zeal

beyond binary

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  As with most presbyteries in our denomination, the percentage of our membership is overwhelmingly white—much higher than the national average, even higher than the local population.  The percentage of people over the age of 50, indeed over the age of 60 (how about 70 or 80?), is way over the national average.

A Committee on Representation looking at those factors might be excused for throwing up their hands in despair!  Depending on the circumstances, a congregational nominating committee might have a similar reaction!  But representation encompasses a wide variety of fascinating goodies, including as our Book of Order says, “due consideration to both the gifts and requirements for ministry” (G-3.0103).

Consider a couple of passages from the gospel of St. Luke.  Jesus calls his disciples together (how many of them were there to choose from?) and selects his inner circle.  There seems to be a diversity in occupation, social status, and who knows—in favorite food?

1 lk

Two of the more interesting choices are Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot.

First, let’s look at Matthew.  Tax collectors were hated by the Jews.  It wasn’t simply that they collected taxes(!), but that they were corrupt.  The Roman Empire designated an amount to raise through taxation, but Matthew and his kind were free to collect over and above as much as they wanted.  They could do this with almost complete impunity.  After all, they enjoyed the protection of Roman soldiers.  Extortion doesn’t do much in the way of winning friends—neither does collaborating with a despised foreign government!

As for Simon the Zealot, he identified with a group “zealous” in their observation of Jewish religious law and practice.  The Romans did have a way of throwing up roadblocks to those things!  In their opposition to Roman attempts to suppress them, many Zealots turned to violent resistance.  Many of them were in fact revolutionaries; they sought the overthrow of the Roman government.

It appears we have Simon the (possible) revolutionary and Matthew the collaborator.  I wonder how they got along.  Were there tense moments at the dinner table?  When Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, where they ever paired together?  Was there ever a danger of one “accidentally” suffering a mishap?  What was Jesus thinking by bringing these two guys into his little band?

Are we to think they laid aside their mutual disgust of each other and actually began to like each other?  That seems to be a bit much to swallow.  Were they ever able to love one another?  I hope we understand that liking and loving someone are two quite different things.

Here’s another tidbit to chew on.  Why is there such a focus on the men?  (Wow, who could imagine such a thing?)  We see that women comprise a large percentage (possibly the majority?) of Jesus’ disciples.  Luke 8 tells of the cadre of women who traveled with Jesus.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many others” were in the company.  Not only were they along for the ride, but with their resources, they likely made the whole enterprise possible.  (It is hard to hold a steady job when you’re moving from town to town.)

2 lk

Getting back to committees on representation, Jesus looks like he would excel at serving on them.  Bringing together disparate folks…  Welcoming women…  Giving voice to the voiceless…

By bringing women along for the ride, Jesus was certainly giving a voice to the voiceless—definitely in terms of getting religious instruction directly from a rabbi, from a teacher.  Indeed, we’re told, “We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue, but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or [instructor] was a rabbi willing to teach them.”  Still, “It was not uncommon for women to support rabbis and their disciples out of their own money, property, or foodstuffs.”[1]

Still, having said that, “But for her to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous.  Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.  Yet it was an intended part of His ministry that women be witnesses…and benefit from His teaching and healing.”[2]

Later in Luke, when Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha, Martha is busy with many tasks, doing “women’s work.”  But her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (10:39).  She took the position of a disciple—and oh my—Jesus allowed it!

There are other instances where Jesus ignored cultural rules that hampered women.  In John 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  In verse 27, we read, “Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’”  To speak with a woman in the absence of a male family member was a big no-no.

3 lkThese actions and attitudes did not go unnoticed.  Forget Simon the Zealot, Jesus is the actual revolutionary.  A revolution of love is the only true revolution.

Here’s an interesting note: for his trouble of befriending “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus is labeled “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19).  As we’ve seen, tax collectors were rarely presented with RSVPs.  And “sinners” refers to those considered to be of ill repute.

Clearly, being labeled “a glutton and a drunkard,” is not a compliment.  Labels are lovely critters.  And when considering committees on representation, we are very good at coming up with them.  Forget representation—we’re good at coming up with labels in general.

An inherent danger to representation can be just that—labeling.  Is there something in Jesus’ warning, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” which might include pigeonholing others? (Matthew 7:1).

We are more than some rigid, inflexible category.

And that’s something to bear in mind in the work of a committee on representation.  No, never mind that—it’s the work of life itself!

Keeping in mind my antipathy, my aversion, (or maybe say, my less than passionate fondness) toward labels, I must confess that I often have a problem with our binary descriptions: left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.  How about Green Party?  And then there’s dividing the states into blue or red.  How about purple?  (Fortunately, my favorite colors are purple and green!)

4 lk

Something I’ve often noticed is that those who might agree with me on a theological or political matter can be quite disagreeable!  I appreciate one who dissents with me and yet has an open mind and open heart.  I have considerably less appreciation for one who assents with me and yet has a closed mind and closed heart.

There’s someone who declares our unity in Christ provides, or should provide, the way past the closed minds and closed hearts.  That’s the apostle Paul, when he tells the Galatian church, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:27-28).

In the parallel passage in Colossians, he says, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (3:11).

When we are baptized, the water washes away the distinctions to which we stubbornly hold.  Being clothed with Christ means we first remove the clothing we’ve put on ourselves.

Sometimes we identify with our tribe, those who in whatever way, provide security between “us” and “them.”  There can be a comfort in tribalism.  In ages past, humans had to group together to protect themselves: against the elements, against wild animals, and against each other.  Woe to the one who was banished and sent out alone!

There are still places on the planet in which tribes engage in violence with each other.  They kill each other.  With us, tribalism doesn’t usually end in bloodshed!  But by not looking past it, we still kill each other, just in different ways.

5 lk

[Tribes of Sneetches, star bellied and plain bellied alike, eventually learn their lesson!]

Jesus Christ moves us past that.  He transcends the binary, the duality, the impenetrable walls we erect that divide.  He welcomes Matthew and Simon.  He welcomes women.  He welcomes Samaritans—that other tribe.  He welcomes you.  He welcomes me.  Christ does that if we allow ourselves to identify with him.  He does that if we allow him to represent us.

When we do that, we are transformed.  Our ugliness is beautiful.  Our folly is wise.  Our nothing is everything.

We are cured of evil spirits and infirmities…  seven demons are cast out… and we travel on with our Lord.

 

[1] Ben Witherington III, “On the Road with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Other Disciples: Luke 8:1-3, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche (70:3-4, 1979), 244.

[2] Witherington, 245.


have a zealous Christmas

“There won’t be any Christmas this year.”  I imagine we’ve all heard statements to that effect.  Maybe we ourselves have said something along those lines.  “This year, there’s going to be a lean Christmas!”  What would prompt such a statement?  How could we possibly prevent, or even hinder, the arrival of Christmas? Xmas, Ted Rall

Of course, I understand what’s usually meant by that kind of sentiment are financial problems.  It’s the feeling that there’s little, if any, money available to be spent on Christmas presents.  I have a couple of thoughts about that.  First is the notion that gifts that cost plenty of money are always better than ones someone has created, using their God-given imagination.  Second is the way we mimic the Grinch, who by stealing presents from Who-ville, thought he actually could stop Christmas from coming.

(But as you know, the Grinch undergoes a change of heart and realizes the error of his ways.)

Pleasant grinch
It’s that mentality which can reject the power of Christmas and turn it into something empty and hollow.  It’s that, and the sensory overload (starting well before Thanksgiving, even Halloween) which, among other things, involves Christmas-y music being piped in into all kinds of places.

Here’s an example.  Banu and I were at a couple of stores and at a restaurant, and I heard the song, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” played four times, and each time, it was done by a different artist!

Okay, I want to change gears for a moment.

In the medieval church, there were seven sins that were called deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and wrath.  If you were keeping count, you’ll notice that’s only six.  There’s one more, and I think it’s as deadly as any other: sloth.  Some people laugh when they hear sloth considered a deadly sin.  It’s the fatal flaw of the couch potato!

The well-known preacher Fred Craddock (who died last year) had a compelling definition of this particular deadly sin.  Instead of mere laziness, he said it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…  Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’  It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”[1]  I don’t care.

Another name for sloth comes from Latin, acedia.  It literally means “lack of care.”  (Don’t worry; this talk about sloth has a connection with Christmas!)

Acedia

Kathleen Norris writes about sloth in Acedia and Me, a book I really like and recommend.  And she has her own problem with Christmas.  (There’s the connection!)  In another place, she talks about the “many defenses [we have] against hearing the Christmas readings and taking them to heart.”[2]  She uses images that are very familiar.

For example, look at the Old Testament reading in Isaiah 9.  It begins, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (v. 2).  And how often have we heard the wonderful language of verse 6?  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

We’re used to hearing these messianic titles, but where do they come from?  What is behind all of this?  Look at the end of verse 7: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”  Zeal!  That’s not something we usually associate with Christmas.  It sounds a little too extreme, too fanatical.

But then, look at the epistle reading in Titus 2, starting with verse 11: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  Okay, that doesn’t seem to be overly intense.  Still, as the passage goes along, things start getting a little more fervent.  At the end, we read that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are [get ready for it!] zealous for good deeds” (v. 14).  Zealous for good deeds.  There’s the “z” word again!

This is where we get back to our friend Kathleen’s ambivalence about Christmas, as well as her discussion about the before-mentioned deadly sin.

“I tend to enjoy Advent,” she says, “with all of its mystery and waiting, but find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm when Christmas Eve comes around.  I know I’m cheating myself, succumbing to my usual temptation to sloth, which Christian tradition understands as not mere laziness but as the perverse refusal of a possible joy.  The ancient monks saw zeal as the virtue opposed to sloth.”[3]  Zeal as a remedy for sloth!

I can see myself reflected in her words.  Is there something about which I could positively say, “I am zealous!”?  What would that look like?  And if I have trouble seeing it, could I at least claim to be zealous in wanting to be zealous?

She might have a point when she says “zeal makes us nervous…  We prefer the protective detachment of irony or sarcasm, and regard zeal as pathetic if not pathological.  When a person exhibits too much passion over anything…we label that person as obsessive or compulsive, and mutter, ‘Get a life.’”[4]

I don’t think very much convincing is needed when I say that even religious zeal can be bad.  Zeal can lead one to throw bombs, burn down abortion clinics, and show up at military funerals, claiming that this is God’s vengeance.  No, I don’t think we need much convincing when I say religious zeal is probably the worst of all.

Zeal

The long history of Benedictine spirituality addresses this; it’s well aware of it.  Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict distinguishes between the “wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God” and the “good zeal which separates from evil.”  We need not fear this kind of zeal.  The reason for that is because it’s grounded in love.

According to Joan Chittister, “Good zeal provides the foundation for the spirituality of the long haul.  It keeps us going when days are dull and holiness seems to be the stuff of more glamorous lives.”  She adds that “sanctity is the stuff of community in Christ and that any other zeal, no matter how dazzling it looks, is false.  Completely false.”[5]  The glitz and glamour of our Christian cult of personality is shown to be bogus.

Somewhat of a trick is needed to dig through the layers of tradition, both good and bad tradition, which surround Christmas.  Too much of how we celebrate Christmas smothers the genuine, good, and life-giving zeal of its promise.  Again, there’s the danger of sloth, getting caught up in foolishness, in distraction.

Here’s a final word from Norris on that point: “The zealous love of this God has already appeared among us in the flesh to train us for a new life and teach us how to welcome him when he comes again in glory…  If we feel utterly exhausted, drained of all feeling and weary with worldly chores and concerns, so much the better.  Our weakness is God’s strength.  Our emptiness means that there is room for God after all.”[6]

Making room for God is probably the best definition for zeal, at least, for good zeal.  How do we do that?  How do we make room for God?

How about thinking of the people on that first Christmas?  They quite literally made room for God, even if they didn’t understand who the baby Jesus really was.

In a more meaningful way, they made room in their minds and hearts and souls.  They wondered; they asked questions.  Joseph wondered, upon discovering Mary’s pregnancy, what he should do.  He was granted a divinely-inspired dream to answer his questions.

Of course, Mary, after hearing the news that she was to be a virgin mother, wondered, “How can this be?” (Lk 1:34).

Then there were those shepherds, who received a celestial visitation—a sight that scared the crap out of them.  (You do know in the Bible, angels are not cute critters?  They are quite terrifying!)  After being calmed down, they said, “Let’s go check this out.”  They were ready to have their world rocked.

Some time after that, the magi and Herod also were asking about the wonder child, though each with their own agendas.  But that’s an Epiphany story, so we won’t deal with that now!

So what kind of zeal makes room for God among us?  What kind of sloth, acedia, do we need to reject?  St. Paul says God’s grace trains us “to renounce impiety and worldly passions” (v. 12).  Those “worldly passions” walk hand in hand with sloth.  Worldly, not holy, passions tell us, “Do not be filled with wonder.  Do not ask honest and sincere questions.  Live in the smug satisfaction that has us saying ‘no’ to love, especially if it comes from unwelcome people.”

Xmas overload

Worldly passion has us rejecting the spirit of Christ in each of us.  It’s the spirit that is all about forgiveness and acceptance, and yet calls us to keep moving forward.  Good zeal drags us out of our proper, private fortresses and flings us into the craziness and zaniness that is the community of faith.

We have twelve days of Christmas, so let me do one better than wishing you, “Merry Christmas!”  Have a zealous Christmas!

 

[1] in Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008)

[2] Kathleen Norris, “Zealous Hopes,” The Christian Century 122:25 (13 Dec 05), 19.

[3] Norris, 19.

[4] Norris, 19.

[5] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 178-179.

[6] Norris, 19.

[The top image is a cartoon by Ted Rall from December 1997. Clipped from a newspaper, the paper has yellowed with time.]