Sunday, February 19, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent Year B

Third Sunday in Lent B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1: 18-25; John 2: 13-22

Having spectacularly and
miraculously rescued the chosen from slavery in Egypt, God gives the rules that will prevent God's people from reverting to slavery or falling into the ways of injustice of their larger, more powerful neighbors. These commandments show how to practice justice to God, whose actions have saved them, and justice to one another.  Robert Alter adapts the notion that when the Hebrews shifted from recording sacred covenants  on metal or stone to ink on parchment or papyrus, the iterations of the "Ten" commandments became elaborated, as in this version.  (The Five Books of Moses, p. 428-429).  God's identity is the One "Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."  God made is explicitly clear that no other gods nor their images will be tolerated in this relationship.  God makes no apologies for being "jealous," which can mean vindictiveness to the "third generation and with the fourth," or, conversely, "kindness to the thousandth generation...."  God knows who are "My friends," i.e. "those who keep my commandments."  God's name is not to be taken in "vain"; the sabbath is to be honored.  The following commandments regarding others are equally and integrally important: honor parents, do not cheat on your spouse, steal nor "bear false witness," nor "covet" your neighbor's family or belongings.

C.S. Lewis regards Psalm 19 as "the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world."  He also concludes that its structure is quite compatible with "most modern poetry," because it leaps from one concern-- creation-- to another-- the Law-- to a third-- personal confession-- allowing/causing the reader to make associations and connections, (Reflections on the Psalms, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javonovich, 1958, p.63).  After celebrating the the splendor of each day with its spectacular beginning of sunrise, the psalmist understands the Law as a similar, life-renewing, life-giving brilliance, but concludes by acknowledging her own dark failures.

In Paul's imagination, there are two dominant, venerable
world-views-- Greco-Roman and Jewish. Each has centuries of accumulated texts, sophisticated systems of philosophy and wisdom, literature, poetry, ritual and piety. People live and die by them. They are re-enforced by politics, mores and conventional wisdom. They are the foundations upon which personal and public life are built. Paul understands fully the shock of a new announcement: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

Whereas the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) place Jesus not going "up to Jerusalem," until the final week of his life, John's narrative places an earlier visit right at the beginning of his ministry. 

Jesus plaits a whip out of chords, over-turns the tables of the moneychangers and retailers of pigeons for sacrifice, spills the money on the floor and drives them out. "The Jews" ask the meaning of this violent action by Jesus. Jesus provides an answer that makes no sense to those who do not believe but is clear to his followers who recall, "After he was raised from the dead" what he said on that unforgettable occasion. What they remembered he said was, "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up." Then John explains, "[H]e was speaking of [another "temple"] the Temple of his body." It is through the destruction and raising up of this "temple" that many, Jews and Gentiles, will find a new sign of God's beneficence and love.

When God gave the commandments to Moses that would preserve God's people, it was a terrifying event, shrouded in smoke and fire. "T]he whole mountain quaked greatly," trumpets sounded accompanied by the kettle-drums of thunder. (Exodus 19:18-19) God's commandments are a gift that, as the psalmist waxes, are perfect and just, making and restoring personal and corporate living, but their appearance in the world does violence to current ways of doing things.

The other three gospel narratives place Jesus' violent confrontation with the religious status quo just before his execution, but John places it right at the very beginning of his entrance into public life. And once again, God's spectacular gift of love, this time in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, conflicts with human invention and expectation.

God's revelation cannot be domesticated, or organized into human categories or systems. Characteristically, it always levels our assumptions.

Citing von Balthasar's
Theo-Drama 4, Kevin Mongrain' summarizes, "God is the immanent non-other (non-aliud) to the world, the Other who is fully present in self-giving to human creatures but yet always alludes the grasp of explanatory theories that pretend to see God and world together in one inclusive perspective." (The Systematic Thought of Hans urs von Baltahsar, p, 82)

Paul has bet his life on the radical revelation of God in Christ. He knows first-hand the inevitable conflict with human religious and political authority. But he also knows form his own personal experience that God's action in Christ is nothing less than "the power and wisdom of God."

Are God's life-giving actions only in the past? What about today? Jean-Luc Marion considers God's past revelations and extrapolates this way: "Whether it be a question of crossing the Red Sea [or the gift of the Decalogue, or the witness of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, we can add] or of the conquest of the Promised Land, 'the memorial of the Messiah, son of David your servant, and the memorial of your people', the event remains less a past fact than a pledge given in the past in order, today still, to appeal to a future-- an advent, that of the Messiah-- that does not cease to govern
this today from beginning to end." "The past determines the reality of the present--better, the present is understood as a today to which alone the memorial, as an actual pledge, gives meaning and reality." (God Without Being, pp 172-173)

Those who hear these biblical claims
"today" (and even more those who preach them!) are engaging with something that is notoriously unmanageable. It shakes well-established and deeply held political and even religious beliefs and rattles the structures that support them with the weight of human authority and tradition. There will be "violence" because God's revelation always "alludes the grasp of explanatory theories that pretend to see God and world together in one inclusive perspective."

The generous God of creation, who
declared it all good, is also the God of salvation, whose love always exceeds all human constructs and systems and leaves our imaginations reeling! To most this is "foolish." But to those who believe, it is the "power and wisdom of God."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent Year B

Second Sunday in Lent B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22: 22-30; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38

This is the third of five times in the Torah God repeats the promise to Abraham and Sarah, that despite Abraham's age and Sarah's
barrenness they will have a son and "make you exceedingly numerous." God initiates the relationship/covenant: "you shall be father [and mother] to a multitude of nations...."  I shall "turn you into nations and kings shall come forth from you."  This will be "an everlasting covenant".   On this occasion, also, God changes their names from Abram and Sara, underscoring that this covenant into which they have entered with God requires a complete break with all past identities. Their new reality is staying in relationship with God through more tests to come. The homecoming of this long, lonely journey will a miraculous son who will carry the covenant to all generations.  (The outlandishness of God's initiative and promise is captured wonderfully in the next verse, not included in the lectionary assignment, when we are told  that Abraham "flung himself on his face and he laughed, saying to himself, 'To a hundred-year-old man will a child be born/will ninety-year-old Sarah give birth?")

The God (first known through Abraham and Sarah) is the same God of all human nations, the psalmist
declares, as well as every mortal, anyone "who goes down to the dust."

Paul provides an interpretation of God's promises to Abraham and Sarah citing excerpts from the same passage we just read from the Torah. Although Paul starts by responding to a contemporary controversy-- the
relationship of new followers of Jesus to the Law-- he rapidly moves to a much broader insight. He notes that Abraham and Sarah began and achieved their life-giving, life-expanding relationship with God before God had given the Law! Their story of faith precedes the most venerable aspects of "religion." It goes back to the root, the primeval experience of God out of which grows "religion." They "grew strong in their faith as they gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised."

Jesus makes the first of three predictions, to which Mark gives significant weight in his narrative. The enmity against him by the religious establishment, Jesus says, will only become
stronger and more determined. Eventually he will be killed but then rise from the dead after three days. Peter is shocked/embarrassed/confused and takes Jesus aside, refusing to accept what Jesus has just said. Jesus' reaction is harsh. Loud enough for the other disciples to hear him, Jesus "rebukes" Peter, even calling him "Satan." He then turns his attention to the other disciples and the rest of the crowd to warn them that if they continue to follow him, they will be also be required "to take up their own cross." He explains: "[T]hose who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will find it."

In the Second Section of Being and Time, Martin Heidegger dissects how we live in "averageness." We participate in "idle" talk that easily conforms to our family and peers. We "tranquilize" our anxieties, especially our anxiety about dying. We can even become numb. "In the publicness with which we are with one another in our everyday manner, death is 'known' as a mishap which is constantly occurring.... Some one or other 'dies', be he neighbor or stranger. People who are no acquaintances of ours are 'dying' daily and hourly." (pp 296-297)

Heidegger seeks to alert us to an alternate perspective. He writes that if one allows one's self to confront the fact that at some point-- you can never know when-- you will no longer exist as you have known this life since you were born. Then, and only then, he argues, a person begins to grasp life more firmly and fully. Then, and only then, he says we are led to an impassioned "freedon towrds death," (which his translators put in bold!) (p. 311) This "freedom" allows us to imagine and do deeds we would have never dreamed of before. We discover choices, opportunities, relationships and, most importantly, we do things that would have never been possible in our safe "Averageness."

"When we confront our extreme condition of anxiety (depression/death/conscience, however," so concludes William Blattner in his gloss on Heidegger's magnum opus, "we are jolted out of this complacency and forced to face the full range of our freedom. We can hide from these opportunities, once disclosed, disown ourselves, and fall back into a lostness in the Anyone, or we can seize upon our freedom, see for the first time that we are called upon to answer to [our specific] situation, and not just the Anyone. Such a steady and steadfast self, true not to who we 'really' are, but to
how we are, is a self we construct resolutely facing the challenges to our leveled-off complacency." (Heidegger's Being and Time, p. 167)

By the time the third of five promises God makes to Abraham and Sarah, he is ninety-nine years old and they have abandoned family, friends, status, security and every aspect of living for which we work so hard to give ourselves a feeling of comfort and security. Instead, the elderly couple have wandered seemingly aimlessly to Haran, Canaan, Egypt and back to Canaan. Every connection to their past has been lost. All they have is themselves and these promises from God that this lonesome journey will finally come to a new home of joy, plenty, progeny and blessings which they do not now even have the capacity to imagine!  And, that despite the ridiculousness of their old age, they will be the progenitors of new nations and monarchs!

today's gospel, Jesus reiterates this intriguing and also disturbing promise: "For what profit is there for you if you get everything you assumed was desirable but, in the process, forfeit your own life."

Paul describes this God who promises more and more and more if we are willing to travel lightly with God: the God "who gives
life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not [now] exist." Of Abraham and Sarah's exemplary faith he says: "Hoping against hope, they believed...."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

First Sunday in Lent (Year B)

First Sunday in Lent B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-9; I Peter 3: 18-22' Mark 1: 9-15

NOTE: The readings from the Hebrew scriptures this Lent review some of the foundational promises made by God (Lent 1,2,3) and the ongoing and future consequences of those promises (Lent 4 and 5). Walter Brueggemann writes of these promises: "Israel's testimony to Yahweh as promise maker presents Yahweh as both powerful enough and reliable enough to turn life in the world, fro Israel and all peoples, beyond present circumstances to new, life-giving possibility. Yahweh's promises keep the world open toward well-being, even in the face of deathly circumstances." (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 164)

The Noah narrative depicts God as "forgetful" but then "remembering." The story begins with God regretting creating humankind so thoroughly that God wants to wipe all creation away in a world-wide flood. Then God "remembers" Noah and provides a plan to spare Noah, his family and representatives of every creature. God provides a second chance. After the entire episode, God promises never to destroy the whole earth by flood again. As a reminder of that promise, God puts a rainbow in the sky so that every time God sees it God will remember the promise not only to all humankind, but to "every creature."

Intense introspection leads the
psalmist to remind God that he relies on God and God's ways despite the unrelenting mischief of his enemies against him. He then pleads, "Recall Your mercies, O Lord, and Your loving-kindness... they are forever" And "remember me."

The writer of
this letter attributed to Peter presents a picture of the church's rapidly developing interpretation of the meanings of the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The writer asserts, "Christ suffered for sins once for all," sweeping into Christ's death the entire history of every human sin. Then he elaborates on two nights about which the gospels are silent. During the time Christ was among the dead, he preached to all, including Noah and his family. Their trial by flood "prefigures" baptism, God's redemptive work through Christ extends to every human who ever existed or who ever will exist!

In last Sunday's
gospel, Mark emphasized the direct connection between God's redemptive work in the past and Jesus in the event best described as "transfiguration." On the occasion of Jesus' baptism, he emphasizes that connection when "the heavens were torn apart and a voice declared 'You are my Son, the Beloved....' " After this momentous event, a time of struggle and temptation follows. The number forty sags with the weight of loaded significance-- the chosen wandered in the wilderness for forty years, Noah and his family watched the earth swallowed up during forty days and forty night of rain, etc. etc.

Biblical relationships are anything but static. There is always change. Relationships are in jeopardy, then wonderfully restored; promises are made but then forgotten; absence sometimes and full presence other times; betrayal followed by heart-wrenching forgiveness; anger followed by a change of heart. Each party in the relationship holds the other accountable. All these things are just as true of our relationship with God.

The readings from the Hebrew scriptures this Lent restate some of the foundational promises made by God to us: creation is abundant, generous and good; hope is always a possibility; no matter what happens, life will be sustained. But, these promises can feel in doubt. Sometimes God gets so frustrated with our foolishness and worse that, for awhile, it seems maybe God has forgotten those promises to us. For our part, we are full of promises and best intentions, but then we forget. One party or the other, it seems, is always reminding the other of past promises made and mutual obligations because of those promises. The relationship is always in need of maintenance or repair.

Every time God's promises are read aloud, as they will be again this Lent, all those within ear-shot must make a decision about those promises-- Yes! No! or No opinion.

Some of the most fruitful work of Paul Ricoeur is his meditating on what he calls "attestation." A useful summary that work is provided in Don Stiver's
Theology after Ricoeur, especially p. 204 ff. Stiver writes: "Attestation is not totally clear, always faces the restriction of suspicion, and allows for the expansion of surplus meaning. It never escapes the conflict of interpretation but is a risk, backed by one's life, looking forward to vindication in hope." "Ricoeur sees that we cannot avoid some outlook on life, but it is not knowledge that can be guaranteed by some method of foundation, a la the modernist ethos; rather, it is a risk we must take that we back with our lives." (p. 205) He then quotes Ricouer, "I hope in order to understand." (p. 224)

God's promises present us with decisions which we must make not just with our heads or even our hears, but we "back with our lives." They also invite a relationship with God that will have its ups and downs--Jesus, too, knew temptation-- but each party can hold the other accountable. We remind God of past promises to sustain all creation and we survive and flourish because we trust and rely on those promises with our lives!

For those inspired to follow Jesus, this relationship with God reaches a climax in the days of the Triduum, toward which we walk in these forty days of and six Sundays in Lent.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ash Wednesday (A,B,C)

Ash Wednesday (A,B,C)
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew6:1-6, 16-21

The writer of the Book of Joel sets off an "alarm" for "all the inhabitants of the land...."  "The Lord is coming, it is near...."  A time of deep "darkness" will accompany the arrival of a "great and powerful army...."  In this moment of crisis, "return to me," says the Lord, your God, "with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning."  "Return to the Lord your God," who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."  Announce a fast with the blast of a "trumpet."  Gather all the people, young and old, including infants, even summon the bride and groom from their honeymoon.  The priests should station themselves "between the vestibule and the altar" in the Temple and "weep," saying: "Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery..."


The text of ('third") Isaiah attacks the hypocrisy of those who participate in acts of penance "("fast"), but "serve your own interests... and oppress all your workers."  It also introduces an innovative definition of penance: the kind of penance the Lord wants is "to loose the burden of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free..."  More specifically, "to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your home...."  The consequence: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly...."  Now, when you call on the Lord, the Lord will answer.   The text repeats for emphasis the specific acts of justice that will produce "light."  This will be the source of strength (strong "bones") and renewal ("a watered garden").  New structures will be built on old foundations.  Then  you will earn a new reputation: "repairer of the breach," the restorer of "safe streets."

According to the psalmist, the Lord knows intimately our failings and limits, but the Lord's compassion for us is limitless.

Paul offers his life as an example of the way the paradox ("foolishness") of the gospel actually works in real life. "...As poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything."

  Only Matthew's Jesus provides some unique warnings about hypocrisy while maintaining specific instructions for "piety,", as the prophets did before him-- generosity to others in need, fasting and prayer.  Do not do these things in any ways that they might redound to your self-image or reputation.  Rather, do them in "secret," because they are what the Lord asks us to do.

Several postmodern thinkers have grappled with the themes in these biblical texts appointed for the first day of Lent, especially Marion, Levinas and Derrida. Their work establishes that seeking to act justly to others is a unilateral gift and sacrifice with no expected return. John Milbank engages in dialogue with them and offers a response in overtly Christian language. (See for example "The Midwinter Sacrifice," in Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, Graham Ward, ed., pp 107-130) Seeing justice for others is one's only hope of salvation, or even specifically, one's resurrection! Practicing justice is its own reward not in some petty calculation of reciprocity, but in an open, generous "economy" of grace from God to us and then from one person to another.

These biblical texts fault all schemes of morality that promise some form of tit-for-tat. They insist that the only adequate response to our failings is a particular kind of repentance-- feed, clothe, advocate-- as personal response to the grace we have received. Participating in specific actions of justice for others is literally our salvation!


One of the most productive concepts in Heidegg
er's work is die Eigenlichkeit. Given the many misinterpretations, the very useful summary and clarification given by William Blattner might be timely for this beginning of Lent (Heidegger's Being and Time, New York: Continuum Publishing, 2006). Although it has traditionally been translated as 'authenticity', Blattner suggests "ownedness' and writes:

Thus to be resolute, to own one's self, is not a matter of finding one's true self and insisting upon it, at least not in any conventional sense of those terms. After all, whoever one might take one's 'true self' to be can be overtaken by the world. What is more, and perhaps worse, one can die to that self by slipping into a depression that wrenches it away from one. To have found oneself and and won oneself is in some cases to stick with one who has been heretofore and so do so in the face of daunting social pressure, while in some cases it is to adapt flexibility to a new world or new dispositions. To win oneself is, in and of itself, neither to stick with who one has been or to 'wear the world's clothes lightly.' Rather, to find oneself and win oneself is to see what is factically possible and important to carry through with it, whatever its relation to who has been heretofore might be. We can put this point by saying that the self one must find and win is one who is at this moment, but we cannot let the language of 'moments' (Augenblicke) mislead us. Just as who I have-been is not who I have been, in the sense of the phases of my life that have gone by, so the moment of vision of which Heidegger writes ... is not the now clock-time, a tipping point between what has gone by and what is to come. This moment of vision, which might better be called a 'moment of resolution,' encompasses who I find myself and am able to go forward as. (pp 166-167)
God's unrelenting forgiveness

It is what God does after Moses' encounter with God on Mt. Sinai and he returns carrying the tablets on which God had written the law/covenant that is so surprising.  Moses returned to find God's people "running wild" (Exodus 32:25) in  frenzied worship of an image they had cast in gold.  He was so angry, he threw the tablets to the ground where they shattered.  The Lord declared that a consequence of their waywardness will be that they will not enter the promised land but only their descendants.  And here is where the surprise happens.  The Lord instructs Moses to cut two new tablets and return to the mountaintop. The Lord "passed before" Moses and made the most amazing statement of self-disclosure (34:6-7), not only renewing the covenant but making it more sweeping.  Walter Brueggemann calls these two verses the "credo" of Israel. (Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 216)  Now God declares God to be "merciful and gracious, slow to anger/and abounding in steadfast love/and faithfulness / keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation/forgiving iniquity/and transgression/and sin...."  This "credo" recurs at pivotal points in the narratives of the Book of Numbers, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Jonah and the psalm appointed for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 103:8.  Even after our slacking or outright hostility, God takes the initiative to renew the covenant, to write on the stone tablets again.  This is the good news for Ash Wednesday.  The Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, concludes his poem "The Sinner" with these lines, which might serve as our request, too: 

Yet Lord restore thine image, hear my call:
And though my hard heart scarce to thee can groan.
Remember that thou once didst write in stone.

"And to dust you shall return..."

When Martin Heidegger writes --"This certainty that 'I myself am in that I will die,' is the basic certainty of Dasein [Life] itself....." (History of the Concept of Time: Prolegomena, Theodore Kisiel, trans., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009, p.316)-- he is not wallowing in a sad or morbid obsession with death.  A full and realistic acceptance of the reality that one day I will no longer exist in this life is an important part of his logic that such a realization enhances, intensifies my engagement with life.  It is the reliable way for us to finally grasp the importance and urgency of the wonders of this life, especially in "caring" for others.  Likewise, when the church includes in her liturgy for the First Day of Lent-- "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."-- she is not calling for a forty day, self-inflicted scare tactic.  She is saying that coming-to-terms with our own mortality is the first step on a journey that leads to a personal awakening, a re-birth, a 'resurrection'!  For those who use the liturgical year as a spiritual discipline, the awakening, re-birth, 'resurrection'  reaches a climax at a moment of loud bells and bright lights on Easter Eve at the Great Vigil and continues into the next morning when the women disciples bring the first reports that the tomb is empty!  Life, new life has come out of dying!


Friday, January 20, 2012

Last Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Last Sunday after the Epiphany  B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

II Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50: 1-6; II Corinthians 4: 3-6; Mark 9: 2-9

The time has come for God's spirit to pass from Elijah to Elisha. This story includes human emotions we can easily understand as well as an experience so spectacular it stretches description beyond words. On their trip from Gilgal, Elisha announces on three different occasions that he will never leave Elijah. Finally they come to the bank of the Jordan. Elijah takes his mantle, with its spectacular powers, strikes the river and it parts so the two men walk across on dry earth, recalling God's similar miraculous works through Moses and Joshua. On the other side, Elijah asks Elisha if he has a final request. "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit," he responds (boldly?). As the two continue walking, "a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two men of them and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven."

Perhaps we have stanzas from a grand liturgical occasion in this psalm. The awesome ways in which God's glory has been revealed in the past, marked by fire and violent storms, are recalled and now requested by the choir to descend on "Zion, the zenith of beauty." Here let heaven and earth connect.

The appearance of Christ is, for Paul, comparable to a second creation, another display of God's extravagant love. "Let the light shine out of darkness."

This passage form Mark is rife with powerful allusions to God's past actions. "After six days," seems to be a direct evocation of Exodus 24:16 when God speaks after the sixth day. The mountain where Mark's narrative has taken Jesus with Peter, James and John is shrouded by a cloud and God speaks, as God did to Moses. Moses and Elijah, the only two people taken into heaven directly by God, appear with Jesus, who is "transfigured" before them and his clothes become dazzling white." Only Peter speaks with a remarkable non sequitor, "because he did not know what to say...."

Scriptural narratives oscillate between those in which natural human emotions and thoughts engage the divine and other narratives that overwhelm all prior human experience and description.

In an  essay from the January 2010 edition of the journal Modern Theology, (see link, below), John Panteleimon Manoussakis reviews the "typos" of mountaintop theophany in the Hebrew scriptures and its continuation in the gospels.  He writes"Between Mount Sinai [Moses] and Mount Horeb [Elijah], the evangelists of the New Covenant seem to claim, stands Mount Tabor.  Christ's Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is 'biblical' theolphany, a revelation within the revelation, so to speak, where Christ the revelaer, reveals Himself by revealing His Father and His Holy Spirit."  "...[T]his is the same God who appeared to the prophets and the Fathers [sic] of the Old Covenant."  (pp84-85)  Earlier in this essay, he has traced a line of thinking about biblical theophanies from de Saussure, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty to von Balthasar and then concludes "God's self revelation neither scorns the physical world nor shatters the human senses; indeed, His [sic] revelation must involve the human body and its senses.  On the other hand, what the senses experience is by no means exhausted by them but it remains inexhaustible, excessive, saturated with intuition; thus man [sic] knows that he [sic] is in the presence of Him[ sic] who is beyond experience and comprehension and whose sole experience is precisely the one is not comprehending, but rather comprehended by what seeks to comprehend (cf. Philippians 3:12)." (p.81)

At one of John Caputo's productive conferences to explore the connections between postmodern thought and religion at Villanova University, Richard Kearney moderated a memorable conversation between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion. At one point Marion said, we sometimes have "an utmost experience without words, the significations, the concepts to utter it, to explain it and to articulate it. One of the best examples, for instance, and I do not refer to theology, may be found in the transfiguration of Christ. The disciples witness the transfiguration and they say nothing but 'Let us build three tabernacles. For he [Peter] knew not what to say.' (Mark 9: 5-6)" "If there could be any revelation, no mind, no word would be wide enough to host that revelation." (
God, The Gift and Postmodernism, p. 69) Further on Marion says, "To have an experience of the impossible means to have an experience of the impossibility prima facie, which I call 'counter-experience' of bedazzlement, of astonishment, of Bewunderung. This counter-experience has to do with the fact that we can see, but cannot designate as an object or a being an event that we cannot comprehend but nevertheless we have to see. This counter-experience is, in fact, the correct, consistent kind of experience appropriate to every decisive evidence in our life-- death, birth, love, poverty, illness, joy, pleasure and so on." "The incomprehensible, the excess, the impossible, are part and parcel of our experiences." (p. 75)

From the mountaintop to which Mark has brought us we look one way and see where we have been. In that direction we look back on Jesus' direct encounter with women and men and, through his empathy and caring in actions and words, the love of God can be seen in life-changing, miraculous ways. Mark also wants us to recognize that these events are directly connected to similar revelations of God's love in Israel's past, which became lore and then sacred texts. From this same mountaintop, Mark also wants us to look at the road just ahead, to another even more mesmerizing "transfiguration." It will lead to Jerusalem. There events will unfold and words will be said that will sear the human imagination. There the love of God will be revealed in the most spectacular revelation yet. As Paul says, in Jesus humanity can discover "the image of God." We will be deeply moved and, if we will it, changed. There will be times when the only possible response is silence. What is to be seen makes an impact beyond words, beyond explanation but not beyond profound significance and visceral meaning. It reaches us at the same place where we experience the most profound experiences of living-- "death, birth, love, poverty, illness, joy, pleasure...."  We experience it, but we lack any capacity to describe or contain it; rather, it defines us, if we let it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

II Kings 5: 1-14; Psalm 30; I Corinthians 9: 24-27; Mark 1: 40-45

Powerful men, large egos, a humiliating stigma, a self-effacing representative of God and, finally, a deeply moving conclusion in this story of Namaan. As a successful and respected military leader and favorite of his king, Naaman knows how and through whom to get big things done. He knows how to be successful in anything he wants, except finding a cure for his humiliating skin disease. Through a very unlikely channel, he hears how he can be healed; a captured slave girl who serves as a handmaid to his wife says there is a prophet in Samaria who can heal his leprosy. Relying on the gossip of a nameless slave girl, he makes arrangements as befits his status. He plans to go right to the top and gets a letter of introduction from his king to the king of Israel. He puts together a staggering fortune to present to anyone who can help him. But the king of Israel is confused and angry by Naaman's inquiry. Elisha hears of the situation and sends a message to the King to send Naaman to him. With his entire entourage, chariots, horses and vast fortune he arrives at the door of the humble prophet, who does not show even the usual courtesy of coming out to greet a guest but sends a message: Go wash in the Jordan seven times. Naaman is insulted and infuriated at this treatment and the instruction to go wash in a muddy little creek that cannot really even be called a river by the standards back home. But those who serve him plead: If you had been asked to do something difficult you would have taken the challenge with relish and not been insulted. Follow the instructions from the prophet, they argue. What a sight-- the proud military hero with every human honor known gets down off his high horse and washes in the muddy, joke-of-a-river, Jordan and "his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy."

The psalmist has experienced a kind of death, which, although not identified, made him feel like he was at the end of his rope. "I cried to you and you healed me" he witnesses in song. "You have tuned my dirge into a dance/undo my sackcloth and [instead] bind me with joy."

Using sports metaphors-- competitive running and boxing-- Paul compares his "training" to preach the gospel to an athlete obsessed with training to win at his competition, except his trophy is "imperishable."

Following the preceding episode (see last Sunday's reading), where Mark's emphasis was on Jesus' frenetically rushing about, healing more people than could even be counted, this episode focuses on one person with what was assumed to be an incurable disease. A leper approaches Jesus. In a provocative detail, Mark says Jesus has a strong, emotional reaction to the man and his situation. The man seems to challenge Jesus: " If you choose, you can heal me." Just as succinctly Jesus responds: "I do choose. Be made clean." Immediately he is cured. Jesus asks him not to tell anyone. But the man bolts out to tell anyone and everyone he meets. As a result, Jesus can no longer move around the cities and towns because the crowds are too large. So he goes out into the countryside where the crowds can come to him.

Right at the beginning of Mark's narrative, we are presented with these amazing pictures of Jesus rushing from house to house and town to town and finally gong into the countryside so he can perform exorcisms and heal as many people as feasible. Running himself ragged, trying to steal a few minutes for himself before everyone else gets up at daybreak, he responds to every person who comes to him with a need, excluding no one, and even going after those who might not have thought themselves eligible for healing. He even responds to strangers in the street. As his followers come to realize, Jesus is the complete image of the God their ancestors had known days long past-- persisting, inveigling, pursuing, individuals, likely and unlikely groups and finally, from the cross, the whole world.

In this encounter, Jesus is challenged by a man with leprosy, which was a situation a lot more complicated than just a medical condition! Throughout the scriptures, leprosy is a sign for Levitical "uncleanness," (see Leviticus, especially chapters 13 and 14). It causes fear and repulsion, it marks a person as morally repugnant. The only hope for a cure is from a holy person. But a leper presents a unique challenge. His mere existence tests the reach of God's mercy and the willingness and effectiveness of the holy person to whom the leper comes for help. "You can cure me, if you choose," the leper says to Jesus.

For those who see Jesus as God in the flesh, the choices Jesus made are still shocking. God-- in the flesh-- exhausting himself trying to touch as many people as possible, deserving and undeserving, grateful and ungrateful, friend and complete stranger. And when he is confronted by someone who bears the unmistakable stigma of religious, social and moral revulsion, without missing a beat, Jesus heals in one crisp sentence that it seems he cannot wait to get out of his mouth.

This incident fits into a bigger picture, too. At this point in the liturgical year, not that long after Christmas and just before beginning the pilgrimage of Lent that ends at the cross and the empty tomb, a reminder from Graham Ward, inspired by Hans Urs von Balthasar is pivotal. He writes: "All incarnation is kenotic [God's self-emptying to the whole world received as gift that began and sustains existence as we know it]; all Word becoming flesh, all acts of representation are kenotic." "The cross is not then an event that can be isolated and made the fulcrum for all theological understanding. Not only is the event of crucifixion, the death of God, part of a trajectory moving from incarnation to resurrection (and Pentecost.) It is the outworking of a sorterological economy inaugurated with creation...." (from Balthasar at the End of Modernity, Gardner, Moss, Quash and Ward, eds., pp 45-46)

But God's work in the world is fulfilled in the testimony of witnesses to that work for what it is and what it actually accomplishes in the lives of specific people. Mark makes it quite clear, despite the fact that Jesus asked the healed man not to tell anyone, he told anyone and everyone.  

In Acts of Religion, Jacques Derrida writes: "The act of faith demanded in bearing witness exceeds, through its structure, all intuition and all proof, all knowledge. ('I swear I am telling the truth, not necessarily the "objective truth," but the truth of what I believe to be the truth, I am telling you this truth, believe me, believe that I believe, there, where you will never be able to see nor know the irreplaceable yet universalizable , exemplary place from which I speak to you; perhaps my testimony is false, but I am sincere and in good faith, it is not false testimony.' " "That one is called upon to believe in testimony as in a miracle or an 'extraordinary story'-- that is what inscribes itself without hesitation in the very concept of bearing witness. And one should not be amazed to see examples of 'miracles' invading all the problematics of testimony...."
( pp 98-99) Testimony supersedes every other form of expression and rises or falls on its veracity in the lives of actual people who attest and those who believe.  Despite Jesus' request that the healed man tell no one, he darts around the countryside telling anyone he sees!

The witness completes the miracle!