A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 30, 2018: Mark 9:38-50

Mark 9:38-50
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “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.

9:43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

9:45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.

9:47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,

9:48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

9:49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.

9:50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

Another short Provocation (during the second week of the run of Real as Air).

Jesus says something surprising in this scene.  Religion is often used to separate Us from Them.  Even Jesus uses it like that, and even does so in Mark’s story.

But not in this scene.

The disciples are glad to defend the border between Us and Them.  They see it as being marked by whether or not people follow Jesus the way they do.  Anyone who does is one of Us.  Anyone else is one of Them.

It is easy enough to understand this.  In tough times, external pressure pops the seams that had stitched us all together.  People start asking, along with the Labor organizers in the 1930s, “Which Side Are You On?”

That is a good question, and understandable.  Those with power and the advantage of position apply pressure that aims to anger and isolate their opponents.  Those who have little power and no advantages recognize that this pressure drives people apart.  At such times, people sing songs that ask which side you are on.  Are you with Us, or are you one of those people who hopes, weakly, that people with power are interested in reason?

It is a necessary question.

But in this scene, Jesus (who understands pressure exerted by cynical power very well indeed) says: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

He is not capitulating to power.  Quite the opposite, he is noting something that people with power and position know, and fear: their power is temporary and, in part, illusory.  That is why people who can see political reversals on the horizon become more cynical and less interested in good process and sound arguments.  They see that their efforts to fragment the opposition by applying pressure sometimes has the opposite effect.

Cynics with power know in the pit of their stomachs that there are more of Us than there are of Them.  We do not agree on all things, and we often do not even imagine cooperating.  But sometimes external pressure pushes Us together and we discover that what Jesus said is right: Whoever is not against us is for us.

This might be a good time to consider this.  Cynical power is getting nervous.

Good.

A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

No text this week.  No text, and no regular Provocation.

This is the week that my play, Real as Air, opens on the main stage at Augustana University.  This play grows out of things my wife, my sister, and I wrote to each other during the two years my sister lived with ALS.

Yes, we wrote about the disease that was stealing my sister’s muscles, one by one.  And yes, we wrote about death.

But what we discovered that seemed important was that the pressure of an invariably fatal disease intensified our experience of joy and beauty.  When fresh tree-ripened peaches came into season, the thrill of sharp delight shot through us with an intensity that surprised us.  We knew that this might be the last time we tasted peaches together.

We discovered that our intensified awareness of the shortness of life clarified some things.  We learned that dumb jokes are just as dumb, and that goofy laughter is always in season.  We learned that you should never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them.  We learned never to squander an occasion to thank someone.

On the day that my sister died, we were still in the midst of life-long conversations, still savoring the last fragments of the exploratory arguments that we had begun years before.  By this time, my sister could scarcely speak, and she was trying to write notes to me, since writing was still barely possible.  In the middle of our last conversation, our last attempts to plan her funeral together, the hospice nurse arrived.  My sister’s last words were spoken to the hospice nurse who brought her the morphine that allowed her to relax as her gasping became choking.  Each word required it’s own breath, sometimes two, and sometimes she had to wait for the choking spasms to subside before she could go on.  She fixed the nurse in her gaze and said, slowly and with careful effort, “Thank you for coming.”

That was what we learned from those two years of coping with ALS.

That was a lot to learn.

(For any of you who might be close enough to Sioux Falls to come see the show, you can get tickets online at http://www.augie.edu/arts   Just go to that URL and scroll down to the Box Office link.  It should make sense from there.  Or, if you wanted to become a virtual member of our team in the Walk to Defeat ALS, go to http://www.tinyurl.com/kathyscircle   From there, you can follow the links to join our team, which is called “Kathy’s Circle.”)

 

A Provocation: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 16, 2018: Mark 8:27-38

Mark 8:27-38
8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

8:28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

8:29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

8:30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

8:31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

8:33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

8:35 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.

8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

8:38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

A Question or Two:

  • Who carried crosses?

Some Longer Reflections:

There is a lot going on in this passage.  There is plenty to explore in the matter of identifying Jesus, and even more to explore in the way the Passion Predictions shape and form the story that Mark is telling.

Those are matters for another time.

This week, a friend asked me about the word, “ashamed.”

At first look, there is nothing too interesting here, but the Greek does have its roots in our reaction to ugliness. 

This is an interesting link: shame is a shudder reaction in the face of ugliness.  On the one hand, I am tired of the casual acceptance of the way we react to things not classically beautiful, but on the other hand, this rootage imagines that we should shudder when we encounter unworthy action, action of which a person of quality ought to be ashamed.

Though shame has been used to silence people, especially women, still there is something here worth considering.  There are actions (all too common actions, to tell the truth) that ought to make us shudder.  I am not just referring to the sorts of things that the current president brags about having done, though that is an appropriate provocation for a shudder of rejection.  I am thinking these days of other actions, as well.  People of worth and honor ought to shudder at the notion that our only duty in our life together is to secure the best advantages for our own children.  We ought to shudder at the suggestion that all people in Flint need to do to get better water is to move somewhere else.  We ought to shudder whenever an executive claims a massive increase in salary and simultaneously argues that the financial times are too constrained to pay workers a living wage.

We SHOULD be ashamed of such behavior.

In the passage for this Sunday, however, the issue on the table is crucifixion

And that was both ugly and shudder-inducing.

So maybe what is at stake historically is the way following a crucified messiah linked people to all those who had been crucified, all those who were set up as ugly reminders of what happened to you when Rome singled you out.

So maybe this is more about solidarity with the outcasts who have been made ugly, and less about not being loud enough in your public Christianity, which is often how this text is preached.

If all Jesus is saying is that Christians should blow their own horn louder, and thus demonstrate that they are not ashamed of him, I will put my trombone quietly back in its case and move on to the company of people less sure of their own divine rightness.

But I think Jesus is making the fact of his crucifixion an index for our reaction to other people we consider to be “ugly.”  My sister lived two years with ALS, a disease that took her muscles one by one, and left her with what she called “an uncooperative skin-bag.”  She worried that people would shudder when the saw her.  Some did.  I listen to the way political trolls paint the victims of “officer-involved” shootings; I watch the way some news outlets tar those same families; and I recognize that they make their money by playing off the public “shame” that goes with being shot by a police officer.  Those trolls and their on-air stooges are trying to train us all to shudder at the victim, not at the act of unjustified violence.

Jesus says, I think, “Anyone who is ashamed of me will also be ashamed of the “least of these,” of my sisters and brothers” (to borrow a parable from the gospel of Matthew).

The crucifixion links Christian faith to people who get called “ugly,” who are “hard to see that way,” who are taught from childhood that they are targets for the anger of the larger society.  We may not find this linkage comfortable.

That just might be the point of Jesus’ words in this scene.

A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 9, 2018: Mark 7:24-37

Mark 7:24-37
7:24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,

7:25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

7:26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

7:27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

7:28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

7:29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.”

7:30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

7:31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

7:32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

7:33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.

7:34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

7:35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

7:36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

7:37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

A Question or Two:

  • Would the woman in the first scene have said that Jesus “has done everything well”?

Some Longer Reflections:

These scenes (there are two scenes, and they are rather different from each other) are generally seen to offer evidence that God is in the process of turning the world right-side-up.  The promises are old, as old as the prophet, Isaiah, and his promises of return from Exile.  That means the promises were old when Jesus’ great-grandmother was born, and that they had thus shaped the world in which his family had raised their children for generations.  This matters.  We feed our children on breast milk and baby food, but even more important, we feed them on the hopes and dreams that give us life.  We raise our children to hope and dream and work and watch.  We raise our children to see what is wrong with the world, and to expect it to change.  We raise our children to demand that change.

Jesus will have been raised on these hopes.

By the time Jesus was born, the expectation of a messiah had become attached to these old hopes.  The notion had helped gather the various hopes; it had helped focus the way Jews looked at the world and expected change and healing.  By the time this story of Mark’s gospel was told, the stories of Jesus healing people were taken as stories of the messianic correction of the world.  The conditions that separated people and isolated them were being corrected: deafness, blindness, any condition that prevented people from living and working and sharing in the responsibilities of the community.

It is worth noting at this point that these stories do indeed see deafness and blindness as problems to be removed.  The notion of deaf culture, or community amongst blind people was millennia away in the future; braille and ASL haven’t been imagined yet.  The world of this story is not yet able to imagine such things.  We are able, and it changes the way we watch this scene.  But from the point of view of the hopes and dreams that Jesus shared with his great-grandmother, we are all hoping and working for similar goals: we all share the goal of removing the conditions that separate and isolate people.

Which brings us to the scene that begins the preaching text for this Sunday.

Yes.  It is a miracle story.

Yes.  It is important that the healing takes place at a distance.  (You can read my detailed discussion of this factor, and of the entire text, in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  AmazonPrime could deliver it by Thursday, or something.)

And yes.  The contest with evil spirits is worth thinking about slowly.

But there is something else in this scene that needs careful attention.

Jesus calls a woman, a mother with a daughter in danger, a dog.  Some interpreters (even good friends of mine) seek to soften the scene by imagining that Jesus’ use of κυνάριον (little dog) makes it better than if he had called her a big dog.  I just leave that there.  I like dogs just fine, and puppies are cute.

But Jesus just referred to a woman as a dog.  He does not get a pass.

I work with actors to explore the inside of stories.  Many years ago now, we were working on this scene.  We were getting nowhere.  Everything we tried was less useful than the thing we tried before.  I had a conference with the actor who was playing Jesus.  I told him about an old, prominent interpreter of the gospel of Mark who said that the scene demonstrates Jesus’ tender love for the mother.  I told him that this interpreter went so far as to say that he thought that, when Jesus said these words, “a wistful smile didst play across his lips.”  I asked him to smile when he told the mother that he didn’t do favors for dogs like her.

He did.

I should perhaps mention that the woman playing the mother is a person who does not suffer fools gladly.  She heard the words.  She saw the smile.

And she slapped Jesus across the face.

And, for the first time, the scene worked.  All of a sudden, we had a motivation for the violent words that the storyteller used (now translated into oblivion by the NRSV) at the end of the scene.  When the mother returns home, she does not find the daughter lying on the bed.  The original Greek says that she was “thrown across the bed.”  And Jesus does not dismiss her calmly, telling her (in the NRSV) that she “may go.”  The original Greek has him command her to go, to go away now, to get out of his presence.

But most important of all, all of a sudden the women in the room recognized a scene that all of them had experienced, some of them many times.  Casual disrespect is common, accepted, even.  Women grow up learning to look at the man who dishes out this abuse, and thank him for his kind attention.

We were asked to perform this scene for a women’s group in a church.  We were afraid, but they insisted they wanted to see what we would do with this scene.  We played the scene.  The mother slapped Jesus.  The women applauded.  One woman, somewhere near 80 years old, told me that she had always hated that text.  “Today,” she said, “is the first time I didn’t hate it.  I would have hit him, too.”

The woman in this scene teaches Jesus a lesson.  It appears to have been a lesson that he needed to learn, and that he was not altogether glad to learn.  We all learn such lessons.  It is part of turning the world right-side-up.  It is what our great-grandmothers waited for and demanded.

After this scene, Jesus never treats a woman like this again.

He learned his lesson.  He went on to remove the things that separate and isolate us.  He went on to do the work of messiah.  Because the woman taught him a lesson he needed, if he was going to turn anything right-side-up.  This is what the messianic correction of the world looks like.  This is how it works.

A Provocation: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 2, 2018: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,

7:2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.

7:3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;

7:4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)

7:5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

7:6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;

7:7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

7:8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:

7:15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

7:21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,

7:22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

7:23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why do people engage in ritual washing after coming from the market?
  • No, really.  Why is this important?

A Few Longer Reflections:

This is a scene to be careful with.

There is an obvious danger: the storyteller takes shots at the “tradition of the elders,” and since the elders in question are Jewish, it is too easy to read the scene and engage in bargain-basement anti-Semitic interpretation.  That is too easy, and too-easy interpretation makes for too-dull preaching.

But you already know that.

The other danger that catches my eye is the temptation to watch the storyteller criticize the “tradition of the elders” and take it as authorization to take shots at elders, any elders, Jewish or not.

There IS something like that going on in the scene, and it is worth exploring what it is that elders contribute to communities and cultures.  Again, the list contains obvious things: elders contribute a memory of the past, and a commitment to old ways of doing things; elders contribute balanced judgment shaped by decades of experience, and a propensity for paralyzing caution; elders contribute an ability to identify the heart of the problem, and this allows them to solve problems without floundering about with trial and error.  They also bring to every effort at problem-solving a certain “arthritis,” of the hands and of the mind, that makes them stiff when limberness is needed.

The list probably ought to go on to include things like: elders listened to the best music, etc.

Or we could analyze it from the other angle: young innovators hit upon new solutions, which are mostly new to them; young innovators bring vigor and fresh energy to a task, which they promptly waste in running around in circles.

I could go on.  You could, too.

Lurking under the surface of this scene is a narrative structure that begs to be read as a generational conflict.  But if we read it that way, the key will be to preserve the complexities that arise when the old and the young solve problems together.  In fact, for all the difficulties, we need each other, and we are stuck with each other.  We need each other, if only to solve the problems we create for each other.  George McGovern sharpened the point when he said, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”  The problems are real, and sometimes deadly.

Maybe it is smartest to read Jesus as being on the side of the young innovators.  But maybe it is because I am not young, or maybe it is because I think the problems in front of us at present are themselves deeply complex, but I think we need the traditions of the elders AND all the innovation we can muster.  It is my conviction (and experience) that innovation and improvisation are strongest when they are carried out by artists with the deepest experience and the most solid awareness of how the old forms and traditions work.

The old traditions in this scene involve ritual washing.  The disciples, who are common people and direct, eat when they are hungry and work when it is time to work.  They do not perform the ritual of washing.  The ritual preserves the boundary between a safe and dangerous, between inside and out, between Jews and Roman oppressors.  The tradition of the elders functions to remind Jews that they have an obligation to stand apart from oppressive systems.  If this is what the young innovator, Jesus, is opposing, then he is wrong.

But Jesus has a more interesting idea than this.  He argues that resistance to oppressive systems requires inner resistance.  Ritual washing fosters the practice of standing apart, roots the reminder in everyday life.  Jesus’ words do the same thing, only he puts a sharp edge on it, one that the elders would also have approved.  Jesus cites a usual list of common offenses: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”  Some of these are crimes, some destroy people and trust, some waste the wholeness of a human being.  Jesus reads them all as ways that oppressive forces break into community.

Stop and imagine that.

These are not just private sins, to be taken care of by pious individuals.  Because they break community, they are the real sources of defilement.

Ritual washing supports the effort to stand apart from the forces that oppress the Creation.  Jesus just linked this list of common offenses with the effort to resist Roman power.

This kind of innovation is worth slow reflection, I think.

A Provocation: Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: August 26, 2018: John 6:56-69

John 6:56-69
6:56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

6:57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

6:59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

6:60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

6:61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?

6:62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

6:63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

6:64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.

6:65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

6:66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

6:67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

6:68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

6:69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

A Question or Two:

  • What if this scene, which seems to say that the Exodus was not enough, is not about Christian supersessionism?
  • What if saying that “the flesh is useless” is an expression of impatience with God, not of Christian exclusivism?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, I’m assuming you can find all the resources you’d ever want regarding bread.

I want to think about life this week.

This string of passages talk about life almost as much as they talk about bread, and John’s storyteller focuses on life over and over again.  The storyteller uses bread to link Jesus’ career to the Exodus and manna.  The storyteller uses the images of life and breath (πνεῦμά, translated by the NRSV as “spirit”).  These words tie this scene to the beginning of John’s story, and ties all of it to Genesis 2 and the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel.  In all of those cases, breath brings life.  In all of those cases, bodies lie inert until πνεῦμά is blown into them.  These ties mean that this scene imagines bodies lying lifeless and being returned to life.  This scene, therefore, is a reflection on resurrection, and not just of Jesus.

Resurrection enters Jewish thought in the ancient world as a way to hope for justice and wholeness in a world where everyone dies, where everyone is vulnerable, and everyone has to wait too long for God’s justice.

That is why “the flesh is useless.”  Or, at least, that is one reason.  In a world constituted as this one is, bodies often fall down dead before they see justice and equity enacted.  This is true even for people who live very long lives, and even for families that have very long memories.  Even when your memory stretches back as far as the Exodus, the flesh is useless.  Justice will require a resurrection.

So when Jesus ways that his words are “spirit and life,” he is promising that the entry of the Logos into Creation creates the possibility of ζωῆς αἰωνίου, which is generally translated as “eternal life,” which would be cold comfort since it could promise only that you would have to live forever if you really wanted to see justice done.  

But ζωῆς αἰωνίου comes closer to meaning “life of the aeon,” life that is charged with the energy of the new aeon, the aeon of the Messiah, the aeon in which justice will be a normal fact of life.   Read this way, Simon Peter’s words at the end of the scene have an interesting force.  He is not declaring some kind of Christian exclusiveness so much as he is agreeing that it will take a resurrection for justice to be the norm that regulates life.  HIs words, read this way, twist realism and hope around each other in a way I think is necessary if we are ever to hope for justice, not just good luck.  

In any case, I recognize the impatience.

A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 19, 2018: John 6:51-58

John 6:51-58
6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

6:52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

6:53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

6:54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;

6:55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

6:56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

6:57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why is the Exodus so important to John?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus.  And bread.  And Jesus.  And bread.  Again.

You likely know all the things I know about Jesus and bread, week after week, year after year.

I work with a text study group: strong pastors, gentle people, kind colleagues.  I was rehearsing all the usual paths through this scene: bread is the “staff of life” (especially for ordinary folk in the ancient world who surely could not even imagine the kind of diet we think is normal); so Jesus is the living bread that everyone can afford, not just the wealthy; the word translated as “eat” actually means “gnaw,” which is worth thinking about; more shocking than that is the line about drinking Jesus’ blood, which runs contrary to any imaginable teaching; etc.  It was going okay.

And then one of the pastors (John Hansen, actually, a strong and insightful person) wondered what the Greek word for “food” was.  “What if this scene isn’t about the Sacrament?” he wondered.  “What if it is about the Incarnation?”

That is a terrific thing to wonder.

What if Jesus means to say that, having come down from the sky, his body is now wormfood?  That is an essential characteristic of human being (and being human).  It also fits strikingly well with the word the storyteller uses for “food.”  The word,βρῶσις, means food, that which can be eaten.  But it also refers to rust and the quality of being liable to be “eaten into.”  In other words: wormfood.

Our imaginations reach to the stars, and our inventions travel to them.  Our creations are stunning, both in their beauty and in their destructive power.  Our hopes reach beyond all limitations.  And we are wormfood.  That physical fact does not reduce our soaring imagination or creative ability.  And our simple mortality energizes our spirit.  If the Deity truly shares our human being, then Jesus’ body has to be wormfood.

This is a short provocation, but it is a strong one.

The notion that the Creator (apart from whom was nothing made that was made) becomes fully subject to the limitations of that Creation is a strange notion, and a strong one.  There is a deep stream in Christian theology, going back at least as far as Irenaeus, whose explorations of the Christian imagination I find amazing.  He reflected on what the Incarnation did to human being, and his imagination soared to the notion that Jesus brought us to share Divinity.

This is a powerful idea.

But this provocation goes in the other direction.  What does the Incarnation do to God?  Our limitations, our unshakeable mortality mean that we can break things that cannot be fixed.  We can lose things that can never be recovered.  We learn that our best creations can be lost and forgotten.  And we learn this together.  It teaches us how precious life is, and how transient.  It teaches us how precious we all are.

In our short time together, we grieve and we rejoice.  We give birth to ideas and to each other.  As we huddle together, we discover love.  We discover love because we are mortal.

That puts an interesting spin on John 3:16.  “Thus God loved the Cosmos: God gave the son as a firstborn.”  Perhaps mortality (discovered in the fact of Incarnation) gave birth to the mutuality of ἀγάπη.  That might be worth thinking about slowly.

It all starts with being wormfood.

A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: August 12, 2018: John 6:35, 41-51

John 6:35, 41-51
6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

6:41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

6:42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

6:43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves.

6:44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.

6:45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.

6:46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.

6:47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

6:48 I am the bread of life.

6:49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.

6:50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.

6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

A Question or Two:

  • What does the idea of heaven contribute to this scene?
  • What if all this talk about bread and flesh is not simply a coded reference to Communion?
  • What if these words refer to putting your life on the line?

Some Longer Reflections:

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

I have to tell you, I am both hungry and thirsty.

Watching political discussion descend into vituperation makes me hunger to be part of a community and culture that identifies the problems that break us and, having identified them, crafts practical solutions that respond to hopeful dreams.

Listening to trolls who are gleeful as they attack anyone who wonders if we can’t do this better makes me thirst for a community and culture that models honor and respect.

Watching ideologues who have one little truth in their hands, ideologues who have been trained to ridicule anyone who has a different truth (however little) makes me desperately hungry and thirsty for the company of people who expect the world to be complex and expect therefore to learn something even from their opponents.

I am enough of a student of history to recognize that there was never a Golden Age when such hungers and thirsts were satisfied.  Historians of an earlier generation debated whether American history was a story of conflict or consensus.  It has always been a story of both, I think.  And I think that is likely true, no matter what community or culture you call home.

But my hunger and thirst do not grow out of a sentimental longing for an imaginary happy time.

I am hungry and thirsty because I am afraid.

Last winter a large group of us joined a march to protest gun violence.  It was very cold and it was snowing.  Across the street was a young man armed with a rifle.  He also was carrying an American flag.  We ignored him, but we noticed him.  Out of the corners of our eyes, we watched him to see what he planned to do with his rifle.

I wondered how the man with the rifle would have reacted had people in the crowd also been armed.  (It would have been incongruous, given the aim of the protest, but still I wondered.)  I wondered what it means that (according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute) a white man who shoots a black man and claims he was “standing his ground” is seventeen times more likely to be acquitted than is a black man who “stands his ground” against a white attacker.  I wondered if the man with the rifle would care about such studies, or if he would see in them a justification for him walking around nervously displaying his gun.

I remembered a time, now nearly 50 years ago when I overheard an acquaintance, a co-worker, talking about how he and his friends were going to bring their shotguns to a protest against the war in Vietnam to “teach those damned hippies a lesson they won’t forget.”  He did not know that I was one of the planners of that event.  He was right: I have not forgotten.

I wonder about the impact of Jesus’ words in the midst of this real hunger and thirst, in the middle of well-earned fear.

If those words are used to shame people who hunger and thirst for justice, then Jesus is engaged in a sharp disagreement with himself.  Matthew’s Jesus, in such a reading, is hungry in a way that John’s Jesus rules out.

Such readings are misreadings.

I take Jesus’ words to be like the words of the songs by the people who faced down white supremacists armed with firehoses and snarling police dogs.  One of my teachers was a Freedom Rider in those days.  She said they sang because they were afraid.  But they sang also because they needed to “keep their eyes on the prize,” to quote one of the songs that gave them hope.

I think that Jesus’ words give us a song to sing in these fearsome times.  They offer a glimpse of a community and culture that is worth working and hoping for.

They do not describe the community and culture we currently live in.

A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: August 5, 2018: John 6:24-35

John 6:24-35
6:24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

6:25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

6:26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.

6:27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

6:28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”

6:29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

6:30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?

6:31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”

6:32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

6:33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

6:34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is bread called the “staff of life?”
  • No, really, why?

Some Longer Reflections:

It is time that we quit “believing in” God.  Or Jesus.  Or anyone.

Now that I have your attention (or, more likely, now that my reading audience is suddenly smaller and more puzzled), I should probably explain what I think I mean.

Whenever I hear someone say they “believe in” God, I cannot help myself.  I think of the Cowardly Lion in the movie, The Wizard of Oz.  You know the scene.  The heroes are walking through the Haunted Forest.  The Tin Man announces that it is silly to believe in spooks, only to be lifted from the ground and then dropped unceremoniously in a heap.  The Lion then begins chanting his mantra: “I DO believe in spooks.  I DO believe in spooks.  I do, I do, I DO believe in spooks.”

Sometimes when people talk about “believing in God” they could just as well say that they believe in spooks. Or do NOT believe in spooks.  It’s all pretty superstitious, and at least some popular atheists are as superstitious as anybody.  At least it sounds that way to me.  It makes me nervous.

And sometimes it makes me even more nervous when people “believe in” Jesus.  Sometimes they mean that they have the only valid way of being a real Christian.  They call themselves “orthodox,” which just means that they have found someone who is “heterodox” that they want to be superior to.  A long time ago, Kris Kristofferson (in a song he said he owed to John Prine) got it about right:

Cause everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on                                            Someone they can feel better than anytime they please.                                                 Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on.                                             If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me.                                       (Jesus Was A Capricorn, 1972)

It doesn’t so much matter “Orthodox what?”  Far too often we use the term just to identify someone else by slanderous contrast, and thus establish our own rightness.

It is time we were done with that.

The phrase that is translated as “believe in” is  πιστεύω εἰς, and that phrase needs a closer look. 

First of all, while we are accustomed to the English notion of believing “in,” the Greek εἰς means “into.”  Translators explain that as meaning that εἰς is being used sloppily, and dialectically, as if “into” was a synonym for “in.”  But that won’t really do, I think.  In English, the two words, different as they are, still share the word “in,” and the notion is that they are somehow part of the same process: if you go “into” a place, then that is the place that you are “in.”  Problem solved.

Well, not in Greek.

In Greek, the two words behind all this are εἰς and ἐν.  The first is a directional word, and renders movement toward and into something; the second can be lots of things, but most just suggest a location, somehow.  If the storyteller had spoken (in Greek) of πιστεύω ἐν (“believing in”), it would refer, somehow, to where you were when you engaged in the act of believing.  That would be odd to translate.  In the scene for this week, the storyteller has Jesus talk about πιστεύω εἰς, about believing “into.”  Whatever that would mean.  

The difficulty is that “believing” in English (whether you are talking about spooks or Jesus) refers (somehow) to a state, a place, somewhere where you can be somehow right.  It is a kind of “stative” verb, and doesn’t exactly express action or movement.  And you can tell that by noticing how awkward it is to try to imagine what “believing into” would mean.

But that is what the phrase in the Greek original says.

The problem is with the word πιστεύω.  Lexicons will tell you that the word means “believe,” and they are sort of right.  But if you dig deeper, you will see that they also tell you that the word means “trust.”  This is also sort of right, and many sermons have been written expanding on the idea that “it is not enough to believe that God exists if you do not trust God to save you.”   Or something.  

The problem with this theology is not with the idea of trusting God, which seems a good thing, all in all.  The problem is with the phrase “it is not enough….”  Any theology that slides into such language will finally always do its work by killing you first.  The dangers of such a notion ought to be clear.  Such theologies imagine a God so furious with our “not-enough-ness” that God has to kill us to make us alive.  If you begin by wallowing in the glorious fury of God, you will have a hard time trusting the deep kindness and mercy (hesed) that both Jewish Scripture and Christian Scripture see as the truest characteristic of the God who creates and calls.

If you read and reflect further, you will notice that, in Jewish texts, πιστεύω and its associated noun, πιστις, refer to the patterns of Torah observance that students learn from their rabbis.  In Jewish texts, πιστεύω refers to the patterns of faithful life that people learn, the patterns that shape them so that everything they do points to the God who made them and loves them intensely.  The patterns vary from rabbi to rabbi, but the deep content is the same: it all comes down to a pattern of living that embodies hesed, the deep kindness of God.

The gospel of John is a Jewish text.

Jesus is Jewish, now and always. 

That would mean that when people as him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?,” they are asking him, as a rabbi, to identify the pattern of living that he teaches.  His answer, then, becomes rather interesting: he says, “This is the work of God, that you shape your lives into the pattern seen in the messiah whom God has sent.”

So, once again, we have a choice to make: does God send messiah to embody the fury of God that burns hot against all human failing?  Or does God love the cosmos so deeply as to have sent messiah to embody that love?

There is something in human religiosity that seems to love anger.  Anger will drive us apart and kill all hope.

There is something in the gospel that offers life, love, and restoration of the entire cosmos.  That is the pattern that we are to “believe into.”

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: July 29, 2018: John 6:1-21

John 6:1-21
6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.

6:2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

6:3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

6:4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

6:5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

6:6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

6:7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,

6:9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

6:12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

6:13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

6:15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

6:16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea,

6:17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.

6:18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.

6:19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.

6:20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

6:21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus decide to feed the people?  The storyteller has not told us that they are hungry.

Some Longer Reflections:

This feeding story is one of those rare episodes that appears in all four canonical gospels.  All four gospels share the same basic structure in telling their story of Jesus the Messiah.  But each of the four diverges and tells its own individual story.  Especially John.

But all four share a version of this story, even as they shape it their own ways.  Only John sets it in the context of Passover, which makes the eating interesting.  The foods are not part of the Passover meal, but the provision of food for people on a journey (the Exodus) links this scene with the Passover in Egypt.  The Synoptic gospels draw attention to the hunger of the people and set the story (sometimes explicitly) in the wilderness.  John does not say, or even imply, that the people are hungry or without resources.  Jesus, in John’s version of the story, simply chooses to feed the people.

When the feeding is done, the disciples gather up twelve baskets of bread fragments.  In the gospel of Mark, where there are two separate feeding scenes, when Jesus feeds people in Jewish territory the disciples gather up the fragments in twelve baskets (the number of the tribes of the people of God), and when Jesus feeds people in Gentiles territory the disciples gather up seven baskets of fragments (the number of the nations of Gentiles).  In both cases, the numbers imply wholeness and completeness, so Mark’s storyteller might be signaling that God sends Messiah to nourish all Jews and all Gentiles, which is to say: all the people in all of Creation.

In John, with its single feeding story, the twelve baskets of fragments could signal that Messiah is sent only to Jews.  This would fit with other elements in the story, I suppose.  The feeding takes place on the way to Passover, the festival that remembers what it took to rescue the people of God from the greatest Gentile power of the time, Egypt.  And the people who eat look at the feeding as a sign that Jesus is the “prophet who is to come into the world.”  This is something that Jews would know, and care about, but everyone else would have no clue about.

But it is just as possible that the number twelve here signals the perfect eschatological completion of all things: all of Creation gathered together as a beautiful, beloved Cosmos.  This also fits with John’s larger story: in John 3, it is the whole Cosmos that God “so loves.”  If that is the case, then the festival of Passover signals, this time, that all of Creation is being freed from slavery, just as Israel was freed from physical slavery in Egypt.

I favor this last reading, just as I favor the stream of tradition in John’s story that exults in God’s delight with all of Creation.  It is easy to find parts of John’s gospel (as it currently exists) that angrily reject anyone who is somehow not ideologically exactly right.  At the height of this anger, the storyteller (of John’s complicated and composite gospel) forces Jesus to call faithful Jews “children of [their] father, the Devil” (John 8:44).  This angry voice twists and distorts (in fact, I would say, destroys) the picture of a God who delights in the Cosmos and loves it.  You can find those angry, distorting moments in the story, but you can also find other streams of tradition in John’s story, and those other streams bring life, not crude anger.  I favor life over anger, and I think the oldest stream of storytelling in John agrees with me.

For now, notice that the crowd of Jews on their way to Passover sees the healing and feeding that Jesus does, and calls them all signs that God is reclaiming and restoring Creation, an act of Divine Love (6:14). 

Notice this carefully, because in just twelve verses another stream flows into the story and forces Jesus to say that this same crowd did not see signs at all, but just saw food.  This marks a serious disjunction in the flow of the story.  Either there is a single storyteller who is painting Jesus as inconsistent, even sharply self-contradictory (which would be odd indeed), or the storyteller is being painted as somehow inattentive, as not listening even as the story is being told (which might be even more odd), or we have before us a collision between two storytellers, two streams of tradition.  This last option seems best to fit the textual evidence, at least it seems so to me.

And that would leave us with a choice.  Which stream of tradition are we going to swim in: the one that presents a crowd that sees a sign of a loving act of a loving God, or the one that is excited by an angry Jesus?

You have a real choice here, even if you do not read the textual history of John the way I do.  Do you think that God accomplishes salvation and restoration of Creation by means of love or by means of fury?  I think the choice is best solved through theological consideration.  Which choice nourishes a life-giving theology?  Martin Luther, when confronted with the grace of God and the wrath of God, said that he only dared reflect on God’s grace.  I think that, in this, he was quite right.