Proper 7 June 20, 2004.
When these texts are read in the assembly, what the congregation hears are two narratives of imprisonment (Isaiah and Luke) separated by a baptismal declaration of freedom in Christ Jesus. What a gift these readings are!
In the strongest possible terms, YHWH is portrayed in Isaiah 65:1-9 as willing and beseeching, waiting patiently for the people to turn toward what is good. It is a pathetic image of desire from someone who has gifts to give and joy to confer but is unable to get the attention of those who, unknown to themselves, desperately need what is offered. The people are oblivious. "I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people" (v. 2), says YHWH. Not only do they go their own way, sacrificing to idols, seeking oracles from the dead, disobeying the laws, but they hold themselves to be even holier than the One who longs for them (v. 5). The people are unable to comprehend the great availability of healing and wholeness being offered by YHWH who is "ready to be sought" (v. 1) yet pitifully ignored.
Who, then, is this YHWH? The portrait is of a beggar who watches while the people devour themselves. Made inconsequential, YHWH finally calls this people a most horrible and demeaning name: "a smoke in my nostrils" (v. 5). They pollute the very breath of life! Could anything more severe be said of a people?
In Luke's story of the Gerasene demoniac, the one in need of healing does not avoid Jesus but comes to meet him at the lakeshore. The man is naked. He recognizes Jesus' power, and immediately Jesus releases the man from his demons. This healing leaves the man a picture of calm, seated at the feet of the healer, "clothed and in his right mind" (v. 35). The demoniac cannot bring himself to leave Jesus' presence. He begs to stay with Jesus. It is Jesus who sends him away, saying he should proclaim his healing by telling "how much God has done for you" (v. 39). We may note that Luke records the demoniac not, in fact, praising God but declaring "how much Jesus had done for him" (v. 39). For the demoniac, as for others who are met by Jesus' healing power, Jesus is identified with, and even as, God. Once the crowds see that Jesus is capable of sending the legion of demons from the madman into the swine, they insist that the healer go away, "for they were seized with great fear" (v. 7).
We find in these lections some curious oppositions. In Isaiah, the people go about their business taking no notice of the One who longs to bestow mercy, while in the Lukan story, the demoniac immediately recognizes that the Holy One can torment him and so begs for mercy. Like the people of Isaiah, those who witness the restoration of the demoniac want Jesus with all his mysterious healing powers to leave them.
Is it possible that the people to whom Isaiah prophesies are unable to see this beggar-God because they intuit that seeing will require a response? Could they know that paying attention will inevitably fill them with fear?
And regarding ourselves: Do these texts show us a fear that lies at the core of our own hearts? It is likely that we can see ourselves in these crowds: people who already feel overwhelmed by the demands of life and would like to avoid any added amazements. It is, perhaps, just too much effort to really grasp the depth of grace being held out to us all day long from the hands of the Holy One.
It is worth noting the strong images of nakedness and clothing in these readings. There is clothing for the demoniac in Luke, and there is clothing in Paul's letter to the Galatians: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (v. 27). Liturgical scholar Gail Ramshaw makes clear in her book Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary (Augsburg Fortress, 2002) that "clothing functions not only as literal dress, but also as metaphor" (p. 95). Clothing is one of forty prominent images Ramshaw highlights in order to help worship leaders and preachers think more deeply about God's word. Just as baptism from the time of the earliest Christian communities has clothed the newly baptized in a white garment signifying newborn life, so too is the demoniac newly made and then clothed.
Given the baptismal intimations, this day may be a good time to include the Affirmation of Baptism in the Sunday liturgy. The presider might use the draft Renewing Worship rite found either in published form through Augsburg Fortress or approved for free downloading on the ELCA Web site: www.renewingworship.org. The draft liturgies are intended for congregational use and evaluation, and this is a marvelous opportunity to tie together the textual emphases on healing and newness with the ongoing, lifegiving nature of daily remembrance of our baptism. (If you do use the Renewing Worship rite, I encourage you to submit your congregation's responses to the ELCA Renewing Worship Project.)
Baptismal focus could potentially help the congregation grasp the tie between word and sacrament this day. Through baptism we are utterly changed: "In Holy Baptism the Triune God delivers us from the forces of evil, puts our sinful self to death, gives us new birth, adopts us as children, and makes us members of the body of Christ, the Church" (ELCA, The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 14). This is a description of healing and newness, of freedom from the sin in which we were "imprisoned and guarded under the law" (Gal 3:23). Affirming baptism can help to drive into our hearts that the newness we have received has, as the words of Paul convey, clothed us with a new identity. "There is no longer Jew or Greek ... slave or free ... male and female" (v. 28). Since by baptism there are no longer distinctions or distances between members of the body of Christ, there is no justification for one part of the body to exclude another. Remembrance of baptism is very dear to the Christian witness. Whatever we used to think the law said about who is "in" and who is "out," baptism has released us from even that bondage. Surely this convicts our Church and churches. The body of Christ is constantly being enlarged and redefined.
The one who had been unable to live among the so-called "normal" people, once healed, found himself "proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him" (Lk 8:39). No wonder he could not do what Jesus asked of him and say that his healing was from God. His healing, as he experienced it, came from a man who talked with him, asked his name, looked into his inner being, and forced what kept him from shalom to leave him. The healed man understood that in the face of Jesus his savior, he was--as each of us is--still a beggar. Perhaps it is the beggar-God, holding out those giving hands all day long, who shows us who we are really meant to be for one another.
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2004|
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