Shush – Wisdom’s still Speaking

The book of Proverbs belongs to a genre of Biblical writing known as the Wisdom Literature. Proverbs belongs with 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. Similar material is also found in Egyptian and Babylonian sources.

Wisdom focuses on the challenge to live life skillfully in a spirit of enquiry and wonder. In the face of suffering, Wisdom 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 – sitting in tension with more conventional biblical voices. We see this tension playing out again and again throughout Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. Personified in the feminine – Wisdom expresses the feminine principle – the anima of the divine – later to find an echo in the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit – the pneuma – the breath of God. The Greek term for Wisdom is sophia. Sophia, expressing creation’s feminine principle has been affectionately known in English literature as Lady Wisdom.

Proverbs 31, enumerating the qualities of the good wife appears to have been written as the inspired utterances of the Queen-Mother for her son, King Lemuel (identity unknown) in his search for the ideal spouse. Thus, the depiction of the capable wife found from verse 10 onwards is in its original context a description of the ideal virtues to be found in a great queen. It is definitely NOT a description of the virtues of ordinary wifeliness which the patriarchal tradition of Jewish and Christian interpretation has embraced.

Last week I stressed the importance of words. Words matter! This week I want to draw attention to two Hebrew words isshah and chayil.

All wives are women but not all women are wives. In the word isshah, ancient Hebrew does not distinguish between wife and woman. In English, as well as other languages with Germanic roots, isshah has been rendered as wife. The difficulty here is that this is an interpretive gloss which reflects the patriarchal bias. All wives are women but not all women are wives. But in patriarchy, that is,  the social structures headed by the father and privileging the power and status of men over women – that all wives are women but not all women are wives becomes all women may not yet be wives – emphasis on the yet. The essence of womanhood is to be fulfilled only through becoming a wife. Hence Proverbs 31’s traditional interpretation as a hymn of praise extoling the attributes of the good wife.

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 if instead of a capable wife, who can find we read a warrior-like – strong woman – who can find?  Wouldn’t this introduce a novel twist to The Handwife’s Tale let alone challenge Evangelical notions of male headship?

Proverbs 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 provider, and social philanthropist. The text notes that her husband is well known at the city gates – who with a woman like this at his side – would not be?

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, nor her cocktail-hour social charm and wit. According to Wisdom, her crowning glory lies in her fear of the Lord – as in holding the Lord in proper esteem. Hence the saying: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Never mind her husband’s honor among his peers, Proverbs 31 concludes with:

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

Proverbs 31

In the 21st-century, 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 a patriarchal hymn to wifely virtue is 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 says. Words Matter! Strip away Tradition’s male-dominated wifely fantasies and we are compelled to allow the text to speak anew into our own gender-contested context.

The emancipation of women and the emergence of the woman’s voice in our political and theological context constitutes not simply a new social awakening – but a return to the vision of womanhood in Proverbs 31. The emancipation of women in our own time 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. Much of the energy of the anti-abortion movement is understandable only when the age-old patriarchal fear of women being in control of their own reproductive choices is factored in.

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 not domesticated to the home and hearth but 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, we find Jesus sternly castigating his disciples for masculine preoccupation with power and dominance. His response comes straight from the heart of Wisdom’s playbook. In his day children were even more oppressed than women in the hierarchy of patriarchy. Driving home his point- he -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, and the growing recognition of the rights of the child – we are awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way we have been deaf to the age-long cries of women and children. Open your ears – can you hear Wisdom is still speaking?

Words!


When we lived in Phoenix, our granddaughter, Claire, attended a very alternative Montessori school founded by members of the Western Sikh community – you know the men and women clothed in white and sporting impressively high white turbans. One day while collecting Claire I witnessed an argument between two children.

The other children standing around, instead of egging them on  admonished the protagonists to: use your words! Use your words!

I was deeply impressed by these relatively young children – I guess they must have been under 10 years of age – diffusing conflict by urging their peers to process their feelings into words – and avoid unthought out action.

It’s the failure to process feelings into words that lies at the root of a great deal of violence in our society. Instead of feelings being processed into verbal communications – the failure to find words results in feelings remaining unprocessed.

Our unprocessed feelings avoid our conscious scrutiny – taking an end run around our power to choose -becoming acted out in behaviors that unleash the intensity of the feelings through spontaneous action.

Use your words! Use your words! – could well be the motto by which we all seek to live. Through processing into words, we begin to exercise conscious choice over our unconscious or hidden feelings – creating a space between feeling and action for choice.

Our nation’s journey since 9/11 – highlighted more recently during the Trump presidency – has shown us how much words matter and the damage that the wrong words can cause. Words matter!

There are pivotal moments in history when time divides into a time before and time after – a time when nothing again was quite the same. The question: where were you on 9/11? has joined the question: where were you when JFK was assassinated? as two key historical pivot points in our collective memory.

On 9/11, not since Pearl Harbor, had such a devastating wound been inflicted upon the nation – a wound that would evoke a dark desire for reckoning. After Pearl Harbor the desire for a reckoning took a predictable shape against a clearly defined adversary. Following 9/11 – the dark urgency for a reckoning had no clearly defined object. Consequently, our leaders conjured up an imagined adversary – setting us on an unpredictable path – a path from which we are only now finally exiting some 20 years later.

Words matter, and none more so than when President Bush proudly proclaimed those four fateful words: the war on terror. Like President Reagan’s earlier war on drugs, the war on terror –was a phrase – seemingly meaningless in content – yet huge in destructive import.

Words matter – and it’s the wrong words – paradoxically – that sometimes matter most.

  • If our leaders had been able to find words to communicate the complexity of a nation in shock- words capable of giving voice to the confusion and fear of a nation in pain – words of leadership and vision capable of processing the pain and confusion of a nation into positive action.
  • If our leaders had been able to find the words of a Lincoln at Gettysburg, or Churchill in 1941, or MLK at the head of the Washington Mall, or Robert Kennedy standing before a crowd primed for violence – in those moments when the news reached them that MLK was dead – what then – what different direction might history have taken in the years following the events on 9/11?

There were other words uttered in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – words easily drowned out by a bellicose cacophony. Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against giving President Bush unsupervised war powers, standing alone on the floor of the House uttered these words

Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped our people and millions across the world. This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction. September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning…Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.”

She concluded:

I have agonized over this vote. I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore’.

Words matter. Taking time to pause before acting leads us to find the right words – giving us the power to exercise conscious choices over which actions to take and which to refrain from taking. The power of human conscious thought -ushering forth in considered and well-chosen action is all we have to resist the clamoring and unruly need to assuage the dark collective unconscious desires for reckoning.



Looking back, we can now see 9/11 as a tear in the fabric of time – dividing between a time before and a time after. After 9/11, in the moments that followed we as a nation failed to find the right words to express the gravity of the moment, and consequently took a momentous wrong turn.

Let us imagine for a moment that in the days and weeks following 9/11 -if the leadership and nation had listened to Barbara Lee rather than George Bush – how might her words rather than his have set us upon a different 20-year trajectory? – We know that the fruit of the war on terror was – forever wars.

Even though this is a question we can only speculate upon with a deep sense of regret – yet another of the what-if-conundrums of history – it’s the vital question of this moment – and we must not allow our remembrances to avoid addressing this question of the moment.

In doing so we can find no better guide than the apostle James, brother of Our Lord and leader of the fledgling Jerusalem Church speaking to us through the Epistle set for the Sunday after 9/11.

The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! With it we bless the Lord of earth and heaven, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and curse. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?

Words matter because from them consequences flow. On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – with the hindsight of 20 years of forever wars, we give humble thanks with repentant hearts for the end of our intervention in Afghanistan. We remember all who over two decades gave their live. For the many more who returned scarred in body and disturbed and disillusioned in mind.

We cannot escape the vital question – which is not what went wrong in the painful extraction of our forces – but out of the trauma of Afghanistan and Iraq have we managed to create a better future?

Words matter because as the Apostle James boldly states – words bear fruit.

Wise God, on this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – we are invited to examine what we failed to reflect upon then - and to face the consequences of our past actions filtering into future challenge. We pray that we may never again lose sight of the significance of words to process feelings at the pivotal moments that still lie ahead- lest when we act we once again become the evil we deplore.

Feet of Clay

Over the summer, we’ve been following with some interruptions the unfolding saga of ancient Israel’s political transition from devolved tribal confederation to centralized monarchy. This is primarily, a story of the contour and vicissitude of power. It’s a saga to enthrall – from murderous ambition and dynastic power struggle to domestic violence, family dysfunction, pain, and personal tragedy galore.

What interests me about this history, recorded by a group of scribes known as the Deuteronomists is its timeless relevance to the exercise of power and authority in our contemporary age. We still struggle with the push and pull between centralized and devolved government – whether in the tussle between federal and state or as we are seeing increasingly being played out – between state and municipality.

Shakespeares’ immemorial line put into the mouth of Richard IV: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown -certainly is a mantra that must have kept David awake many a night – as with increasing intensity he experienced the unfolding of Nathan’s dire prophecy of a chain of violence that would never leave him, nor his house, in peace. Yet, I’m left wondering however if this sentiment ever crossed Solomon’s mind? Coming full circle Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown is certainly a mantra that Joe Biden is no longer a stranger to. But back to Solomon.

In the second chapter of the first book of the Kings we read that David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David, having reigned an astonishing 40 years – 7 years at Hebron and then after he conquered Jerusalem a further 30.

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. The death of Absalom left his brother Adonijah next in the line of succession. But following some pretty murky machinations by Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, David passes his throne to Solomon. Before his death, David advises Solomon on how to clear the field by killing the opposition’s ringleaders. This not only clears his way to the throne, but also settles some of his father’s old scores, -the hand of retribution from beyond the grave – as it were.

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 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.

Solomon is angered by his mother allowing herself to become Adonijah’s tool to get to him. Gripped by fratricidal rage – Solomon orders Adonijah struck down and killed before moving swiftly against the opposition ringleaders. Joab, once the commander of the army, seeks sanctuary by grasping the horns of the altar.

Solomon nevertheless has Joab struck down in the heart of the Holy of Holies. 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.

The Deuteronomic attitude towards Solomon is perplexing. Despite his blood strewn path to the throne, they seem to want to give Solomon a pass. On the one hand he is presented as the embodiment of humility requesting not power and riches before God, but wisdom. God throws in power and riches as part of the package and entrusts Solomon with the task of building a permanent resting place for the Lord in the Jerusalem temple.

Yet this is the same man who had a string of foreign wives, who on ascending to the throne hightails it off to Gibeon where he sacrifices 1000 burnt offering to the pagan gods of the high places. This is the man who adopts foreign ways and worships foreign gods. This is the man who taxed the people into ruin and indentured the male population in the task of temple construction. This is the great and wise king who is promised long life but only lives to 60 – the most explicit sign for the Deuteronomist of God’s ill favor. This is the great king who destroys his father’s legacy – leaving the United Kingdom of David divided into north and south after his death and because of his extravagant misrule.

Like his father before him, Solomon is a complex figure.  Yet Solomon seems not to possess any of his father’s love of the Lord and willingness to acknowledge his sin. The final judgment of the Deuteronomists on Solomon is mixed, but his popular image – as the personification of wisdom in subsequent tradition – is on the balance of historical evidence – completely undeserved.

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. Scholars divide over dating the Deuteronomic history – some seeing it as completed in the reign of Josiah mid 5th-century BCE. Others even later as a product of the monumental root and branch editing of the Hebrew Scriptures during the 4th-century Babylonian Exile. Yet, whenever compiled – the Deuteronomic history creates an imagined golden age against which to explain Israel’s subsequent decline and seeming abandonment by the Lord.

The value of the Deuteronomistic history lies not in its historical accuracy or veracity but in its theme of timeless truths. That the nature of power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That human society left to its own devices rests on the principle that power is there to be abused.

The history of the United Kingdom of Israel echoes in 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 of a resurgence of authoritarian-nationalisms that exploit our uncertainty and fear 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 church scandals only too painfully reminds us that even our religious institutions – while pointing us to a reality beyond ourselves – are at the same time evidence of the all too corruptible and fallible nature of institutional life.

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 but deliver less.

The extraordinary thing is how we nevertheless give allegiance again and again to stories that if we did but remember last time spelled disaster. History may not exactly repeat itself but from Saigon to Kabul, South Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq – it certainly has a remarkable rhyming quality.

The legacy of the Deuteronomic History is a reminder that we live in a moral universe in which actions have consequences. Our sense of a moral universe flows out of the covenant YHWH made with Israel and which has now been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This remains 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 with feet of clay – struggling to reflect the divine vision for creation.

The earth dries and burns. The ice melts and the seas rise. The oceans fill with our waste and rising temperatures fan hurricanes and typhoons of unprecedented scale and frequency. New viruses jump species barriers brutally exposing the fragility and injustice of our societies Our inability to put self-interest aside and collaborate in pursuit of the common good, whether domestically or on the international stage continues to obscure the reality that we are all in this together and no one is protected unless everyone is safe. Living hour by hour, day by day as the dire events of the collapse of Afghanistan unfold before us; as our politicians rush to get down and dirty in the mire of the blame game  – can we not hear God calling us to be better than we currently are – and to do better than we previously have done?

Like Solomon and his people we sit on the cusp of divine judgement – for in the moral universe consequences most certainly follow actions.

The Bread of Action part 2

For many months the first wave of pandemic lockdown prevented us not simply from coming to church, but from coming to church for a particular purpose – namely to celebrate the Eucharist together. As we returned last summer to experience a new outdoor setting for worship, I had a sense that we returned with a heightened sense of our need for the Eucharist – a need discovered during its absence from our lives.

Sunday worship was no longer the gathering of the community at which we celebrated the Eucharist together by way of a default. Instead, worship had become a need to gather as a community in order to celebrate the Eucharist together by choice.  At first sight this might seem a fine distinction but on closer inspection it is a distinction of some significance.

As Episcopalians we are a Eucharistic community – meaning the Eucharist lies at the center of our worship life. This gives our worship life a different feel and flavor from that of our Protestant neighbors. While we share the primacy of Eucharistic worship with our Roman Catholic neighbors – differences of history and culture place Episcopalians in that odd place known historically as the via media or middle way. Our theological outlook – shaped by the Reformation – we nevertheless preserve the historic ministry of bishop, priest and deacon together with the sacramental understanding and worship practices of the ancient Apostolic and Catholic faith. This can be a confusing place to be – often leaving us feeling in the US context neither fish nor fowl and misunderstood or dismissed by both. All this leads to the question – why does the Eucharist lie at the heart of our worship lives – and what does this mean?

Referring to today’s gospel from John, the short answer is because Jesus said: 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.

But this is not much help for many of us, I suspect. Such language can only deepen the quandary. What on earth can this language – which taken at face value suggests cannibalistic overtones – mean for us?

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

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

Flannery O’Connor The River

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

Jesus spoke about himself in the Passover language of bread and wine. The crowds who flocked to hear him, including his disciples well understood this reference but were a little surprised at Jesus’ bodily identification with the Passover elements of bread and wine. The crunch comes when he moves beyond mere Passover images into a shockingly new imagery – of the eating of his body as bread and the drinking of his blood as wine. There were many, John tells us, including some disciples who could not take this teaching – thinking him probably delusional. Many seem to have left him at this point.

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.

His disciples complain that Jesus’ teaching is too hard to follow – it is too difficult to accept – they protest. It’s not difficult for us to see that it’s the overtones of cannibalism that trouble them as well as the blasphemous identification with the Moses and the elements of Passover. 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! 

Behind this characteristic Johannine declaration, we can hear Peter saying: Lord, we don’t really understand any of this, but coming this far with you we have nowhere else to go.

It’s interesting that it’s only John’s gospel that records this extended bread of life teaching of Jesus. We are so familiar with John’s presentation of Jesus’ bread of life teaching that we miss that John had a particular need to present this material. It all makes sense when we remember that John is teaching against a background of a growing movement of Jesus denial – that is denial of the importance of Jesus himself in preference to a Spirit inspired personal connection with God that does an end run around Jesus the historical figure.

This Jesus denial group  came to be known in Christian history as the Gnostics. They eventually split from the Johannine community making way for the assimilation of the remnants of John’s community into the wider church – bringing with them their preserved Jesus, the bread of the life of the world, teaching. It’s this teaching – unique to John that becomes the basis of the Apostolic Church’s eucharistic theology.

We can understand the tension in John’s community very much in contemporary terms. It’s the same tension which today we encounter between those of us who claim to be Christian and the many others who say they are spiritual but not religious – or with those who say you don’t have to go to church to be Christian. John’s answer to this contention is to emphasize that without a communal incorporation into Jesus as the bread of life – the life of the world, there is nowhere else to go.

Being spiritual but religious is better than not being spiritual at all. Those who recognize a higher spiritual plane are a force for good in the world. But being spiritual on your own is not the same as being a member of a community called Christian. Being Christian is to be Jesus-centered and an active participant in a community that celebrates Eucharist together.

The bread of eternal life is my flesh which I give [to be consumed] for the life of the world. Do this always to re-member me.

In the Eucharist, as we celebrate the bread from heaven given for the life of the world we also in the same moment make our ethical commitment to the life of this world. The spiritual bread of the Eucharist is also the physical bread of food, shelter, and justice– made available in the everyday world through our actions of service and truth witnessing.

The great Episcopal lay theologian, William Stringfellow who lived the latter part of his life on Block Island and was a towering figure and friend to many in this diocese, wrote of celebrating the Eucharist:

As a transcendent event, [collecting] all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time.

Keeper of the Word PP 125<<

Here, Stringfellow is articulating the cosmic significance of the Eucharist as an action of taking the flow of time – past and future – and folding them into the present moment – when and where:

The [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way               

While keeping Flannery O’Connor’s wry observation in mind, William Stringfellow most clearly offers us the answer to the earlier question about why Episcopalians are a Eucharistic people – placing an open and welcoming celebration of the Eucharist at the heart of our communal life.

Stringfellow uses a dramatic term for celebrating the Eucharist. He calls it a political event.

The very example of salvation, it is the festival of life that foretells the fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all of time and in this time. The liturgy is social action because it is the characteristic style of life for human beings in this world.

Keeper of the Word

The Bread of Action

As a child, I remember buying bread at the grocery. I remember it came as whole loaves, either white or brown. That’s all I remember about bread until at some point a third option became available – sliced. The arrival of a slicing machine in the grocery meant that in our house bread now came presliced in a plastic wrapper.

The significance of pre-sliced bread has found its way into the language. A common saying in both New Zealand and the UK to describe something wonderful is to say: it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Maybe it’s a saying used by Americans as well. Being a denizen of all three cultures, it’s increasingly difficult for me to keep straight in which of the three cultures a certain aphorism originates.

I remember bread as the staple of my childhood, for bread was not the specialty item to be savored and delighted over that those of us living in Providence find at Seven Stars Bakery. Bread was bread, white or brown, sliced or not. Used as toast or to make a sandwich or a bread pudding –a great favorite of visits to my maternal grandmother.

I also remember a time when eating bread had little downside. The purity of the grain and the metabolism of youth allowed me to consume bread without regard to quantity or consequence. This is alas, is no longer so. The processed nature of much wheat used in making bread is making bread toxic and I now strictly monitor my wheat intake. The slowing of my body’s metabolism also means that bread is now a source of unwanted carbs, and unwanted carbs are the enemy of my aging male waistline.

Bread is the staple food in all cultures where wheat is the staple grain. In wheat growing societies, dependence on bread as the staple food has led such societies to view Bread as a symbol of divine generosity – an embodiment of God’s care and concern for human beings. Our own collective religious memory contains countless instances and references to bread as a sign of God’s presence, God’s communication with and involvement in human affairs.

For several weeks the gospel readings have been following Jesus’ bread teachings in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus following his feeding of the 5000, expands on his theology of bread. The crowds flock in increasing numbers to hear him – but Jesus suspects awed – not simply by the signs and wonders he performs but by the promise of a full stomach.

We recall that hunger was the commonplace experience for the masses of displaced peasantry that flocked to hear Jesus. 1st Century Palestine was undergoing a revolution in agricultural production – with land being increasingly vested in powerful landowners who – like big agribusiness in our own time – were intent on monopolizing resources. Independent peasant farmers were being squeezed out; reduced into itinerant day laborers. This is a story as old as time, and one alarmingly familiar to us as we view with a sense of increasing alarm the monopolistic trajectory of economic developments in our own day.

The crowds don’t like it when Jesus pushes them to move beyond limited expectations. In this morning’s passage they’re beginning to grumble – and worse. In presenting himself as the bread come down from heaven, Jesus evokes a collective memory of the manna that fed their ancestors in the wastes of Sinai. But his use of bread as a metaphor for spiritual food – God’s living bread – falls on deaf ears. If he’d read his Maslow he might have realized that it is a tall order telling people about spiritual nourishment, when their bellies need filling.

Bread is one of the central metaphors of the Christian Faith. We pray: Give us this day our daily bread – extending bread as a metaphor for all of life’s basic needs. Daily bread encompasses not only something to eat, but also somewhere to live, something meaningful to do, and someone to love and be loved by. While we long for the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger we also must work to provide bread to feed the hungry.

Yet, our expectations are so limited. Dom Helda Camara, a liberation theologian and bishop of the Brazilian diocese of Recife from 1964 to 1985, is famously reported to have said:

When I give the poor bread, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.

For most of us, feeding the hungry is consigned to the category of personal charitable action – give a little hand out here, write a check to this charity there. How many of us are also deeply committed to the kind of political questioning that recognizes poverty as a product of our political-economic systems? Even fewer of us recognize what to ensure enough bread for the hungry – I’m using bread here as a metaphor for addressing multiple poverties – will cost us in terms of the resources we currently claim for ourselves. Afterall, tax cuts pay for themselves, but investment in infrastructure only adds to the national debt.

In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself as the bread from heaven that feeds the life of the world – not a heavenly world, but a real world in time and space. Each Sunday in my introduction I remind us that the Eucharist is both a local –that is, here and now event – as well as a cosmic -beyond time and space event. The celebration of the Eucharist bears certain characteristics which the great Episcopal lay theologian, William Stringfellow identified:

As a transcendent event, the [Eucharist] collects all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time. But the [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way               

A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow. 1994 

As the central aspect of Christian worship, at the Eucharist real bread – the staple of life – becomes the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger. As spiritual bread it feeds and sustains us – who like Jesus’ hearers – are everyday challenged to move beyond our convenient and limited expectations to transform the bread of heaven into the staples of life.

In the Eucharist celebrating the bread from heaven given for the life of the world is also in the same moment making our ethical commitment to the life of the world. The spiritual bread of the Eucharist is also the physical bread of food and shelter – made available in the everyday world through our actions of service and truth witnessing.

Like the crowds that came to hear Jesus, what are our expectations as members of a community whose central action in the world is the celebration of Eucharist?

The bread from heaven, which satisfies our spiritual hunger in the celebration of the Eucharist is our community meal. Is our community a place where we can not only expect to eat the bread of heaven but also ensure that all can eat the bread of life?

Our mission is to pray, worship, and proclaim the Gospel in order to promote justice, and peace.This is what Stringfellow means by Eucharist as a political event.

The very example of salvation, it is the festival of life that foretells the fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all of time and in this time. The liturgy is social action because it is the characteristic style of life for human beings in this world

A Keeper of the Word Pp 125-6

The Perils of Getting What you Want

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely. The story of David and Bathsheba is a tale of the corruption of power.

I don’t know about you, but I’m both addicted and repelled by dramas that center on the abuse of power. To start with there’s Billions. In fact, I had to stop watching Billions because it reveals a side to our society that deeply disturbs me. I know- it’s only TV.

Most recently, I’ve started another saga of power and its corruptions – Succession. I’m still on season one, because while I began watching during the winter, I had to take a break and only recently have I summoned the courage to venture back.

Succession – if you don’t know about it – is a dynastic story of nastiness in the extreme. The tantalizing question is – is it a fictionalized tale of Trump family nastiness? Maybe? Or is it a tale of Murdoch everyday ruthless rich folk? Succession’s power to addict and disturb lies in the portrayal of depravity that flows from the abuse and corruption of power. These are themes that for many of us struggling with the reality of life in 21st-century America are all too close to home for comfort.

Al and I have taken up the habit of watching Succession as the first thing on our evening viewing schedule after the PBS 6 O’clock NewsHour. The reason is that it’s easier to sleep if we get it out of the way earlier so that we can move onto more benign viewing as bedtime nears.

Now, I love the tales of the rich and famous as much as anyone – esp. when they are couched as cautionary tales. But what challenges me about dramas like Billions or Succession is not the dramatic portrayal of the ruthless violence of those who exercise absolute power and the pathetic mimicry of those in the cascading echelons under them. This is not like watching Wolf Hall, which accurately portrays Henry VIII’s capricious abuse of power in a premodern England – where the distance of time can provide a buffer for the emotions. The difficulty for me with Succession and its ilk is that it is the portrayal of a world that is all too recognizable as the kind of world we are currently living in. This immediacy between screen and reality provides no avenue for safe emotional escape.

What I want, I get! So warns the patriarch, Logan Roy; a statement expressing the ruthlessness lying at the heart of the drama. This is the statement of a man who has failed to leave the ruthless stage of infant development behind. His arrested development and would be pathetic if the consequences for those around him were not so dire. It’s also chilling, because our present world is controlled by men – mostly men – who are made in Logan Roy’s image. Their failure to leave infantile ruthlessness behind in the service of emotional development has dire consequences that none of us can escape from in today’s America; not to mention the growing number of ruthless dictators in today’s wider world.

Today we heard the continuation of the story of David and Bathsheba. Last week we heard about David’s primal infatuation with Bathsheba as she performs her evening ablutions on the roof of her house. What I want, I get -thought David. And so he got.

He had Bathsheba brought to his house where he lay with her and she conceived. Bathsheba is later to be the mother of the legendary Solomon. But for now, the child of this ill begotten coupling must die as punishment. The question is – punishment for what?

Lay with her is how the Deuteronomist writers record this incident. Tradition has tended to romanticize David and Bathsheba as a tale of love at first sight. David’s other marriages – pay heed evangelicals – we’re not talking about a paragon of monogamy here – were political alliances. So, it’s possible that this is – at least for David – a love match. Afterall, he ends up making an honest woman of her. Now there’s a phrase!

Alternatively, tradition has portrayed this story as a tale of feminine seduction. After all, if Bathsheba had exercised greater modesty, she would not have excited David’s sexual passions. It’s a short step from here to believing that she intentionally bathed beneath the king’s window with the intention to ensnare him.

Remember however that David had all the power and then some. This makes moot the question, could Bathsheba have come willingly?

You cannot act voluntarily when you have no choice not to act. So, whatever the dynamics of their encounter – and we can only speculate – the facts on the ground indicate that this is a legal rape – as defined by sexual intercourse where one party has no capacity to refuse consent. It’s not the sex that’s wrong here – although some may question this – it’s the abuse of power that matters.

Last week we heard about David’s machinations to engineer Uriah’s death. Here the story takes on something of the quality of a comedy of errors. David encourages Uriah to sleep with his wife. Mindful of his need to maintain ritual purity before battle, Uriah avoids the trap. In the end David resorts through his chief henchman Joab, to having Uriah murdered in the line of battle.

Enters Nathan upon the scene. This is the first we’ve heard of Nathan. He strides into the king’s house carrying a message from God – ready and willing to speak truth to power.

Although prophets are mentioned from time to time before this, what we might term the office of the prophet arises only conterminously with the shift from tribal to monarchical government in ancient Israel. Samuel is the transitional figure in this shift, and Nathan is the first to appear in this new enhanced prophetic role. 

Remember that Israel is identified by its covenant with God. Even after the shift to monarchy -there is still only one King in Israel and YHWH is his name. The establishment of the monarchy created a secondary covenant between God and the king which lay down the lines of power sharing. David as king is essentially God’s regent overseeing the correct enforcement of the Covenant between Israel and God. Like our own Constitution, the Covenant defined the lawful exercise of power. The king is God’s regent, and the prophet becomes God’s spokesman – in our terms a kind of one-man Supreme Court.

The essential point for us to grasp is that Israel’s Covenant with God conveyed an understanding that humans live in a moral universe in which consequences follow actions. This is esp. important in its application to the exercise of kingly power. David’s increasingly centralized power made him vulnerable to his corruption in the exercise of power. He has now reached the point where to quote a contemporary analogy, if he committed murder on 5th Ave, there was no one to stop him.

David and Bathsheba is not the main storyline at this stage. The primary story is David and Uriah.

The core of Nathan’s – and hence God’s accusation against David is not adultery. The David – Bathsheba story has only a tangential relationship to the primary story which at this stage is David and Uriah. The core of the accusation Nathan cunningly crafts to entrap David in his own words – is that David has offended against the moral universe not through adultery but through murder. For Nathan and thus we read for God, David’s actions are a criminal abuse of power for which he is called to account. In that awful moment of realization – David is reduced to the confession of his sin.

David is no Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch. A later story illustrates this point. Elijah confronts King Ahab -the husband of the infamous Jezebel -for a similar abuse of power in the murder of Naboth for the purpose of confiscating his vineyard. When confronted with his crime Ahab’s response is: Ahh so you have found me, my enemy! A truly Trumpian response and worthy of Succession’s legendary Logan Roy.

The Story of David is the story of greatness. But his greatness does not reside in his absolute power. It resides in these six words: I have sinned against the Lord. Words that reestablish the correct lines of power sharing between king and God.

Nevertheless, in Israel’s moral universe consequences follow actions. Nathan declares that David has now set in motion a chain of violence that would never leave him, nor his house, in peace.

What kind of moral universe does contemporary America live in, I wonder? When will we see that personal consequences follow political actions? When will the powerful be confronted by their deeds and brought to the realisation that their ruthlessness is a sin against the Lord?

It Smells, Silly!

In his letter to the Ephesians quoted in the epistle for today, Paul writes:

 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Paul lived in a world in which spiritual energy was experienced as intricately interwoven into the dimension of time and space. This was a world in which the signs of transcendence were to be seen everywhere and in everything. For Paul and the countless generations who shared a prescientific imagination – the divine presence was experienced as deep, and broad, long and high.

We live in the world of the post-scientific imagination. We are people reshaped by a post scientific imagination in which the spiritual life is easily dismissed as at best poetic, and at worst, supernatural. How are we to find in Paul’s words an experience that takes us beyond poetic imagination into a lived experience of the divine within the post-scientific imagination bounded by dimensions of time and space?

It comes down to a matter of perception – or the way we see the world.

For me, this goes to the heart of the struggle to live the spiritual life. Whether we feel we achieve it or not most of us know how to live a good life, a productive and useful life. A good life is encouraged by religious faith. We speak a lot at St Martin’s about collaborating with God in the healing of the world. But the spiritual life is more than sound ethics and social-ecological justice. What about the kind of vivid experience of the spiritual life that Paul is directing attention to? Of course, we love Paul’s enchanted imagination- we feel the inspiration in his words Paul – but do they have an application for us beyond the merely poetic?

Walking Charlie Girl in the early mornings I notice how busy she is following her nose. Cocker Spaniels are irresistible sniffers. They were bred to flush game out of the undergrowth and then to retrieve the downed birds – dutifully, bringing them to their master. On our walks, CG is always sticking her nose under bushes and into hedgerows – and it can get very tiresome indeed.

I often wonder what the world looks like for Charlie Girl. On our early morning walks, the world is primarily a visual experience for me as I keep my eyes peeled to spot in advance anything lying in our path that I know Charlie will want to disgust me by trying to eat. I see the world not only in images, but complex gradients of color and texture. My senses of sound and smell support what is for me a primarily visual experience of the world.

On the other hand, Charlie Girl’s map of reality is made up from a world of smells and sounds. With around 300 million olfactory receptors – most herding breeds average around 225 – her world is alive to dimensions of reality hidden from my measly 6 million receptors.

She also hears better. Young humans can hear up to around 23,000Hz. At 66, I’m probably confined to a range of sound no greater than 12,000Hz. Charlie’s hearing on the other hand, detects sound up to 45,000Hz.

I can only wonder at how different the world must seem to Charlie Girl – a world impregnated with smells and sounds.

All creatures perceive the world through the hard evidence of their five senses. Yet through a rebalance between the senses – our experience of the world can take on very different shape.

Through the physical sciences the post-scientific mind has been able to develop and deepen understanding of the world that in one way takes us beyond the limitations of our five senses. Technology greatly enhances our ability to see into the structures of the material universe in ways that were hidden from Paul. Yet, in our world transcendence -that sense of the more-ness of above and around has been supplanted by immanence – the sense of what lies immediately in front of us. Staying with Paul’s spatial metaphors, the post-scientific mind may see more and more into the depths of the material universe, but it has lost the pre-scientific mind’s sense of the height, breadth, and length of the cosmos.

The problem -at least as I experience it – in the living of the spiritual life we no longer expect to experience the full panorama of cosmic wonderment. Shaped by the materialist philosophy of scientific naturalism religion is shorn of spirituality and spirituality no longer anchored in religious practice becomes the domain of the weird and fanciful. As G.K. Chesterton once remarked: when people stop believing in God, they will believe anything. A sentiment echoed by the Belgian playwright and poet Emile Cammaert who likewise wrote: The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.

For the prescientific mind, limited to the natural operations of the five senses without technological enhancement, a universe defined by the limitations of touch, taste, smell, and sight needed an additional dimension of perception to do justice to the complexity of human experience. The roles of intuition and imagination supplemented – filling the gaps in natural knowledge and experience.

Intuition – that ability to know without knowing how you know – provided a powerful extra element on top of sense experience. Intuition and the enchanted imagination were faculties – more finely tuned in the pre-scientific mind.

In our post-scientific minds intuition and enchanted imagination have atrophied. Today we seek to escape this self-imposed imaginative poverty through magical realism in film and books. We don’t necessarily believe in the superheroes and special effect miracles – but our delight in them points to what we’ve lost in our sense of the height, breadth, length, and depth of the spiritual life.

When it comes to religion, which for most of us is now a matter of ethics and doing good, we reject the supernatural as fantasy. Yet we still crave for it in literatur, art and film. The human imagination needs more than the material universe can provide. So, what are we to do?

What we can know, and in what form we can know it, depends upon the scope and functioning of our own cognitive equipment (John Hick, The Fifth Dimension 1999).

Hick is alerting us to the task at hand concerning reclaiming what he calls the fifth dimension of experience. In terms of Paul’s spatial metaphor, the task for us requires an expansion of our sense of height, length, and breadth to accompany our much-enhanced experience of depth. This is something the practices and exploration of the spiritual life must offer us.The spiritual life opens us to experience the signs of cosmic transcendence within the experience of the imminent universe. It’s simply a matter of recalibrating reception.

Extrapolating on my speculation of how the world looks to Charlie Girl – maybe the transcendent is a matter more of smell and sound than of sight. Smell the cosmos!

A Man’s man

Present Day Context

This week, Carl Nassib became the first NFL player to out himself as an openly gay player. Nassib’s action has been greeted with a chorus of affirmation and support from team owners, coaches, fellow players, and fans. My, what a long way we’ve come in a relatively short time! Despite conservative Christian resistance and hard right political opportunism we see a growing acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream social, sporting, judicial and political life in the US. Across European democracies – where they previously existed – long standing criminal codes against male homosexuality have been repealed. Yet, in increasingly totalitarian Poland and Hungary, government attacks on LGBT+ persons are on the increase, as nationalist politicians deploy the Vladimir Putin playbook.

LGBT+ persons form a convenient scapegoat for rightwing and totalitarian regimes. Like the Jews, gays – especially gay men- represent the feared other of the enemy within. Homophobic persecution is principally directed towards gay men for two reasons:

  1. In patriarchy women don’t really matter.
  2. It’s male homosexuality that evokes an atavistic fear at the heart of male dominated order. Freud noted the paradox at the heart of patriarchy with respect to male homosexuality. He asked: why does something purported to be so rare and so abnormal provoke such powerful reaction?

In Russia and elsewhere, the LGBT+ community is an easy scapegoat for distracting attention away from regime policy failure. Africa continues to pose its own special examples of drastic persecution of LGBT+ communities. Uganda and most recently Nigeria pose examples of recent attempts to impose the death penalty for homosexuality.

With support from conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, homophobic persecution goes hand-in-hand with political attempts to increase male control over the female body. Draconian anti-abortion legislation such as that enacted with strong support of the Catholic Church in Poland and now being attempted across Republican controlled states in our own country dovetails with homophobic hostility.

What’s in a word?

As a term homosexualitat first appears in 19thcentury German scientific literature. The term causes confusion among English speakers who usually mistake the Greek homo – meaning the same, for the Latin homo-  meaning man-male. 

Homosexuality from the Greek homo means sexual attraction for the same sex, rather than the Latin homo meaning sexual attraction by men for the male sex. Contrary to popular usage the term applies equally to sexual attraction between women as between men.

Biblical Context

Last week’s reading introduced us to the relationship between David and Jonathan, who at their first meeting experience love at first sight!

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

As if to add emphasis – in a somewhat Freudian slip – the text has previously made explicit reference to David’s smooth cheeks and sparkling eyes – allusions to his effeminate youthful ,and at best, androgynous appearance. In today’s installment, we skip forward to the death of Saul and Jonathan; father and son together having fallen in a last stand in battle against the Philistines. With broken heart, David composes one of the great love eulogies of all time. In what came to be known as the Song of the Bow, David cries out in anguish –

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!

How the mighty have fallen.  ….

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! ….

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle.

Jonathan lies slain upon you high places.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved were you to me;

your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

How the mighty have fallen,

and the weapons of war perished!

Commentary

These are the words of one man’s love for another. Issues of gender and sexual identity continue to fuel our current culture wars making for an interesting answer to the question: was David and Jonathan’s love, homosexual?

Or were they just Oxbridge-style soul-friends; the kind of tortured platonic attraction between men much admired among the English upper classes and characterized in the novels of E. M Forster’s Maurice and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; men’s platonic desiring one another with their minds on higher things from the waste up.

Until relatively recently, the story of David and Jonathan has only been read through a patriarchal lens. Biblical commentators have over the centuries gone to considerable lengths to deny any homoerotic inference in the love that David openly declares for Jonathan. 

Contemporary commentators no longer directly deny the homoerotic content of this story but issue strong warnings against the danger of anachronism – that is where we project back into history our current attitudes, values, and ideas. Alongside the development of a feminist biblical lens, there is now, a growing body of commentary committed to a queer reading of this text.  Bruce Gerig openly embraces the homosexual nature of the love between David and Jonathan. David and Jonathan are clearly an emotionally bonded couple. From their first meeting, Jonathan places his love for David above his loyalty to his own father- protecting David from the dangers of Saul’s murderous paranoia – a very big statement in a patriarchal society. On the face of it, by declaring that Jonathan’s love is a love beyond that of women – David, the inveterate womanizer, seems to draw attention to the homoerotic component to the love between them.

Are David and Jonathan great historical gay figures? I see no reason we should not draw from their story encouragement to resist the patriarchal expunging of homoeroticism from the interpretation of scripture. However, I accept that to read a modern polarity of homosexual – heterosexual back into the relationship between David and Jonathan is anachronistic. The terms homosexual and heterosexual, and the distinctions they imply are products of the modern age. David and Jonathan were not gay in the contemporary sense that I would claim that description. The love between David and Jonathan is the sexually charged love common in intensely patriarchal-warrior cultures. From Classical Greece to Samurai Japan, in these tribal-warrior cultures the social and emotional inferiority of women meant that while suitable as the bearers of children, they could never be considered as emotional partners with men. In patriarchal societies the primary emotional identification for men could, and can, only be, other men.

Many of us grew up with the phrase – he’s a man’s man – without ever wondering about the hidden irony. In traditional man’s men’s worlds, there’s a discrete tolerance for homoeroticism, usually involving age difference relationships between older and younger men.

Our social concept of homosexuality as a stable emotional developmental state, existing along a continuum of identity and gender fluidity has little relevance when reflecting on men’s sexual arrangements in such societies.

Conclusions

What’s the value in the story of David and Jonathan for 21st-century readers?

  1. It  questions our assumption that in the patriarchal past, homoerotic relationships were always forbidden. The patriarchal lens is rooted in the Israelite anxiety about homosexuality, evidenced in the early texts of the Torah; an anxiety of a tribal society’s concern about diverting sexual energy away from procreation. Babies meant survival.
  2. Reading the Bible through a non-patriarchal lens reveals more complex wider social nuances – raising the possibility that in Israelite society where the primary emotional identification was between men and not between men and women, homoerotic expression had its place.
  3. For these reasons alone, a patriarchal reading renders the Bible itself as a very unreliable witness in any attempt to prohibit contemporary homosexualities.
  4. The story of David and Jonathan reminds us that a Christian theology of human relationships rests not upon issues of gender but on the capacity for love. Love as emotional commitment and ethical fidelity is the Christian understanding that underpins the experience of a love relationship between significant others.
  5. David is not only an inveterate womanizer –he is a very poor role model for emotional commitment and ethical fidelity as we understand these today. He’s a man of his time and place. A warrior king, abusive husband, and terrible father. He’s also a man with a deep and abiding love for another man. When we stop trying to domesticate him, we can see there’s nothing odd in any of this.  
  6. Human beings may be biologically gendered for the purposes of reproduction, yet this cannot be the final statement on either the purpose of sex or what it means to be made in the image of God.

For 21st-century Christians, it is no longer the gendered identity of the object of our desires that matters, but the integrity of the love that comes to bind two persons in a relationship that is of primary significance for both.

The longing that characterizes such relational love- the giving, the receiving, and the sharing of such love is a direct reflection of the divine nature; of our longing for God, and the longing God has for us.

In that sense David and Jonathan reflect the timelessness quality of human relationship.

It’s the Technology Thing – Stupid!

Two weeks ago, reflecting on the events of Samuel’s anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king, Linda+ noted:

There is plenty to ponder here, with more questions than answers. What should people expect from their leaders? What should they fear? What should influence leaders’ decisions regarding power and vulnerability, war and peace, poverty and wealth, justice and equality?

For the rest of this month, throughout July and into early August – the O.T. readings are taken from the books of first and second Samuel, first and second Kings. These chronicle the goings on in Israel as it grapples with new challenges to its national identity and security.

What we refer to as the Deuteronomic History covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. One of its major themes is the uneasy fit of monarchy within the framework of Israel’s ancient covenant with God.

History has an uncanny rhyming quality. The dramas chronicled in the Deuteronomic History continue to echo into our own time. Like ancient Israel we too are struggling anew with our own national identity. For us it’s as a nation of laws within a guiding framework of the Constitution. New information emerging from the last days of the Trump administration reveal anew the crucial importance of fidelity to the Constitution as our only true defense against the tyranny of mafia style government.

The Covenant between God and Moses – forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel was forced by external threat into a difficult transition from a tribal confederacy into a monarchy. But fidelity to the covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of YHWH’s regent.

The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king’s reign. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?

The story so far.

  • Samuel’s leadership occurs on the cusp of momentous political change in the face of the long Philistine emergency.
  • The Philistines were a sea marauding people originating from northern Greece. In an apt comparison – they were the Vikings of their day. Over several decades they established colonies along the Mediterranean coast bordering the Israelite Confederation.

For as long as the Israelite tribes had inhabited the hill country, they had warred with their Canaanite neighbors on the coastal plain. But the Philistine threat was different in magnitude. More than the usual tension between neighbors – the Philistine emergency represented the clash of technology on the cusp of the transition from the bronze to iron ages.  The Philistines possessed superior iron-based technology – giving them the military upper hand against the bronze-based weaponry of the Israelites.

Back to the story.

  • The tribal elders came to Samuel and said: look you are going to die soon, and we won’t accept your corrupt sons as judges over us. Therefore, give us king like the nations around us – one who will unite us in battle to defeat our enemies.
  • Against his wishes, after warning the people of the curtailment of the freedoms they could expect under a king, Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king over Israel. Israel may have needed a king, but as it turned out, Saul was not the king it needed.
  • Both Samuel and eventually God grieve over Saul. God sends Samuel out again, this time to Jesse of Bethlehem – in search of a new candidate to anoint as king. After reviewing the beauty parade of Jesse’s strong and handsome sons – men all rather in the Saul mold – you know tall, broad shouldered, bearded and virile – God instructs Samuel to anoint the youngest son, David; a mere boy in the bloom of youth with sparkling eyes and ruddy cheeks.
  • After this secret anointing the next we hear of David is when he appears with Saul’s army preparing for battle with the Philistines.

We all know the story of David and Goliath, the young shepherd pitted against the most ferocious Philistine giant of a warrior. Every Sunday school child knows the outcome of the story of David slaying the mighty Goliath with his slingshot.

We pick up the story following David’s victory when returning with the army to Saul’s house we learn that for Saul’s son Jonathan, it’s love at first sight – remember those sparkling eyes and ruddy smooth cheeks. But Saul is consumed with murderous envy of David. Having appointed him head over the army, Saul is increasingly trapped between and rock and a hard place. With every victory the young David brings home, Saul’s paranoia can only grow as All Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.

The winds of historical change are driven in the end not by political or social change but by a society’s capacity to harness the drivers of technological change. History shows that flourishing societies keep abreast of technological change and harness it for constructive ends that mitigate social and political disruption. History shows that societies who fail to embrace and harness technological change become overrun by it and fall behind in the race to the top.

The impact of technological development and its far-reaching effects is crucially important for social harmony within America and for securing our place in the world. All over our country, community and group identity no longer stems from the quiet confidence flowing from economic prosperity. Failure to effectively harness technological change to benefit all has resulted in a crisis of community and social identity – not only in America, but throughout the industrialized first world. Culture war and race have replaced prosperity as the core component of social identity. In culture war a seeming endless gushing of social grievances –amplified by the technological revolution in social media- represents our failure to harness technological change for the wider benefit of sections of society that feel left behind.

We feel powerless in the face of a looming ecological catastrophe. We feel equally helpless as the rapid pace of technological change and its unforeseeable effects reshape our lives for ill as well as good. Left with nothing else, we retreat from our sense of helplessness into the satisfactions of culture war.

One need look no further for the most recent example. Faced with a crisis of identity caused by a shrinking base –itself the result of increasing disillusionment at the Church’s failure to address the challenges of modern life – the Catholic Bishops Conference responded this past week not with addressing the effects of the pandemic, or the growing inequality of rich and poor, or the increasing polarisation of society. In international refugee week no mention was made to the plight of the worldwide refugee crisis – all crises with technological causes. Retreating in the face of ongoing sexual scandals they took refuge in an attempt to weaponize the Eucharist in the service of culture war. Where the Southern Baptists have led the way, American Catholic Church leaders seem intent on following.

Last week I spoke about living on the cusp of change and our paradoxical attitude to change. The changes we long for are also the changes we resist most as hope for the future conflicts with fears of loss of the past. This paradox, I believe, goes to the heart of the current struggles symbolized by the conflicting visions our two main political parties hold for America’s future.

All our current social advances and losses can be traced to the pressures introduced by technologically driven change and in many cases our failure to harness it for the common good. From the shipping of core industry and national infrastructure offshore to the increasing dominance of monopolistic corporations such as Amazon and the seemingly untouchable beneficiaries of the tech revolution -global capitalism riding the winds of technologically driven change demonstrates its allegiance only to itself and not to the communities it exploits.

The rapidly growing threat to cyber security reveals our fundamental infrastructure vulnerabilities as largely resulting from putting corporate profit before technological innovation and security. We live with everyday reminders of this.

Samuel led a people living on a cusp of technologically driven change – much as we are today. Though the fallout was political and societal reorganization from tribal confederacy to centralized monarch the challenges were technologically driven as Israel began under David to embrace the new technology of the iron age – ending the Philistine Emergency.

As we know to our own cost, technological change always triggers political and societal upheaval. Can we learn the lessons of the past to with confidence and courage embrace the opportunities for a different future? Our attitudes towards technology; our ability to harness the fruits of technologically driven change in the service of the common good – will define our answer to this question.

We are living in a time of unprecedented change – on the cusp of a new age. We sense its coming with feelings of dread tinged with expectation and hope.

Being on a cusp between old and new worlds is a bewildering experience. The paradox is that the changes we long for are also likely to be the changes we strongly resist.

In today’s gospel portion from Mark – Jesus presents two conflicting horticultural images for the kingdom’s coming.

The first parable depicts a farmer scattering seed and then getting on with his life, minding his own business while the seed’s germination takes care of itself – it sprouts and ripens. Nothing is required of the farmer until harvesting. Here we find the kingdom presented as the outcome of the stable natural order of growth -between planting and harvesting the process of growth requires no human responsibility.

But then Jesus offers a second parable of the kingdom in the image of the mustard seed. It’s not immediately obvious to us, but it would have been glaringly obvious to his 1st-century Jewish audience – that no one in their right mind would plant mustard seeds in their fields or gardens. So, this parable must have raised a few eyebrows.

Mustard is a wild herb that thrives in the wild and must at all costs be kept at bay from invading organized garden spaces. For the gardeners amongst us – it’s like planting ferns or wisteria in our vegetable gardens. If you know anything about ferns and wisteria- which when living at our house on Burrs Lane I unfortunately discovered – once rooted – neither can be easily eradicated. Traveling through underground vine roots, they quickly take over any planted area of cultivation.

In his commentary on this text, Richard Swanson notes:

The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard. It grows and burgeons. It erupts where and when you’d least expect it. It is destructive to its own ends. It undercuts itself even as it grows. It is chaos and it is life and it is hope and it dissipates its own hopefulness. The question with a parable is not What does this mean?, but What does this do?” What does this make you think about?

The current meeting of the G7 captures the zeitgeist of our time. President Biden and the other leaders of the major democracies are signaling the need for change. But can they bring it about?

At this G7 we’ve heard the collective lamentation of failure to effectively address the global impacts of the pandemic from the leaders of the world’s major democracies. The G7 meeting takes place in the face of growing international tensions – forcing the world back into the dangerous fragmentation of tribal nationalisms.

In China and Russia, the old imperial dream revives. Chinese expansionism allies with Russian mischief making, and we watch helplessly as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin play dress up with the hitherto discarded mantles of Emperor and Tsar. The old totalitarian hubris lives on.

Western Europe is once again riven by petty nationalisms as the members of the Union squabble among themselves. Hollow dreams of Rule Britannia cloud British sensitivity to the destabilization of the post Brexit European order. Petty grandstanding by Boris Johnson – now threatens the hard-won peace in Ireland.

America is in no better position. We awaken to a post Pax Americana morning with the splitting hangover of unreconciled racism, gun violence, and social divisions which like old forest fires that have smoldered underground now reignite in a landscape overgrown with Russian instigated conspiracy theories and bereft of the natural protections of shared civic values and commitment to the democratic vision.

And the travails of the old-world order’s unravelling is but a side show alongside the center stage drama of fast approaching planetary ecological collapse. From the positive feedback from my comments in this week’s E-News Epistle about the need to think globally and act locally, at least this is one matter we find consensus on.

The coming of the kingdom of God is an image that heralds change. The kingdom is a metaphor for the reign of God in this world and it’s abundantly clear to anyone this is a reign yet to be firmly established. But it’s a mistake to see the kingdom’s coming as a metaphor for incompletion. Instead, the kingdom is a metaphor for judgment on a world where things are not as they should be – a world crying out for change to set things to rights. As we find ourselves on the cusp of a transition between the ordered world of a past now gone and the excitement and turbulence of a world yet to come – how does the metaphor of the kingdom’s coming speak to us?

There is a sense of hope in the anticipation of change? Yet there is also a desire to fiercely resist change -fearing disruption and loss. With change we fear that this time will we be the losers?

Will the coming new order result from the controlled arc of the moral universe bending slowly upon its axis towards justice? Or will the new world order come accompanied by upheaval and destruction amidst chaos and unpredictability. The experience of the pandemic and our failure of response has shown us some of what might still lie ahead.

Where the powerful never voluntarily give power up, it must be wrested from them. We are at this kind of cusp – between the old order and the new there is occurring a shift in power relations. Such changes bring both hope but as those who are having change thrust upon us – hope comes with a cost.  

Hope costs are words we should make into a fridge magnet and place them where we have to see them every day. We are a community that naturally embraces change as a moderated, well ordered process. We are a community who expects the kingdom to come in ways we can slowly absorb without too much discomfort.

The kingdom comes with burgeoning hope. But how will hope be realised? Will hope’s arrival be ordered and gradual or chaotic and unpredictable? Swanson again:

This parable [of the mustard seed] is only incidentally about how the dominion of God brings BIG things out of little things. More significantly, it makes it clear that the big things that God’s dominion brings will always shake anything that has (so far) passed for stability and safety. To read it otherwise is to tame it, and comfortable people will try anything to tame the dominion of God. If [w]e succeed, this parable becomes a religious affirmation of [our] own stability. And that is one thing the dominion of God never brings.

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