Saturday, August 25, 2018

Gotta Serve Somebody

Standing upon the seashore last week, waves crashing calf-high, I begin to notice that as strong and powerful as the crashing waves are, the under current, the under-tow, is far more so. After each wave the resulting under-tow carves away more and more sand beneath my feet. Most of the energy of the wave is beneath the surface. Just so, beneath our surface lives there are things going on, energy and powers at work, that we cannot see, but yet are very real. Some of these powers work for us and some work against us. Some are deep within ourselves, others are deeply rooted in society and the world about us. Like the rudder of a ship beneath the surface of the sea these energies and powers direct where we are going and what we are doing, often without our even knowing it.

As John 6 winds up with more talk about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus (Greek and Latin for the Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua), we are told a large number of those following Jesus leave: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” [6:66]. It just makes no sense to them. And these are not opponents – not religious authorities or Roman officials – but people who have been with him, on board, until it has just become too much to bear. This modern day Yeshua, they say, is asking too much with all this talk of eating his body and drinking his blood.

There is no mistake that the life to which he calls them includes difficult demands for any of us who would be faithful. Even the twelve are not so sure, but do decide to stay. Note carefully, everyone is free to go. This is not a cult. There is no coercion. No manipulation. Just as the earlier Yeshua declares at Shechem, you can follow the old gods and idols of the past, or the Lord God of the Passover and Exodus: “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” [Joshua 24:15] To paraphrase the immortal words of the late Joe Strummer, “So you got to let me know, will you stay or will you go?”

The confusion is easy to understand. Those who leave the Jesus movement hear him talking about the body as if it is flesh without Spirit, while incarnation as the narrator of John understands it is embodied flesh with Spirit. The Bible understands that the world and all that is in it is more than just matter. For the Bible matter matters because it is all infused and enlivened with the Lord’s Spirit. This is why at each stage of creation the Lord declares, “It is good.”

Loye Bradley Ashton in Feasting On The Word for this season suggests that we tend to live out of the same confusion as those who leave thinking they are being asked to consume flesh without Spirit. Because of this confusion, we tend to consume “the world without appreciating how God has infused creation with the Spirit; thus we use and discard it in crude and materialist ways,” which includes the way we treat our environment and the way we treat each other. “The ethical imperative at the heart of John’s incarnational theology of the Eucharist is clear,” Ashton writes. “Will we treat the world around us as incarnational or simply as material?”

Those who remain with Jesus are those who abide in him as he abides in them. You’re gonna have to serve somebody – the materialists, or those who serve the Spirit that has created and animates and enlivens the entire universe! Jesus calls us to serve the Spirit in all people and all of creation.

It’s clear, says Jesus, there will be a cost either way. St. Paul depicts it as a battle to the Ephesians. [Ephesians 6:10-20] We need to put on “the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

One notes that within this metaphor of cosmic battle, the faithful are to put on defensive gear: a belt, a breast plate, shoes, a shield and a helmet. The sword is both a defensive and offensive weapon. But note just how odd this armor really is: it consists of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. Not at all like the weapons of the Greek and Roman gods who wield thunder and lightning bolts and tsunami deluges of waves!

To combat the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, not to mention “all the flaming arrows of the evil one,” we are to take our stand alongside the crucified and risen one with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Spirit and Word of God. This is Joshua at Shechem all over again. In fact, when we look around us, and more importantly look beneath the surface of things, we will find that we are always at Shechem. We are always needing to answer Yeshua: will we stay or will we go? Who will we serve? The Evil One? Or, The Lord? With what do we sustain the body blows of this world to take our stand with the One who took a stand against the forces and authorities of evil to give us life – true life. Life in the emerging new eon of Tikkun Olam: repair and healing of this world. Here. And now.

Bob Dylan was jeered at and booed when in 1979 he debuted a group of songs leading off with Gotta Serve Somebody:
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you may like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you have to serve somebody
You have to serve somebody
It may be the Devil, It may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

In the beginning of a two-year tour he had to stand strong in his faith against critics and audiences who did not want to hear what he had to say. His record company, Columbia Records, would not promote his albums. He and his band had to combat the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil, to simply make the same declaration that Joshua the successor of Moses and Joshua the son of Mary and Joseph had made millennia before him: You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It’s our choice. He calls us to abide in him and promises to abide in us. In these times, we too must stand strong in our faith and join with all those who say, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Which means treating the world and everyone and everything therein as incarnational rather than simply as material.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Tikkkun Olam

Tikkun Olam. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”  John 6:54
Talk about mis-reading a text. Or, better yet, domesticating it. To the sacramental Christian ear this sounds like: Take communion and you will go to heaven. To non-Christians it sounds like this: Take communion with us or you will not go to heaven. Or, If you want to get to heaven you better do what we do and become like us. Or else.

All of these construals miss the mark, and as such create much mischief. For all such interpretations mean to draw a line in the sand: either you are on the bus or you are off the bus as Ken Kesey used to put it. Either you are with us or you are against us. Become just like us or you are flat out of luck. Even a moments reflection on the whole narrative of John and the other three gospels would suggest that Jesus is not about such mischief.

Let’s review: this part of  John 6 began by feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish supplied by a young boy. People are impressed. Blown away. They want more of this. Jesus says you really don’t want more bread, fish or manna, you want to eat my body and drink my blood. Do what? they say! That’s a long way from bread and fish and manna. And offensive to our religious sensibilities as to what we should or should not eat and drink. And blood is at the top of the list of what ‘thou shalt not drink.’

To provoke them further, Richard Swanson suggests the text literally says something more like this:  “The one gnawing of me, the body, and drinking of me, the blood, has aeonic life.” [Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of John, p 356, et al]

That’s right. John’s Jesus says “gnaw” not “eat”. As Swanson points out, such a distinction exists in German as well as in the Greek: essen means eat, whereas fressen “describes a noisy slurping, gulping, gnawing, complete with growls and other noises appropriate to an animal…The use of this word is a signal: expect disgust and offense.” [Ibid 232]

And so we read, They kept fighting with one another asking just how does he give us his body to eat and his blood to drink? A more than reasonable question to be sure. And the natural question to ask. And any and all answers having to do with “he is instituting Holy Communion or Eucharist” are really no more than our, the Church’s, domestication of what appears to be an intentionally provocative text.

Further, I suggest that, as my old father used to say, we are putting the accent on the wrong syll-ABLE! The longer I wrestle with this text, and it has been decades now, I am only beginning to see that all this gnawing and slurping of body and blood is aimed at the final words, “eternal life.” Which Swanson translates more literally as “aeon,” or “aeonic life.” Aeon. Not a word we often use any more. And when we do we usually render it “eon.”

This becomes interesting when one learns that the Koine Greek of the New Testament uses the word “aeon” to render the Hebrew word olam. Aeon itself originally meant life, vital source, being, a period of time, or an age, forever, timeless, eternity. Olam can mean world or age. Olam haba can mean afterlife or world to come. More to the point, however, tikkun olam means to repair or heal the world, or repair and heal the present age, the present world, the present aeon. That is, we are not talking here about heaven as much as what we should be doing here and now.

Tikkun Olam. Consider that John in chapter six portrays Jesus shocking the crowd with what sounds like cannibalism and the kind of drinking of blood or wine that was common in nearby Dionysian temples and other dens of debauchery and idolatry – that is, those places abhorrent to Jews like Jesus himself and those with whom he is debating.

There is no question that chapter 6 appears to be using metaphors for Holy Communion or Eucharist. It is odd, however, that chapters 13-17 depict in five long chapters the Last Supper with no mention of bread or wine; no mention of body and blood. Not one mention of these common elements of our ritualistic rendering of the Last Supper on Sundays throughout the ages.

Instead, in chapter 13 John describes Jesus on his hands and knees washing feet. And insisting, as he does in chapter 6, that if you are to have any part of him and his life for your life you need to do the same for others – all others. You need to serve others. And he also gives a “new commandment”: Love one another as I have loved you.” “Love” in the Bible most often means to behave and act constructively and beneficially on behalf of others and the olam, the world. Tikkun olam: to repair or heal a broken world, a divided world, a world that hurts and itself is hurting. We don’t have to like others. We do, however, need to Love them in this Biblical sense.

Is it possible that John’s Jesus uses such jarring and provocative language to turn our attention not to the act of receiving bread and wine, body and blood, on a regular basis, but rather to focus our attention on why we are to do that: to remind us that like Jesus himself, we are to be fully engaged in the repair and healing of the world rather than contributing to its divisions and destruction?

Simply stated: Holy Communion, Eucharist, Last Supper is a time to gnaw on the most pressing challenges facing us as a people and the very world itself so that we might fully engage in tikkun olam. The Eucharist John’s Jesus describes is not polite and pious and well-mannered. It is a time for gnawing on the big questions and big challenges for our aeon, our age, and get up off our knees and do something about it. About all of it.

Is it possible that we have had this all wrong all this time? Are we meant to emerge from Holy Communion feeling better about ourselves and the world about us? Or, like those with Jesus, and Jesus himself, are we meant to get fired up, and yes, even angry enough, do go out and deal with the world’s, the aeon’s, challenges and do our best to Love others as Jesus and God loves us?

These are the kinds of questions that we gnaw on in our sleepless nights as we struggle to support a loved one who is struggling to stay alive. These are the kinds of questions we need to gnaw on as we see an overheating world literally going up in flames in some places and being drowned in floods elsewhere. These are the kinds of questions we need to gnaw on as we see ourselves being hopelessly further and further divided against one another? This is what it means to be a Eucharistic people: those who gnaw on the big questions, align themselves with Jesus and engage in continuing his work of tikkun olam in and throughout the world. Tikkun olam.

This is what I hear once I dig deeper into this text in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. What do you hear?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

This Is A Problem

So the Jews grumbled about Jesus, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” [John 6:41] This is a problem. This is the text given for consideration in churches around the world on the very Sunday that groups of White Nationalists, White Supremacists, Anti-Semites, Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and others gather in our nation’s capital for their Unite The Right rally. This is a problem, as passages like this in the Gospel of John have been cited throughout the Church’s history as justification for anti-Semitism and all claims of White Christian Supremacy, which includes justified misogyny and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions.

Most English translations render the Koine Greek οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι as “the Jews” 67 times throughout the Fourth Gospel. This is a problem. Sermons making “the Jews” appear to be enemies of Jesus has been used to justify anti-Semitism from the earliest days of the Christian Church, through to the Holocaust and in Washington DC today. The writers and editors of the Gospel of John would have no idea how this could have happened. For the word translated as “the Jews” probably means “Judeans” – those who lived in and around Jerusalem and Judea during the time of Jesus. This was a cosmopolitan mix of peoples from all over the ancient world, alongside those who worshipped in Jerusalem and lived in the regions of Judea and Galilee, and who knew themselves as Israelites. Further, arguably what we refer to as “the Jewish people” did not really exist until after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in the year 70ce, which was the advent of today’s Rabbinic Judaism. Long after the time of Jesus.

Even if we accept the translation “the Jews,” then one needs to understand that every single person and crowd depicted in John then are Jews. Jesus himself is buried as οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, “a Jew,” and he is portrayed as saying, “Salvation is from the Jews.” This is a conversation within Israel.

So this grumbling, or murmuring, or complaining crowd with Jesus is not some group of “others.” In the world of John, they are all descended from the mixed crowd of Israelites depicted in Exodus chapter 16: “And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” Like the crowd with Jesus, they too are complaining and grumbling. In both cases the issue revolves around food – and specifically manna, or bread that comes down from heaven. Bread that falls from the sky.

In John chapter six they are grumbling because inexplicably Jesus claims that he is the bread that falls out of the sky. But we know your parents, they say. You have brothers and sisters, they say. You could not possibly have fallen out of the sky! You are flesh and blood and got here the same way we all got here – from your mother and father. From the very beginning to this day, this is what the Jewish people do. Israel, as we all know, means “to wrestle with God.” Wrestling with God often means “wrestling” with one another. Discussing, debating and working over things like this is the very nature of what it means to be Israel! Murmuring, grumbling and complaining is all part and parcel of being in the community of YHWH’s people.

Note, John, like Mark’s gospel, does not know anything about a ‘virgin birth.’ John’s and Mark’s Jesus has a mother and a father. No doubt the crowd is also grumbling about the very fact that Jesus keeps appropriating God’s name for himself: “I Am.” This also is a unique feature of the Fourth Gospel – Jesus always saying, “I Am”: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the true vine; I am the way, the truth and the life.

As much as claiming to have fallen out of the sky like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, all Jesus’ compatriot people hear is “I am.” All the rest like Bread and Light and so forth may as well not be there because once they hear the words spoken to Moses at the Burning Bush as the name of God, that’s all there is to hear. And let’s face it, in this gospel John is making a fantastic claim from the outset that the Word, the Logos, was with God in the beginning. And the Word, the Logos, is God. And the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. God comes to dwell among us. And the people in the crowd are just having difficulty wrapping their faithful to YHWH’s heads around all this “I aming” all the time! How can God be flesh and blood like us? That’s absurd! So they murmur, and grumble and complain, and, as we progress through the sixth chapter of John, Jesus pushes right back. This is how Israel does theology.

Just as we are meant to read ourselves as “the disciples” in the other three gospels, we are “the Jews,” or better yet “the Judeans” in the fourth gospel. John and his community of Jews who followed Jesus would be appalled that his story of Jesus would be used to justify the kind of hate-speech, racism and anti-Semitism that have all misconstrued the quite natural and important debate going on this gospel. We have all been wrong to read any and all of this as the foundation of justified division. The crowd’s response to Jesus is blocked by a common-sense logic that takes on the character of certitude. It is honestly difficult to easily absorb what Jesus in John asserts. Yet, it is this kind of “certitude” on all sides of all such discussions that sows human discord and disunity. Such certitude is the enemy of true faith.

Would that generations of Christians would heed what Jesus really says here: it is God who attracts and invites people to this new way of being God’s people that sets about to dissolve barriers and differences between peoples. Everywhere we look in the gospels, Jesus announces that the world is no longer to be divided into us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure Gentile and Jew. The very name of God at the bush is a form of the verb to be: I am who I am. Or, I will be who I will be.” And this name is not to be pronounced – ever. Scrolls from the time of Jesus even write the tetragrammaton YHWH in a different form of script as a reminder: do not pronounce God’s name out loud. No wonder the people are disturbed at hearing Jesus saying “I am” all the time! For it sounds like that which is not to be spoken out loud.

The assumed pronunciation of the letters YHWH are believed to be an imitation of human breath – Yah – Whehh. If this is the case, God’s name is the first thing we say when we come alive at birth, and the last thing we say as we breathe our last breath. There is no Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, Buddhist way of breathing. There is no White European, African, Asian, Indian, or Latin American way of breathing. There is no young or old, male or female or LGBTQ way of breathing. There is no religious or scientific or agnostic or atheistic way of breathing. The very name of God levels the playing field. All living creatures on earth breathe that same name, just as we are all made of the same stardust that has been recycling itself throughout the known universe for nearly 14 billion years. From cave dwellers to astronauts, from one continent to another, we all breathe the same way the same breath.

It is a scandal and tragedy how the Church and others have used these stories in the Bible to divide rather than unite us as we already are united by simply breathing. And just this week the Department of Justice has announced a Religious Liberty Task Force. At its unveiling its task appears to preserve conservative Christian Values rather than those of all citizens and religious groups most under attack in the US: Muslims and Jews – both of which are Semites – and the greater LGBTQ community. Much of which stems from poor choices in translation and interpretation of The Bible like we see in John. This is a problem, and judging from what is happening in our nation’s capital on Sunday, and at DOJ, it is a problem for us all.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Where Is Your Mind?

“Where is your mind?” she would say as we lay on our backs on our yoga mats at the end of an hour session of yoga. Sally Rich would repeat the question every few minutes as we were silent, still, and focusing on what we had learned about ourselves and life through our bodies. How often I hear her voice repeating over and over again, “Where is your mind?”

There is so much competition for our minds. We live in a narcissistic environment in which everyone, every product, every politician, every news service, every entertainment option, compete for our minds every minute of the day. Estimates are that we see 300 to 3,000 commercial messages a day besides all the other stuff. We allow ourselves to be walking billboards with every item of logoed clothing we wear so people can see that my shorts are made by Lee, my sandals are Teva’s, my shirt is Ralph Lauren, and the list goes on and on and on.

We ought to be thankful that while he was in prison in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, a community of early Christians with whom he had spent time. “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” [Ephesians 4:1] Paul gives us an awful lot to think about. Where is your mind, he seems to say? On your calling?

One can imagine a modern-day Nathan the prophet, who confronted King David on his adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for her husband to be killed in battle, addressing the modern-day Church, the Body of Christ in all its multitude of divisions into denominations, non-denominations and every imaginable variation in practice, let alone non-practice of the very things Jesus orders us to do, like, say, love our enemies. Nathan might as well say to us, as he did to David, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” [2 Samuel 12:1-4]

Let us suppose Jesus, who had no place to lay his head as home, who had little to sustain himself and his companions and depended on the generosity of others, is the poor man in this story, and the solitary ewe lamb is his Body, the Church, sometimes called “the bride of Christ,” and that ewe lamb has been snatched up, slaughtered, divided into pieces and scattered to the far ends of the earth with each part in violent disagreement with the next part through centuries of argument and even warfare against one another. Who among us would not agree with David’s response, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” To which Nathan replies, “You are the man!” Most likely among the most important four words in all of scripture. They are meant for us. We are the man! Have we read, marked and inwardly digested Paul’s word to the Ephesians? Where is our humility? Where is our unity? Where is our patience with one another? Have we made every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace? Not some efforts, not a lot of efforts, but every effort? Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. Don’t act like David! Or else, you too are the man!
Where is your mind, she says? What efforts are we making? “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and untried. Even watered down, Christianity is still hot enough to boil the modern world to rags.”  [GK Chesterton]

Then there is Jesus in the sixth chapter of John. After feeding 5,000 people, off he and the boys row across to the other side to get some peace and quiet. But still the crowds chase after him and badger him with questions, because, we are told, they want to “take him by force and make him king.” [John 6:15] Jesus, of course knows the history of his people and knows that kings are not what they need and not what God wants for them. Just ask David as Nathan confronts him.

When did you get here, they say? What must we do? What sign will you give? What work will you perform? What work must we do? They talk about bread. They talk about the manna in the wilderness. Manna, which literally means, “what is it?” Jesus talks about them needing to “be faithful into the one whom God sent,” not the bread. That that is him is obvious to us. The literal sense of the text means to “be faithful into him,” which is different from the translation, “believe in him.” The Bible is not interested in belief, it is interested in faithfulness to God and God’s ways. And Jesus seems to say, to live in God’s ways we need to “live into” him. That he is the bread. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  Not just the church, but the world. They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

The sense of it seems to be that he is doing what he does and saying what he says all as a way of asking, “Where is your mind?” Is it on bread? Is it on spectacular miraculous feats? Do you want some kind of party tricks?  Where is our mind? To which Jesus says forget about the bread; forget about the 5,000; forget about kings; forget about Rome; forget about Herod; just focus on me; I am the manna; I am the bread. Be faithful into me. Lead a life worthy of your calling.

According to Richard Swanson in his book, Provoking the Gospel of John (p 225), when the rabbis “burrow into the significance and implications of the bread that was given to faithful Israel in the wilderness, they note that the manna is described as having many flavors: it tastes like honey, it tastes like bread, it tastes like cakes baked with oil. The rabbis argue that these different tastes are possible because the bread is miraculous bread, created by God in the heavens to meet the particular needs of anyone who eats it…in keeping with each [person’s] particular need – to young men it tasted like bread, to the elderly it tasted like wafers made with honey, to sucklings it tasted like milk from their mother’s breast, to the sick it tasted like flour mingled with honey…From the crowd’s reaction to the miraculous feeding in John’s story, it would appear that they found the sustenance suited to their own needs in the bread Jesus gave them, which makes them to be Israel (he who struggles with God) in the wilderness, fed by God upon whom they rely.” I am the bread. Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

“Where is your mind,” she says to me over and over again when I find myself distracted by all the other competing voices trying to drown out the knowledge that this bread is given; this bread is eternal; and this bread gives life to the world. Something all other voices and bread cannnot do. We must live into this bread if we are to bear one another with humility, gentleness, and maintain a unity of Spirit in a bond of peace and shalom – justice and peace for all persons. Sir, give us this bread always! It is ours for the taking. If only we might stop listening to the cacophony around us, be still, and listen to the one voice that asks, “Where is your mind?”