Monday, August 9, 2010

Proper 16 Year C

Proper 16 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; OR Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17 

(See also comments for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C)
Jeremiah reports his call as a young boy.  "...[T]he word of the Lord..." informs the boy that while he was still in the womb, the Lord "consecrated" him.  The youth points out the obvious problem-- he is too young to know what to say and to be taken seriously.  But the Lord tells him this is not a problem, because "you shall speak whatever I command you" and " to whom I send you."  Indeed, the message which Jeremiah is ordained to deliver will "pluck up.. pull down.... destroy... overthrow... build and... plant."

The psalmist looks back over her life and realizes that the Lord has been "my hope... my refuge since my youth... from birth...."


The Isaiah text promises that when human behavior shifts from blame and gossip ("pointing the finger" and "speaking evil") and instead focuses on "the needs of the afflicted," then you will be revived, restored, renewed individually and as a whole society.  This promise of restoration by focusing on justice includes keeping the sabbath a "delight" and "honorable" rather than for one's own needs.  
The psalmist honors the Lord with his entire being because the Lord forgives, heals, redeems, satisfies his needs but also reveals "justice for all the oppressed."  "Compassionate and gracious is the Lord...." 

The writer who chose to address "the Hebrews" recalls the past occasions of God's revelation which were accompanied by fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, "the sound of the trumpet, and a voice from heaven whose words made the heavens beg that not another word be spoken..." as very different than the most recent self-revelation of God, "Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant...."  Because Jesus speaks "from heaven" there is even greater urgency to "not refuse the one who is speaking...."  Our worship, therefore, should be done with "reverence and awe."

Only Luke tells of an encounter in a local synagogue between Jesus and a woman for severely crippled for eighteen years and the conflict this encounter creates.  Jesus invited the woman, who was presumed to be possessed by "a spirit," to come over to him.  He immediately told her "you are free from your ailment."  He then laid hands on her and she stood up straight!  The "leader of the synagogue" was furious with Jesus for healing on the sabbath.  But Jesus mocked the "hypocrisy" and implied that the sabbath is as good as any to "be set free from this bondage...."  The leader was humiliated, but everyone else celebrated "all the wonderful things he was doing."

People prefer rules, predictability, consistency, solutions, procedures.  Maybe religious people like them more than most out of caution.  Maybe religious leaders, therefore, feel compelled to protect, define, expound upon and enforce the perceived rules.  The initial impulse of the leader of the synagogue in Luke's story is quite understandable in this way.  He saw that the rules had been broken, a boundary had been broached.  What he did not see was God at work.  Another maverick, Jeremiah, understood that his message from the Lord, also, would destroy some old things and start up some new ones.  Isaiah even re-interprets one of the Ten Commandments in the light of a higher priority-- "the needs of the afflicted."  In Luke's story, the priorities of the religious leader are presented as just the opposite of Jesus'.  What Jesus focuses on is what everyone else had just come to take for granted, including the woman herself, her permanent disability.  Jesus takes the initiative when he invited her front and center.  Without her request-- perhaps it was beyond her hope any longer-- or any preliminary requirement whatsoever, Jesus tells her, "Woman, you are healed..," lays hands on her and she "immediately" stands straight up.  This act of unrequested, unexpected, full and complete generosity upsets the religious leader, but everyone else "was rejoicing...."  It is Jesus himself, particularly in Luke's narrative, that disrupts conventional religious expectations so that God's goodness can happen again.

One of the founders of "Radical Orthodoxy," John Milbank has written that he sees Christianity as inherently suspicious of human-made categories, rules and boundaries and the inevitable conflict that ensues in an essay, "Postmodern Critical Augustinianism: A Short Summa in Forty-two Responses to Unasked Questions," (excerpted in The Postmodern God, Graham Ward, ed.).  He explains: "I mean by this that it is possible to construe Christianity as suspicious of fixed 'essences' in its approach to human beings, to nature, to community and escaped the grasp of 'totalizing' metaphysics." (p. 267)  "...I want to claim that [Christianity can] think  difference, yet it perhaps tries to deny this necessarily.. entails conflict." (p.268)  Religious ideologies, Milbank believes, are inclined to define and enforce boundaries and categories based on human-made abstractions that attempt to understand and order humanity and nature, but, Christianity, which is "suspicious of such abstractions, should not draw boundaries, and the Church is that paradox: a nomad city." (p.269)

If Milbank is recapturing an understanding of Christianity that is closer to the biblical, (thinking here especially of Luke's narrative and today's appointed gospel), then the church lives with the constant tension, anxiety and outright "conflict," internally and externally, with expectations of God's work in the world.  Rules, definitions, traditions and their interpretation are useful, but the gospel is inherently "suspicious" and always has the potential to challenge them, as Jesus does in the synagogue when he broke two venerable rules:  he put the Sabbath to a new use and he invited and healed a woman whose essence had become categorized by her condition; she was presumed to be crippled by "a spirit," Luke says.  Using Milbank's analysis, we can see how this story challenges head on Western Modernity's and Western Christianity's complicity with an obsession with "essences" and "boundaries."  But the breaking or re-interpreting of rules, definitions, traditions is not capricious-- it always is to expand the capacity of God's work in the world, which is always easily identifiable because it restores, builds-up, renews, makes whole again, it causes people to stand straight up again.  As Jeremiah teaches us, God's word/work has that effect-- it destroys somethings so new things can raise up.  With whom do we identify more in this remarkable story: those worrying over the rules so much we miss God at work in new ways or those who see and celebrate and try to enable it?