Archive for January, 2007

Local boy makes good

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Epiphany 4C

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17

1 Corinthians 14:12-20

Luke 4:21-32

I find it remarkable that books like Jeremiah made it into the canon. With the resources for writing and recording often in the hands of the royal and priestly administration, it is surprising that so much of those resources would go toward preserving a book like Jeremiah, so critical of both king and priest. It serves to remind us how careful we need to be in self-critique: are we too comfortable? I’m glad I’m not Jeremiah.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians continues his instructions on speaking in tongues and spiritual matters in general. If we have become too smug in the graces God has given us, there is danger. One interesting thing to note: The NRSV asks, “How can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your [Eucharist]?” (since that one doesn’t understand tongues). The word for outsider in Greek is idiotes. It means something like a private person, a person all by him or herself. It can mean a common person, or a person unskilled. So, how can the person who occupies the place of the uninstructed, or the uninitiated say the Amen. The purpose of the liturgy then is to instruct and initiate. It’s not for the smug and learned.

Jesus begins so beautifully in Nazareth. One can almost hear the crowd saying, “He’s our boy!” at the end of the first half of his sermon. The year of Jubilee. All debts forgiven, property restored, captives freed. That’s good news for us! But then he goes on. Elijah was only sent to a widow in Zarapheth; Elisha only cured Naaman the Syrian — outsiders. The Lord’s Jubilee is meant for others. No wonder they wanted to throw him off the hill.

New wine (and lots of it!)

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 96

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Why is it that the language we use about our relationship to God is not nearly as vivid as the language used by the authors of the scriptures? The prophet compares the relationship between God and God’s people to that of a newly wed bridegroom to bride. Of course, we have to be careful of the androcentrism of the prophet, but the relationship described is one of joy and ecstasy. We tend not to be so vivid. For us, our relationship to God often seems one of duty. Too bad.

I love this passage from John’s Gospel. It is so rich — layer upon layer. You can read many layers of the life of the community as you peel back each layer. To start off, it begins, “On the third day.” If one stops right there and asks, “which third day,” it becomes clear that this is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. It captures some moment in the life of the post-resurrection community, some shift made by John’s community, at which Jesus showed up to help them make the transition.

The next phrase is “A marriage happened in Cana of Galilee.” Marriage recalls all of the language of God and God’s people married from Isaiah, Hosea and the whole Hebrew tradition. John probably wants us to be thinking in terms of the restoration of God’s people. Marriage was also problematic for the early christians. There were many groups who eschewed marriage altogether, as being too deeply implicated in the surrounding society. Such groups also tended to eschew drinking wine. They had water in their chalices at the eucharist. I wonder if John’s community was originally one of these communities. That would account for Jesus’ rather abrupt remark to his mother when she points out that wine has failed — “Woman, what is that to you and to me?”

She goes on to tell the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. He instructs to fill six (empty) stone water jars “according to the purifications of the Judeans” standing by. Stone makes them pure enough for the ritual ablutions (Lev. 11:33). Jesus tells the servants to fill them to the brim (20 to 30 gallons each according the NRSV). Then he tells them to draw some off and take it to the architriklinos, the person reclining at the head position of the three couches, the master of the feast. It was the job of the architriklinos to keep the feast moving, to make sure entertainment was appropriate, to mix the wine with water (if the architriklinos was the same as the symposiarch) and to keep everyone happy. He remarks to the groom that he has kept the beautiful wine until last.

This could be a reference to the good wine of the christian community — God has kept the best of God’s plan and promises until now. There is also an element of the wine of christian community replacing the purity designations of (some) Judean identity. It also seems to me that there is an element of wine in the chalice replacing water — John’s community at some point made the shift from being marriage denying to marriage embracing (a sacrificial understanding of the eucharist) and found this better. Or maybe they are saying to other christian communities, “Our water is way better than your wine.”

In all events, this story has been used to narrate any number of miraculous shifts within the life of the community, any number of “new wines” that won’t fit in “old skins.” The test of the transformation is whether it produces good wine. As the church faces many transformation even now, “on the third day,” to which Jesus once said, “Woman, what is that to you and me,” the question we must ask is does this new mode of identity (rites of cleansing) produce really good wine, or does it keep people (the unclean) out? Conservatively, Jesus made 120 gallons of wine. That makes for quite a party. Are we having fun yet?

revealing the mystery

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6,9

Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

It’s a shame that most of the language of the restoration of Jerusalem’s glory also involves langauge of political ascendancy. When God brings God’s people back to Jerusalem, God will re-establish the Empire as it existed in David’s time. Camels will come from all over bringing political tribute to the restored city. All the nations will worship Israel’s God. The images of peace and glory are truly attractive, but the cost is high: camels from Midian, Ephah and Sheba will bring gold and frankincense (political and religious tribute — taxes and worship); ships from Tarshish will bring gold and silver.

Third Isaiah’s images of restoration look back longingly to the glorious days of Empire. Second Isaiah’s language of the servant as a light to the Gentiles has a somewhat different emphasis. God’s uniting activity will cost God’s servant, not those to be united to God’s worship.

Matthew clearly alludes to the restoration language in Third Isaiah in his account of the eastern magicians’ homage of Jesus. In line with Matthew’s overall plan of Jesus replacing every institution of Jewish identity (Torah, food, Temple, priesthood, monarchy, etc.), here Jesus replaces the royal city. Tribute is brought to Jesus. The magicians depart to their own country by another “road” (hodos in Greek), a common nickname for the early christian movement: they have been converted.

I like Ephesians vision of things a little better. The unification of humanity into one, as co-heirs of God’s grace, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise has been God’s plan from the beginning. That mystery was hidden from prior ages, but has now been revealed through the church’s apostles and prophets, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” At the time Ephesians was written, probably in Asia Minor, Caesar was widely praised as having unified the inhabited world, having brought an end to (civil) war, and having brought the “pax Augustana.” Caesar had been elevated to the heavenly places in the Imperial Cult.

According to the author of the letter to the Ephesians, the Imperial Cult had it wrong. The church, a cosmic reality, was the mode of revelation of God’s plan for unity. This network of little groups meeting in houses all over the Mediterranean world, with little or no access to the public sphere, was what unified all people in one Body. Its importance went far beyond those locally gathered groups, even as far as the cosmic sphere. Caesar could learn a thing or two from this little church.

As our worship at our local altars links us with Christians around the world in their worship at the same altar, so we could teach Caesar a thing or two today. It’s a shame when our own internal strife prevents us from incarnating that unity. The author of the letter to the Ephesians knew full well that the church of his day wasn’t perfect, but it had a cosmic purpose. It has yet “to grow in every way into him who is [its] head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper function of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (4:15-16). That would provide the basis for all his ethical teaching. We would do well to hear that again and remember that our cosmic purpose is nothing short of the unity of humankind, not under political constraint, but in the freedom of faithfulness.