Hawks and doves, vultures and chickens? (Preaching Helps).
The San Francisco Chronicle (March 21, '03) reported the following story. Lt. Col. Dan Williams, commander of a helicopter unit, was flying in an Apache helicopter with his pilot David Keshel on the opening day of hostilities. The Apache ran into mechanical trouble during a blinding sandstorm and dropped to the earth from a height of 80 feet. Both men survived without any broken bones. Williams commented, "It's a hell of a way to start a war." I imagine that it was both harrowing and embarrassing to him. But most intriguing was this note. The colonel said that before his flight he had led 30 of his men in a prayer: "Lord, forgive us for what we do--and keep us safe and bring us back."
"Forgive us for what we do." This colonel does not fit easily into the hawk or the dove category. He is apparently a professional warrior who feels the tragedy of war. He understands that war represents a breakdown in social and political processes, and he believes that we were not created to kill one another. He has, it seems, contemplated the complexities of the human situation.
I have heard it said that both "irony" and "nuance" are casualties of 9/11 and of the outbreak of a shooting war. But the colonel did not get the word.
What we need is a wide-angle lens, one wide enough and sharp enough to see not only hawks and vultures on the one end of the spectrum and then doves or chickens on the other. Of course, no one wants to be a turkey. And when we long for critical and constructive discussion of social and political issues, don't we all hope we are not merely parrots or myna birds, senselessly and endlessly repeating some phrase we have picked up, heaven knows where? The people I talk with don't want to be eagles flying high above the fray, out of touch with realities on the ground. What about owls? Do we spot some owls out there? Where is the owl and the wisdom of the owl?
In the months leading up to the war, I found myself turning to two excellent books. One is Klaus Wengst's Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Fortress, 1987). The other is Walter Pilgrim's Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament (Fortress, 1999). They have much in common, and here it is possible only to offer a few of their conclusions. Both of them tell us that the New Testament and other early documents present a complex set of Christian attitudes toward the governing authorities.
Wengst passes in review the teachings of Jesus, Paul, Luke, Clement of Rome, and the Book of Revelation. He speaks of Jesus' "critical detachment" from Rome's rule and of Jesus' way of seeing from below and from the periphery. This "sovereign detachment" of Jesus amounts to a lack of respect for the ruling powers. At the same time Jesus does not take the side either of the peace party or of the Zealots. He brings into existence an alternative society embodying and expecting the promised kingdom of God.
Paul's famous words in Romans 13 are only part of Paul's perception of the Pax Romana. His view seems to be "the loyal acceptance of the political environment within which the [Christian] community lives a life that runs contrary to the Pax Romana. By contrast, in Luke the accepted framework even affects the structure of the community, and in Clement even the force which guarantees its external order, the military, virtually becomes a model for the community" (p. 138). And if Paul regards the empire as God's servant mandated to act on behalf of justice, the author of Revelation can see in the same empire only "the beast from the abyss."
Wengst's study is rich, and part of its richness is that it does not confine itself to a study of the various early Christian writings. Wengst also surveys the political attitudes of non-Christians, especially Aelius Aristides, a Greek orator of Asia Minor who uttered an extravagant speech of praise to Rome in the presence of emperor Antoninus Pius in the middle of the second century.
Walt Pilgrim (of Pacific Lutheran University) studies many of the same texts as Wengst and offers a helpful typology: (1) Some New Testament writings exhibit an "ethic of subordination" to the political structures (Pauline writings, the Pastorals, 1 Peter, Hebrews). (2) Other NT writings teach an "ethic of critical distancing" (Jesus and the Gospels). (3) The Book of Revelation speaks from the perspective of an "ethic of resistance." Pilgrim paraphrases these stances as (1) Christ and Caesar, (2) Christ and Caesar? and (3) Christ against Caesar (p. 181).
I had Romans 13 drummed into my head when I was growing up. Subordination of church to state was supposed to be "the Lutheran view." It was at first shocking but later liberating for me to encounter H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture (Harper, 1951). And it has been rewarding for me to ponder the analyses of Wengst and Pilgrim. We do have owls in our midst. It is often hard to hear them in the midst of the frantic roosters, the silly myna birds, and the shrieking hawks.
The scriptural texts, of course, this season as always are full of the language of politics. They speak not only of kings and princes, of wars and rumors of war, but of the "kingdom of God" (empire of God?) and of Jesus as the "Lord" (emperor? ruler?). But what a lord this Jesus is. He seemed to dispense quantities of bread so effortlessly that the crowds wanted to enthrone him as their king (John 6:15). He had other designs. And he speaks about his plans and his program in the great "Bread of Life Discourse" that occupies almost all of John 6 and so many Sundays in the summer of Year B.
Assisting us in pondering the texts of this season is pastor Jean Lebbert, who has graced these pages six times in the past. Jean is currently enjoying a sabbatical during which she is preaching once a month at a Lutheran-Episcopal mission in Gualala, California. She is also now in her third year as the synod communicator. She says that may sound glamorous, but it really means that she edits the quarterly Sierra Pacific Synod supplement to The Lutheran. In that capacity she gets to be a fly on the wall at synod council meetings and so is in touch with synod-wide life.
On her sabbatical Jean has found a spiritual counselor and is earning new lessons about herself and about the pastoral care of the self in that context. Jean was once a food editor for Sunset Magazine. She writes that "it was a joy for this old [read "former"] home economist to get some bread making texts." I am certainly glad that Jean accepted this seventh request of mine, and I believe that her musings and retellings of the story will be helpful to preachers. Introducing Jean on other occasions, I wrote about her as a master story teller. She really is. If you are within calling distance, invite her to come and tell stories in the midst of your community. It is an unforgettable experience.
My thanks to Jean and to all preachers who in times of bombing meditate on our context and on the texts and know how to serve up the Bread of Life.
Peace be with all of you,
Robert H. Smith, Editor of Preaching Helps
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
2770 Mann Avenue
Berkeley CA 94708
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost August 10, 2003
1 Kings 19:4-8
The aftertaste of heavenly bread links today's texts. Elijah consumes what he needs in a two-course feast of angel food cake: strength for the journey and then the word about 7,000 believers (19:18) he had overlooked.
"Taste and see how good the LORD is," says the psalm. The Hebrew title makes reference to 1 Samuel 21. where David dines on the Bread of Holy Presence (five loaves, to be exact) and then is armed with Goliath's sword (whom he had slain with five stones), outwits a fearsome king, and finds family and 400 supporters.
Ephesians describes what it's like to have the taste of Christ in our mouth: strength from the sacrifice of Christ's body and blood for the journey of sacrificial living and loving.
In John, prior to today's pericope, Jesus goes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to get away from the Goliath-size crowd he had fed with one kid's lunch of bread (five loaves) and fish.
Who is this increasingly eerie ox[gamma]o Is it the crowd from 5:13 that Jesus disappeared into, who saw his healing signs? And are they mixed with the Jews mentioned in 5:16 who are now persecuting him for healing on the Sabbath? This crowd of thousands (guess how many thousand men, plus wives and children who often go unmentioned in Jewish stories) follows Jesus all the way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Thousands and thousands of thrill seekers and the curious take to the road following this one man. Then, after the miraculous feeding, after these thousands watch Jesus' disciples board the only boat at the landing (6:22), where did they all spend the night, in the dark, during a strong wind? Was there a massive "Inn 6" there? And isn't it something that the next day, "some" boats, enough to transport thousands, just happen to sail in from Tiberias right "near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks." The devil you say!
Jesus "realized that the crowds were about to come and take him by force to make him king" (v. 15), and so he evacuates. To get to the other side of the sea, he walks on water.
Hmm. Jesus makes bread in the wilderness. The masses want to make him king. He walks on water without dashing his foot against a river rock. Are we seeing Jesus' temptation fleshed out here? Are his sermons in Chapter 6 as much to himself as to the sign groupies and incensed law abiders that make up this strange crowd?
"I AM the bread that came down from heaven."
"Aren't you just an ordinary person, the son of Joseph?"
"I AM son of God and son of man, Bread of Heaven Incarnate."
"Given for you. Take and eat."
Wait. We're in the synagogue in Capernaum (v. 59). How did we get here? Does this synagogue have a pinnacle?
Recently I was talking with a pastor from India. We had celebrated the Eucharist, and for the bread we had chapatti, an Indian bread. I asked the reverend if they use chapatti for the Eucharist in India, or if they use the little wafers (which some of the cynical among us call Christ Crispies). He said yes, they use chapatti, but, he said, more often they use ghangi, which is the bread of the poor. Ghangi is made of rice and water, and more water than rice. It is the bread of the very poor and the texture of porridge, because there's not a lot of rice in it.
"There is a story," he went on, "that a little child once said, 'Every day God comes to me as a kernel of rice in my ghangi."'
It takes a little child, doesn't it?
The Bread of Life that comes down from heaven is the kernel of sustenance in the overwhelming waters of the everyday, the breath that blows through our state of clay.
The Greek word for bread, artos, is derived from the verb "to raise," [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a breath or wind word! It also means the wind in the sails; bulging sails are the shape of perfectly risen loaves of bread!.
Christ, living bread raised for us, is the wind in our sails, the rice in our ghangi, the strength for our journey. Imagine speaking the truth to our neighbor in love, being angry but not sinning, shutting Satan out, building up with love and forgiveness, being rice in somebody else's ghangi. That's living.
Holy Christ, be my daily bread, be my strength to be truly alive.
From Jean's Journal
The first joke I made up as an ordained pastor:
Q: What's the difference between Christians and Jews?
A: Christians eat bread that's risen.
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost August 17, 2003
Living bread from heaven or bread from heaven for living is no fast food. It's definitely not convenience food. It's not comfort food, either.
In today's Gospel, we find an infrequently used verb. This kind of vocabulary gives the exegete food for thought, so chew on this one for a while. In verse 54, Jesus uses the phrase o [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which gets translated roughly as "whoever eats... ." The more commonly used eating verb [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] appears 93 times in the NT. [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] appears six times-five (five!) times in John, once in Matthew 24:3 8. It appears four times in this pericope (vv. 54, 56, 57, 58), in reference to eating and eternal life, and it appears the fifth time in 13:18, in the Last Supper scene where Jesus quotes from Psalm 41 as he breaks bread with Judas Iscariot. The psalm passage is, "They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. But you, O LORD, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them."
This eating verb, perhaps better translated as "chew" or "crunch," was often used only in reference to animals, I guess referring to wild animals tearing at their prey. The root is uncertain, but it may have been derived from the root "to wound or scar" or from the root "to make a rut, cut a path."
Assuming, as we must, that John's readers understood the agility of allusion, in John 6 we see our Savior dishing out profound and prophetic wisdom that never enters the digestive systems or stuffed hearts of his persecutors. They are angrily arguing that Jesus is talking about cannibalism and blood drinking. But all the while he is really talking about supreme sacrifice and lavish grace and resurrection to life eternal.
We also find in v.56 one of John's most important terms--[micro][member of][nu][omega], abiding. "Those who sink their teeth into me abide in me and I in them."
A couple of decades ago, the fad "Real men don't eat quiche" came as a reaction against reports that red meat was harmful. Funny how foods come and go on the harmful list. We can't eat earthly food if we want to live eternally, so we must take in the heavenly food of wisdom in our Scriptures.
Sitting at Lady Wisdom's table takes an open mind and open heart, but not gullibility. Simpler said than acquired. Jesus offers a messianic morsel that demands working the jawbone to break it down into digestible pieces. The crowd is quick to crown Jesus "the miracle baker." The authorities are quick to condemn Jesus as "the law breaker." What is needed is eating slowly, pondering what Jesus is saying. The way Mary always threw everything in and pondered it in her heart. What does it mean to consume Christ?
Ephesians cautions against overimbibing wine, which impairs judgment and untethers the tongue.
Living eternally, Christlike living, takes time and intention. It takes making mistakes, learning from experience, requiring forgiveness. It takes dying to self and dying for the other. The feasting utensils are the fork of faith, the knife of sacrifice, and a bowlful of grace.
I was talking with my pastor the other day about how hard it is to live by faith. I sighed and said, "I just wish I could do faith more perfectly." Pastor laughed and said, "Ha! I don't think anyone does faith perfectly."
That's the hardest thing to swallow about what Jesus is saying here. We can't get it perfect. But that's not what's required. What is required is given us in grace.
From Jean's Journal
"Modern study of the OT in the NT has emphasized that sometimes the bare allusion to a word is meant to recall a far wider context." (IDB 1:349)
St. Bartholomew, Apostle Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 24, 2003
(Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18)
(Psalm 34: 15-22)
1 Corinthians 12:27-31a
The Lectionary devotes five (five!) Sundays in a row to Jesus' teaching about Living Bread in John 6. This week's selection contains Peter's adulation that has become a part of our liturgy, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." And there is Joshua's beloved exhortation, "Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." Good stuff, and every baker knows it takes a long time to make bread.
The texts for the observance of the apostle Bartholomew are good stuff, too, and they are our focus here.
Jesus decides to abide in Galilee. What kind of a good Jewish boy would do that? "Galilee of the Gentiles" or "of the Nations" was located in the shadows of the Lebanon Mountains. Streams from the mountains' snows converged, so there was water for thriving crops like grapes and olives and lush grasses for cattle to graze on. Major trade routes passed through, so there was rich cultural exchange and variety. In 63 B.C.E. the Romans took Galilee, land of urban trade, and built cities there. Herod Antipas built his capital in Galilee in 4 B.C.E.
With trade and travel making Galilee coveted real estate, she had a history of one after another nation conquering her. By Jesus' time, it was a region of vast religious diversity. Numerous shrines honored all kinds of deities--Roman, Greek, Babylonian, Phoenician, Syrophoenician, all kinds. Galilee offered a smorgasbord of belief systems.
Galilean Jews were lax in faith practices, in the opinion of the orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem. Although he was aware of the orthodox teaching of Torah, Jesus, settling in Galilee, manifested a freshness and independence of mind as to the meaning and application of the Law.
What do we learn about Jesus in his decision to do ministry in and out of Galilee? Perhaps we learn that he had a sense of his call to be Savior of all nations in all times. Although primarily to the children of Israel, Jesus also preached the gospel of grace and love to Greeks, Romans, Samaritans, Egyptians, Syrophoeniceans, you, me.
The first disciples called by Jesus display exemplary readiness and openness to answer. They stand out in sharp contrast to the disciples at the end of John 6 (the alternative reading for this day), who are offended by Jesus' hard teaching and, even after miraculous signs, profound teaching, and all, turn back and no longer follow Jesus. Wouldn't you like to know the stories of what they went on to believe in?
The first two followers in John's Gospel were at first disciples of John the Baptist. "Come and see!" Jesus cries, and, snap, just like that, they leave John and allow themselves to be swept up into Jesus' charisma and unconventional ministry. Jesus sees Philip, calls him, and Philip follows, even becomes an evangelist using Jesus' same invitation, "Come and see." Nathanael starts in the shadows of doubt, "A guy from Nazareth, are you kidding?" but soon he utters a succinct confession, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
These disciples readily left what they were doing and dedicated their lives to Jesus, even after Jesus' death. We can learn a lot from their openness and their clean and simple hearts that will strengthen our response to Christ's invitation for us to follow him.
From Jean's Journal
"Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles, and no amount of science can make the one equal to the other in the art of seeing things." (Volume XIII of The Writings of John Burroughs [New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1908])
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost August 31, 2003
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem had cause to enter into this hand-washing debate with Jesus. Passages like that in Deuteronomy spell it out pretty clearly: "You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it. ... You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statues, will say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!'"
This is an awesome responsibility. Israel's reputation to the whole world is at stake. Israel's divine election to be light to the Gentiles is at risk.
And then there's Israel's history of keeping the Law and being victorious and breaking the Law and losing. Surely that was a huge force behind the religious institute built to protect the Law. The losses from breaking the Law were frightening; they left scars. In fact, the NT word for religion, [theta][rho][eta][sigma][kappa][epsilon]i[alpha], is a cognate of the verb, [theta][rho]o[epsilon][omega] which means to frighten or trouble. It's scary business, upholding the reputation of a deity!
So, when Jesus, with his reputed authority, deeds of wonder, and outlandish claims, sets up shop in Galilee, known for lax observation of the Law, and begins encouraging behavior so far outside of the box, the Pharisees and scribes are understandably threatened.
However, our Savior had powerful motivation too: redemption and sanctification of everybody in the whole world--the children of Israel and all those Gentiles too.
The Greek word used in this debate for "defiled" is KOLVOS. Primarily, it means "common to all, communal," as in Acts 2:44, "They had all things in common." How did the word for common/ordinary come to also be used for the notion of something defiled? Was it in the same way that the term "gentile" became synonymous with the term "sinner"?
In the business of upholding religion, the ordinary can as easily get to become the defiled as it can become sacred. Gold, for example, can just as easily be molded into a chalice or an golden calf to be idolized. And when in religion the ordinary becomes the detested, ordinary people get segregated and degraded by the religious.
On his side of the debate, Jesus' religion is like that described in James: "Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to care for orphans and widows and keep oneself unstained from the world."
I can't shake this image that crouches in the wings: Pilate ritually and properly washing his hands.
In Mom and Dad's refrigerator, there were always altar cloths on the cheese shelf.
Mom was head of the Altar Guild of our church for, like, forty years. Every Sunday, she would bring soiled communion linens home, wash them, and keep them, damp and transfiguration white, in little plastic bags until she could get around to ironing.
On Sundays, they were holy things. In between, they were laundry, sharing shelf space with holey Swiss cheese and occasionally wieners, treats for our pet dogs.
I am thankful to Mom for this visual memory and common-sense perspective.
The foolishness and scandal of the Incarnation is that the Divine dressed in Everyman's clothes. The foolishness and scandal of the Resurrection is that everybody became divine. Creator crammed into Creation. The saint is the sinner; the sinner is the saint. The defiled are washed clean by the blood of the Undefiled.
Jesus is the Jubilee. Everybody back to square one, and how you play with others is how you play the game.
From Jean's Journal
Dr. Margie Brown has told me that ancient sacred artists deliberately left a mistake in their work, believing that the flaw was a porthole for the Holy Spirit. Some contemporary quilters have the same tradition of deliberately designing a mistake in their piece because "only God is perfect." Flaws are blessed by God. Too bad we have so often regarded them as sinful.
Martin Dorne wrote that only staying close to the Chief Shepherd will carry the pastor "across the abyss of proud or conceited self-satisfaction on the left or the abyss of tedium and resignation on the right." (Minister's Prayer Book (Muhlenberg Press], 355)
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 7, 2003
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Jesus leaves the clamoring crowds and debaters and heads over to the coast, to Tyre and Sidon, perhaps for a little R & R. He tries to hide out in a house, but a Greek woman, a cradle Syrophoenician, falls athis feet and begs him to exorcise the demon that possesses her daughter.
Jesus pushes her away. "It's not good stewardship to throw the children's bread to the dogs."
She springs back, "Yes, Sir! Yet a puppy can survive on the crumbs that fall on the floor."
So Jesus says, "Just for that, it's done!"
I have lots of questions about this story. How come Jesus, who has been healing among the masses, refuses at first to do this healing now? And how come he turns right around from here and heals a deaf guy, no questions asked? How come he just gets through teaching that it's the evil within that defiles us and then refuses to get rid of the evil that possesses this woman's little girl? How come he just called the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites for clinging to their traditions while defiling themselves with what comes out of their mouths, and then turns around and hurls this hurtful insult at a woman who begs for his help, and not even for herself, but for her little one who is in the grip of evil? Because she comes, and not her husband, does that mean that she is a widow?
Sure, she's Greek and of a different faith, but didn't Jesus set up his ministry in Galilee? Weren't some of the people in those ailing masses foreigners and people of different faith walks? Didn't he show them astounding compassion? How come he has no compassion now for a mother, possibly a widow, who pleads for her little one?
Didn't Jesus, not long ago, miraculously feed thousands and thousands on five rolls and two sardines? How come he's acting now like there's not enough bread to go around?
How come Jesus changes his mind because of what this woman says?
One Pastoral Answer Anyway
In the ancient world, the region of Tyre and Sidon was the capital of the purple dye industry. Purple was, and still is, a color of power. It is the color of distinction and royalty and wealth.
Pharaoh dressed Joseph in purple robes in gratitude for his ability to interpret dreams. King Solomon traded with Tyre and Sidon for purple cloth to build the temple and cover the seats of his chariots. The psalmists and prophets put purple on a par with gold and silver as valuable commodities.
Our word "purple" comes from the Greek word for purple, porfura, which is also the name of a mussel that lives in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
A purple dye maker started his craft by extracting a secretion of this mussel and mixing it with Kermes. What's Kermes? Kermes is the dried bodies of the females of a species of insects that live off of Mediterranean oak trees.
(I can't help but interject one more Pastoral Question at this point. If humans have the ingenuity to mix mussel spit with dead bug bodies to make purple dye that's as valuable as gold and silver, how come we can't figure out how to get along together?)
An ancient historian wrote that the most sought-after shade of purple was "a color like congealed blood."
Think about it. You take the humor of a mussel and mix it with the bodies of life-bearing females, expose it to light and air, essentials for life, and you achieve purple dye the color of blood, in which life is maintained. And this mother, whose little girl was in evil's death grip, came from the purple dye capital of the ancient world.
Maybe she understood something about power. Maybe she understood that being alive, that having blood the color of the finest purple coursing through your veins, was all you needed to be able to appeal to Jesus and to the Source of Life who sent him. Maybe she understood that, just as blood can trickle through the whole, complicated body down to the end of the tiniest vein to maintain life, and just as the finest bread contains crumbs that can fall on the floor and provide enough nourishment for a growing puppy, love and mercy from the Almighty Author of Life can cross any barrier anyone can possibly make to hide behind and can refresh and restore and strengthen anybody and everybody. Phewie.
This mother could have gone away angry at Jesus' hurtful words. How many times I've turned away, quick to anger, slow to listen. But she didn't. Instead, she stepped deeper into her need for Jesus. Fueled by a mother's love, she had powerful faith, enough to be present with her need and confident enough to know that she and her daughter, for goodness' sake, had a right to be alive.
And Jesus changed his mind and freed her daughter.
It was a small, inconsequential incident, until the soldiers threw a purple robe on Jesus, mocked him as king, and pierced him so he'd bleed to death.
Holy Cross Day
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 14, 2003
Psalm 98:1-5 or Psalm 78:1-2, 24-28
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
The Lectionary offers us a bountiful smorgasbord today. We can heap our plates from the Holy Cross Day texts which include Nicodemus' night visit, Numbers' poisonous snake, and Paul's essay on the folly of the cross, or we may select texts for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost and feast on Isaiah's adulation of the teacher's tongue, James' tongue lashing, and Peter's answer to his teacher's question, "And who do you say that I am?" Both Gospel pericopes were options earlier this summer, the first on Holy Trinity Sunday, June 15, and the latter on the day to remember St. Peter and St. Paul, June 29.
I'm choosing to help myself from Mark this week. These past weeks, we've been tracking the crowds following the Christ, and so we might find it helpful to still stick around as individuals step out of the faceless mass and speak up, as we are called to do as Christ's disciples.
Jesus has been teaching and healing and feeding and trying to take a break from the ubiquitous crowd. We've heard objecting Jews and groping Gentiles. They've wanted to crown him king or just plain crown him for not washing up for lunch. This week, Jesus heads northeast to Caesarea Philippi. Come on! Let's go!
The setting of Caesarea Philippi is one of the most beautiful and luxuriant in Palestine. Aren't you glad we came? Have a look around. We find ourselves on a terrace 1,150 feet above sea level, overlooking the north end of the Jordan Valley. To the northeast, Mt. Hermon towers 9,100 feet high. To the west stretch coveted fertile plains. The terrace is watered by one of the sources of the River Jordan, a spring from a cool cave. Let's go in.
Here is housed an ancient Greek shrine dedicated "to Pan and the Nymphs." Hey! Is this the first time that Peter and Pan come together? Shhh. Behave.
This spot is one of those places where your soul sits up and takes notice. It's one of those breathtaking sites. Over the years, it has been dedicated to the worship of many deities. What a perfect spot for Jesus to turn to his devoted disciples and invite them to confess what exactly is on their hearts concerning him.
They might help us put words to our personal belief system.
While we are in this beautiful place with our beautiful Savior, why not pass Out paper and pencils and invite the congregation to write down who they say Jesus is? Confession is good for the soul. It's good for the soul and mind to be able to express in words what we believe in. We're called to be witnesses. You may be kicking off your fall educational program this week--great day to encourage students of all ages to put their words to what they believe.
At our annual clergy retreat, one of the keynote speakers told us that Martin Luther started his daily meditations by reciting the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles' Creed. These are the foundations of his faith. Since then I've been working them into my daily sabbath of 15 minutes of breathing and being present and being thankful. I started with the translations that I memorized long ago, and then I started rephrasing, to personalize these good statements, and because I'm also struggling with their exclusive male language right now in my spiritual journey.
My words change daily. That's okay, I believe. I'm finding it a good confession exercise. Let me share one of the most recent drafts with you.
I start with slowly repeating the name Yahweh. It's a great breathing name and mantra because you can inhale and exhale as you utter it!
Yahweh, there is no power greater than you. Be my Breath. You are the Source of light, love, goodness, mercy, healing, justice. Bless my choices today. Help me to make choices that delight you. Help me to remember that what I desire may not be what I need and that you provide everything I need, so that I can be confident and not let anyone cause me to trust another power over you. Keep me from evil, from making choices that lead to death.
I will not let another power be more important to me than you. Twill not take my relationship with you lightly. I will take time to rest and put everything in your hands so that I remember that everything is yours in the first place. I will live my life so that my mom and dad are honored. I will honor the people you have put in my life. I will not murder or slander or steal or commit adultery or covet anyone else's talents or family or house or car or job or hobbies or self-esteem or anything.
You are the Author of Life. You created everything.
You are Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. Joseph risked death to become your earthly father. You accepted death to become my Christ. You suffered, died, and were entombed. You brought Light and Life into hell. On the third day, you rose again and returned to eternity and to power most high. You will come here again. It matters how I live. Earth matters.
You are the Holy Spirit, Breath of Faith. You are the power that gathers us together. You give us the power to forgive each other and let our relationships live, and you help us accept death when it's time so that there can be resurrection. Help me to live eternally today.
From Jean's Journal
"The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."--Mark Twain
St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 21, 2003
(Psalm 54 or Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22)
(James 3:13-4:2, 7-8a)
Again, the Lectionary gives us options. In either set of texts, we learn something about Jesus' disciples. We can observe St. Matthew Sunday and grapple with Jesus' calling sinners and tax collectors to be disciples, or we can continue in the Gospel according to Mark and eavesdrop on the Twelve as they argue about who of them is the greatest. For this essay, we'll stick with Mark.
Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down the mountain after the transfiguration scene and meet up with the rest of the disciples who are surrounded by a great and angry crowd. The disciples aren't able to heal a lad who is suffering from what sounds like epileptic seizures. Why are the scribes arguing with the disciples? Is it over healing techniques? When he comes on the scene, we hear the entire group gasp in awe and gallop toward Jesus. He sounds like he's been commiserating with Moses about leading a crowd, "You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?" It's like pastors the first day back in the office after a spiritual retreat.
Even though we don't get this pericope at all in the Revised Common Lectionary, we recognize the father's famous line, "I believe; help thou my unbelief."
Jesus does. He rebukes the unclean spirit. The boy has a massive seizure that leaves him looking dead, but Jesus takes him by the hand and raises him up. It's like a portent of things to come, isn't it?
Jesus' disciples are sitting around in the living room with him later that night, and they ask him why they had failed. Jesus says, "This kind can come out only through prayer." So, what was Jesus' prayer? Was it his address to the unclean spirit, or did we miss it?
Jesus' disciples have been through a lot, more than they can comprehend. We have to fill the gap between verses 32 and 33, but I believe we can look inside ourselves and paint a pretty accurate picture.
Their conversation on the road took a turn. It happened so naturally. It was out of their care for Jesus' ministry. Honest. That incredible, paranormal incident on the mountain, the gasp of the crowd when they saw him, the stiff and still body of the boy after the evil was exorcised, the thrill down their spines when he came back to life--so many things had been happening, and now he was talking about suffering and dying and three days and resurrection. Would it make sense some day? And where exactly are they supposed to fit in the picture?
"After he's gone, I feel I should take over."
"You! Why you? He called me first!"
"I have zeal."
"I walked on water."
"I know what it's like to be a Gentile."
"I know what it's like to be a tax collector."
"Before he saw me he knew me."
"There's two of us--one for the right, one for the left. And then there' sour mom."
"I know how to keep the books."
To tell the truth, some of them hadn't even noticed that the conversation had taken a turn to arguing.
Doesn't it happen that way? We start out caring about something, and then we slip into arguing. Well, when you care about something, you want it to be great--isn't that right? Why care about something if you think it's merely mediocre?
Trouble is, we start discussing and then arguing, and then we start caring more about winning the argument.
By the time they reached the house, none of them had been talking about Jesus for a long time.
"So, what were you arguing about on the road?" Jesus asked.
Every one of his disciples, just then, had to look anywhere else than into Jesus' eyes.
"If you're going to discuss carrying on my ministry, you need to take care of these," says Jesus, and he picks up a little kid, so insignificant we're not even sure of its gender.
At one of our conference clergy meetings, the conversation turned to ecumenism and to entering into full communion with other denominations. Soon, the discussion turned into vehement opinions and objections and about who was right and who was carrying on Jesus' ministry and who being true to the heritage and on and on. We started arguing about something we cared about, but we slipped into caring about the argument.
And then our guest speaker took the floor. He was a chaplain for drug addicts and alcoholics, and he talked about the ones that our society considers to be the insignificant, the paidion. He talked about teaching them how to pray, what to say and how to listen, and our conversation turned from whether or not to have communion with other Christians to how to respectfully offer grape juice as a choice for alcoholics.
Funny how the insignificant can make a significant effect.
From Jean's Journal
A fellow seminarian, Don Wright, once observed, "Thank God I can eat today" is a much different expression than "Thank God I found a parking space."
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 28, 2003
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
The psalm ends with verses so different in style and content from the first six verses that it is believed that these beloved verses, lauding the Law, were added at a late stage of composition. The footnotes in my Oxford Annotated NRSV say these verses were introduced "in order to counterbalance what seemed to [the psalmist] the almost pagan emphasis upon the revelation of God in nature."
So, in effect, the psalm grapples with the same dilemma that we have in Numbers and in Mark 9. Those with legitimate claims as the holy people are objecting to the holy aspects of those on the outside. Pagans are acknowledging Creator in creation, gasp! Eldad and Medad are back in camp prophesying by the Holy Spirit! You don't say.
Jesus, some guy who is clearly not one of us is fighting evil in your name.
Don't stop him.
Perhaps that little child is still sitting on Jesus' lap, that young, influential heart and mind within easy earshot of the disciples' vying for greatness and objecting to somebody else believing on Jesus' name. It's okay to argue, but be aware that little ones can overhear.
From the beginning, creation contained the Creator's telltale signature; the Law and covenants came later, because people stopped being moved to faith through creation alone and started worshipping other powers. We're all breathing clay, witnessing creations. Jesus, the ultimate means of Grace, was sent for the salvation of all in creation. The Holy Spirit blows where it will and to whom it will, to Moses, Miriam, Medad, me! Anyone for us is not against us.
Verse 48 of our Gospel today alludes to the last verse of the big scroll of the great prophet Isaiah: "I am coming to gather all nations and tongues, and they shall come and see my glory, and I will set a sign among them" (Isa 64:18-19).
"For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD. And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh" (Isa 64:22-24).
Maybe John Bar Zebedee was just tired and scared and was fishing for some kind of affirmation from Jesus. Ever since Caesarea Philippi, when he had jumped down Peter's throat, everything Jesus was saying to them had been hard to understand, let alone swallow.
Three times he had taught them about his betrayal and death and-what was it- "Three days after being killed, he will rise again."
"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." "If your hand causes you to sin cut it off."
And what did he mean with that salt talk? What does Jesus know about salt that we don't?
"Have salt in yourselves." What?
The footnotes in my Bible suggest that Jesus may have meant maintaining in peaceful fashion your own distinct character and service.
We could have yet another bread lesson here. We could be learning about the effects of salt on yeast. Jesus had warned his beloved disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of the Herodians. This "yeast" was trusting in human powers more than trusting in divine powers, holding fast to the temporal so that all you have to receive the eternal is a clenched fist. It's a hard balance to keep. You have to trust in human powers to live in this world; how much trust is too much? Eternal powers are put in human hands; how much can we be trusted?
A little yeast leavens the whole lump, but a little salt, just a pinch, inhibits the yeast. In bread baking, you add a little bit of salt so that, instead of a lumpy, haphazard crust, you get gorgeous, round, smooth loaves.
Maybe Jesus is teaching his disciples to cast off the insecurity that fosters competitive clamoring to the top and petty jealousy of other's gifts. You can't give your life if you don't claim your life first.
Be the salt of the earth. Be yourself; there is nobody else like you. I am placing power in your hands, but remember who you are. That will help keep the power under control. I know who you are. I know what you are capable of and not capable of. I called you; you are my beloved disciples.
We don't hear from John again in this scene. May we assume that he got what he needed from Jesus that night?
From Jean's Journal
"Sugar provides food for the yeast, enabling it to grow; salt slows the action. The two together keep the dough on just the right leavening schedule for good texture and flavor." (Easy Basics for Good Cooking [Sunset Books, 1982])
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|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2003|
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