Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Proper 13 Year B

Proper 13 Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-13


Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

The denouement of King David begins. Having plotted successfully the death of Uriah, David then takes his widow, Bathsheba, as his wife, who gives birth to a son. The prophet Nathan is sent by the Lord to tell the King a story: A wealthy brute steals and has slaughtered for a feast the only lamb of a humble man rather than take one of his own, many sheep. David is outraged by the injustice and insists, "the man who has done this deserves to die." The prophet says simply, "You are that man." Nathan reviews all that the Lord has done for and through David, but tells him that he will live to see his own family filled with violence and his own wives taken by the kings of other nations. What David did in secret will now be reveled in broad daylight and become part of the memory of the whole nation of Israel.

The psalmist produced an enduring model for confession and forgiveness that endures in Christian (Ash Wednesday) and Jewish (Days of Awe) liturgical practices. Placing it in the context of David's reckoning, which we just read in Second Samuel, it is particularly poignant, but retains its universal meaning for the human condition. The confessor pleads for God's grace/kindness/mercy. He admits his crimes and offences against the Lord. Throwing himself on God's mercy, he pleads for the Lord to not look at his offences. "...[P]urify me," wash me," "avert Your face from my offences," "create a pure heart," "renew a right spirit," "do not banish me from Your presence," nor "take Your holy spirit from me."


Between Israel's dramatic exit from Egypt and miraculous arrival in the promised land, there is the long, dull, irritating forty yeas of wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, when God seems to alternate between testing God's people and periodic displays of God's extravagant generosity on which they survive. On this occasion, the level of moaning and groaning against Moses and Aaron rises to the point some are even saying it would have been better if they had died while still slaves in Egypt. The Lord tells Moses that the complaints have been heard and "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you...." Moses relays the news to Aaron who tells the people. While Aaron is announcing the news, "the glory of the Lord appeared" and the promised food appeared. There was enough to eat from morning to night. When the dew lifted, there was a "flaky substance" that was unfamiliar. Moses says, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat."

This very long psalm reviews the narrative "that our fathers recounted to us" (v.3) of the forty years in the wilderness when the Lord tested Israel. Sometimes they passed and sometimes they failed. Their chronically complaining about the lack of food and water became a flash point that revealed whether they did or did not have "faith in God" or "trust in God's rescue" (v.22). The psalmist acknowledges God's extravagant outpouring, "and they ate and were fully sated/what they craved God brought to them."

The writer of this letter to the church in Ephesus combines powerful assertions about the real significance of Christ and the reaction he should produce. The church is united by "one hope, one faith, one baptism" but it is as diverse as each unique person who "was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift." Then the writer refers to the assent to Sinai by Moses to receive the Law and his return to give the Lord's "gifts to the Lord's people." He follows with a reference to Christ's "descent," (earth? Hades?) so that Christ "might fill all things." Therefore, the church is full of all kinds of people each with her or his own unique experience of God's grace who together make up one functioning body that "works properly." The "ligaments" of this body are love, unity, peace and maturity. The church is a body of individuals who recognize themselves and every other person as uniquely "gifted" by "Christ's gift." They have the privilege to announce and to work together in that new reality.

John follows the story of the miraculous feeding of 5,000 and the disciple's subsequent encounter with Christ who "comes close" to them in a boat with the admonition, "do not be afraid," with his own interpretation of these events. Using the format of question and answer with his disciples, Jesus stresses that he is not only a conduit for God's gifts, he is himself "the bread of life." He is not just a sign that points in the direction to something else, he is a self-referring sign in himself. He is "the bread of God which came down from heaven and gives life to the world." He is the Giver; He is the Gift!

Both readings from the Hebrew scriptures and both psalms run the gamut of human experience, but the narratives are interrupted with interjections of unexpected, undeserved promises of God's mercy; this extraordinary excerpt from John's gospel makes an exciting claim about Christ; and today's epistle depicts the church as witness and participant in this extraordinary thing that the biblical narratives assert.

The account of David's disgrace and public humiliation is followed by the psalmist's recolection of David's behavior and the realization that a complete cleansing (confession) to God and throwing himself on God's grace/mercy/kindness is his only realistic recourse. An account of God's people in the wilderness is followed by the psalmist's poetic restatement of the reality that sometimes we feel God's presence while at other times we feel just as keenly the absence, but a lot of the time we are distracted by the daily grind. In such routine times, our trust in God is revealed. He concludes with a reminder that what we crave God gives us. The writer of the letter to the church in Ephesus values both the unity of purpose of the church and the infinite variety of people drawn to it. Each person has been uniquely "gifted" by "Christ's gift" and participates in the church's witness to God's supreme gift, Christ. In the gospel of John, the testimony of the church reaches a climax-- Christ is not merely a sign of God's generosity, Christ is both giver and gift.

The notion of gift has preoccupied many writers regarded as postmodern from Husserl and Heidegger to those now reaching the peak of their productivity today. One of the most useful and succinct summaries of this discussion (and frequently cited) is an essay by Jean-Luc Marion, "Sketch of the Phenomenological Concept of Gift," which appears in yet another collection of his essays in English,
The Visible and the Revealed published in 2008. After comparing and contrasting his notion of "gift" with Derrida's, Marion concludes that the life-changing decision one makes is to see (sometimes he writes "recognize") oneself, others and indeed all we experience as beneficiaries. This is the "starting point" for whatever else we decide about life which we accept as a "fact." And then there is an even more staggering realization-- the greatest gift is not something tangible, but the awareness that I am gifted, we are all gifted, we are born and flourish only because we are gifted and our greatest privilege is to participate in giving to others, through which is relayed to them their incorporation into "giveness." In a memorable saying, he writes, "It involves less a gift of meaning than the meaning of gift...." (p.94)

For Marion, the gift-giver who reveals the genius of "giveness" to us par excellence is Christ. The details of his life, the precise manner of his phony trial and execution and the reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb comprise the most complete and convincing display of what absolute giving means and the impact it can have in human realtionships ever revealed to us.

In another essay in the same collection Marion writes about the church. "...Christians cannot bring anything other than what they have received: Christ. "He who gives and delivers himself as our bread belongs to all. Christians do not own Christ as a property, but as first recipients they must in turn hand him on to others...." (p.152)

At their core, biblical narratives are descriptions of the whole human enterprise in all its glory and its gore but always disturbed by one staggering assertion: God's goodness/mercy/generosity set all this in motion and sustain it, including me and all others. I chose to see/recognize that or not. If I do, I live my life by this "fact." The church, at its best, is witness and perpetrator of this status of "giveness" for all persons. The greatest gift, which Christ fulfills better than any other, is the relaization that we are gifted; this is indeed "Christ's gift" to all. That is the message and should be the
modus operandi of the church