Archive for February, 2009

Baptism, transfiguration, resurrection

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Last Epiphany B(RCL)
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, before the beginning of Lent, always includes a reading of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration from one of the Synoptic Gospels. This year, we hear Mark’s version, the first written of which we have a record. I suppose the lectionary is set up this way to give us a glimpse of Jesus’ glory before we enter the long season of Lent — to give us courage to wait for the outcome. There is a general consensus among biblical scholars that the Transfiguration is a displaced Resurrection appearance, anyway. So we catch a glimpse now of what we will see on Easter.

But why displace a resurrection appearance in the first place? Mark surely knew what he was doing. The Transfiguration seems to me to fit into a larger section that runs from 8:27 (Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah) through 9:33 (the second passion prediction) or even 9:37 (who is greatest in the Kingdom). Peter confesses Jesus the Christ, and then as soon as Jesus tells them he must suffer, Peter says, “Never you, Lord!” Jesus rebukes Peter, and then says that the true disciple of Jesus must be ready to lose his or her life, or the Son of Man will be ashamed of that one when he comes in glory. Then comes the Transfiguration. As they are coming down the mountain, the disciples ask why people say Elijah must come before the Son of Man comes in glory. Jesus replies that Elijah has already come (on the mountain? or as John the Baptist?). When they reach the bottom of the mountain, the rest of the disciples have been unable to exorcise a demon from a young boy. Jesus does it, and then predicts the passion a second time.

When Elisha accompanies Elijah out across the Jordan, he witnesses Elijah’s ascension into heaven in a chariot of fire. Elijah, that great prophet, was too important to God’s purposes to be allowed to die. Likewise, Moses after ascending Mount Nebo to see the promised land dies, but no one knows where his body is — a tradition grew up by the time of Jesus that he had been assumed into heaven. So, Moses and Elijah, both taken directly to God, appear with Jesus on the Mountain. Also, both Moses and Elijah had heard the voice of God on the Mountain; Moses in the volcanic eruption, the storm and excitement, and Elijah in the still voice of silence. Jesus also hears the voice on the Mountain from the overshadowing cloud.

I believe that Mark’s Gospel was written as a course in Christian formation. Its purpose is to nerve up potential martyrs. Those who read the book know they might have to suffer just as Jesus did; Jesus makes the good confession, which Peter fails to make. Imagine studying this book during the period before your baptism (say 40 days), and then hearing read cover to cover in the night before you are baptized on Sunday at sun-up. The story of Jesus would map your own story. You are about to be baptized (and driven into the wilderness?). Your tomb likewise will be empty.

The voice comes to Jesus the first time at his baptism before he is driven into the wilderness, to be tested. Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus was tempted by Satan in exactly the same way God’s people were tempted: all the food he needed by turning a stone into bread (when Israel entered the promised land, and the manna ceased, they had all they needed, and forgot God); invulnerablility (as long as the Temple stood, Israel believed God would never let them be defeated); power (Israel wanted a king, just like the nations around). In the wilderness, Jesus, like the convert, learns that he is not God, is not to change the world in a blinding, magic flash, but by patiently living within its constraints.

The voice comes a second time on the mountain, when Jesus is transfigured. Imagine the baptisand hearing this: the voice will come at my baptism, so I, too, must be transfigured. But unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus doesn’t just zip off to heaven unharmed. He comes back down the mountain to deal with a demon his disciples haven’t been able to cast out, and of course ultimately, to make his way to Jerusalem, where we all know how the story ends.

We have been (and are) transfigured, but still walk toward Jerusalem. No wonder Peter wanted to stay up there on the mountain — a lot easier than coming back down. How, in our daily journey, do we reflect the transfiguring glory of God? What demons are we to cast out? Why do we have such a hard time believing that we are “little Christs” (Christianoi)? We are not called to change the world in a blinding flash (turn stones into bread, convert the nations by having them bow down to us, be impervious to harm). We are called to transfigure it from the inside. The image of God restored by baptism is precisely the vulnerability necessary to live in community. We forgot that even God had to make the divine self vulnerable in order to be in relationship with us, so we can’t think we are above that. Those heart-breaking moments of real connection one to another transfigure us.

Deserted places

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Epiphany 6B (RCL)
2 Kings 5:1-15
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

This story of healing is very strange. Jesus feels compassion for the man with leprosy, and heals him with a touch. That makes Jesus unclean. Then after healing the man, Jesus “snorts in anger at him and immediately casts him out and says to him, ‘See to it that you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest and offer concerning your cleansing the things arranged by Moses as a testimony to them.'” The word that the NRSV translates ‘sternly warning’ is the word used for horses snorting, and when applied to humans means to snort in anger. Why is Jesus angry at the man?

Jesus comes away from the encounter himself unclean, even though he sends the man to the priest to be declared clean. We are told that Jesus, because of the man’s testimony, can no longer enter towns openly, but instead stays out in ‘desert places.’ Desert places are where the action is in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus crosses the sea twice into desert places, and there feeds two multitudes, one 5000 people and one 4000. Maybe he is angry with the man because he wants to go back into settled places, into the town, into the temple. For Jesus, God and God’s intentions for the world are to be discovered in desert places.

Naaman, the Syrian, also has leprosy. He desires to be healed (is there a little bit of irony here, that he is a commander in the Syrian Army — in Israel, he would be outside the camp, not the general). A slave girl taken captive in Israel, a nobody, knows how he can be cleansed. The King of Aram make the whole thing into an international incident. The King of Israel tears his robes when he learns that he is expected to cure Naaman’s leprosy. Finally, word gets to Elisha. Naaman come to the dwelling of Elisha, outside the city, outside the structures of society (a prophet doesn’t live at the Temple). Naaman is angry that God hasn’t done something more impressive through the prophet. Finally, his servant convinces him that he should try, and Naaman “is baptized seven times” (LXX) in the Jordan, and is made clean.

The Jordan, of course, is in the wilderness. The people crossed it to enter the promised land. Elijah crossed it on dry ground on his way out into the wilderness to be taken up by the chariots of God. Elisha crossed it on dry ground on his way back in. John baptized in the Jordan, and after Jesus’ baptism, he was driven out into the wilderness for forty days.

Many people come to Jesus out in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where community can be structure by trial and error. One is not constrained by existing social forms and structures. That’s why the hermits went into the wild places. They could re-create themselves, and recreate community.

It’s interesting that in the midst of our current economic crisis, we are looking to the same old structures to solve the problem. Congress, the Treasury, the President, Wall Street — these are going to save us. Jesus might be angry at us wanting to go back into existing structures. What would it look like to form a different kind of economy? What wild places should we try inhabiting?

Sickness and health

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Epiphany 5B (RCL)
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

One day in Lui, about our third day there, Deb and I were walking over to the hospital to begin our assessment of its present state. On the path, we met a man in shackles. He wasn’t poorly dressed, though a little disheveled. He had shackles around his ankles, so he could not take very large steps. A bicycle chain ran from the shackles to a set of hand cuffs around his wrists. He was holding the bicycle chain in his hands so it didn’t drag on the ground. As we came nearer to him, he smiled and greeted us enthusiastically (people in Lui pretty much greet every white person they see enthusiastically, we’re such a novelty). He let go of the bicycle chain in order to shake our hands (a requirement in Moru land). We in our turn greeted him, and then walked on our way. No one seemed to pay him any mind, but we were puzzled by the whole exchange and wondered what it meant. Was he a prisoner? Was he a danger to himself or others? Should we have been cautious of him?

Later in the day, we had the chance to ask someone who this man was. It turns out he was the brother of John Noel, the steward of the guest compound. He was being treated for sleeping sickness. Sleeping sickness can make people a “bit mad,” we were informed, and he was shackled so he wouldn’t run away and not finish his treatment. Several days later, we met him again, this time without the shackles, when he came to visit his brother at the compound. He did not evince any shame at having been shackled. It was just a matter of course for the treatment of sleeping sickness.

It strikes me how much of what we consider sickness or illness or disease is in fact social. Certainly, in sleeping sickness, there is a physical pathology at work, but the “madness”, while part of the pathology, is also socially experienced. When we were at Lozoh, a young woman with nodding disease began “fitting” during the church service. The people around her simply laid her carefully on the floor, and the pastor came down from the chancel and sat on the floor with her so she wouldn’t hurt her head. Deb took his place, and the service went on. If that had happened at Advent, we would have had our own fit, or quickly rushed her from the Church so her fit wouldn’t disturb anyone else.

I was surprised by the number of people with river blindness, nodding disease, sleeping sickness and other illnesses just at large in the population. Everyone knew them and knew their illness and the madness that sometimes accompanied it. At the Cathedral, we laid hands on several people with nodding disease or sleeping sickness. One young man, who was quite mad, prayed by leaping during hymns, even coming into the chancel to leap before the cross. No one seemed the least bit perturbed by him (except maybe myself). They would just move him off to the side a little so he wouldn’t step on anyone.

Jesus cures many with weaknesses, demons, and illness, all crowding around his door. In fact, that seems to be the content of his teaching “with authority.” These would have been people moved out their proper social context by either a physical pathology (illness) or a social dislocation (demon possession).

But then, he does something startling. He moves on. He hasn’t come to be a chaplain to his hometown. He’s not there to make everyone feel good. He is there to bring the socially marginal back into community, and then leave the community to deal with them, while he goes on to the next place to announce the kingdom. We’re supposed to “get it” and keep up the work. We are supposed to see the marginal brought in, and then make sure they continue to stay in.

I also get know why Peter’s mother-in-law gets up to serve after her fever has left. Several days, Christina came to the compound complaining of ‘flu’, but she wasn’t about not to cook for us. It was not only an obligation, but a privilege. To have been so sick as not to be able to cook would have been a source of shame and a source of displeasure for her. Jesus makes it possible for everyone in that social world to fulfill their roles, to fit in their places.

Paul talks about become a slave to make a gain for slaves, a person under the law to make a gain for persons under the law, lawless to make a gain for lawless persons. He is willing to make himself the locus that holds the disparate aspects of a fractured community together; to become ‘mad’ so that the ‘mad’ ones can be included. Paul is not concerned about his own status in the community, but the status of everyone else.

Isaiah speaks of God strengthening the weak, probably in the context of holding out hope for the Exiles, or for the beseiged and beleagured of Zion. And it is not just any God, but the God who created the stars of the universe and calls them out each night. What a magnificent image. Sitting under the spectacular Milky Way in really dark Sudan nights, imagining God calling each one of those stars to appear boggles the mind. That God strengthens each person to take his or her place in community, even the mad and shackled. How poorly we approximate that community.