Sunday, February 22, 2009

Transfiguration, Anyone?

Readings: Transfiguration Sunday

In our Gospel reading we are treated to a remarkable incident reported by Mark. Mark has fewer lines of dialog for Jesus than any other Gospel. Mark is about action. Jesus did this, Jesus did that. Prophetic action that both foretold and made real the imminent coming of God's Kingdom.

This time it's the Transfiguration. Jesus' clothing becomes dazzling white, perhaps luminous, and he talks with Elijah and Moses. Then a cloud overshadows them and a voice says that Jesus is God's Son, the Beloved, listen to him. All of which serves to establish Jesus' bona fides as someone so special as to be unique.

It also foreshadows Jesus' transfiguration into a resurrected being after his crucifixion. Remember that people had trouble recognizing him after his Resurrection. Perhaps we are all to be so transfigured after our resurrections that, as perfected beings, rather than as the masses of contradiction that we now are, we would hardly know ourselves.

Something to look forward to, something to put these troubled times into perspective. Ultimately, our destinies are good. Ultimately it will all work out. There may be some bumps along the way, but ultimately it will all be very fine indeed.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, February 15, 2009

On Embodiment

Readings: Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

So Naaman is healed by Elisha, who doesn't even do him the customary honor of coming out to see him. From within his house, Elisha sends his servant to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times and he will be cleansed of his leprosy. Not an encounter, just a message of good news: do this simple thing and you will be fine.

Elisha and Naaman are two prominent personages. Elisha is the protege of Elijah who by this time had departed the world in chariots of fire, and Naaman serves a king of a neighboring land. Who goes to see whom and how they are treated are matters of political posturing. Naaman, the LORD is so much greater than you that his messenger will not meet you. He will only send you a message, and that will suffice. Naaman is healed, but he has also been put in his place by the ultimate power-play.

Jesus, on the other hand, has no social status, and neither does the leper who begs him for healing. There is no room for political posturing. Indeed, politics is excluded from this encounter. Jesus does not send him a message. He touches him and says, "Be made clean." It is at once a command, and the power to accomplish the command. By himself, the leper cannot make himself clean. But the touch and the word cleanse him. He is not passive - he is given power to become clean, told to be clean, and he becomes clean in response to the command.

The body is central to both narratives. What is healed is a visible bodily infirmity, and how it is healed involves what people do with their bodies - sending a message, or having a personal encounter involving sight, voice, and touch. Which brings us to the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in Corinth. Paul knows that embodiment is central to the human condition. He knows that God has made us, body and soul, and given us to ourselves. Seeking after the necessities and pleasures of the body, we give ourselves over to Evil.

But God has re-purchased us through the price paid by Jesus in his death and resurrection. So the converts in Corinth believe, as Paul reminds them. And that purchase involves both soul and body. Thus Paul admonishes the Corinthians, as he admonishes us to exercise self-control in what we do with our bodies. That neither we nor others exist solely for our own pleasure, but for the pleasure of God.

Through the ages this passage has often been considered in the light of sexual morality, which has undergone changes from place to place and time to time. I would like to enlarge it to all of our behavior, everywhere, all the time. I will restate it as this: Live your life so that more good things happen around you than bad.

That may sound easy, but it isn't. It takes more discernment of the difference between good and evil than we actually have. I don't know what you may want to do about that, but for myself, I pray for guidance and wisdom, and a bit of help now and then.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Haven't You Heard?

Readings: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Have you not heard? The LORD brings princes to naught.

Let's count a few of the recent ones, shall we? Number 1, Hitler. Oh, wait, he shot himself after millions of soldiers and thousands of pilots and seamen kicked the asses of his army, navy, air force, and civilian population, and leveled most of the buildings in most of the cities of his country. Number two, Stalin. Well, he seemed to die of something like old age after killing millions of Soviet citizens and initiating the Cold War by bringing the Iron Curtain down on Eastern Europe. Mao Zedong? Old age again. Pol Pot? Old age. Robert Mugabe? Getting older, still pending.

There are many forms of prayer, and one of them is lament. My lament is that we can take 20th and 21st century history as license to be skeptical about Isaiah 40:21-31. But I also notice that the Soviet Union, the old "Evil Empire," is no more, and that Communism as a secular religion no longer holds many hearts in thrall. Maybe the LORD lays the princes low after all.

Laurence Gonzales notes in his book, Deep Survival that most people who survive catastrophes pray, even the ones who are agnostic or atheists. The form of prayer called supplication, asking for help with our real needs, helps us face and focus on them, which helps us to survive.

So is it real or all in our heads? Does prayer work, or does it just help us work?

There is a story about the man sitting on his roof in a flood who prays to the LORD. Eventually, a boat comes by to rescue him. "No thanks," he says. I trust in the LORD to save me. Another boat motors by, and he again declines their offer, saying, "I trust in the LORD." A helicopter hovers over him, and again he refuses rescue, declaring his faith in the LORD. Eventually the flood waters cover his house and he drowns. When he gets to Heaven, he complains to the LORD that the LORD ignored his prayers and let him die. "No I didn't," says the LORD. I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

Maybe it's a matter of failing to see what is, because we are too focussed on what we want to be. We expect to be saved in some spectacular, supernatural way, rather than noticing that we are being saved in a ordinary, natural way. Maybe it's a matter of looking beyond our immediate rescue to see the bigger picture.

In Mark 1:29-39 Jesus heals people. The next day, there are still more people to be healed, but he moves on to the next town, because he is not about healing people. He is about getting his message out. Healing people establishes credibility and gets attention for the message. But the message is the main thing, and healing is a side issue. What matters is the message.

The message is the Good News that the Apostle Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23. To proclaim it, he does whatever is necessary, becoming one with all to whom he preaches. To the Jews he is a Jew, to the Gentiles he is a Gentile. He acts like he is rich or poor, as needed.

And what is the message? That the LORD takes pleasure in those who attend to him, who hope in his steadfast love. That those who have done evil will repay. That would be Justice, but then we would all be in trouble, because we have all done evil things, large and small. Someone else - Jesus - has stepped in and paid the price we would otherwise have had to pay ourselves. We are forgiven, but forgiveness did not come cheap.

Now Paul thought that you had to believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior in order to be raised to Eternal Life. As if there are lots of doors in the afterlife, and that you have to go through the right one - the one that Jesus is hiding behind - in order to get to Heaven. On the other hand, it could be that Jesus is behind all the doors, and that Hell is refusing or fearing to go through any door at all. Or it could be that Jesus doesn't hide behind the doors - he comes out to you and guides you through.

I don't know. I do know that the early Christians, like Paul and the other Apostles would not have willingly committed themselves to martyrdom for any but the first alternative. But were they right, or is some other alternative right? Or is the question itself beside the point? One fine day, usually before we are ready, we each of us will find out.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Prophets, Priests, Kings and Law

Readings: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Islam has the audacity to claim all the Jewish prophets as Muslim prophets, from Moses to Jesus. So in the interest of inter-faith clarity, I would like to use today's readings to consider how prophethood was and is viewed in Judaism and Christianity.

To begin, note that the archetypal prophet, Moses, was not a priest. His brother Aaron was the priest of the Exodus. This means many things, of which we can immediately extract one. A prophet is not beholden to any religious institution. No institution has the ability to appoint, select, approve or disapprove prophets. The prophet him or herself had better get that straight:

But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak--that prophet shall die.

Moreover, the religious institutions and the people in them are also warned:

Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.

The prophet has only one job: to speak or to do what the LORD commands - to be the LORD's messenger. And nothing else. In Judaism and Christianity, the prophet is not a general, not a head of state, not a priest, not any culturally sanctioned authority figure. The prophet is independent of culture and cultural institutions. In ancient Israel, the prophet came from among the people, and criticized the King, the Priests, and the people themselves.

These institutions were kept separate from the beginning, as commanded by the LORD. Kings were not Priests, and Priests were not Kings. The wielders of temporal power were kept separate and distinct from the wielders of religious authority. And both were kept in check by the prophets, who were kept separate from both.

If this same separation were observed in Islam, the Caliph or Sultan (political ruler), the Imams (leader of prayer), and the prophets would always be separate people. The combination of any two of them in one person would not occur, much less the combination of all three. But this is the innovation of Islam: all three were combined in the Prophet Muhammad. A careless reading of the Qur'an will retroject this combination onto the Jewish prophets. This is an error.

Prophets could innovate, because they taught with authority from the LORD. But they could do more than that. In our Gospel reading, Jesus commands an unclean spirits to leave an unnamed man. In our day, we might say he was a faith healer, who could cure psychosomatic disorders. Or we might say a lot more. While it is impossible to independently authenticate any particular miracle attributed to Jesus, it is quite clear that Jesus, his followers, his competitors, and even his enemies all agreed that he was a worker of astonishing deeds that included healing.

This was an innovation of Jesus: before him, it was common to associate the gift of healing with prophets, but it didn't seem to be such a large part of their activities.

Following Jesus, the Apostle Paul extends Jesus' innovation regarding the relaxation of purity laws about food. Yet, he does not force his innovation regarding food sacrificed to idols on those for whom it would become an obstacle to their faith.

And so, over our readings God goes from severe to lenient. It all depends on the context. There are 613 rules commanded by God in the Old Testament, many of which are now impossible to obey in modern times. It must be that many are set aside or modified, and many are simply forgiven us. Because we are not the same polytheistic rabble that Moses led out of Egypt. We are followers of Jesus, who summed up what it means to obey the LORD's commandments as:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. - Matthew 22:37-40

We might add, as did Micah, "And what does the LORD require of the but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

The Law is the Good Guide, a compass pointing in the direction of true faith. It is not to be used as a straitjacket, or as blinders, or as a cross upon which to crucify those who interpret it differently from ourselves.

Leia Mais…