Archive for January, 2009

What authority?

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Epiphany 4B (RCL)
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

I always find reading Mark’s Gospel frustrating. He is not very fair to those assumed outside his audience. In this passage, Jesus shows up at the synagogue at Capernaum to teach. It is the first instance of Jesus’ teaching in Mark’s Gospel, aside from the first sermon, “The time has arrived, repent and believe the good news.” This provides the readers with our first view of the substance of Jesus’ teaching, the meat of his message. And what do we get? An exorcism. And after the exorcism, all the people in the synagogue are asking, “What is this? A new teaching? But with authority.” We get exactly none of Jesus’ teaching, but plenty of Mark’s: Mark is teaching us that people who go to synagogue are often demon possessed, and that the demons (and not those they possess) recognize Jesus. Remember, even the demons believe. These few short verses set up a tension that will run throughout Mark’s Gospel, between Jesus’ followers (on the inside) and those who go to synagogue, on the outside. Jesus’ teaching is directed only to those on the inside and intentionally encrypted against those on the outside — not what I would call effective evangelism.

So, how to redeem Mark? One has the feeling Mark is shouting into the wind at a debate partner who has already walked away: “Oh, yeah?! Well, who needs you, anyway?!” We’ve seen it on playgrounds. If we are to take anything away from Mark’s Gospel, we will have to hear that taunt directed at ourselves. What demons need exorcising in our own congregations. Certainly, we spend a lot of time talking to those on the inside, and not a lot of time figuring out how to translate the message, “The kingdom is already arriving” into language others will understand.

It is interesting to back up and read a few chapters before the passage we read from Deuteronomy. The deuteronomists define the roles of four kinds of officials within society: judges, kings, priests and prophets. Some scholars believe that these chapters in Deuteronomy were written after the crisis of 579 BCE in Jerusalem, i.e., after the Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and after they had installed their own client king. The future of the monarchy is in grave question. Kings, we are told, come from among the people — that is, they are not divine. They should not amass too much wealth, or have too many wives. They are to read daily from the book of the law (i.e., Deuteronomy). This is a very scaled back understanding of kingship from the excesses of people like David and Solomon — a sort of constitutional monarchy. Priests are to come from the levitical class, and any levite who wants to come to the place of God’s worship are to be accorded an equal share in the priestly living. That certainly never happened while the Temple stood, when priests were rather more like royal functionaries, administering the royal tithes. Judges are to come from the priestly class, and are to decide cases based on deuteronomic law, favoring orphans, widows and sojourners. Kings are to execute their judgments.

All of this could get pretty rigid in a bureaucratic society. So, the deuteronomists give us prophets, which had always been a fixture of Israelite and Judaic society. Prophets formed a completely uncontrolled and uncontrollable medium for God’s word to enter into the social life of Israel and Judah. They were troublesome, especially to kings and also to priests. But kings rarely had the courage to kill prophets, if we are to judge by the books of the prophets. They often attracted large followings. But the guideline the deuteronomists give us for deciding who is a true and who is a false prophet is singularly unhelpful: If what the prophet says comes true, he is from God. By the time his warning comes true, it will be too late to heed it. By the time it doesn’t come true (if you’ve heeded it) it will be too late to unheed it. What to do? Of course, this guideline will be helpful for deciding on which prophets’ works to include in the canon, but no real help when you need it.

How do we look for God’s word bubbling up in unexpected places in our social life? What old patterns need to be changed? It’s risky to step out — much more comfortable to stay with the tried and true. We don’t have the luxury of waiting to see how it turns out to decide. It will be too late. We have to do our best to assess what is the heart of the message (the kingdom has arrived, turn around and trust the good news), and trust God. In the Episcopal Church, we have probably relied too much on bureaucratic forms of government (offices and orders), and not enough on prophets. But we need prophecy that will address the world outside the doors, rather than shout at the wind.

Sympathizing with Jonah

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Epiphany 3B (RCL)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

I’ve never quite understood the image of fishing for people. I just imagine all these wet, naked people flopping around in the hold of the boat. Why should anyone want to do that? We typically hear this story as one of evangelism. In Luke’s Gospel, before the disciples leave and follow Jesus, he has them put out to deep water and cast their nets, even after they have caught nothing all night. Of course, they catch so many fish the boat begins to sink. I’ve always associated this story with the “Gentile mission.” The Church starts fishing of the “other side” of the boat, and lo and behold, all these people come aboard. But in Mark and Matthew, there is nothing to suggest the “Gentile mission.” The four fishermen, two poor, two a little better off, just follow Jesus — no explanation. Perhaps its the imagery of the net that is compelling. Connecting people onto a network, restoring them to their place in community, linking up Christians all around the sea, might make following Jesus worthwhile.

But, today, I am particularly attracted to poor old Jonah. This is the second time God has called him. The first time, he refused, and ran toward Tarshish, only to be discovered and thrown to the fishes. God has the fish vomit him up, and says, “Let’s try this again.” Jonah goes to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, that arch-enemy of Israel which conquered her in 722 BCE. Jonah walks a day’s journey into the city and preaches one rather half-hearted sermon: “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And, wow, the whole city puts on sackcloth and ashes. Jonah has to know it wasn’t the effectiveness of his preaching, but only God’s mercy at work.

You know how the story goes from here. Jonah says to God, “I knew this would happen. Now I look the fool.” He pouts under the cucumber plant, until it dies and then pouts for the cucumber plant. God asks him if he does well to be angry, and he says, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Sounds like a two-year old’s tantrum. But Jonah finds himself in the position of every missionary. He ends up caring for the people he was sent to preach to, even if his original motive was hell fire and brimstone.

On Monday, ENS ran an article about the Lord’s Resistance Army’s activities in the Diocese of Mundri, just across the Yei River from the Diocese of Lui. As we began to look carefully at the place-names in the article, and a map of Southern Sudan, we realized that one of the villages being terrorized by the LRA, Ladingwa, is just 15 to 20 km due west across the Yei from Lozoh, Advent’s sister parish in Lui. Deb and I went to Lozoh for Church on 4 January. These people served us lunch as honored guests in the Church piyat. And now, they are sheltering the IDPs from Ladingwa, worrying that the LRA could move across the river. I’m feeling a bit like Jonah. I didn’t bargain on this aspect of the mission trip. These places and people are now real to me. Damn it, God! Why did you make me care? Especially when there is nothing I can do but pray (and write to every official I can think of to urge them to make peace in Sudan a top priority). I’m like Jonah under the cucumber, worrying that it may die so easily. Not fair. But should I be immune for care, when God is not. The book of Jonah ends with the marvelous line, from God’s lips: “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from there let, not to mention many cattle?”

Come and see

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (RCL)
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

After the prologue of John’s Gospel, the gospel writer gets down to business with the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Two of John’s disciples are intrigued and follow Jesus. He turns and says to them, “What do you seek?” They reply, “Rabbi, where do you remain?” (or “Where are you staying?”). This seems to me to be the central question of John’s Gospel — where shall we find God, now that the Temple has been destroyed; where is God staying? Jesus replies, “Come and see.” It’s the readers’ invitation into the Gospel. Come and see the community where Jesus resides.

In the passage we hear today, Nathaniel is sitting under a fig tree, a good place to be studying Torah. Philip says to him, “We have found the one of whom Moses in the Law, and also the prophets wrote, Jesus bar Joseph, from Nazareth.” Nathaniel says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” to which Philip replies, “Come and see.” When Jesus meets Nathaniel, he calls him an Israelite in whom there is no trickery — the antithesis to Jacob, whose ladder he will see. Nathaniel is startled that Jesus knows him, and calls him “Son of God; Emperor of Israel” — quite treasonous. Jesus then turns to the readers of the Gospel and says, “Truly, truly, you all will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the human being.”

The human being has become the new Bethel, the throne room of God. Where does God take the decisions that influence the way the world goes? In human community. But notice that the call of all these disciples is not a call to do anything, to change the world, to feed the hungry, to fish for people, to right the wrongs. It is a call to see, to witness what God is doing. All we have to do is “come and see.”