Saturday, January 27, 2018

Listening for the Echoes

Listening for the Echoes
When I was in seminary, one question on a New Testament final exam read: The Gospel of Mark – Masterpiece or a Mess? Support your argument with examples from the text. I find that one needs to listen for the echoes in the texts, while at the same time not trusting the standard translations, to find the overarching message in each gospel. For starters, we note that in Mark 1:21-28, Jesus leaves the wilderness where he has been for 40 days and nights and enters a synagogue in the town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. He keeps Sabbath and goes to synagogue. That is, he is an observant Jew and follows the rhythm of God in creation.

Mark sometimes uses what some have called a “sandwich” technique: in this case those attending the synagogue on the Sabbath are at first “astounded” at his teaching, and after the silencing and dismissal of the “unclean spirit” we are told they are “amazed” at his teaching. Astonishment is the sandwich. In between is this man, about whom we know nothing, and about whom we never hear again after the unclean spirit is silenced and sent packing. The sandwiching of his story returns us to the astonishment the people experienced when Jesus taught.

It is odd, however, that Mark’s gospel offers little if anything that Jesus is teaching. We only hear about what he does and that he does teach, all of which is astonishing.

A greater sandwich in this tiny little story has to do with “authority,” which is also the concern of Deuteronomy 18:15-20 where the God of the Exodus promises to raise up in future generations prophets to speak on his behalf “like Moses.” At the outset Mark tells us the people recognize that Jesus speaks with “authority,” not like the scribes; at the end they cry, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” We are tempted to think this suggests that the teaching of the scribes is some how old and without authority.

Do not be fooled. The echoes in the text suggest otherwise. The scribes make scrolls, copies of the authoritative texts. Therefore, they are those in the community most familiar with every jot and tittle of Torah, the writings and the terms of Israel’s covenant relationship with YHWH, the unspoken name of God. Their task is to preserve the sacred texts and prepare the people to recognize, among other things, when one of God’s appointed prophets appears, which is cause for much hope under the present circumstances of occupation and Roman oppression.

The scribes have evidently done their job well! The people have run out to hear John, himself dressed like the early prophet Elijah, and to be baptized by him. Now they recognize that Jesus is another one of those whom the scribes have taught would come and bring new hope to the community. Jesus is not opposing the scribes, rather he is unlike the scribes the way that Martin Luther King Jr is unlike the Declaration of Independence – both Jesus and King are the human embodiment of God’s Word and the Declaration that “all men are created equal”. This is why the people are astonished. Jesus is the Word of God come to life!

What is even more astonishing, however, is the declaration the unclean spirit itself. Some scholars think Mark’s use of Koine Greek is deficient, for the Greek text has the spirit address Jesus as “Jesus Netzer.” This gets translated as “Jesus of Nazereth,” even though “netzer” is not the Greek for Nazareth. The translators assume Mark is sloppy. Yet, back in verse 9 Mark uses Nazareth correctly. The unclean spirit means to say “netzer,” which is Hebrew for sprout or shoot, as in: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” [Isaiah 11:1-2] The unclean spirit is wiser than we at first might think. The spirit hears this echo of Isaiah in the authoritative teaching of Jesus and relates it to the poet’s description of a coming anointed one upon whom God’s spirit rests. This links Jesus’ baptism, at which God’s spirit comes to rest upon him, to Isaiah’s text with just one word: “netzer.” Mark is not sloppy, but very familiar with the texts, perhaps a scribe himself.

Note carefully, in Mark only the unclean spirits and demons know who Jesus is. This one names him, Jesus Netzer and the Holy One of God. Holy One of God is how the texts refer to Elijah’s apprentice, Elisha, another echo. Naming represents power and authority in the Bible. As Bob Dylan sings in one of his Gospel songs, “Man gave names to all the animals, in the beginning, a long time ago.” God “names” creation into existence. You have some degree of power and control over things you can name. Only God’s name, YHWH, is so sacred that it is not spoken.

This unclean spirit speaks with authority just like Jesus. Odd. We often misconstrue “uncleanness” altogether. It has nothing to do with sin, and little to do with illness, mental or otherwise. It has to do with ritual uncleanness, and ritual itself can render one unclean. Richard Swanson in his book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark, observes that “matters that are marked as unclean are in many instances matters that touch on the mysterious.” [Swanson, p 102] Nothing is more mysterious than God and God’s Word. In the synagogue one cannot “touch” the Torah Scroll. One wears gloves, or puts one’s prayer shawl between oneself and the scroll. And one does not read it pointing with one’s finger but with a pointer, because the mysteriousness of the Torah, if touched, makes one unclean. Torah is not sinful, but it is mysterious and powerful!

The man’s unclean spirit is mysterious and powerful, and because it is unclean it can name Jesus while proclaiming the question for us all, “What have you to do with us?”  The unclean spirit wants to know “What does all this have to do with you and with me?” That is the question for all of us when it comes to Jesus. Mark has the unclean spirit get the fundamental question of his gospel on the table. Jesus will ask the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” which is Mark’s question for us all. Mark knows what he is doing, and challenges us, the readers, at every turn with echoes from the teaching of the scribes and their texts, so we can answer the unclean spirit’s question, “What does all this have to do with Jesus and with us?”

One last thought. The people cry out, “What is this?” Another echo perhaps? Are we meant to remember that when YHWH provides daily bread the people call it “manna”? Manna, which translates roughly as “what-is-it?” Are the people astonished, as they were in the wilderness for 40 years, that new manna, new daily bread, is being provided? Is Mark suggesting that Jesus is the Bread of Life, the new manna? Is this why he says to us to this day, “This is my body”?

Who is Jesus? What does all this have to do with us? By whose authority? These are Mark’s central concerns. With all these echoes of the ancient texts, Mark urges us to share in the astonishment and mystery and come to know who Jesus is, what Jesus has to do with us, and by whose authority he comes to dwell among us. When reading Mark’s Masterpiece we need to carefully listen for the echoes to find out and be astonished once again ourselves!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Shabbat Shalom and The Beloved Community

MLK Jr: Shabbat Shalom and Becoming The Beloved Community
A few things about how I ended up like this, and invited here to remember The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m an Episcopal priest. It didn’t have to turn out like this. In my college years I approached Rabbi Stanley Kessler in West Hartford, CT, about converting to Judaism. I had studied with him for a year we during which we read books like Night, As a Driven Leaf and The Last of the Just. I studied Biblical Hebrew. I was inspired by God-Ha Shem who came across in the texts as a God of Shalom and Justice for all people. I was motivated by the fact that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was, is and always will be a Jew. I did my undergraduate work on Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Since in 1971 no one on the Religion Department faculty knew anything about Wiesel, they assigned a grad student, a Jewish woman from West Hartford, Bernice Saltzman, to be my thesis advisor. She remained a mentor for years and years afterwards. It is Elie Wiesel who reminds us that the opposite of Love and Shalom is not Hate, but Indifference. I was ashamed that “The Church” had made terrible mistakes throughout the ages, even encouraging anti-Semitism, Racisim & violence. Rabbi Kessler, however, talked me out of converting. He said, among other things, “Kirk, there are enough Jews in the world. What we need are more Christians like you who like us! We are worshipping the same God, a God of Love and Justice, and you already come from a fine religious tradition. Embrace it.”

I grew up in the United Church of Christ (UCC) where I knew that the distinguished African-American gentleman in the back of the church most Sundays as an usher and a deacon, Dr. Percy Julian, was the first black person to buy a house in my hometown of Oak Park, IL. What I did not know was that Dr. Julian grew up in Alabama. I did not know that Dr. Julian, as a scientist, was a pioneer. While working for Glidden Paint Co., he was the first person to synthesize the human hormones progesterone and testosterone, and his work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills. I also didn’t know that his house in Oak Park had been fire-bombed before his family had moved in. Or, that he and his son would often have to sit up in a tree on their property to protect the house with a shotgun.

I was aware that when I took the El from the west-suburbs into the Chicago Loop that the train passed massive housing projects. I was clear that that was no way to live and that it was unjust.  I was aware that my father played a role in establishing local banking and real estate practices to prevent block-busting and red-lining in the villages which helped integrate our community. I led an effort in my high school to have a weekend-long meeting with East Side Disciples and Blackstone Rangers, Chicago gangs, to learn why the gang culture exists. We had an opportunity to bring a musical arranged by Oscar Brown Jr with a cast of these same gang members to perform at the high school that weekend. I was told by our assistant principal no, we had a school bond issue coming up for vote soon and that we could not have “those people” seen being bussed into Oak Park. On TV I saw the white neighborhoods in Cicero throw bricks and insults at Dr. King as he marched down the streets. We all saw the west side of Chicago and a number of cities nationwide erupt in riots and flames when Dr. King was assassinated.

I remember seeing photographs of Abraham Joshua Heschel side-by-side with Dr. King, and was keenly aware of the important role that American Jewish community played in the Civil Rights Movement. A highpoint of my college years was seeing Heschel speak on our campus one evening a few days after the Kent State shootings. He started us with a period of silence to reflect on the horror of that event. The silence was long, powerful and necessary. Just seeing Heschel was like seeing one of the Hebrew prophets walk in and stand before us. He held us in a theological spell for an hour or so. It was broadcast and recorded by the campus radio station, but alas, the tape has been lost. Which is OK, for it was the experience of Heschel himself that made the deepest impression that has never left me or any of us who were there.

In his tiny little book, The Sabbath (Shambhala, Boston:1951,1979), Heschel writes: “There is a Realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue but to be in accord.” I believe this is at the heart of the problem, and pretty much all our problems – we allow ourselves to be distracted by the need to have, to own, to control, and to subdue others and the planet itself. He observes that Covetousness is the only commandment made twice, and his belief that Shabbat, Sabbath, is the antidote to our covetousness by breaking our cycles of wanting, having, owning, controlling, and subduing long enough to remember who we are and whose we are. I believe Heschel and King could only do what they did by taking Sabbath time, Shabbat time, to keep their focus on what it means to be human in a world in which materialism, consumerism, violence and political chaos do their best to distract us from Being, capital “B.”

I taught American History for two years to 10th grade girls. Very difficult, very disappointing to look at the underbelly of our several hundred-year experiment on this continent. No one asked us to come here. Yet, those of us who came not only represented a great variety of Christians, but there were Jews and Muslims among us from the very beginning. Many of us, especially the Muslims, did not come by choice. For many the Sin of Slavery brought them here and they too are original settlers. The great problem that King lived to resolve grew out of this American system of Slavery and the Civil War. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ought to have rendered it unnecessary for Dr. King to have to sort out the “race issue.” Yet, the result of granting personhood and political personhood to people of color was the Ku Klux Klan, the horrors of Reconstruction, violent voter suppression, and the establishment of the Jim Crow south. Historically, it is ridiculous that the Civil Rights movement resulting in the landmark legislation of the 1960s was even needed one hundred years later!

Nevertheless, look where we find ourselves today: legislated and judiciary erosion of voting rights, a resurgence of White Nationalism, voter suppression, and divisions the likes of which could not have been imagined the day Barak Obama was first elected President of the United States – a day of great Hope and fulfillment for many. Now we have a president who makes denigrating remarks about people of color from Haiti and Africa.

Enter the importance of Shabbat and an evening like this one. I bring up Shabbat because I believe that is where the inspiration for King, Heschel, Wiesel and others is derived. Shabbat is a break with the culture of unfettered covetousness – which some lamely refer to as Ayan Rand’s Objectivism - we not only have people in congress promoting her philosophy, but one US Senator is actually named after her! We have an entire stream of Evangelical Christianity that proclaims a Prosperity Gospel – God wants you to have two Teselas in every garage, and a SubZero Refrigerator well stocked in every mansion. Our culture of Covetousness is endlessly exhausting. Shabbat is a time, among other things, to be renewed and  to reflect upon the foundational texts of our two sister faiths. Believe it or not, in college our New Testament course began with Isaiah, so potent and relevant to the life of Jesus and what would become the emerging Christian community was the prophet’s majestic poetry!

What do we find? Texts like Isaiah 60 which emanates from the darkness of Exile: Arise! Shine for your light has come! The prophet goes on to imagine people from all corners of the Earth, Jews and Gentiles, streaming into Jerusalem, submitting to YWHW/Ha Shem, the God of the Exodus, the God of Abraham Isaac and Ishmael, the One God who spoke creation into being, who breathed his Ruah, his Spirit, into a handful of dust and created us, male and female he created us! This God calls us to care for one another, especially the world’s most vulnerable people represented in the texts as “widows, orphans and resident aliens.” I was recently chastised for being “too political” in the pulpit for mentioning God’s care for resident aliens! Imagine! Shabbat gives us time to remember who we are and whose we are. As the Song of Songs so elegantly reminds us, we are God’s Beloved Community!

God calls us to Be – to be God’s own Beloved Community. These are the words Martin King used to define the goal of the movement – becoming The Beloved Community as God/HaShem, Isaiah, Jesus and the entire Biblical narrative imagines we ought to be. Shabbat gives us time to reflect on how we can be God’s Beloved Community, a Community of Shalom – Shalom which more than peace and prosperity means seeking the well being of every single person in our society. Shalom means Justice and Peace for all people – not some people, not most people, not a lot of people, but all people! The prophets remind us that this is God’s Hope for all of humanity!

Last Sunday in our tradition we remembered Jesus’ Baptism by John in the River Jordan – the river central to all Judeo-Christian traditions. After which the heavens were torn open, God’s Spirit, God’s Ruah, like a dove descends and lands on Jesus, and a voice declares, “You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Henri Nouwen, a priest and theologian, helped many of us to see that this is what God says to all of us: I have called you by name from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands, and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will not hide my face from you. Wherever you are, I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one. You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased. Shabbat is a time to remember this, and that it is this Belovedness of every person that is the foundation of all Justice and Justice for all.

Noted author and full-time curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut once made the following observations on Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, or The Beatitudes:
“I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by-and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. It may be that music is that second good idea’s being born.”
-               Kurt Vonnegut. Palm Sunday. Random House. New York, New York. 1981. p. 296

Music, I believe, also emanates from Shabbat time. The great Hasidic songs, the great Shaker songs, the great music and dance of the Sufi Muslims, the great works of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, all mean to take us out of ourselves and connect us with others – with God and others – all others. Lest we forget, our common story begins with Miriam and the sisters grabbing their tambourines as they danced and sang their people to freedom from slavery in the Empire. As did King and the movement we recall today.  I believe he wants us to keep singing, until our singing gives birth to the next good idea!   Beloved Not Fade Away

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Epiphany 2017

THE MAGI by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

King Herod. The Magi. The Star. The Prophetic Text. The Child. His mother. The Gifts. The Choice. Where to begin. We think we know this story, but do we?

Herod. “In the time of King Herod…” Herod is appointed by Caesar as “King of the Jews.” He is in charge and rules with power, violence and death. The roads of the Empire are littered with those Herod and others like him deem “enemies” of the Empire hanging on Roman crosses as a reminder: stay in line, don’t challenge us!

The Magi. Along come, says the text, Magi. These are Wise Men, not kings. William Butler Yeats calls them “unsatisfied ones.” Their thirst for the truth remains “unsatisfied” and takes them half-way across the known world following a star to seek the truth. We are not told how many Magi there are. No names. And there are others in their caravan. Camel herders, servants. They come bearing gifts for a child who “has been born king of the Jews.” He already is the new king! Herod and all Jerusalem are frightened at this news. “Jerusalem” represents the power brokers working with Rome. Time to find the chief priests and scribes to find out if this is true. The texts are consulted. Bethlehem, the home of King David, is the place to look.

Herod already devises a scheme to eliminate the competition. “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage,” he sneers. You can hear the rings rattling on his boney fingers. He already knows what must happen – all male Jewish children around the City of David will be killed. It does not work as it did not for Pharaoh. Moses and this child survive those early holocausts.

Who are these Magi anyway? Outsiders. Gentiles. Which only means non-Jews. Outsiders drawn to The Light. The Light that was coming into the world – a world of thick darkness, the darkness of the Empire of violence, oppression and death. The Magi are those who have seen The Light. There is an entire procession of them, perhaps a dozen or more, making the journey, the quest, to honor the one who even as an infant is already the new king. A new kind of king. One who does not resort to violence, oppression and death. A king who challenges all who would rule by force.

The Star. “When they saw that The Star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy!” They are led by Starlight. In Matthew’s nativity story this is the one moment of Joy. There are no angels joyfully singing, no shepherds falling all over themselves with joy, no manger, no animals. The gloom of Herod pervades over the text with fear. Now the star stops. The journey ended. The Truth lies inside the house.

The Child and his Mother. “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.” A house, not a stable. No mention of Joseph, although this City of David is his hometown. No doubt this is a relative’s house. Like Joseph who is a tradesman, they appear to be middle-class. Matthew just mentions the mother. Mary. A child herself by our reckoning. Mary. Theotokos, Mother of God. Resting with the child after being chosen by God to bear a son. God’s only Son. Mary wonders about this large caravan outside the door of the house. Who are these outsiders, these Gentiles from far far away? Seekers. Scholars. Scientists. Consultants of texts and stars! Those who seek satisfaction from Truth.

The Gifts. A nearly endless procession of servants bring huge quantities of gold, frankincense and myrhh into the house. As the prophet Isaiah proclaimed long ago, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60:6) A text that announces the arrival of God into the world he created as the coming of brilliant light. The prophet imagines outsiders coming from afar, with “dust clouds of camels,” bearing Gifts – Gifts that declare that even the outsiders, the Gentiles, submit to the arrival of a new kind of king. Another poem, Psalm 72, declares that all kings are tasked to bring Shalom to the people. More than peace and prosperity, this Shalom of God attends to the well-being of all persons – freeing them from oppression, poverty and violence. “ For he shall deliver the poor…he shall have pity on the lowly and poor…there shall be an abundance of Shalom till the moon shall be no more.” Shalom deserving of gifts!

The Mystery. “The uncontrollable mystery” is this new Oneness of Jew and Gentile. The Unification of All People. No longer are there to be insiders and outsiders, but All People, writes Paul to the Ephesians, have access to the God of promise and Shalom. This is the wisdom of God in its rich variety, the mystery hidden for the ages. The mystery of this Christ child.

The Choice. “Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another way.” Yeats imagines the Magi as having seen “another way.” They do not do the King’s bidding. They do not support an administration of power sustained by fear, violence and killing. They find the “turbulence” of Calvary and its display of capital punishment as unsatisfying for a world that calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. A world of Shalom. As an act of civil disobedience, they choose to return to their country “by another way.”

There is something about the revealed and “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” of Bethlehem that calls, urges, demands we find another way. Is it just a coincidence that the very first generation of people who followed Jesus became known as “the people of the Way”? And that the “way” was His way, a new way, “another way” as the texts before us would have it?

I imagine that Matthew’s telling of this tale still calls us to become a people who are looking for, advocating and bringing into human consciousness “another way” in a world in which all the old ways continue to be utterly unsatisfying. Our satisfaction lies with the Magi – they demonstrate the importance of making a choice against supporting the old ways and physically striking out on “another way.” The Truth demands this. This is who these texts call us to be – people of the way, those who choose another way – The Way of Truth. We have now only a moment for this – like the Magi, our time and our place call us to such a moment of decision with no time to ponder, dither or “make up our minds.” It’s time to choose.