Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany  B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8: 1-13; Mark 1:21-28

This crucial passage from the Book of Deuteronomy links the unique, defining role of Moses as leader, law-giver, and intermediary between God and the people to the prophets, who provide that life-line to God after Moses. And it contains a recurring concern in Deuteronomy: how to distinguish between true and false prophets. If a prophet's words lead people to another god or are inconsistent with something God has not wanted before, that prophet is false. Likewise, those who do not listen to a true prophet will be held "accountable."

The psalmist creates an alphabetical (acrostic) list of God's consistent attributes: bountiful, staunch, redemptive, truth and justice.

Paul responds to a controversy in the church. Should Christians eat the perfectly good meat left over from sacrifices to pagan gods and idols? Paul offers a pragmatic solution but then provides a profound reminder. He sees no problem with eating the leftovers because those gods are meaningless to Christians. However, because there are some over scrupulous Christians and some new converts who might not understand the distinction, he will personally not eat that meat. He does not get distracted by such controversies about God's ways that "puff-up" the piety and expertise of those invested in the controversy. Rather, he returns to that experience of God's love through Christ that re-made and continues to re-make him. He writes that the more crucial dynamic is "anyone who loves God is known by God." That person does not seek to emphasize his "knowledge" of God and God's ways; he is humbled, deeply moved and inclined to loving others because he has discovered how much God loves him!

Mark inaugurates Jesus' public life with a revealing event. With his first few followers, Jesus goes to synagogue and, as was the custom, joins in the commentary on the scriptures read that day. All present notice that he does not meander among possible understandings, but he speaks boldly, clearly, decisively, "with authority," revealing a distinctive authenticity. And then, to emphasize his capacities, Mark says he acts just as boldly, performing an exorcism. The unclean spirit recognizes Jesus as "the Holy One of God." Right away, we are off on Mark's fast-paced journey with Jesus to Jerusalem.

The expected tendencies are to complicate religion. Perhaps it is a human way to exalt its importance. Such human complications also have a way of enhancing the status and prejudices and piety of those who create them. Paul deals patiently with those who obsess on such minutiae, but does not miss a chance to return to the one singular experience that changed his life. In the synagogue in Capernaum, the community is engaged in it's routine sabbath discussion when they hear a new voice who speaks clearly, plainly, directly, understandably, "with authority."

Luce Irigaray , credentialed in both psychoanalysis and linguistics, is usually described as a leading European Feminist. More currently, she is visiting professor at various British universities. Influenced by Freud, Lacan, Levinas and Derrida, she explains to the West some consequences of our preference for abstraction to understand and describe ourselves and relationships with one another and to influence our actions. In her 2002 work,
The Way of Love, she writes: "The philosophers of the West are without doubt the first technocrats of whom we suffer multiple avatars. Including suffering through the destructive confusion between essences that they have cleverly fabricated and the flesh, the breath and the energy that we need to live." (p.4) When it comes to others, she insists, they "must remain flesh, living, moving. Not transformed into some idea, no matter how ideal." (p. 156) And in this excerpt, she offers a definition promised in the title The Way of Love: "This place of hospitality for the other becomes built as much as, if not more than, we build it deliberately. Made of our flesh, of our heart, and not only of words, it demands that we accept that it takes place without our unilaterally over-seeing its construction." (p. 154)

Words can lead to avoidance as effectively as understanding. They can dazzle with "knowledge" that "puffs-up." They can seem quite impressive and even necessary-- for awhile. But then comes an authentic voice, gesture, person who speaks as one "with authority," leveling all prior constructs. Even (especially?) the religious are prone to words and abstractions which seem urgent, important-- at first. But as Paul wrote in the middle of yet another church controversy, the over-arching reality is that "anyone who loves God is known by God." As he did so often, especially with the wrangling Corinthians, Paul returns to what makes the gospel not just another religious argument, but a transforming experience, to what changed his life, to what can change any one's life. The only "knowledge" that really matters is the knowledge that only comes from love, of others, of God because I know God loved me first and always. This is the consistent theme of the scriptures and provides the only necessary criteria for distinguishing between "true" and "false" religious leaders.  And, there is always some iteration of "healing."  We become witnesses to this change. And witnesses talk about very different priorities and with very different affect than those engaged in religious controversies, no matter how important they might seem at the time. It is the same loving God to whom the ancients gave witness to whom I now give witness from first-hand, personal "knowledge."