the sake of Christ. Even today, followers of Jesus who are murdered in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia must be crazy to think that following Jesus means embracing a death like his. But they do it. And Christians always have. And why? Because the saving work of Jesus Christ has given them the incomprehensible conviction that to die in faith is to live for Christ.

Paul writes, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." We often read those words at a funeral, when we bring our own grief to God and ask for comfort that dries our tears and warms our hearts. Paul wrote them as one who knew first-hand what it meant for followers of Jesus to be executed for their faith. He knew what it meant to use the power of death to attempt to rip someone off the Way of Jesus and cast them into the despair of hell. But once he discovered the power of God's love in Jesus Christ, he recognized that nothing--not death, not life, not spiritual powers, not physical powers, not past or present or future could ever come between God's love and God's people.

Are we called to suffer like that? I don't know. It feels inadequate to compare our suffering with that of the martyrs. Our suffering may not be of the same order of magnitude, but our faith is exactly the same as theirs. Whether we are to be ground like grains of wheat in the teeth of lions or beheaded by masked Islamist terrorists or die peacefully surrounded by our family, we approach death with the same insane confidence that Ignatius possessed. Whether our house burns to the ground or our child dies in an automobile accident or our charmed life preserves us from any measurable suffering beyond a hangnail or a splinter, we still know that there is nothing that can take God's love away from us.

There is power in Jesus suffering and death, and the power it brings us is not limited to what we will discover on the other side of life. It is a power that fills us even now. When we declare that, through Christ, God has triumphed over death itself, we are not merely stating that there is life beyond the grave. We mean that the confidence that promises to carry us into God's arms dwells within us now. No matter what lies ahead of us, God is with us. No matter who is against us, God is for us. We cannot see that unless we have the faith that allows us to embrace even a terrible death. Or, put another way, only the faith we have enables us to embrace whatever suffering and death lies ahead of us. May we know the saving power of God as a power that brings us hope not only beyond this life but right in the midst of it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Where Does Value Come From?

This Sunday's gospel lesson comes at the perfect time for clergy who are looking for an excuse to talk about stewardship. It's Jesus' famous exchange with the Pharisees about paying taxes (Matthew 22:15-22), in which Jesus ultimately says, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." There are, of course, two problems with that: 1) successful stewardship campaigns are not built in a day and 2) good sermons are not based on a conclusion that comes before the text is studied. If you're surprised to discover that this week's gospel makes for a good stewardship sermon, you'd probably be better off preaching on one of the other lessons. We must sit with this gospel lesson long enough to see what comes from it. Jesus did not have a parish's annual giving appeal in mind when he spoke these words. They may help inform such an appeal, but it will take more than a week's pondering to get there.

Dig deeply into the context of this gospel lesson. Start by reviewing Matthew 21 and 22. Notice that this exchange happens after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after the cleansing of the temple, and after three parables about the kingdom of God. This passage isn't about taxes or tithes. It's about authority. Matthew's editorial comments help us get to the heart of the matter: "The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said." Jesus isn't talking about money, and the Pharisees aren't interested in what he has to say. This is a trap. There is no right answer. If Jesus says that faithful people shouldn't pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Roman seditionist and hand him over to the secular authorities for punishment. If Jesus says that everyone must pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Jewish sell-out and use a smear campaign to undermine his popularity with the crowds who are looking for someone to galvanize their anti-Roman sentiments. If we attempt to mine Matthew 22:15-22 for a teaching on the tithe, we're likely to come up empty handed. It just isn't here. To get to that point, we've got to go deeper--beyond the context of this passage while remaining faithful to it.

What is the real issue here? It's all about authority. Whose authority will we respect? The religious elites? The traditions of our people? The government? The Bible? The Constitution? The Pharisees approach this encounter with the assumption that we cannot be faithful both to sacred and secular. In their minds, we must choose. Will we be loyal to God or to the government? But Jesus rejects the premise behind their question. He's not interested in answering their question as they have asked it. He wants them to go deeper. Instead of allowing them to force him to answer an unanswerable question, he forces them to confront the unanswerable premise behind their question: "Whose head is this, and whose title?...Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." In other words, you decide.

What gives a coin its value? What makes a $20 bill worth $20? Is it the face printed on it? Is it the government behind it? Is it the collective agreement of our society? Is it the fact that you can buy 4 value meals at Wendy's with it? According to the Federal Reserve, it costs around 11 cents to make a $20 bill. Does that mean it's actually worth only 11 cents? A penny costs 1.5 cents to make. Why isn't it worth more than a penny? What happens if the confidence in the government whose name and imprint are backing the bill disintegrates? What is a $20 bill worth then? Perhaps real value comes from somewhere else.

Where does the true value of anything come from? That's the question Jesus forces us to ask ourselves. The Pharisees want him to choose between God and Rome. The choice itself implies that Rome's authority, identity, or value come from somewhere other than God. No, the unholy, ungodly Roman Empire and the semi-divine Emperor whose likeness is on the coin are not aligned with God's kingdom. In fact, it's pretty clear that they are directly opposed to it. But the persistence of the Roman occupation and administration of Palestine does not negate God's authority. Our faith requires us to see God at work beyond the institutions that seem opposed to God's reign. We "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," but we always remember that everything--even the forbidden coin with the graven image of the enemy of God's people on it--comes from God.

What does that mean for stewardship? Well, it means a lot. But it's not as simple as a first look at the lesson provides. I'm preaching on stewardship this Sunday, but I'm not using this gospel lesson to remind people that they need to give to their church before they pay their taxes to Caesar. That misses the point. I hope the sermon will embrace an even bigger understanding of where all good gifts come from and our faithful response to that generosity. But, as I've written here, that's going to take some work.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

To Whom Is Jesus Speaking?

On Sunday, we encounter the challenging parable of the wedding banquet. In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus describes the kingdom like a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. When the time for the banquet came, he sent out his slaves to bring in the invited guests, but they declined. So he sent them out a second time, informing the guests that all was ready and urging them to come in, but they all made excuses, even beating or killing some of the king's servants. So, as we've come to expect in Jesus' parables, the king takes the invitation away from the original guests, burning their city, and urges his slaves to bring in anyone and everyone they can find: "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet."

For three parables in a row, Jesus has been speaking to those who questioned and challenged his authority. "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" the religious leaders ask him after he's come into Jerusalem and cleansed the temple of the money changers. Jesus had directly challenged the principal religious institution of his people, and its representatives wanted to know how he presumed to justify these actions. In response to their inquiry, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons--one who says he'll do the father's will but doesn't and one who refuses to help his father but does. He wants these challengers to see that they are judged by their actions and not their words. Then, without interruption, he tells the parable of the wicked tenants, who had been leased a vineyard but refused to give the owner his share of the produce. The owner then destroyed the wicked tenants, who had killed his own son, and gave the vineyard to new tenants. At this point, Matthew lets us know that the religious authorities perceived that Jesus was speaking about them, and they were angry about it, but they didn't want to disappoint the crowd, so they didn't do anything.

Then Jesus gets to this third parable about the wedding banquet. Again, he seems to be speaking to the authorities. He's letting them know that his ministry as God's son involves stripping ownership of God and God's kingdom from those who had always presumed to have it and bestowing it upon new, faithful servants of God. We see that in all three parables. The presumed insiders find themselves on the outside, and those whom they would have excluded have taken their place.

But then there's a twist. With this third parable, Jesus introduces extends the understanding of presumed inclusion becoming one's exclusion to those who had only recently received the benefits of the kingdom. One of the guests who had been brought in when the king sent his servants to welcome anyone and everyone they could find had come into the banquet without a wedding robe. When the king saw him, he was ordered to be bound and thrown out into the outer darkness. In other words, Jesus warned those who had found their fortunes reversed not to presume their place was secure. What important words for God's people to hear!

God welcomes sinners to his table--both those whom society excludes and those in society who exclude others. God allowed misfits to come into his kingdom--both those who live notorious lives of sin and those who judge sinners for living notorious lives. If you're in the banquet because you've always belonged there, scoot over and make room for those who have never been included. If you're in the banquet for the very first time, don't be surprised that those who have presumed to keep you out are also there. Participation in the kingdom of God means full acceptance of God's grace. You must wear a wedding robe. Even though invited in at the last minute, you must be ready for the fullness of the kingdom. You can't accept grace when it's convenient to you. It's all or nothing.

Followers of Jesus have had 2000 years to hear him speak words of radical welcome on our behalf. We must always remember that his welcome extends always to those we would presume to exclude. Otherwise, we're the ones being thrown into the outer darkness.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Will The Real Misogynist Please Stand Up?

Two weeks ago, Hugh Heffner died. Some took the opportunity to praise him for his commitment to free speech, while others, like Ross Douthat in his op-ed piece in the New York Times, preferred to strip away the red, white, and blue bunting and remind us that, beneath the self-applied patriotic plaudits, Heffner's empire was, in fact, built on the objectification and exploitation of women. Becoming rich while spending all day in one's pajamas may require some artistic and entrepreneurial genius, but, smoking jacket not withstanding, Heffner was little more than a flag-carrying smut peddler.

A week later, Cam Newton expressed comedic surprise when a woman sports reporter asked him a technically sophisticated question during a press conference: "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes's funny." Immediately, Newton was lambasted by the media, who rightly seized on Newton's insensitive remarks to point out gender bias in sports. Although the ongoing National Anthem controversy has helped the Carolina quarterback avoid further scrutiny, Newton's responses to the media pushback have been less than encouraging. At first, he claimed that he was only being sarcastic and trying to compliment Ms. Rodrigue for being such an intelligent intelligent female reporter. Apparently, Mr. Newton can't tell that complimenting a woman for doing a "man's job" with surprising proficiency is, in fact, an insult.

Last Sunday, when preaching on the parable of the wicked tenants, I described a number of signs that we, like the tenants, collectively fail to bear fruit for the kingdom and, instead, prefer to keep it for ourselves. Within that list, I mentioned the persistence of sexism: "Instead of living in a world in which the dignity of every human being is equally respected, our children look up to celebrities who treat women as second-class citizens and praise them for their sexuality instead of their full humanity." I had Cam Newton in mind, but I chose the pluralized word "celebrities" on purpose because I know that Cam isn't the only public figure to reveal his disrespect of women. It's a part of the broken world in which we live. It's a part of my life, and I repent of the ways in which I perpetuate the second-class treatment of women as a member of the still-male-dominated clergy community.

This Sunday, we will hear some important words from Paul as he concludes his letter to the Philippians: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life." Back when I was in seminary, I was asked to write an essay in response to the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" For many, Pauline words about wives submitting to their husbands and keeping their heads covered and their mouths shut while in church earn him an indelible label as a woman-hater. Indeed, these words have been used for many centuries to perpetuate discrimination and violence against women both inside and outside the church. I can sort through a range of responses to them--Paul was addressing a specific problem or Paul's culture was so different from our own that we don't really understand what he meant--but I recognize that they aren't completely convincing. It's clear to us that Paul was, indeed, biased against women. But then we read words like these about his co-workers and partners in the work of the gospel and we wonder, "How can Paul the misogynist have described these women like that?"

Paul may have accepted and, in a few instances, perpetuated a culture in which women were thought of as second-class citizens, but he did not deny them their full and equal value in the eyes of God. Paul was the one who looked at the power of Jesus Christ and wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). He may have promoted traditional, patriarchal family roles, but for him ministry was a genderless occupation. These women he mentions were experiencing some sort of conflict. Did Paul appoint a man to straighten them out? No. He urged them to take care of it on their own: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord." Did Paul describe them as staffers who worked under him? No. He identified them as "co-workers" who "struggled beside me in the work of the gospel." Beside is an important word. The Greek is "συναθλέω," which means "to compete together with others" as on a team. Another important word is found in the instruction that Paul gives his reader: "help these women." The word translated as "help" is "συλλαμβάνω," which, in this dative-of-a-person construction literally means "to take hold together with one in order to assist." (See Strong.) Paul wants his reader to treat these women in the same way that he has treated them: as full, equal, unified partners.

Those in the twenty-first century who are surprised that a woman can do a "man's job" just as well as her male counterparts could learn a thing or two from Paul. Yes, Paul could learn a thing or two from us as well, but it seems clear to me that misogyny--the strong bias against women--persists not in Paul's understanding of the Christian community but among those who fail to understand how God works in creation and through Jesus. God created us equals and co-workers. Sin has broken that equality, and the perpetuation of inequality is a symptom of sin. Jesus came to reunify us to God and to erase those artificial distinctions. Whether through their jokes or sarcastic compliments or spending habits or hiring practices, those who continue to support a system that praises women not for their humanity but for the ways in which they satisfy or humor men are working against the kingdom of God. And those within the church who have access or control access to the pulpit need to recognize that.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Leader Failure

One year to the day after I began a career as an ordained minister, my boss went on sabbatical. In the three months that followed, I learned a lot about how systems work. My boss had been ordained for twenty-four years. I had been ordained for exactly one. My boss had been the rector of that parish for twelve years. I had been the curate for twelve months. We worked together to set up clear procedures during his absence. I would run staff meeting and vestry meetings and other administrative pieces, and another employee would approve the financial expenditures. But no one decided ahead of time what to do when people started to revolt.

Looking back, it wasn't terrible. It just felt terrible. We had a relatively new children's director who had brought fresh, exciting ideas to the parish. Some of those changes were threatening to some of the parents and other stakeholders, and, about a week after my boss left, my phone started ringing. People wanted to tell me just how terrible things were, how our children's program was falling apart, and how people would start leaving the church if I didn't do something. "What do you think I can do about that?" I asked, unsuccessful in my attempts to quiet things down. Eventually, the rector had to come back from sabbatical and meet with concerned people, including me and the children's director. Perhaps if I had been there longer and had more authority in the system and had more experience in parish dynamics, I could have done a better job of diffusing that anxiety, but, as it was, there was only one person who could convince the parish that everything was going to be ok, and that was my boss.

When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law from the Lord in Exodus 32, he was gone for a long time. During his absence, Aaron learned a lot about the system he inhabited. "When the people saw that Moses delayed...the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." I don't know what's less surprising: that the people gave up on God and Moses so quickly or that Aaron agreed to their plan without hesitation. In the verses that follow, we read how Aaron told them to take off their gold rings so that he could melt and cast them into the image of a calf. "These are your gods, O Israel!" the people proclaimed in front of the idol, and Aaron built an altar and established a festival to worship it.

Systems need leaders. They always have them. Usually, they're clear--a rector, a boss, a parent--but sometimes they are chosen by the system in informal ways--a playground captain, a classroom example-setter, a star athlete. When the appointed leader of a system is unavailable, the system shifts until it finds someone else to take over. That change is an anxious, challenging time. Some systems are able to handle such change more easily than others. Some leaders have helped diffuse their authority throughout the system so that not everything falls apart when those leaders are absent for a while. Others, as we know too well, haven't figured out how to help people know that they will be ok even when the leader is absent.

Who is to blame in Exodus 32? As the story is told to us, the people almost immediately demand new leadership--a new Moses and new gods. They cannot handle the uncertainty of Moses' prolonged absence. They are anxious and unwilling to inhabit their anxiety. They're accustomed to complaining to Moses when they are unhappy and Moses fixing all of their problems. They don't know how to solve this problem on their own, so they choose another leader and other gods to take Moses and the Lord's place.

Aaron does no better. He agrees to the people's request immediately. He is fully invested in this new leadership role. Instead of being differentiated from the anxiety and demands of the system, he falls victim to them. As we see later in Exodus 32 when Moses returns, Aaron is quick to throw the blame on the people: "You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, 'Make us gods who shall go before us…' They gave [their gold] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf." That's hardly what happened, but it shows us Aaron's flaw.

We could also blame Moses, who has been quick to accept the anxiety of the people onto himself. When they were hungry, he ran to God and got it fixed. When they were thirsty, he ran to God and got it fixed. The system had learned to expect that Moses and only Moses could solve their problems. No one knew how to take care of himself or herself anymore. That contributed to their impatience and anxiety in Moses' prolonged absence.

We can't blame the Lord, but his response to Moses is telling: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.'" Your people. Not my people. God isn't accepting responsibility for this problem. He's willing to call them "my people" when he hears their cry from Egypt, but, as soon as they start to worship the image of a golden calf, they belong to Moses. Again, I don't think we can blame God for this, but the way the story is told to us matters. We're left with a feeling that even God himself isn't functioning in the system as freely as God might.

What does this mean for us? Change is hard. Systems will work fiercely to maintain their equilibrium even if it's an unhealthy one. Parishes that have a long history of underfunctioning clergy will not easily accept a go-getter for a rector. Families that have accepted substance abuse for decades will struggle to accept sobriety. Communities that are comfortable with decision-making power being concentrated in the hands of a few will have a hard time learning how to share that authority throughout the community. A new rector, a new prayer book, a new marriage canon, a new altar guild chair, a new building, a new bishop, a new president--change is always difficult.

Our job as congregational leaders and family leaders and community leaders is to help other people in our system accept their own anxiety and deal directly with their own conflict. Change is difficult, but change is inevitable. How we prepare for that change makes a big difference. Are we constantly putting out fires, holding everyone together in a conflicted system by sheer determination? What happens when we cannot do that anymore? Are we so authoritarian that every decision needs to come through us? What happens when we move on? Not even Moses lasts forever. By the end of Deuteronomy, he's figured out how to transition away from leadership. What about us? Are we stuck in the wilderness, or are we headed for the Promised Land?