Monday, January 2, 2012

Second Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Second Sunday after the Epiphany B (Revised Common Lectionary)
I Samuel 3: 1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17; I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Samuel plays a pivotal and unique role in a time of epochal change from old systems of authority-- prophets and judges-- to new-- monarchy. It is also a time when God seems silent. As a young boy, he is called not through the traditional channels of authority, nor even by his mentor, Eli, but directly by God. In that calling, he is given a message for Eli: the lineage of your family as ministers of God will cease. These earliest events set the pattern for his life. He will make and break many traditional centers of authority, even kings, Saul and David.

The psalmist discovers that God's knowledge of him goes deeper than he ever imagined. God has known him from the womb. "From behind and in front, you shaped me."

In one of his occasional outbursts, Paul displays discomfort with the human body and its functions, including sex, except between a husband and wife.

The gospel writer John varies significantly from his predecessors, Mark, Matthew and Luke, in his narrative of Jesus' call of his first disciples. He alone
introduces "Nathaniel," who appears only one other privileged time, as a witness to the resurrection of Christ (21:2). John depicts Nathaniel as a sincere Jew who recognizes immediately Jesus as the Messiah. In an intricate play with well-known symbols-- the fig tree and Jacob's ladder-- John establishes a crucial distinction that pervades his gospel: the good Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah and the condemned Jews who do not. (Of course, Nicodemus is another personage unique to John's narrative who plays a similar role.)
Texts settle nothing. Just the opposite, they are provocateurs. Because they are human constructs, they are never free of human motives, power plays and emotions known and unknown even to the writer/speaker. Furthermore, the writer/speaker cannot control all the future interpretations her text inaugurates. "Since the work of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud [and we could easily add Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida among others] "we have become aware that 'texts' are seldom what they seem to be," Anthony Thistelton reminds us in Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise, (p. 68). He also declares that "It is one task of theology, among others, to attempt to disentangle manipulative power-bids from non-manipulative truth claims, and to distinguish evidence, argument, or valid testimony from modes of rhetoric, which rely on seduction, disguised force, or illegitimate appeals to privilege." (p. 27) Even texts that are regarded by believers as speaking on behalf of God, because they are of human origin, expressed in human modes of communication and available only through human interpretation can never have a settled, permanent, immutable authority. God's truth is pure. But once it is embedded in human language, which is the only way it can be expressed, it is embedded in personality. To use Michel Foucault's observation about all human language, "a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth." ("Discourse and Truth: the Problemization of Parishesia," Joseph Pearson, ed. Foucault archive, unpublished, p.8)

From his call as a child and throughout his entire life, Samuel plays a distinctive role in Israel's history. At times he
declares God's role in making a king but then undermines that same king, again in God's name. Even at the anointing of God's chosen, Saul, as the first king of Israel, Samuel tells the people "You have rejected God today." (I Samuel 10:19) Human authority may have contingent necessity and utility, but it is never permanent and is never to be confused with God, whose ways are not our ways.

Paul's discomforts and prejudices are quite
understandable for the time and influences that shaped him. John's need to distance the early church form the Jewish synagogue may even have had a contingent, tactical rationalization. But how can anyone ever calculate the pain, suffering, slavery and other forms of denial of basic humanity and even death that those texts and their interpreters have justified over the past two millennia!

Human traits are to be expected and critiqued in any human text, including biblical texts and theology, as Thistelton reminds us,
as well as our own personal unexamined interpretations we carry around perhaps even from childhood. They can be damaging and even lethal. But more is required.

What in the biblical narratives is clearly beyond human origin and judges human
interpretation even within biblical narratives themselves? God's
faithfulness, God's persistence, God's reliability, God's love which will not give up on us despite the fact that God knows us better than we know ourselves. As the psalmist says in verse 6, (which is not appointed to be read today from psalm 139): Knowledge of You, my God, is too wondrous. This is the rubric under which every interpretation is judged.

God did not come as a baby
dependent upon the whims of basic human kindness and then become subjected to every from of human deceit and even betrayal that cost Christ's life to reinforce any human interpretation from any source or time, no matter how venerable. God did it
for love. God did it to love. God did it to free us to love. That judges everything else except its own inherent wonder!

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew near to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

'A guest," I answer'd 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes, but I ?'
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve,'
'You must sit down,' says Love 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat

George Herbert (1593-1633)
Anglican parish priest