Heartfelt Questions with Heartstopping Answers: Mark 10

 

What does the promise of eternal life mean to you? In chapter 10 in Mark’s gospel, we eavesdrop on an encounter between Jesus and a young man who asks Jesus: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Picture the scene if you can. Jesus is going about the countryside, preaching and teaching about making the kingdom of God a lived reality in this world. He’s drawing quite big crowds, made up of a mixture of rural peasants, townsfolk who have journeyed out to view the latest entertainment attraction, and the better off, those with time to kill. Among the better off there were those who had a particularly religious interest in Jesus’ message – the religious elite with an anxious ear for anything that challenged their hold over hearts and minds.  The gospels cover many such encounters between Jesus’ and this group. In the story of the young man, we catch glimpse of another constituency among Jesus’ following, i.e. the spiritually curious.

There are people who view the practice of religion as a process of painting by numbers or painting within the lines. These are the complacent and prideful; those who feel very satisfied at their own ability to meet the religious demands. Viewed from this perspective we might see the young man as one who prides himself on his own achievements, as in: Look at me, see how I have kept the commandments since my youth. But his question reveals that he is not one of those who stand with head raised before God, extolling the virtues of his own spiritual self-sufficiency. For him, fulfillment of his religious obligations leaves him with more questions than answers.  His question reveals that his life of religious obligation leaves him wanting something more.

This young man in Mark’s gospel experiences himself caught in a spiritual-religious tension, a tension which I suspect is familiar to many of us to seek to live lives of faith that go beyond mere rule keeping, willing to risk giving up our spiritual self-sufficiency in favor of placing our trust in the energies of God’s grace.

***

Asking Jesus questions is something of a perilous affair because as this man discovers, Jesus is the master of the unpredictable response. From the outset, the young man gets off on the wrong foot with his addressing Jesus and Good Teacher. Jesus looks at him and says: why are you calling me good? Don’t confuse the messenger for the message. In response, I can picture the young man as he makes an involuntary intake of breath and takes step back.

So, Jesus now has this young man’s number, as we might say. He begins to answer the question by asking him: You know the commandments?  The man affirms that he has faithfully kept the commandments since his youth, which given his age can’t have been a very long time. Jesus might have gone on the ask: so, in that case, what’s your problem? images

However, Mark tells us that: Jesus looked at him and loved him. Seven eventful words that speak of Jesus profound ability to see straight into the depths of the human heart where he reads the true nature of this young man’s struggle within the tension between religious observance and spiritual longing.

The man’s opening question: what must I do to inherit eternal life might be reframed as: is obeying the commandments enough to inherit eternal life? because he already suspects that obeying the commandments is not enough to inherit eternal life.

Out of the Ten Commandments this young man has kept from his youth, only two are positive actions: keep the Sabbath day holy and honor your father and mother. The other eight are negative prohibitions prefaced by the words: you shall NOT.

Religion based on prohibition has a certain appeal, although it is, as the young man experiences, ultimately unfulfilling. Its appeal lies in the way it limits the area of responsibility, confining responsibility to essentially not acting. But its appeal is also its deficit. Religious practice based on non-action is ultimately unfulfilling. In refraining from doing that which is forbidden, responsibilities are met,  nothing more is required[1]. For those who long to love God and love their neighbor as themselves, which is how Jesus reframes the Ten Commandments, the religion of prohibition is not enough.

***

Jesus looked at the young man and loved him because the young man wanted Jesus to help him to the next level of response to God. He is about to discover that the promise of eternal life rests upon positive action in this life. You lack one thing, Jesus tells him; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.

Heartfelt questions occasion heart stopping answers. Mark tells us that the young man is deeply disturbed by Jesus words and goes away troubled for he is a man of great wealth. In his response we see plainly that his longing for God was no match for his worldly fear; a predicament with which I suspect many of us can identify.

 ***

As stewardship season approaches this story reminds us of an uncomfortable question: are we able to open our checkbooks as widely and we long to open our hearts? 

Jesus answers the young man’s question by emphasizing that eternal life is about action in this world not hope for the next. It’s not what he does to avoid committing sin in this life that will give him a reward in the next. It’s what he does in this life. The promise of eternal life comes to those who have the courage to participate as God’s agents in the divine dream for the coming of the kingdom in this world’s real time.

***

October 21st, next Sunday, is the kickoff of our Annual Renewal Campaign or as NPR calls it our fall pledge drive, but to call it so is to trivialize the deeper currents that sustain our annual renewal process, which go beyond questions of financial support into those of spiritual inventory. The four weeks of spiritual inventory will be supported by a 40-day program of daily Bible passages, questions, and prayers – exploring scriptural teaching on social justice.

In his answer to the question about eternal life posed by the rich young man, Jesus teaches his disciples about the fundamental connection between gratitude, generosity, and social justice. For the goal of following Jesus is not to ensure that we go to heaven when we die, but to make heaven a reality in this world before we die.

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on this earth in real time as it is already so in heaven.

The 40-day Social Justice Bible Challenge which will run alongside our 30-day Annual Renewal Campaign offers to bridge the gap between knowing the Bible and living it.

For those of us already heavily invested in issues of social justice, the daily meditations will connect our compassion with God’s Word. For others among us, who already take Scripture seriously, the readings, questions, and prayers will help us to shape a renewed vision for action.

Whether our need is to connect our commitment to social justice with God’s Word or let our love for God’s Word shape a renewed vision for social justice in this world, the resources of life are given to us not to hoard and protect but to enjoy as good stewards. Stewards of the kingdom do not hoard, they share. They are not motivated by fear of scarcity, but by the promise of abundance. Our individual prosperity is inextricably linked with the flourishing of our neighbor’s wellbeing. Do good and share what you have for the promise of eternal life is predicated on the practices of social justice.

In today’s America, rising inequality of wealth is reflected in plummeting commitment to wider issues of social justice. In his Atlantic article, which the men’s Op-Ed discussion group will review this coming Tuesday evening, Matthew Stewart writes:

Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent, in relative terms, had to come from the people below. But not everyone in the 99.9 percent gave up a slice. Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose.

That’s why Jesus says it’s easier for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

[1] Even today some Christian traditions still preach obedience to the Ten Commandments. This is very strange because Jesus in effect abolished them for his followers by reframing them in the Two Great Commandments of love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Yet, the continued appeal of religion based on prohibition is because the religion of prohibition limits our personal responsibility. If you can refrain from doing that which is forbidden, your responsibilities are met and nothing more is required of you. We see the tone and effect of this kind of religion all around us in the so-called Christianity of the cultural-conservative right. The battle in some parts of the country over whether the Ten Commandments should appear in our courtrooms is put in perspective when we realize not only should they not appear in our courtrooms, but they have no place in our churches either.

 

Kingdom Vision

20 Pentecost Year B Proper 22                                                        7 October 2018

Mark 10:2-16     A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

The first advice that I came across as I began preparing to preach for today was, and I quote: “Beware this week.  As soon as you read the word, “divorce” aloud, a whole sermon will appear in people’s heads.”

The guy’s got a point. Sort of like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant”, there is virtually no way to read or hear this passage without becoming distracted from anything that immediately follows. (You are thinking of an elephant, aren’t you?) But this isn’t an elephant. It’s an emotionally fraught issue, almost sure to evoke a reaction to one’s own story or that of a loved one; of guilt, judgment, anger, loneliness, sadness—the opening of a wound of some kind. Because divorce is by definition the death of a relationship, and with death comes grief. This is why today’s Gospel is one of those passages that, tragically and too often, can be weaponized. And as a result, there are those whose experience of divorce has left them alienated from church and community. There are those who have been coerced to remain in an abusive marriage. There are those who hear Jesus’ words about marriage being between man and woman who have been led to believe that this is God’s judgment on gay marriage. The irresponsible use of the Bible as a cudgel to elicit cultural conformity is, unfortunately, more common than not, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. The thing is that people forget that there is a huge difference between seeing the Bible as a source of wisdom— wisdom that is admittedly often challenging– and seeing it as a way to confirm one’s own biases.  So here’s a little word to the wise: The more comfortable a passage like this makes you feel, the more likely it is that you should take another look. And then another.  And if you find that it disturbs you, keep reading, keep thinking, keep listening. God has something to say—it just may not be what you expect.

The key with today’s reading is that, as tempting as it may be to divide the text into two separate encounters, we need to look at the entire passage as a whole. Because the author of the Gospel of Mark has intentionally ordered and constructed his story in such a way that we see, not just random episodes and parables tossed willy-nilly on the page; we are meant to see a vision of the Kingdom—the Dream of God.  

“Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”

The idea of seeking to test Jesus is nothing new; it was a frequent pastime for Temple authorities. There were at least two ways that they might have been doing this, and both carried the potential to get Jesus in trouble (which is what they desired). Socially and politically, divorce was a hot topic during this period because of the scandal of the marriage of the Roman Tetrarch Herod Antipas to his brother’s ex-wife Herodias. When John the Baptizer pointedly criticized them for this he was specifically talking, not just about divorce per se, but about the fact that they had obtained a divorce for the purpose of marrying another.  As you may remember, John’s criticism resulted in the loss of his head; perhaps the Pharisees hoped for a similar outcome for Jesus, that upstart Nazarene?

Or, thinking from the standpoint of scripture, the Pharisees might have been trying to involve Jesus in an argument regarding the law of divorce as stated Deuteronomy 24:1, which says that a man may divorce his wife if he found “indecency” in her—he can then write her a certificate of dismissal, as they called it, and divorce her. The argument among different groups of Pharisees was how strictly or loosely to interpret the term, “indecency”.  Some felt that it meant unchastity, while others interpreted it more loosely as “indecency in anything”, as in; she burned dinner or forgot to buy lamp oil, or she dared to “speak as any foolish woman would speak”, as we heard from Job in the first lesson. Regardless of how ‘indecency’ was defined, a husband could divorce his wife pretty much at will, which effectively left the woman tossed out on her ear with nothing; no voice and no recourse. It wasn’t that a woman could never initiate a divorce—she could. But her husband was free to refuse it, whereas the woman had no choice but to accept the consequences of dismissal from her home. The possibility of being left destitute put women in an extremely precarious position, while their husbands had the security of being able to do what they wanted. Such is the nature of patriarchy.

So, whether it was the question of the legitimacy of Herod’s marriage or the validity of the Law of Moses or a combination, the Pharisees put Jesus in a tricky spot. But interestingly he responds by diverting the line of questioning away from that of divorce instead toward that of marriage. He says that the only reason the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy allows for the certificate of dismissal is because of “your hardness of heart”. In other words, God’s intention was for two people to be in a faithful, respectful, mutually loving relationship, period.  One flesh. But since people, fallible creatures that they were, kept screwing that up, the Law of Moses allowed a way for the relationship to be dissolved if necessary. And then, as it turned out, people had even managed to mess that up by skewing the divorce arrangement in favor of the man. So Jesus sought to get back to the basics, that is, what marriage was about in the first place; that two become as one.

I’d like to digress just a bit here because, like the word, ‘divorce’, the statement from Genesis 2 that Jesus cites– ‘God made them male and female…’– is a potential red herring; a distraction from the main issue. In order to avoid the trap of seeing this as an argument against gay marriage, you have got to remember one simple thing: This is not what this passage is about. The question to Jesus is about divorce. Divorce is about marriage. Marriage at that time was seen a legal arrangement between families of men and women to achieve financial security and a prosperous legacy. Jesus’ point in citing Genesis was not to promote heterosexual unions but to make a statement about a relationship between two human beings; a relationship intended from the beginning to be a mirror image of God and of God’s loving care for Creation.

For Jesus, a marriage relationship was not just a legal arrangement; it was a covenant relationship of mutual generosity, wholeness and healing.

For Jesus, this Kingdom view of marriage is a template of what God desires for couples when they marry.  But we have to acknowledge the fact that the Kingdom that is not yet still needs to allow for human brokenness. Sometimes relationships cannot be saved. Sometimes they need to end in order to ensure the well-being, dignity, and healing of everyone involved, especially those left most vulnerable.

Jesus simply acknowledged this need by leveling the playing field when he said that not just women, but men too were held to the standard of not being allowed to divorce in order to marry another. It may seem a small thing to us now, but it was a sea change for married women. For Jesus, the inbreaking Kingdom offered a measure of fairness toward the most vulnerable that had been missing.

That is what the Dream of God is about: raising up the downtrodden and cherishing those who are the most invisible and the most silenced. And here we find the thread that connects the first part of this passage to the second.  For Jesus, this entire encounter was so much broader than the mere fine points of Mosaic Law. The Kingdom is first and foremost about relationship. How do we see God? How do we see one another? What do we honor in one another? Perhaps more to the point, where do we fall short?

_Suffer the little children to come to me..._People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them… And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. 

If you’ve been following the lectionary, this is the second episode in the past three weeks, and the second time in the space of chapters 9 and 10 of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus takes children in his arms. And it is the third consecutive week that your clergy have stood in this pulpit and spoken about the vulnerability of women and children in society.  When the Gospel repeats something, and when it calls preachers to say pretty much the same thing for three weeks in a row, that means someone is trying to get our attention. 

Notice that when Jesus focuses his audience on children, he doesn’t do it through his usual teaching medium: Parables. With the exception of the Prodigal Son, which is about grown children, Jesus does not offer parables about children. Why? Might it be because, as good as parables are for illustrating a point, showing is always better than telling? Nothing communicates God’s love for children more effectively than the image of Jesus holding a wee one in his arms and offering a blessing. So if Jesus is offering us something even more vivid than his parables, he is trying to get our attention.

To honor children in the way that Jesus does here was as radical as offering women more of a voice in marriage. Children in first century Palestine were of no account until they were old enough to pull their own weight, at which point they were pretty much seen as miniature adults. What Jesus does here is revolutionary—something that doesn’t actually get fully acknowledged in western society until the 19th century—and it’s this: Jesus treats a child as something special.  Jesus actually looks at children developmentally. He sees childhood as a distinctive and valuable part of life—an aspect of human development that can teach us something in particular, which is that those who are most fresh from God offer us a glimpse of our true calling as creatures of the Kingdom.

When he looks at the children Jesus sees trust, honesty, generosity, and wonder.

He sees in them the creativity, spontaneity, and courage that comes from not yet knowing what they can’t accomplish. He calls us to see with the eyes of the Kingdom; to honor and protect those gifts of childhood in every person, and in ourselves. But to see with the Eyes of the Kingdom is something else as well: It is also to see the victimized and the invisible. It is to defend and protect those whom the world would dismiss.

God is calling us to open our eyes once again, to remember who and whose we are; to see the world through the eyes of the One who came to us as a vulnerable infant.

 

 

Driving The Message Home

This featured cartoon clipping reminds me that in  Mark’s Gospel he paints a picture of the disciples as thick and slow on the uptake.

***

Family is one of the models that describes a church community. But there are differing interpretations of family – family, where the emphasis is on exclusion and exclusivity might not be the most helpful way of thinking about faith community. The best model of family for faith community life is that of family as an extended, multigenerational community.

Sunday is another baptism Sunday at St Martin’s. We have had two wonderful extended family baptisms over the summer in which we celebrated brothers, sisters, and cousins, all part of multigenerational extended families being baptized together. For us, this was a multigenerational celebration involving children raised in the St. Martin’s community bringing their own children back to the church community they continue to identify with their earlier family life.

The children of the boomer generation of parents at St. Martin’s – millennials and after – although having been raised in the church do not by-and-large continue the church going practices of their parents, that is, until they begin having children of their own. It’s not true in all cases but it seems still common enough to be able to say that having children focuses the mind on the need to participate in a broader experience of community. The key question for many of us is: what kind of community do we desire to participate in?

On Sunday we will baptize two children who are part of a different version of extended family. Extended family has tended to refer to multigenerational family – usually three if not four generations of family members. On Sunday we will welcome another form of extended family, not one ranging across the generations, but one that brings together in the bonds of love and friendship members of what is sometimes referred to as a blended or modern family – a term made popular by the TV program Modern Family.

***

So to continue the TV tone – previously in chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, while making a point about the vanity of masculine ideas of greatness and competitiveness raised up a toddler in his arms and said:

see this child, see her vulnerability, innocence and delight in all she sees around her; this is what it means to welcome me and the kingdom of God.

In todays episode John, speaking for the other disciples says:

Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Once again, the disciples are consumed with anxiety about power – who has it and can exercise it and who should not have it and must be prohibited from exercising it. In the OT reading we heard of a similar situation concerning Moses and the ancient Israelites. Moses exclaimed: would that all the Lord’s people were prophets. In similar vein Jesus simply says: who is not against us is for us. Our tribal politicians like to upend Jesus’ words quoting them as: who is not for us is against us, which is the very opposite of Jesus meaning.

Returning to the child in his arms Jesus tells them:

if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

jesus quipMark paints a picture of the disciples as thick and slow on the uptake. So Jesus takes to driving his point home through the thick skulls by means of hyperbole or exaggeration.

If you hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; if you eye causes you to stumble, tear it out!  My, this is pretty graphic imagery, yet what is the point Jesus is trying to impress on his disciples?

His meaning is rather graphic, but clear. Pay attention to the child in your midst. The image of what it looks like to enter the kingdom, or put another way, to become an agent of making the kingdom a reality in real time is represented by the innocence of the child.

***

In 1st-century society the value of women lay in the control of what today we refer to as women’s reproductive rights by powerful fathers and husbands. The value of children lay in their potential as heirs. But as human individuals a woman or a child was consigned to the bottom of the patriarchal pecking order.

Immersing ourselves in Mark’s narrative flow in chapter 9 reminds us that despite huge gains made in the emancipation of women, and new legal privileging of children rights, we continue to struggle against male privilege that perpetuates the culture of abuse for many women and children.

Today we are awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way our society has been deaf to the voice of the child. More shockingly, it has been in the church where the voice of the child has been most silenced by a culture of male privilege and power. In the male dominated values of our institutional life – the protection of the institution always comes before the defense and protection of those most vulnerable to abuse in and by those institutions.

Among the vulnerable, it’s children who fare the worst. The Catholic Church is struggling to grapple with the costs of a system that holds up men with arrested psychosexual development as the model of the priestly ideal.  By costs, I am not referring to the staggering financial settlements but to the lifelong cost paid by children’s pain and suffering.

***

The goal of the Christian life is not to make sure we go to heaven when we die. The goal of the Christian life is to make heaven a reality on earth, in real time, here and now, before we die. Christians have always worked towards that end by participating in a community life where together we can achieve so much more than we ever can as isolated individuals.

Baptism is a second birth or spiritual birth through which we come to belong. For from belonging, comes believing.

But baptism is not an act of magical transformation. As a stand-alone event, it functions as an initial entry point only. But what really matters is what happens after baptism, i.e. how the baptismal promises are fulfilled by the baptized person, over time.

Paraphrasing our promises in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise:

  • to be faithful in prayer and be present when the community gathers to worship at the celebration of the Lord’s table.
  • to persevere and not let our failures shame us erecting a barrier between us and God.
  • to live the Good News of God in Christ, so that others will look at us and say: I want to live with that kind of joy and energy!
  • to fight against the systems that perpetuate injustices of all kinds and let respect for each human being be our guide to holy living.

If it takes a village to raise a child, the nurturing and flourishing of a soul requires a whole community of soul friends to support it so that nurtured by love, and shaped by example, the young soul will grow into the fullest person God is already dreaming into becoming.

Listen! Wisdom’s Still Speaking

 

I wrote in the E-News this week that when viewed through a progressive lens the Bible becomes a rich compendium of collective human spiritual experience with much to say about how to navigate the times in which we live.

Nevertheless, it’s an understatement to say that the Bible can also be deeply problematic for us as we navigate our way through the challenges of the present time.

Texts never have only one meaning. There are, broadly speaking, three questions to ask when encountering any Biblical text -each question opening up a particular lens through which the text is read and heard.

  1. What was the original author’s intention and what do we know about the historical-socioreligious context in which they were writing?
  2. How has the Judaeo-Christian tradition – evolving over numerous and differing historical-socioreligious contexts, read and understood the text over time?
  3. Finally, how do we hear and understand the text within our 21st-century historical-socioreligious context?

Original lens

The book of Proverbs belongs to a genre of Biblical writing known as Wisdom. Proverbs belongs within a family of books that include Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Job, and Sirach or sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus.  Although adapted to Jewish issues and concerns Wisdom literature is not Hebrew in origin and similar material is also found in Egyptian and Babylonian sources.

Wisdom focuses on the challenges of skillful living. In the face of suffering it is unsatisfied by the conventional answer: because God wills it. Wisdom challenges suffering and the apparent futile and fleeting nature of life and says: yes, but why?

Wisdom presents a complex and multilayered worldview – its voice sitting in tension with more conventional voices. We see this back and forth playing out again and again throughout Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. Wisdom is also personified as the feminine principle of the Holy Spirit named in Greek as Sophia. Sophia, displaying profound feminine qualities has often been referred to in English as Lady Wisdom, or Woman’s Wisdom.

Proverbs 31 appears to have been written as the inspired utterances of the Queen-Mother for her son, one King Lemuel (identity unknown) in the qualities he must look for in a royal spouse. Thus, the depiction of the capable wife found in verse 10 and onwards is in its original context is a description of the ideal virtues to be found in a great queen. This was not intended to be a description of the virtues of ordinary wifeliness.

Playing the part of rabbi for a moment, I want to draw attention to two Hebrew words isshah and chayil.

All wives are women but not all women are wives and the ancient Hebrew word isshah does not distinguish between wife and woman. In English, isshah could be rendered woman as much as wife, which is important in breaking the close identification of the text with wifeliness.

English translators have for 500 years struggled with the Hebrew word chayil; variously translating it as good, virtuous, valiant, or as the NRSV does – capable. Yet, all these translations miss chayil’s clearest meaning of warrior-like. There is quite a difference when verse 10 is rendered: a warrior-like – strong woman who can find?

Tradition’s lens

Mainstream Judaeo-Christian interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31 has read it as a hymn to the virtues of the good wife -a phrase that automatically conjures up images of subservient dutifulness. I understand that even today some rabbis continue to read this text as a love poem to their wives on the eve of Shabbat.

The Tradition’s patriarchal view of the relationship between men and women has led to a repeated misreading of the text as an endorsement of the view of a good wife as an obedient and domestically industrious adornment to her husband. Yet, when we cast off our patriarchal blinkers and actually read the text, we are startled by what it does not say. If we are looking for the actual words of Proverbs 31 to extol the virtues of the good wife as the embodiment of the German slogan: Kinder, Küche, & Kirche – Children, Kitchen, & Church, we will not find them here.

Wisdom 31 nowhere presents a picture of dutiful and obedient wifeliness. Neither does it in any place extol the virtues of motherhood. This woman is not chained to her stove or her children, she is not domestic at all but seems to be something of a combination of a wise and frugal merchant, creative artisan and farmer, and social philanthropist. The text denotes that her husband is well known at the city gates. Who with a wife like this will not be envied?

When chayil is rendered warrior-like, strong, invincible, Amazon-like, as opposed to merely virtuous or capable, the exhausting list of this woman’s social and domestic productivity is only capped by her crowning glory, which resides not in her industriousness, neither in her physical beauty, or her cocktail social charm and whit. According to Wisdom, her crowning glory lies in her fear of the Lord. Never mind her husband’s honor among his peers, Wisdom 31 concludes with:

Give her a share in the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Contemporary lens

Today, this is a difficult text for the unwary preacher. It is a text that speaks to both the hopeful expectations as well as the enduring pain and struggle lying at the heart of contemporary issues of gender and power.

It’s extraordinary when considering that such a text, read for centuries as en hommage to a patriarchal view of wifely virtue is, in reality, one of the clearest Biblical endorsements for what we have come to refer to as the emancipation of women. Such a reinterpretation rests on the strength of what the text actually says. Strip away Tradition’s male-dominated wifely fantasies and we are compelled to engage this text from within our own sadly, contentious context.

The emancipation of women and the emergence of the woman’s voice in our political and theological context constitutes a huge social awakening. It is a veritable tsunami that continues to sweep before it centuries of women’s experience of injustice and oppression at the hands of both the female as well as the male supporters of patriarchy.

In its original context, Proverbs 31 constituted an idealized image of royal womanhood. Nevertheless, allowing for such idealization, the text expresses Wisdom’s image of womanhood as strong, vital, and socially engaged in all aspects of civic life.

Wisdom’s worldview deeply informs the shape of Jesus ministry and teaching. Wisdom’s challenge to worldly values of dominance and power echoes loudly in Jesus’ deeply countercultural honoring of women.

In Mark 9:30-37, the gospel appointed to be read on the same Sunday as Proverbs 31, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about where his road leads – to death and resurrection. As he opens his heart to them Jesus notices that they are not listening. So, he asks them: what, instead of listening to me, were you talking about? They sheepishly reveal that they had been wrangling over who is to be top dog among them.

Jesus’ response comes straight from the heart of Wisdom’s playbook. It’s service, he tells them, not worldly honor that is the mark of true greatness. Children were even more oppressed than women in the hierarchy of patriarchy. Jesus driving home his point takes a little child and in Wisdom’s voice proclaims:

whoever welcomes one such a child in my name, welcomes me; and not only me, but the one who has sent me!

In the wake of the tsunami of women’s emancipation, our society is also awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way we have been deaf to the cry of the child. Open your ears – can you hear? Wisdom is still speaking.

The Claim of the Cross

A sermon for 17 Pentecost Year B Proper 19  from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs                              

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Amen.

Oh, Peter. He was so close. The Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and he all but raised his hand like Hermione Granger on a double espresso and blurted out The Right Answer: “You are the Messiah.” Dingdingding! Gold star, A-plus, yessssss.

And then, he blew it. When Jesus began to speak of rejection, suffering and death at the hands of the authorities, Peter just couldn’t help himself. “No, no, Jesus, that’s not what Messiahs do.” Jesus’ hissed response, “Get behind me, Satan!” has become a catchphrase for anyone rejecting evil or temptation. What a way to be remembered.

Peter has gained quite a reputation for cringeworthy moments in his spiritual journey. But perhaps we should give him a pass here, because isn’t he actually articulating our own discomfort at Jesus’ words? Like Peter, wouldn’t we sometimes rather focus on the good stuff about Jesus– the life and ministry, the healings and miracles, the Christ at the right hand of God, without having to deal with the pain and messiness of a suffering Savior, and what that means for us as Christians? There are those who find a focus on the Cross—particularly the image of Jesus upon it—to be distasteful; to be too much of an emphasis on guilt and suffering rather than on joy and love.

The other day, wandering around the Nave, I was a little surprised to see this conflict reflected in our own beautiful windows. At both East and West, the central figure in the window is Christus Victor and Christ the King, respectively. These are the largest, most commanding and attractive images, showing strength and glory.

Yet, as Jesus pointedly stated to Peter and the disciples, we can’t have glory without suffering. And sure enough, a closer look yields, on the west, the Crucifixion at bottom center. On the east, we need to hunt a little more. See it? Way at the top. I almost missed it. But notice that Christ’s hand in the center, raised in blessing, points straight at the image of the Crucifixion—an unmistakable connection. (I don’t know if that’s part of the iconography, but there it is.) Peter couldn’t avoid it, and we can’t either: We must let Jesus bear the Cross. And we must try to understand what it means to bear it ourselves.

This past Friday the Church observed Holy Cross Day, the commemoration of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 335. While the Christian household observes times of veneration of the Cross at different points during the year, especially on Good Friday, the Lutherans and the Anglicans observe Holy Cross Day in September. It’s a little jarring, isn’t it, to find oneself pondering the Cross, not in Holy Week when winter still hovers over the bare trees, but in the golden mists of autumn when thoughts of homecoming and new activities seem much more appropriate than meditation on the Cross and the Crucified One.

This disconnect–this tension–is perfectly appropriate when you consider the circumstances under which the Cross became a symbol, not just of the Church, but also of the Empire that tried for years to eradicate it.

After the conversion of Constantine in 312, when he had a vision of the Cross that he believed gave him victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which resulted in his becoming Roman Emperor, Christianity became safe from persecution; its followers free to come out of hiding and to worship publically.

No longer a vulnerable, marginalized, countercultural movement, the Way of Jesus became the religion of Empire, from which some say the faith has yet to recover. Verna Dozier, in her book, The Dream of God, refers to this moment in history as the Third Fall—the first being Adam and Eve in the Garden and the second when the people of Israel insisted upon a king—choosing the kingdom of this world over the kingdom of God. Dozier writes that while many say that 312 was when the church subdued the state, that it was actually the opposite; the state domesticated the church.

The story of the finding of the True Cross bears this out. Constantine’s mother, Helena, oversaw the excavation of Jesus’ tomb, over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now sits. This is where the True Cross was reportedly found and identified as authentic when it was brought near enough to a sick woman to heal her. This simple wooden cross was divided into three parts and distributed to three centers of the faith: One part stayed in Jerusalem, one went to Rome, and the third to Constantinople, it was said, to render the city impregnable through its miraculous powers. The nails were also found, and Helena had them incorporated into the Emperor’s helmet and his horse’s bridle.

Think about it.

A simple wooden cross. An instrument of imperial torture made the protective symbol of that same Empire.  Housed in silver and gold reliquaries. Carried into battle ahead of armies. It’s like incorporating an image of an electric chair into the Great Seal of the United States. The irony is outrageous.

Christianity was now safe from Empire, but at what cost?

How does the irony of Empire and the Cross play out today? What does the Cross say about our Christian identity and how we act in the world? What do people see when they see someone wearing a cross? Do they see a follower of Jesus, or do they see only the irony of a complicit church? Do they see the gold and silver-encased Cross in the halls of power, where faith is measured by prosperity, or do they see the simple wooden Cross standing outside of those halls, calling those inside to see that Gospel faith is measured by surrendering to compassion, forgiveness, and justice?

Or to put it more starkly, how does the Cross save us? In close proximity to power, or in opposition to it?

Isn’t that what the conflict between Peter and Jesus was all about in the first place?

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Peter was able to identify the Messiah, but he had yet to understand how Jesus would turn the concept of the Messiah, and the world itself, upside-down. Peter didn’t understand that an abundant life is one that is given away. He didn’t understand that the way of the Cross is the way of love, not the way of might.

This is what Peter had yet to learn, and frankly what a lot of us need to embrace as well: that Love is the foundational principle of the Cross; God’s transformative love for Creation, for the vulnerable, and for the suffering. A deep engagement with the meaning of the Cross needs to begin here—with Love–not with guilt, but with compassion; because that is the true nature of Jesus’ free and costly gift of himself—to show us that death and evil and injustice do not have the last word—love and life do. We see on the Cross the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all of the marginalized, the forgotten, the Crucified. The Cross calls us to really see them as Jesus does and to love them and to become conduits of healing for each other and the world.

That, friends, is how the Cross claims us and bids us bear it.

The Cross isn’t a magic wand to grant our every wish, nor is it a rod to punish us for our mistakes. The Cross–no matter how it is portrayed in art on walls or in stained glass, or in the jewelry we wear–the Cross, first of all, is what marks each Christian at Baptism, calling  us to bear it with humility, vulnerability, forgiveness and, above everything else, with the Love that is woven into all of Creation.

That is where we begin.

 

 

Thy Kingdom Come; Mark 7

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 

Conspiring with him how to load and bless 

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 

These lines from Keats’ Ode to Autumn capture the sense of burgeoning promise in the season that follows close on the heels of the Labor Day Weekend. In my garden, I have a lot of trees which provide wonderful shade but make growing fruits and vegetables a non-starter. However, our daughter returned from a few days away this last week to a continued harvest of heirloom tomatoes, antique (yellow and round) cucumbers and her first crop of apples, admittedly, only a few apples on her two-year-old trees, but the occasion for celebration and a sense of major achievement, nonetheless. Fruitfulness is the catchword of the season ahead of us. This is not a season that lasts only until the chilly winds of November come creeping[1]. And as we peer into the mists of maturing autumn, what might we catch a glimpse of?

The first Sunday after Labor Day is by tradition Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s. Homecoming offers a first glimpse of the number and variety of our ministries. Ministries are the lifeblood of parish community and the channels through which our time, talent, and energy flows to advances the coming of the kingdom in real-time. This is a work of nurturing and sustaining hope that echoes in our daily cry – thy kingdom come,  thy will be done, so that heaven becomes in real time, earth.

As the Biblical record witnesses, when viewed solely from a human perspective the making real of the kingdom has always appeared unrealistic. Yet, despite seemingly hopeless odds, it progresses anew in each generation because as followers of Jesus we are continually confronted by a reality which challenges us to throw off the limits of our too small imaginations.

The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before. In chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus, so used to being the one who does the confronting being confronted – with startling results.

***

In the second part of chapter 7, Mark reports Jesus, fatigued by his recent confrontation with the Pharisees over the petty ritual issue of his disciples not washing before eating,  slipping away for a few days of R&R in the non-Jewish region of Tyre and Sidon, today part of Lebanon. Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus has left Jewish territory other than to hint at his wanting to go somewhere where he won’t be recognized.  So, Jesus seems more than irritated when his cover is blown by a woman of the town who seems to recognize him. Worried about a sick daughter at home, she can’t believe her luck that this healer, renowned south of the border, should show up in the house next door. So, she makes her request: Sir, will you heal my daughter?

Jesus perhaps wearied by finding that even here he can’t escape the constant demands of people tells her it’s not permitted to feed the dogs with the children’s food. We know that dog and children are 1st-century Jewish code words for Gentile and Jew, and it’s more than a little shocking to hear this kind of xenophobic insult coming from Jesus’ mouth. The woman is however not to be put off by insults. In a rare example of someone turning the tables on Jesus, she replies: Yes Sir, but don’t even the dogs get to lick the crumbs that fall from the children’s table?

Gosh, who is this woman we might be tempted to ask? She’s effectively countered the Master so that it’s reasonable to speculate a pause in the conversation at this point as Jesus takes in her comment. Evidenced by his response, the woman’s words seem to have confronted Jesus to consider new possibilities. His irritation evaporates. For saying that, he tells her, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.

One of the most important qualities we human beings possess is the capacity to learn from experience and open our minds to new possibilities. For some, it would be blasphemous to suggest, as I  do here, that Jesus ever needed to learn from experience and open his mind to new possibilities. But to view Jesus as omniscient is to seriously contradict his being fully human. Confronted by this encounter, Jesus appears to learn in real time in a manner typical of the way human beings learn. The result is that the boundaries of his mission open in the direction of greater inclusion; no longer limited by the assumption of children first and dogs second.

To emphasize the point, Mark tells us that Jesus leaves Tyre, and traveling via Sidon returns southwards, not back into Jewish Galilee, but through the region a little to east known as the Decapolis or ten cities; a regional center of Greek and Roman culture250px-Palestine_after_Herod where dogs and children, Gentiles and Jews, lived side by side. It is in this ethnically mixed region that Jesus performs the healing of a man ( Mark does not mention his ethnicity) whose deafness is compounded by an impediment of speech.

Chapter 7 opens with Jesus in the Jewish heartland, embroiled in petty Jewish arguments. Seemingly fed up, he slips away into foreign parts, seeking an all too brief experience of anonymity. Instead, he runs into a different kind of confrontation – one that challenges him into a more inclusive vision. Having Jesus return via the Decapolis region, Mark shows Jesus throwing off the hitherto accepted limits around his mission. After Tyre, those who were before excluded are now included as Jesus continues the work of reconciliation entrusted to him by God.

The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before.

***

Homecoming Sunday in 2018 finds us in remarkably good shape as a community. Compared with four years ago, more and more activity in the parish thrives without direct input from me. When the clergy are no longer at the center of all activity, lay initiatives blossom, driving the community’s development through mission enthused ministry.

I want to strongly affirm this shift as a sign of our growing health. The challenge we face is to move not only into a new way of thinking but to attract the critical numbers to secure and sustain the shift from priest centered to ministry centered practice. Without a growth in numbers, there is an ever-present danger of burnout resulting from operating at maximum capacity, one hundred percent of the time, as increased burden falls on fewer shoulders.

Peering into autumn’s mists what is the mellow fruitfulness we a glimpse? It is not greater enthusiasm. It’s not even more money, though with the pledge drive coming up, I say this advisedly. The mellow fruitfulness we seek is a growing discipleship base.

***

The need to grow directly challenges the comfortable limits we impose on the practice of our Christian faith. Our privatized, middle-class – let’s not upset the applecart – approach to living our faith renders us next to useless in God’s work of advancing the kingdom. The growth we seek fruits when we are less cautious and less respectable and more gospel-inspired in living our faith. That’s not likely to happen unless we allow ourselves to be confronted. Mark shows us how Jesus when so confronted opens his mind to new possibilities. So it must be for our relationship with God.

It is primarily the community of faith that sustains our individual spiritual lives. There is a loose hierarchy of other worthy nonprofit initiatives that constantly claim our attention. Yet, as disciples – it’s the living faith clearly outlined in the promises of the baptismal covenant, promises we all reconfirmed as recently as last Sunday, that claims our highest priority.

This is a hard message for comfortable, secular-humanist-minded Episcopalian ears. For most of us, our religion dovetails so neatly into our middle-class worldview that it is next to useless in preparing us for God’s work of advancing the kingdom. There are too many self and culture imposed limits on the practice of our faith, i.e. lukewarm faith practiced privately.

For instance, we live in a time of rising tensions caused by the vacuum left by the collapse of shared communitarian values loosely based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This past week, a 15-year-old boy lost his life to gun violence on our Providence streets. Americans view gun violence through either a conservative or liberal political lens and not a gospel-inspired one. Gospel-inspired values show us that the death of the innocent from gun violence is just plain wrong, and any attempt at justification flies in the face of the kingdom’s rebuttal of fear with love, selfishness with concern for one another.

To grow our numbers we must become more magnetic because people are attracted to magnetic communities. But magnetism is not a gimmick, a clever promotional strategy. It results when we become more convincing about our faith. Others are convinced by our conviction – expressed in a faith lived joyfully and – here’s the rub – publicly.

The signs of the times require us to be bolder in the way we share with friends and neighbors the value-added quality of a faith lived together in community. Belonging in Christian community should not be our best-kept secret.

So many of us came to St Martin’s by the word of mouth of neighbors and friends who invited us here – a form of show and tell. We practice a form of Christianity that emphasizes that belonging comes before believing, worshiping together takes precedence over agreeing with each other.

So go spread the word without shame or embarrassment. Let’s boldly practice the kind of show and tell that brought some of us here in the first place for the work entrusted to us it the nurturing and sustaining of hope: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, so that heaven is recreated in real time on earth.

[1] A line from Gordon Lightfoot’s the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

To Make a Second Birth

 

There are several fundamental human needs. One is to have enough food and the other essentials to sustain our bodies. Another is someone to love and be loved by. A third is to have a place to belong and a community in which to be recognized and accepted within. In recognition of the Labor Day celebrations this weekend, another fundamental human need is to have dignified work from which the fruits of meaning and purpose flow. Fundamental needs have significant implications for our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives, for we are integrated body-mind souls.

A sacrament is simply an action through which God’s promise to act and to be present is a watertight commitment or covenant. The two primary sacraments [1], the ones that all Christians agree on, are baptism and eucharist. The two primary sacraments of baptism and eucharist speak to our human needs as body-mind souls.

In last week’s A Living Eucharist sermon and blog, I expound on Jesus’ teaching in John 6 from which the sacrament of eucharist developed. This week, at St Martin’s we are privileged to witness the baptism of four delightful young souls. The baptism of siblings and cousins from the one extended family with a long multi-generational association with our community promises us a baptism experience, with a particular N.T. resonance.

The relationship of baptism and eucharist is the relationship of doorway to table. Through baptism, we enter into the household of faith where in eucharist we find sustenance in the physical actions of eating and drinking at the Lord’s table.

***

In the Epistle – the N.T. reading for Pentecost 15, God addresses us through the Letter of James. Authorship of this letter is traditionally ascribed to the Lord’s brother, James, first bishop of Jerusalem, though this is hotly disputed among scholars. I will refer to the writer as the author known as James, who opens his letter to the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem with the words:

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

This is an interesting passage from which to expound on the meaning of baptism.

Any exploration of baptism immediately encounters two questions:

  1. Why – as in why do it?
  2. What – as in what happens as a result of doing it?

Why do it?

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. 

James’ opening words affirm that the entry of every human being into life constitutes an act of divine generosity. Can there be no more perfect gift than that of a new life; life as the biological sign of God’s sharing of divine love made real in an act of creation.

It’s unfortunate that the tenor of much of the ancient language, mostly medieval in origin, that we still use in the baptism service is easily misunderstood in churches where the goal is to save individuals from going to hell. In this worldview, baptism into Christ is understood as the antidote to the toxin, transmitted across the generations, of Adam and Eve’s original sin of disobedience.

James’ words can be read as categorically refuting this idea that human beings are born into a morally and spiritually defective state, for which baptism is the necessary correction. The old English verb for baptism is to christen, i.e. to make a Christian. Baptism opens a doorway through which an already perfect new life becomes a member of the Christian community. The early Church Father Tertullian was fond of saying: one Christian is no Christian, by which he meant you can only become a Christian by participating in the life of the community called Christian. It is as members of the Christian community, that we are saved by God’s love.

Why do we baptize? We baptize to make a new Christian. Becoming a Christian means participating in the life of the Christian community. Becoming Christian is to recognize that to be human is to made in the image of God; an awareness that compels us to collaborate with God in the task of making a world that has grown old, new.

What is the result of being baptized?

Returning to the second part of James’ opening lines in his letter:

In fulfilment of his own purpose, he gave us birth by word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. 

Baptism is a second birth, a birth by word of truth. Through baptism, we come to belong. From belonging comes believing.

But baptism is not an act of magical transformation. As a stand-alone event, it functions as an initial entry point only. But what really matters is what happens after baptism, i.e. how the baptismal promises are fulfilled by the baptized person, over time.

James says that the gift from above needs to bear fruit. He tells his readers to:

  • be quick to listen.
  • be slow to anger.
  • behave with dignity, self-respect and above all respect for others.
  • walk the walk not just talk the talk (be doers of the Word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves).
  • control your tongues, an uncontrolled tongue is the enemy of true religion and elsewhere he likens the uncontrolled tongue to a forest fire.
  • care for the orphans and widows in their distress.
  • do not allow yourself to be corrupted by the easy utilitarian values of a world held in bondage to the perpetual inequalities of the status quo.

In our baptismal covenant, James’ words reverberate. Paraphrasing:

  • be faithful in prayer and be present at the celebration of the Lord’s table.
  • persevere against evil and when we fail don’t let our sense of failure become a barrier between us and God.
  • live the Good News of God in Christ, so that others will look at us and say: I want some of what they have!
  • fight against the systems that perpetuate injustices of all kinds and let respect for each human being be your guide to holy living.

To sum up

Baptism emphasizes belonging over believing. This Sunday, four new young lives will be initiated into belonging within the community we call Christian. It takes a village to raise a child; parents, grandparents, sponsors and the whole community will need to support these children so that nurtured by love, they will have the opportunity to grow into the persons God is already dreaming them into becoming.

[1] As Anglicans, Episcopalians accept either six, or seven sacraments, depending on whether you think marriage is a sacrament. The reason for not accepting marriage as a sacrament is because God is not the primary actor – only the witness to the primary action taking place between the couple to the marriage. But back to the point.

A Living Eucharist: John 6

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In her novel The River Flannery O’Connor intriguingly observes:

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Can this be a possible explanation for Jesus’ teaching in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel?

Over previous weeks my focus has been on the Deuteronomic historical chronicle contained in I and II Samuel concerning the tensions of government in ancient Israel and to explore its resonances with our own current political climate. This focus on the O.T. lessons has necessitated ignoring Jesus’s growing controversy with the crowd as reported by John in the sixth chapter of his gospel.

Previously in John

Growing numbers of people have begun to follow Jesus into the countryside to listen to his teaching – culminating in an event where his concern for the hunger and thirst of the crowds exposed in the open countryside as evening approaches leads to an event we know as the feeding of the five thousand. It remains a universal truth that if you want to hold people’s attention then feed them; all the more so when people are generally hungry. Having experienced a free and bountiful supper, the crowds begin to realize that Jesus is the man to stick close to.

Spurred by their questions about food, Jesus begins to point out that they have the wrong end of the stick. He tells them plainly, that what he’s offering is not a free meal, but the food of eternal life. He tells them not to labor for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for everlasting life. They then ask, Rabbi, how can we get this food?

To cut a long story short, having crossed the lake at night walking on the water Jesus makes a surprise appearance in the synagogue at Capernaum. How did you get here, they ask? We didn’t see you in any of the boats.  Jesus ignores the question and proceeds to make a series of what are known in John’s gospel as I am statements.

Chapter 6 contains three I am statements, each statement more controversial than the last:

  1. I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry.
  2. I am the bread of life, come down from heaven.
  3. I am the living bread, and this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Just when the disciples must have been signaling to Jesus to dial it back a bit, he declares:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Teaching that offends

Noticing a growing restiveness, Jesus asks the congregation if what he says offends them? They show that they are more than offended, they are scandalized. They fall over themselves in an attempt to get out of the synagogue and away from this crazy, blasphemous preacher.

His disciples also complain that this teaching is too hard to follow – it is too difficult to accept, they protest. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks them if they too will leave him? There now follows one of those magic moments when Peter breaks through the limits of imagination to tell Jesus:

Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! 

***

Familiarity with the Eucharist deafens us to the shock value of Jesus teaching in John 6. Being good Episcopalians, well-schooled in the use of metaphor when talking about the spiritual life, we dismiss the cannibalistic overtones in Jesus’ language, understanding them as hyperbole – excessive overstatement for the purposes of argument. 

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Anglican-Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Orthodox believe that in the Eucharist, Jesus is really present. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the significance of Eucharistic elements are changed from mere bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. Roman Catholic’s have a complicated theory to explain how this happens while Anglicans cherish the words of Elizabeth I who when asked about it simply said:

I know Christ is truly present though I know not how.

Contrastingly, Protestants believe that the Eucharist is only a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper in which nothing happens to the bread and wine. In this act of remembrance, the connection between the worshiper and Jesus is spiritual, not material.

A middle way

Anglican eucharistic teaching emphasizes the centrality of the real presence. However, it also places emphasis on the process of spiritual connection – the real presence becomes real only when received in faith by the worshiper.

At the invitation to Holy Communion, the celebrant invites us with these words:

Draw near with faith and receive the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you and his Blood which he shed for you …. feed on him in your hearts, with thanksgiving.

As we receive the host and partake from the cup the priest or eucharistic minister says:

the body of Christ – the bread of heaven, the blood of Christ – the cup of salvation.

Note how statements indicating the real presence – the body and blood of Christ are coupled with spiritual metaphors – the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. Anglican tolerance allows for a range of belief that makes room for both a material and spiritual interpretation, according to the theology of the worshiper. What is a fudge for some is for others, an expression of genius.

The term holy communion points to an action of joining together two separate entities. Literally, com-munion means into a new combined entity which Jesus describes thus:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

This remaining in one another is a comingling of identities that only happens within the context of a larger communal action of the Eucharist; another Greek word which means thanksgiving?

To hear Jesus’ words only as a hyperbolic metaphor, as in O’Connor’s really big caricatures is, however, to seriously miss his point. When Jesus says: I am the light of the world, we have little difficulty in hearing this as a metaphor of association. When Jesus says: I am the bread of heaven, again we hear the metaphorical association and his original hearers understood metaphor well enough. But he then deliberately labors the statement in ways that take it beyond mere metaphorical association.

The bread of eternal life is my flesh which I give [to be consumed] for the life of the world.

This is what his hearers found a hard teaching because they realized that Jesus was no longer speaking in metaphors.

***

To truly appreciate the significance of coming to the Lord’s Table in the Eucharist I want to draw out two emphases in Jesus’ teaching in John 6. The first is his emphasis on the action of eating and drinking. The second is contained in his words: I am the bread of life that has come down from heaven.

Eating and drinking

In John 6, Jesus alienates many who want to follow him because he speaks not of the comfortable distance of spiritualized metaphor but of the immediacy of physical action. In John’s Greek, the word he uses for eating is better translated as chewing with open mouths. Eating and drinking are both actions that emphasize an intimate and raw physicality of the action. We become present to Christ and he to us, not through our spiritual imaginations but in the physical actions of eating and drinking in real time. The result of eating and drinking is ingestion – taking in. As food is ingested through eating and drinking, Christ is ingested into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

Come down from heaven

Jesus’ teaching emphasizes a public and communal physicality of being present in preference to a more distanced and individual spiritualized distance. Communion –comingling – happens physically in real time. When we spiritualize it we distance its raw physical immediacy. To follow Jesus is to engage fully with this world, not pine for the next.

There is a popular distortion of Christian teaching, all the more regrettable because it is so widespread; a distortion that places salvation as a future post-death event, the promise of everlasting life with God in heaven; pie in the sky when we die. Jesus does not speak of heaven as the future goal of our lives on earth. Christ-centered faith is thus concerned with this life, not the next, and this is exactly how the N.T understands Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus teaches that the realization of heaven – or of hell – happens in this world.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven 

communicates the urgency of the kingdom’s arrival. The kingdom is not imminent, it is not coming someday soon, or at some distant time, it is coming right now in this very moment!

Give us today our daily bread

emphasizes this. Our daily bread is to be eaten now, not sometime in the future.

***

If we are to be authentic followers of Jesus as John and the other N.T. writers present him, our first and foremost priority is to labor for the making good- the repair – of the material world of creation – in real time! It is not to prepare our souls for an eventual escape into the spiritual ether.

Therefore, Christianity is primarily concerned with the physical not the spiritual dimension of life. Participation in the Eucharist is vital for our Christian flourishing as food and water are essential for our physical wellbeing.  Our ultimate hope is not eternal rest but eternal life; life physically remade as part of a world that is in the process of being put to rights by God. Until this process finds its completion in the resurrection of the dead, it moves apace in real time with our participation and collaboration as God’s agents in real time, compelled to live by the expectations of the kingdom.

In the meantime, our focus must be on the real-time seeding, tending, and reaping of the kingdom’s harvest. As agents of the kingdom, we are engaged in an existential struggle with cosmic dimensions – against the systemic forces of evil as St. Paul warns us – that desecrate and corrupt the goodness of God’s creation. We are strengthened for this task by the physical incorporation of Christ, not into our metaphysical souls, but into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

The Eucharist is where we feed on the food that lasts. The great 20th-century Anglican theologian and mystic, Evelyn Underhill, in her poem Corpus Christi pens this truth with an eloquence that I am incapable of. The full poem can be found at the link above and so I content myself with a more selective citation:

Come dear heart! The fields are white to harvest: come and see, as in a glass the timeless mystery of love, whereby we feed on God, our bread indeed. …Yea, I have understood how all things are one great oblation made: He on our altars, we on the world’s rood. Even as this corn, earth-born, we are snatched from the sod, reaped, ground to grist, crushed and tormented in the Mills of God, and offered at Life’s hands, a living Eucharist. 

Earthen Vessels of Clay

 

Since June, I’ve been following the unfolding Deuteronomic history chronicling the evolution of government in ancient Israel. It’s an increasingly sorry tale as it continues into the books of the Kings. The O.T. lesson for Pentecost 13 opens in the second chapter of I Kings with the statement:

David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David. 

David reigned an astonishing 40 years – remember life expectancy was short in those days – 7 years at Hebron and then after he conquered Jerusalem, and further 30. His son Adonijah was the next in the line of succession but David passes the throne to Solomon, his son by Bathsheba.

The weakness in authoritarian regimes lies in the unpredictability of succession. As the once strong leader begins to fail, in the absence of constitutional processes governing the strict line of succession, factionalism thrives. In David’s last years, anxiety increased about who would succeed him as those who had once been the king’s fixers, his right-hand men, vied to influence the succession.

Before his death, David advises Solomon on how to clear the field by killing the opposition ringleaders to not only clear his way to the throne, but also to settle some of his father’s old scores, the hand of retribution from beyond the grave as it were.

The Lectionary notes the death of David in II Kings:2,10-12, but then it then skips over the rest of chapter 2, picking up again at chapter 3. For us, however, it’s important to know what is happening in the omitted verses 13-46 – quite a chunk, in order to have the fuller picture of events.

Adonijah appears to accept being passed over but then gives Solomon an unexpected excuse to move against him when he manipulates Bathsheba into petitioning Solomon to give him Abishag for his wife. Abishag, you will recall, was the young woman chosen to be David’s last wife, a young woman to warm the old king’s feet in his failing years. For Adonijah to claim her seems to indicate a roundabout way of asserting his rights to his father’s inheritance.

In common parlance, Solomon is doubly pissed. He is pissed not only by Adonijah’s effrontery but also at his mother for allowing herself to become Adonijah’s tool to get to him. Solomon orders Adonijah struck down and killed and then moves swiftly against the opposition ringleaders. Joab, once the commander of the army, seeks sanctuary by grasping the horns of the altar. The Law of Moses allowed a fugitive to seek safety if he could get to the Tent of Meeting and grasp the horns (corners) of the altar. Incidentally, this is the basis of the claim of churches as places of sanctuary, which is currently being asserted to give shelter to refugees fleeing the harsh implementation of immigration law.

Solomon nevertheless has Joab struck down in the heart of the Holy of Holies – take note, Mr. AG. He then deposes Abiathar as high priest, exiling him to his home village. Zadok, a passionate supporter of Solomon now becomes high priest and the way is cleared for what happens next.

Solomon is described as one who loved the Lord and walked in the ways of his father. But he immediately goes to Gibeon, one of the cultic high-places where local pagan deities were worshiped and makes a sacrifice of 1000 burnt offerings. In the Deuteronomist account, it’s all a little odd, for this action clearly indicates unfaithfulness to YHWH. Nevertheless, the Lord comes to Solomon at Gibeon and invites him to make a request.

We then have what’s known as Solomon’s great prayer, which many over the centuries have taken to be the perfect template of prayer. In it, Solomon asks not for power or riches, but wisdom. The Lord is so impressed by Solomon’s request that he throws in power, riches, and long life anyway. For the discerning, there is a sting in the tail here, for God lays a condition on the long-life bit of the gift. Solomon will enjoy long-life as his father had done only if he walks in YHWH’s ways. We need to note that Solomon only lives to the age of 60.

Like his father before him, Solomon is also a complex figure.  Admired by Judeo-Christian tradition as the archetype of wisdom, as the one chosen by the Lord to build his Temple.

Yet, Solomon also went his own way. He married many foreign wives, a thing that was anathema according to the Law of Moses. His first wife was Pharaoh’s daughter, and according to legend even the Candace, the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) journeyed to pay homage and become the most erotically enticing in a succession of foreign wives.

To add insult to injury, not only was marrying foreign women and insult to YHWH, but Solomon allowed his wives to set up shrines to their gods in the high-places and he even worshiped there himself. He was a brutal monarch, taxing his people ruthlessly and indenturing his male population in the service of the building of the Temple.

His corrupt foreign ways, his worship of pagan gods, his economic oppression of his own people, set the stage after his death for the secession of the 10 northern tribes of Israel, leaving only Judah and Benjamin as a remnant of the Davidic kingdom.

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In omitting the bulk of chapter 2, the Lectionary has edited the text to emphasizes the identification of Solomon with wisdom, so as to segway in two weeks time from the Deuteronomist history into the Wisdom books of Proverbs, Songs (of Solomon), and Wisdom (of Solomon).

A recurring central theme in the Wisdom literature concerns the way human understanding pales against the grandeur of creation, which itself is the expression of God’s wisdom. Wisdom’s themes explore opposite pairings: righteousness/ unrighteousness, death/immortality, meaning/meaninglessness, hubris/futility, joy/sorrow.

The final judgment of the Deuteronomists on Solomon is mixed. According to their narrative, God gave Solomon wisdom, entrusted him with the building of a permanent dwelling place to house God’s spirit on earth. They also recognized that through his ruthlessness in furtherance of his own ambitions, and the single-minded pursuit of his own pleasures, Solomon ultimately destroyed the legacy he had inherited. Unfaithfulness to God did in the end, cut short his life.

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Based on the absence of hard archeological evidence, some historians of the period doubt whether Solomon ever existed. Certainly, much modern opinion is that the great Davidic kingdom as presented by the Deuteronomists was anything but great. The Deuteronomic history is the product of a later period. 600 years later, the scribes engaged in a monumental root and branch editing of the Hebrew Scriptures during the Babylonian Exile, had a need to paint a picture an imagined golden age from which to trace Israel’s decline as an explanation for their current experience of having been abandoned by God.

I believe the value of the Deuteronomistic history lies not in its historical accuracy or veracity.

Its value lies in its power to remind us of timeless truths. That the nature of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That human government left to its own devices rests on the principle that power is there to be abused.

In the record of the Deuteronomists description of the tensions between faithfulness to God and the corruptions of worldly power played out between prophet and king, it’s not hard for us to hear some striking echoes of the tensions in our own time. Our society is grinding under the weight of increasingly huge disparities of wealth between the 1% and the rest. Under the pressure of unrestrained corporate greed, we turn a blind eye to the compounding of individual and national debt. Western democracies are increasingly retreating in the face a resurgence of authoritarian-nationalist political instincts riding on the uncertainties and fears of peoples in a time of rapid change.

From Samuel, through David, to Solomon and beyond, we see God’s glory encased in vessels of clay. Solomon is the proverbial everyman, he is you and me.  Like him, we too are creatures of our time and shaped by our culture. The continuing scandals of church child sexual abuse only too painfully reminded us that even our religious institutions while pointing us beyond ourselves are at the same time, all too corruptible and fallible.

Like Solomon, we aspire to love God, but mostly we follow our own counsels. We long to give our full allegiance making Christian faith the unifying story around which our lives take shape, yet mostly, we march to the drumbeat of lesser stories that promise us more than they can deliver. The extraordinary thing is how we nevertheless give allegiance again and again to stories that if we did but remember led to disastrous outcomes last time we placed our faith in them.

The timeless truth, that God challenges us to remember the covenant made with Israel which has now been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only story with the power to shape our times in the direction we truly long for. Like David and Solomon, we too are the earthen vessels made of clay struggling to contain the divine vision for creation. Occasionally we hear God calling us to be better than we currently are and to do better than we have done.

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