Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Proper 10 Year B

Proper 10 Year
(Revised Common Lectionary)

II Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19; Psalm 24
OR Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85: 8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Having taken Jerusalem from the Canaanites and established it as the new capital of a united Israel, King David now further enhances its status by bringing the "ark of God" to the new "city of David."

Its arrival is marked by a huge assembly, a ritual sacrifice, with singing accompanied by strings, brass and percussion instruments. Then "David danced before the Lord with all his might." (David's wife, Michal, Saul's daughter, sees the wild display and "despises" David.) When the ark arrives at the sanctuary tent David had constructed, he offered a burnt sacrifice, blessed the people and distributed food to every "man and woman."

After an introductory allusion to God as Creator, the psalmist uses question/response to compose a song for worshipers approaching "the holy place," "the mount of the Lord." Who shall go?" perhaps a cantor intones. Perhaps all respond, those of "clean hands a pure heart," those who seek the Lord's presence. "Who is this king of glory?" The Lord who is valiant in battle, comes the response.

The prophet Amos has a vivid revelation. He sees God holding a plumb line against a wall. Amos explains it is a sign that the Lord has said "the sanctuaries of Israel shall be made desolate," and the Lord will initiate war against the King, Jeroboam. The High Priest in Bethel, Amaziah, reports the words of Amos to the King who tells Amos to go away, "earn your bread" in rival Judah. Amos declines the title "prophet" and says he is simply following the Lord's direction, "Go, prophesy to my people Israel."

Because God has previously reversed God's Self and forgiven the peoples' sins, the psalmist prays for another reversal. God will again bestow kindness and truth, justice and peace, bounty and justice.

The "letter" to the church in Ephesus, although attributed to Paul, is generally regarded as a later iteration of some Pauline themes, but with a distinctive tone. The writer takes great comfort and satisfaction that he and his readers are among the chosen recipients of Christ's redemption, forgiveness and the "riches of his grace." This is all part of a "plan" he sees.

Mark pauses in his narrative about the life, ministry and fate of Jesus to record the death of John the Baptizer. (Commentators note several discrepancies in this version, especially compared to the contemporary Jewish historian, Josephus.) Taken as narrative, not as history, Mark is dealing with the complex relationship between John the Baptizer and his disciples and Jesus and his followers as well as the confusion between the two among the general public. He links the fate of John with the twisted Herod and his dysfunctional family. At a birthday banquet given by Herod for himself, he offers to grant any wish of his daughter, whom Mark identifies as "Herodias." "I want you to give to me the head of John the Baptizer on a platter." She gets her wish. John's disciples come, take the body and place it in a tomb.

Despite a few attempts (such as Ephesians) to conceptualize and spiritualize, the greater majority of the biblical narratives are brimming with passion, ricocheting emotions, bizarre motives, blood and gore and occasional acts of extravagant generosity.

If we permit ourselves, we can imagine David in a frenzy, sweat flying off of him and hitting us as he twists and writhes before the ark of God. We know too well that powerful emotion of disapproval that seized his wife. We can also see in the same wild scene the eager, outstretched hands of those who received the free food David distributed, (and perhaps a little hoarding as well).

The abrasive, blunt words of a prophet, such as Amos, quickly elicit a visceral backlash. Who wants to hear such sweeping condemnation of the status quo that is working for me and my family?

Even measured against the notoriously neurotic Herod as recorded in the history books written at the time, the story Mark tells is amazing. A father with a peculiar expression of affection grants the wish of a daughter with truly gruesome fantasies.

Jean-Luc Nancy's short (less than 200 pages) study, entitled
Corpus, has already been described as canonical. Its significance has increasingly been recognized since its publication in French in 2006 and its quick translation into English and publication last year. Nancy writes, "Corpus: a body is a collection of pieces, bits, members, zones, states, functions. Heads, hands and cartilage, burnings, smoothness, spurts, sleep, digestion, goose-bumps, excitation, breathing, digesting, reproducing, mending, saliva, synovia, twists, cramps, and beauty spots. It's a collection of collections, a corpus corporum, whose unity remains a question for itself." "Nothing's more singular than the sensuous, erotic affective discharge that certain bodies produce in us (or inversely, the indifference that certain others leave us with). A certain build, a certain thinness, a certain hair color, a bearing, a spacing of the eyes,a shoulder's shape or movement, a chin, fingers, almost nothing, only an accent, a wrinkle, an irreplaceable feature... It's not the body's soul, but it spirit; its point, its signature, its smell." (p.155)

With the skill and grace of a brilliant surgeon, Nancy maneuvers among the residue of Platonic and (platonized) Christianity and their offspring, Descartes, and return to an understanding of humanity and human experience that, just incidentally, seems closer to the worlds of biblical narratives, too. He urges us to understand that the Greek concept of a "soul," awkwardly and uncomfortably "incarnated" in a body establishes an "ugly dualism" (p. 133) that has haunted Occidental assumptions, including those that are the most enduring, those that remain inchoate, until the present. "There is no longer a subject, 'back behind'. There's only a self-sensing, as a relation to self as outside. And that is what's being oneself is." (p. 132) Which means, Nancy says, "The body's simply a soul. A soul, wrinkled, fat or dry, hairy or callus, rough, supple, cracking, gracious, flatulent, iridescent, pearly, daubed with paint, wrapped in muslin, or camouflaged in khaki, multicolored, covered with grease, wounds, warts. The soul is an accordion, a trumpet, the belly of a viola." (p 152)

Re-writing the honest depiction of raw humanity in the overwhelming majority of biblical narratives into "plans," concepts or "spirituality," bleeds the life out of them and their potential life-giving effects. They are stories that depict people with every powerful emotion and mixed motive we know personally and directly in everyday life, (no interpretation needed!) Deeply flawed people do horrible things, sometimes, but also sometimes do glorious things after an encounter with the always jarring grace of the living God! (The arc of David's story, from youth to death, which we are following this summer is the example par excellance.) We see ourselves in these narratives, warts and all. We see ourselves, too, in the occasional act of generosity or advancement of God's justice in the world that is depicted there, too. A passionate God who can intimidate on one occasion and nearly overwhelm with thoroughgoing love that can only be from God engages "all sorts and conditions" (to use that enduring phrase from the older Books of Common Prayer) in the most outlandish ways -- that's the real plot of these biblical narratives. The body does not uncomfortably house a soul, the body
is the spirit. In relationship with a God who is anything but predictable, it can engage in pure evil or staggering generosity, sometimes in the same person. It's just that specific, that accurate, that real, that believable!