Sunday, January 25, 2009

Refusing the Call

Readings: Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

To really understand the context of our Old Testament reading, you have to read the first four short chapters of the Book of Jonah. Jonah is the comic prophet. The LORD tells him to give a dire warning to Nineveh, a large Assyrian city that was a worship center for the goddess Ishtar.

At first, Jonah was having none of it. He knew what fate awaited prophets who told large populations what they didn't want to hear. A holy martyrdom was not one of his desires. So he took off in another direction, buying passage on a ship to Tarshish.

The LORD, however, calls up a storm that frightens the sailors until they figure out that Jonah is a prophet refusing his mission and throw him overboard. This is when "ol' Jonah got et by a whale." This threatens to be the end of Jonah, but it turns out he dies only metaphorically.

When Jonah gives in and sings to the LORD, the whale pukes him onto the shore, a metaphorical, if smelly, rebirth. I should point out that whale puke, also called ambergris, is so good at holding onto a smell that it is refined and used as a base for expensive perfumes. The Bible is silent on whether Jonah takes time to bathe on the way to Nineveh. When he arrives there with his warning, the people, much to his surprise, actually repent and call on the LORD.

Jonah is upset. That was too easy. He wanted to see some fireworks come down on the place. The LORD disabuses him of that notion, too.

In contrast to Jonah, Simon (later called Peter, which means "The Rock"), Andrew, and James all respond to Jesus's call "immediately," which seems to be the favorite word of the Gospel attributed to Mark. If they had thought about it, like Jonah, they might have talked themselves out of it. Following Jesus would be a rough road for them, forsaking family and tribe - the two things by which you live in honor/shame societies, to follow this itinerant preacher and faith-healer.

On the other hand, could they really have refused the call? Sometimes the LORD gives you no choice. Tag, you're it. It's the corollary to Isaac Bashevis Singer's statement that, "We have to believe in Free Will, we have no choice."

So what else is there to do but sing the LORD's praises like today's Psalm and go for it with gusto. After all, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the time may be shorter than we think. It's always a good time to get our priorities straight.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Call of the LORD

Readings: Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

"Hey, you!"

"Here I am."

The call of the LORD and the response of the whole person, simple and immediate. "Here I am," was the way you declared that you were not only present, but accountable and responsible. You declared that you were ready to do your superior's bidding.

But in the case of the young Samuel, "Here I am," was not enough. Samuel thought that Eli had called him. Eli instructed him to be more specific. The next time Samuel hears the still, small voice of the Lord, he answers, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Then the channel of communication opens, and the Word of God changes his life, and the lives of the people around him. The LORD calls Samuel to his calling, the mission in life he was always supposed to have, the mission that will truly make him all he is meant to be and to become. He is not called to be a reasonably respectable temple priest who never appears on the stage of history. No, he is called to be Samuel, the bearer of the LORD's news, both good and bad, the king-maker, the anointer of King Saul.

Sometimes being called out of your present life and into your new life is a fantastic experience for you and all those around you. Consider the case of Paul Potts, the shy, fat, young mobile phone sales clerk, who has the gall to appear on a tryout for a television talent show and declare that he is about to sing opera. The three judges look at each other as if to say, "Oh, God, I hope this won't be unbearably bad. And then the guy gives this performance:

By the time he's done, some members of the audience are giving him a standing ovation, some are in tears, and the judges are in slack-jawed wonder. His life and ours are changed from this day forward. He wasn't meant to be a sales clerk after all. He was meant to be an opera singer.

Sometimes being called out of your present life can lead through the doorway of death. Pat Tillman felt called to leave his career as a professional football player and become a Corporal with the United States Army Rangers. It was his way of responding to the challenge of Islamofascism to Civilization after the 9/11 attacks. He was killed by "friendly fire" in an ambush on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who dared to criticize the Nazis after they had taken control of Germany. Although he had escaped Germany, he felt called to return, to put his body on the line against genuine moral evil in his native land. He was eventually sent to a concentration camp, and when the camp was about to be liberated by the Allied invasion of Europe, he was executed. Some years before that, Bonhoeffer had written a book called The Cost of Discipleship, in which he said that when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

Sometimes physical death is the risk we are called to take, sometimes not. But we are always called to die to our previous way of life, to our previous notions of what is important, to our previous values. For all people of all cultures in all times and places one universal truth is that our values are not God's values.

The call to be all that we can be is the call to step outside ourselves, to enlarge our values, to risk who we are so that through us God may affirm who God is.

So Jesus says to Philip, "Follow me."

Into what adventure, into what peril? Into what glory? Philip has no idea, but he has a strong feeling that whatever the cost, this is the man, and this is the moment. He gets his body up and follows Jesus.

Simple, in a way, for Philip. All he has to do is get up and go. For us, following Jesus is not so obvious and so immediate. The nature of our call can sometimes be obscure.

But there are things we are called to avoid. Since we take God with us in whatever we do, we are called to avoid doing things we prefer not to drag God into. We are to avoid obsession with minor points of religious law and observance, to the exclusion of our awareness of God's presence. It was that obsession that got Christ crucified.

We are also to avoid the abuse of our own and other people's bodies, including the abuse of our sexuality. As the Apostle Paul says in his first (surviving) letter to the Corinthians, we are not our own. We were bought with a price - the price Jesus paid on the cross. And he paid that price because, God has known you better than you know yourself from before the foundation of the world.

This is effectively a commandment to be caring and respectful toward ourselves and each other. For that is how we are to be recognized by the world, that we have love one toward another.

Now you are called to follow your God. Where the adventure leads, I can't tell, except that ultimately we are promised Heaven. But the point is that if we shrink from the call, we will shrink spiritually, we will be less than we were meant to be. We will die inside. If we say, "Yes, here I am," and follow our call, we will have abundant life, even if it is in the midst of outward deprivation and suffering. For we will all surely die. The only question is whether we will truly live before we do so.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The LORD's Baptism, the Church's Touch

Readings: First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Water. God's breath moving over the primordial water. John baptizing in the Jordan. Paul at Ephesus.

Pure, living water (flowing from a stream or a spring) was used by the Israelites to make a mikvah, to take a ritual bath to cleanse yourself after experiences that made you ritually unclean. The two innovative things about John's baptism were that it cleansed you from your inner impurity (Sin) rather than an external impurity (say an unusual discharge of bodily fluid or an unusual skin condition) and that you did not administer it to yourself. John administered it to you.

Much to the embarrassment of the early Church, John administered baptism to his disciple, Jesus. When the Spirit descended and the Voice spoke, it appears that only Jesus saw and heard, and not John. In both Matthew and Luke, the imprisoned John sends messengers to ask Jesus if he is the one of whom John himself had said, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals."

Given that Jesus continued the practice of baptism, it is reasonable to conclude that he learned it from John. As Fr. John P. Meier argues in Mentor, Message and Miracles, the second volume of his series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, John the Baptist was Jesus' mentor prior to the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.

The early Church's embarrassment was that Jesus, the Son of God, of one being with the Father, truly God and truly man, had to learn anything religious from anybody, or worse, that Jesus would need to be cleansed of any sin. But we have just come through the Christmas season, in which we celebrate God's kenosis — God's emptying himself of his power, knowledge, and glory, and becoming a helpless baby. As Jesus, God had to learn almost everything from other people, including language. So why not learn baptism, this new twist on the mikvah, from John?

As for Sin, it's the down side of being human. Would Jesus be truly human if he didn't share in this aspect of the human condition as well? I'm not suggesting that Jesus ever said, thought, or did anything bad. But I notice that he often went off by himself to pray. The only reason we need to pray is that we are estranged from God. If we were at one with God, if God's presence suffused our consciousness, we wouldn't need to pray. We would have an always-on, DSL or high-speed internet cable connection from our souls to God. By comparison, prayer is a dial-up connection. Prayer is not always-on. You have to actually do it, and then you have to stop, to rest, sleep, eat, go to the bathroom, whatever. What I'm getting at is that one aspect (or is it a penalty?) of Sin is not being always-on with God. It appears that Jesus did participate in this aspect.

On this Sunday, we remember that Jesus himself was baptized by John for the forgiveness of Sin. It was an embarrassment for the early Church. But they couldn't cover it up, because it was too widely known. The disciples of John who had not gone over to the Jesus movement, who were still around after the Resurrection, made sure that it was. The early Church has Jesus submitting to baptism in order to set an example for all Christians to follow, but not because he himself actually needed it. So what?

Jesus answers his former mentor's question: Tell John that, "the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." Six signs of the Messiah, the Anointed One, or as we call him, the Christ. Not, it appears, the military genius who would throw off the domination of the Roman Empire. Just the Galilean Jewish peasant who, through his death and resurrection, would overcome the world.

But wait, as they say in those TV ads, there's more! When Paul baptizes the Ephesians in the Name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit (the breath of God that created the universe) came upon them. They spoke in languages they had not known, and they said prophetic things. Maybe they talked of future events, or maybe they spoke God's truth about what was happening around them. Whatever it was, baptism in the Name of Jesus accompanied by Paul's laying on of hands, had powerful after effects. It's almost as if Christianity were a spiritual contagion — a good contagion — spreading from person to person.

That points up another aspect of Church. Church is person to person, hand to hand. Church is touch, not just words, not just thought, not just reading, not just prayer. Your computer cannot baptize you and lay hands on you. Only another believer can do that. And that places you in the network of believers.

How connected is that network?

Say a human lifetime is the traditional "threescore and ten" or seventy years. Then Jesus was baptized about 28 lifetimes ago. Imagine yourself in the Cosmic Church, holding the hand of the person on either side of you, who holds the hand of the next person, and so on. On either side, you are only 28 people away from the hand that baptized Jesus, or from the hand of Jesus himself. Maybe only 27 people away from the hand of Paul. Overhead, the breath of God is moving, touching a person here and there. May it touch you as God wills.

Let the Gospel contagion spread from your heart, your words, your hands.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wisdom, Folly, and the Word Made Flesh

Readings: Second Sunday in Christmas, Year B

It's difficult to date Jeremiah's writings with precision, but it appears that he wrote our Old Testament reading shortly before, or perhaps during the exile of Israel's elites into captivity in Babylon. "Hear the word of the LORD, O nations... He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd a flock." Israel was not being gathered in, it was being scattered. Those living at the time might have said that Israel was more likely to be "taken in" by Jeremiah than gathered in by the LORD.

We now know that Israel was gathered in, twice. Once from Babylon, and again after the Holocaust. Our Catholic readings speak of Wisdom. Would it seem like wisdom to keep the LORD's commandments? That path has brought destruction. On the other hand, that path has also brought survival. Without the LORD's commandments, the Jews would have assimilated and ceased to be Jews long ago. If survival is the goal, then keeping the commandments is not just wisdom, but the only wisdom that counts. Only if ease, not survival, is the goal does keeping the commandments seem like folly.

Yet, as Christians, we proclaim what cannot seem like wisdom to the world. We proclaim the birth of Jesus as the birth of Almighty God into human form. Don't look to your army for rescue, don't look to wealth for ransom, look to this baby.

We know the stories of the nativity — the humble birth in a manger known only to the Magi and to the shepherds startled by a Heavenly chorus of angels. We sing of them in Christmas carols, and recite them in our traditional Christmas readings. They are similar to the infancy stories of the heroes of many cultures. The early Church celebrated Easter, not Christmas, which was a later invention by more than a hundred years.

Nevertheless, we celebrate these twelve days and justly so! But let us remember that without Easter's Good News — the resurrection of Christ, and in him, of us all — the Good News of Christmas is just another birthday.

And what a birthday! God goes completely underground, becoming one of us. And not by materializing full grown out of nowhere, but by being born dumb and helpless, just like the rest of us. God would experience what it is like to be in only one place at one time, with only the finite store of knowledge gained by growing up, and no greater power than that of heart, hand, and voice. God would never have been able to reach us by that path, if someone hadn't loved him, fed him, and changed his diapers.

Imagine the magnitude and terror, not of the Crucifixion, but of the Incarnation. One second God is Omnipotent and Omniscient, and the next God is a baby, who will never amount to anything if someone doesn't teach him his manners. That God did not abandon the Universe for 33 years do this, that God could still be God and also be Jesus, and that there could be the same separation between Jesus and God that we feel between ourselves and God — remember that Jesus often needed to go off by himself to pray — is expressed in the terminology "Son of God," which non-Christians find so unfortunate. But there it is, God going from the Power behind the Universe to having a short, rough life, with no special treatment or advantages, and having to communicate with his larger self the same way we do — through prayer. A fearsome thing to face, when you consider how hard life is. A sacrifice on our behalf, just to live, let alone to die.

All because God wants to be with us, not as a stranger, but as one of us. Which means that God puts on a human face, a persona, a personality. In particular, the personality of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. And the Word was made Flesh in secret. The writers of Mark and John didn't know the infancy stories surrounding Jesus — their accounts start with his baptism by John the Baptiser.

John, however, delays his narrative to meditate on the Logos, the Word, as if that concept meant something to his Greek-speaking Gentile audience. Today, that concept might be more familiar to a Muslim than to a Christian. In Islam, God says to a thing, "Be!" and it is. It springs into existence out of love for its Creator. The power of God's Word is such that it creates things out of nothing.

And that is John's obscure point. When God said, "Let there be light," that creative speech (or thought) was the core identity of the person Jesus. Just as spirit and breath are the same word in Biblical Hebrew, so the Divine speech is breath/spirit. In ancient thinking the spirit/breath was the essence of the speaker/breather. When a person breathed out his last breath, his breath/spirit/essence was gone.

So the Word of God is the breath/spirit/essence of God, breathed into God's creative command. Breathed into Jesus at the moment of creation, breathed through Jesus into all creation. "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being."

In the entire Bible, this is the most radical, over-the-top statement about Jesus. In his earthly lifetime, during his public ministry, he probably wouldn't have believed it himself. Only the second most radical, over-the-top thing about Jesus would have made this statement clear to him and his disciples — his Resurrection.

Now you look around the world and you don't see much Resurrection going on. People who die stay dead. What you see is a whole lot of Crucifixion. Not in the literal sense (except that Hamas has made it legal again in parts of the Holy Land for the first time since the days of the Roman Emperor Constantine), but in the figurative sense that people do a lot of awful things to each other. The Christmas story, the birth of Jesus, the Word made Flesh, looks like we are being "taken in," (deceived, fooled) rather than gathered in, for the Day of the Lord.

We can go on, attempting to explain ourselves to the world with fancy theology, but talk is cheap. That's why so much of the Bible, and especially Mark's Gospel, consists of actions. I suppose that we had better get out there and act like Christians, if we can figure out what that would be like. History shows us to have been a mixed bag so far in that regard. But we have at least one example.

So take these days and celebrate with family and friends. Or even with strangers. And then, be what you are called to be.

What is that, you might ask, and when were you so called? The writer of Ephesians (who may have been the Apostle Paul, or one of his followers) claims that you were called "from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love." That's probably the most radical, over-the-top thing the Bible says about you. Well, you're not holy, and you're not blameless. But you can love and be loved. That's a start. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to do the rest.

Merry Christmas!

Leia Mais…

Thursday, January 1, 2009

All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name

Readings: The Holy Name, Year B

In the ancient Middle East, one's name had special significance. Pharoahs of Egypt had their names carved everywhere, because the preservation of their name was part of insuring their immortality. Putting your name on something was a way of making it your own. Giving someone your true name was the equivalent of giving them your special confidence or trust.

The God of the Hebrew Bible was not promiscuous with His Name. After using several aliases, like El Shaddai, God reveals His Name to Moses, speaking out of a "burning" bush near a place called YHU (probably pronounced "Yahoo," later re-named Midian). The Name, of which we have only the consonants YHWH may have been pronounced "Yahweh." No one knows. The ancient Israelites did not pronounce the Name out of reverence for it. They did not "take the Name in vain."

But it probably was pronounced on the occasion narrated in Numbers 6:22-27, in which YHWH (which we render as the Lord) puts his name upon Israel in the form of the now familiar Aaronic Blessing. They are indeed His people, and he will be their God.

A majestic name, indeed, as our Psalmist proclaims, especially in its power to preserve God's people. In spite of two thousand years of diaspora, including more than one attempt to annihilate the Jews, Judaism is the oldest continuously practiced living ethical monotheistic religion. Apparently, it is God's will that his Law be kept as an unbroken, living tradition until He comes.

And now, for us Christians, God takes on another name, Yehoshua. It means "YHWH helps." The Latinized form of the Greek rendering of the name is Jesus. Another rendering, closer to the Aramaic, Y'shua, is Joshua. The Christ-child was named after Joshua, the general who commanded the Israelites' conquest of the Promised Land after the death of Moses. Clearly a name with great expectations attached to it.

The names of his earthly father, mother, and four brothers (James, Joses, Jude and Simon) all "hark back to the glorious days of the patriarchs, the exodus, and the conquest of the Promised Land," according to Fr. John P. Meier, in the first volume of his opus on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew. Meier concludes that these names indicate that Jesus' family may have been involved in the first century reawakening of Jewish national and religious identity, and the growing popular sentiment to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel free of Roman domination. And so they named their first-born son after Joshua, as commanded by the angel. A name with great expectations, the name of a conqueror.

Yet this conquering name is bestowed upon a tiny, vulnerable baby. A baby who cried, as all male Jewish babies cry, at his circumcision, when he was officially given his name. As the writer of Philippians states, God "emptied himself" of his Glory, taking human form, humbling himself even to public humiliation, scourging, and crucifixion. Theologians call it kenosis.

To honor/shame cultures, like those of the Middle East both then and now, kenosis is a scandal. A god who would do such a thing just can't be God - it's too dishonorable! There is nothing like it in any other religion on earth. There are traditions of gods becoming incarnated as humans. But all of them were high-born, nobles, kings, somebodies. No other religion claims its god was born a peasant, grew up as a laborer, and was executed as a criminal. A seditious, peasant, laborer named, in seeming irony, after a conquering hero.

Now the Roman Empire is dead and gone. Ironically, its language, Latin, is only remembered because it was preserved by the Christian Church, the church founded by the followers of this peasant who was executed by the Roman Empire. After all, Christianity eventually became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, with a liturgy in the language of the common people, Latin. In that way Jesus, the crucified one, did indeed conquer the world of his day.

But Christianity as a state religion is a contradiction in terms. The LORD's kenosis in becoming this peasant child, living the life he lived, dying the death he died, and being resurrected - all this turns all notions of status, honor, power, glory on their heads. It does more than just set Christianity apart. It sets Christianity against - against culture, all cultures of all peoples of all times and places. The Church may build culture, but the Church also critiques culture.

This separation of Divine from earthly power is very old in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It started with Moses the leader, and Aaron the high priest. It continued when God granted Israel a line of kings: beginning with David, there was always a king, a separate priesthood, and often one or more prophets who were separate from both. The king led, the priests kept the temple rituals, but the prophets spoke for God, often criticizing both priest and king.

Now the Church has become an institution, or a set of institutions, valuable institutions that in many cases have stood as counterweights to the governmental powers of nations and states. Institutions that have given help to the oppressed. And sometimes institutions that have done the oppressing. But Christianity itself is not an institution. It is a spiritual insurgency, constantly injecting itself into the world, like God injecting himself into the world almost clandestinely as the baby Jesus. The baby named, "God Helps."

And the Church is in institutional crisis. Roman Catholicism is beset with a dearth of priests, and scandals among the priests that it has. Mainline Protestant churches are losing members. In too many places, the Church is even persecuted, as in the Christmas attack on a church in Congo. Maybe the Church as an institution needs to team up with Christianity as a spiritual insurgency, and sponsor networks of home churches. To get small to become great, as did our LORD Jesus. To "have love one for another as I have loved you," if I may quote our Savior.

But then, that would risk the Church being taken over by its own spiritual insurgency. It risks the high being overtaken by the low. It risks having multiple centers and sources of power within the church. The upside is revival, the downside is dissension. And there are so many fires of internal church conflict burning in our day already. What can we do?

We can call on that lowly, ironic name that is above every name, the name that promises, "God Helps," the name of Yehoshua the Anointed One, Y'shua the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. The name of the one who conquers our sin and sets us free from it. The name that we value above every name because it raises us up on the Last Day to be with Him. And we can return to the world, like the shepherds, as ambassadors for what we experience.

Now may the LORD bless you and keep you,
May the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you,
May the LORD look upon you with favor, and give you peace.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who lifts high the lowly in spirit, amen.

Leia Mais…