Archive for July, 2012

The Apostle Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

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If you’ve been following the lectionary text with care, you are aware that considerable time has been spent over the past couple of weeks thinking about the kings of Israel, the shepherds of Israel and the Davidic line. Would there be a king to follow in David’s lineage who would finally deliver Israel? Reading the text this morning the story of David and Bathsheba can have you wondering how it was that David was seen to be such an ideal king. But over time he was imagined to be that figure. In that tradition we find hopeful signs again and again in Israel’s history that such a king will arrive. You see from the text that was just read from John Chapter 6 that that hope was expressed at the feeding of the 5000. When they come to want, and want to make Jesus King. You can imagine that that hope, that aim, is very much following along with the tradition of David being the ideal king.

In this series of lessons on apocalyptic literature or the Apocalypse Den as the series is called, I’m interested in featuring the apostles Paul’s apocalyptic outlook and trying to give insight into how Paul understands David as a king within his apocalyptic frame. You may have noticed that Romans 1:1-7 was read a bit ago outside of the lectionary text for this week. I had this text in the reading because this text is the only place in the undisputed letters of Paul where Paul mentions Jesus as a son of David and emphasizes that he was in David’s lineage, according to the flesh. I want to flag two other items in the introduction to this sermon, that come from this opening text and then I want to see where this leads us in the study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. He says that this is the good news concerning Gods son, “Who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” I want to flag, that this is the good news for Paul and it has to do with a kind of power Jesus had due to the resurrection.

Very often when we focus on the death of Christ we focus on the cross itself and not on the larger event of his death and resurrection. Paul places considerable weight on the resurrection and there is a good reason for that. It is hard to be able to place Jesus in a Davidic line if he simply goes to Jerusalem and dies at the hands of the Romans, it hard to imagine how that fulfills the hope of Israel; to have a short ministry and to be killed on a cross. Paul’s experience of Jesus was not as a disciple who followed in his footsteps but is one who had a vision of the risen Christ. And that vision of the risen Christ brought Paul face to face with Jesus as one whom God had raised. That allowed Paul to transfer his Davidic hopes on Jesus, from a Jesus who conquers the Romans in Israel to a Jesus who is involved in a much larger cosmic drama, in an apocalyptic frame. Another way of putting this is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are not the last act. They’re not the last act, they are part of a drama that fits in a larger apocalyptic frame.  Now I’m going to stray briefly out of the letter to the Romans to read a text from First Corinthians that lays out this larger frame real quickly and then I’ll be back in Romans to illustrate it. This text I’m about to read comes from First Corinthians 15:20 and following, “But now has Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

Again, often when we think of the gospel or the good news, we think of Jesus dying for the sins of the people, as an atoning sacrifice. I’m suggesting to you that Paul has a much larger drama in mind, where Christ resurrection is a resurrection with power, which is the beginning of a conquest to overcome Adams’s fall. The only other place where this Adam and Christ contrast is taken up by Paul is in the letter to the Romans. In Chapter 5 of the letter to the Romans Paul uses this Adam-Christ contrast as a means of thinking about how the death and resurrection of Christ means that the dominion of Christ has broken into the realm of Adam so that sin is able to be challenged as well as death. And as you will recall from the First Corinthians text the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Understanding this larger frame allows us to recognize why the righteousness of God, in Romans, is such a big issue for Paul. For Paul, God has great responsibility for this creation; great responsibility. And the fulfillment of this larger drama that I’ve just described is a fulfillment whose weight rests, for Paul, on God. And whether or not that is fulfilled is a judgment on God’s own righteousness. This is the theme that is strongly emphasized to the letter to the Romans but one that many modern readers have missed because we have associated the righteousness of God so closely with atonement out of the Protestant tradition and the Reformation.

Highlighting a couple of important texts out of Romans, let me draw your attention to Romans 1: 16 and 17, two verses that have been thought to be the theme of the letter to the Romans since Martin Luther’s time. Paul writes, “ For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who is righteous shall live by faith.” You see the phrase here “in the good news, or in the gospel, the righteousness of god is reviled.” This is a text in which there is considerable amount of debate about translation. The word faith, in Greek pistis, is used here a few times. It is becoming much more common among scholars of the Apostle Paul’s letters to translate this as faithfulness rather than faith. So that that verse reads, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faithfulness, Christ faithfulness, for faithfulness, human faithfulness; “As it is written the one who is righteousness will live by faithfulness” This sense that Gods righteousness is being fulfilled in the coming of Christ with the result that humans are faithful, places more weight on human responsibility than was typical out of reformation theology.

Listen to that text in relation to this next one, Romans 3: 21-26” But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” And now again this emphasis on the righteousness of God is based on this larger drama where God is to be righteous in fulfilling the redemption of the larger creation. You can see that larger picture in Romans, especially in Romans 8:18 and following. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” for Paul while we are still caught between Adam and Christ, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” The striking thing about this text in a document, the letter to the Romans where Paul is laying out this larger drama, salvation for him is not simply the atonement of the sin of individuals it is god reclaiming creation from the dominion of sin dominion of death. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, which is why redemption of our bodies is featured here in the way it is. This looks backs to the Adam story in Genesis of the fall where you see here, where it says “The creation itself was subjected to futility”. Are you thinking of a text in Genesis 3, “Cursed be the ground because of you.” So that not only are human beings sinful but the creation itself was subjected to futility as it groans and labor pains looking to share in the redemption of human beings, For Paul the creation itself became a less hospitable place for the good, and a more hospitable place for evil.

Hence for the resurrection of Christ, Christ leads a campaign according to First Corinthians 15:20 and following in which he puts all the enemies under his feet and the last enemy to be destroyed is death. And in Paul’s apocalyptic outlook, death is not the cessation of someone breathing, it is a cosmic power. In the same way that sin for Paul in the letter to the Romans is not this individual misdeed of a person, but is a cosmic power that exercises dominion and leads ultimately to death.

So where is the good news in this? Well, you saw the last text I read ended with this note that we have hope.  Because the redemption of our own bodies is tied up with the redemption of the creation and God’s own righteousness is at stake in fulfilling it. For Paul there is reason for great hope in that. That comes out most clearly in the next paragraph of Romans 8 “We know that all things worked together for god for those who love God who are called according to its purpose.” I don’t think that all things work together for good every minute of every day, but that this future projection that God has staked God’s own righteousness on, is something that we are a part of and can depend on. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son In order that he might be the first born within a large family and those whom he predestined he also called and those whom he call he also justified and those whom he justified he also glorified. “

If I might break in and argue with Paul, “But Paul it has been a long time. It was a long time for Israel, this period of time where all the shepherds failed Israel. Recounted in first and second Kings with such brutal frankness has simply been time continuing. Paul, how do you keep confidence?” He writes, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” He is going to give a little list of possible terrestrial things that might separate us, “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Now he is going to start listing some cosmic threats, tapping that apocalyptic tradition again, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” This is the good news according to Paul, Paul’s Davidic message, Paul’s son of David, is the one who makes this happen. Thanks be to God.

 

~Dr. James Christopher Walters

Associate Professor of New Testament,

Boston University

 

Woe to the Shepherds

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

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Good morning.

The series of text that have been read this morning from the lectionary are in many ways remarkable. My guess is that there are a number of political leaders throughout the world who are not enjoying the lectionary readings today. Given what a sharp judgment they offer on Israel’s leaders and ask us to consider it as we grapple with leadership in the modern world. It’s a remarkable collection of texts.

In Mark 6, the text that was just read, Jesus sees a chaotic crowd of people and imagines them to be like sheep without a shepherd. This taps a very very long tradition in Israel’s scriptures where Israel time and time again is scattered lacking a shepherd. The text I read to you early from Jeremiah is the text from which this sermon’s title comes, “Woe to the shepherds,” the first four words from Jeremiah 23:1-6, “Woe to the shepherd who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture says the lord.” These shepherds are the Kings of Israel, and Jeremiah is following the fall of Judea and the exile of God’s people to Babylon. Ezekiel presents the same sort of critique in Ezekial 34, even harsher. You’ll recall that this is not a new theme in the biblical text. Beginning with Jeremiah or Ezekiel as a matter of fact, even a casual reading of first and second Samuel and first and second Kings should remind you that these lengthy narratives are by in large a judgment on the failure of Israel’s monarchies. Over and over again, we are told of a failed reign, followed by a failed reign, followed by a failed reign. The political disaster that was the monarchy in narrative form is judged as a moral and religious failure and hence ultimately a political failure.

The story continues as we are in an apocalyptic series this summer and you might recall this is rather a large theme in apocalyptic literature as well, if I might trace it down briefly. What we have is the fall of Judea the Southern Kingdom, and five, maybe six, of the Babylonians in exile and Jeremiah and Ezekiel offer their judgment on the shepherds of Israel. Following that exile there’s a return to the land and rebuilding of the temple. Ultimately the land falls under the control of the Talamies and the Salutes. Following Alexander the Great’s campaign in the east, there is a revolt against Salute rulers that we know of as the Maccabean Revolt, where new shepherds were put in power–followers of the Maccabees, the Hasmoaneans. But things go no better, as a matter of fact, after decades of Hasmoanean rule, where Israel is being ruled by its own Kings again, it’s almost as if it’s a relief when the Romans come to town. Oh and then we have the Romans and by now the misery of failed leadership takes on cosmic proportions. Its not just as if a king looks after the king’s own interest rather than the interest of the people, it’s not just that the game is rigged among political insiders. Oh it’s worse. In an apocalyptic world view, the game is rigged in cosmic proportions, where the rulers are not simply rulers living out their own excesses and greed, but they are the puppets and the pawns of dark spiritual powers. If you’ve worked your way through the Book of Revelations, the Apocalypse of St. John, you’ve read the story told in violent and brilliant color. As the Roman Empire is held up for judgment and its shepherds are accused. The beast from the sea, is the Roman Emperors and the power of the Roman Empire comes from Satan himself, that’s the apocalyptic tale of Revelation 12 and 13. It’s a dark story. If you’ve read much political history, it’s a dark story.

The revised common lectionary encourages us to read Psalm 23 in dialogue with Jeremiah 23. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. We just worked our way through Psalm 23. In Psalm 23 we imagine that it is God who is the ruler, God is the shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest  my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever

It’s the universal longing of humanity, the universal longing, to be led to green pastures, for our cups to overflow, for goodness and mercy to follow us. It’s the path that Israel’s Kings were to lead Israel on, but far too often it was not the path that had been promised. The experience of failed leadership is an experience of terrific suffering, of victimized populations, of barrenness. You see if the 23 Psalm if its read in reverse it’s the opposite of the yearning of God and God’s people.

Bashar Al-Asad is my shepherd, I shall always want. He makes me lie down in barren pastures:  he leads me beside dry riverbeds, he destroys my soul, he leads me in the wrong path for his own sake.

You see Psalm 23 is not just that little pastoral text we learn to recite when we were children in church; it is a powerful statement about what the right leadership offers and should do for people. And hence the failed kings of Israel and the failed kings of today, whether in the Middle East and Syria in the case of Assad or in this country, results in people being led to barren pastures. One of the most pronounced themes in all of scripture is the theme we are talking about this morning. And we continue to be haunted by poor leadership; we continue to be haunted by barren rather than green pastures. It’s an old story.  The apocalyptic tradition is so pessimistic it loses hope that this can be righted. That it can be righted in the space of human history and imagined that God has to right it at the end of human history, God has to make it right in the end, that is the message of the Book of Revelations isn’t it. It’s not my desire this morning to encourage us to that level of pessimism, but even from this story to gain some hope, to work for greener pastures, to work for still waters, for goodness and mercy to follow us as opposed to judgment and wrath. But, it’s a hard path and we are foolish not to have our eyes wide open.

For the past 36 hours I have found myself wondering time and again why I agreed to preach this weekend, especially after the horror of Aurora, Colorado raised its head. A story I’m sure you know by now. A 24 year old neuroscience PhD student walks into a midnight showing of the latest of Chirstopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy movies, with four guns: two glock 40mms and an AR-15 assault rifle and a 12- gauge shotgun. He walks into that theater in battle armor from head to foot; his assault rifle has a drum magazine that holds 100 rounds. He bought all of this legally, within the last 60 days. He shot 70 people. The Washington Post reports this morning that apparently the assault rifle jammed so that all 100 rounds were not able to be dispersed. Now, I understand we have a gun debate in this country, I know something about the gun lobby, I grew up hunting on a farm in Alabama. Whether or not Mr. Holmes should have been able to purchase those four weapons, I’ll leave open for a moment, but I want to suggest to you that he should not be able to purchase a magazine that holds 100 rounds. It’s illegal in the state of Massachusetts but it’s legal in every other state but eight. The gun debate in this country is a failed conversation. More should be done to protect the sheep.

May it be so.

 

~Dr. James Christopher Walters

Associate Professor of New Testament,

Boston University

Heavenly Places

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

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Good morning.

It is a tremendous privilege to be here with you again for a second Sunday. I’m truly enjoying my trip back to beloved BU, again from rural Maine. My parents get back from their trip tomorrow so I had yet another week of mucking barns and caring for chickens and keeping track of gardens in this heat, which we’ve had up in Maine as well. It’s lovely to be back and to be a city girl for the day and to be here among you with my dear friends new and old. Nice passage right, I mean did that have to come up during the lectionary when I was preaching. Ok anyway here’s the sermon.

It’s nearly blueberry season in Maine again which is just about my favorite time of year. My son Leander took the kayaks over to the little pile of boulders we call Blueberry Island this past week. And sure enough the first blueberries had just started to turn that lovely purple blue that promises a delightful morning of blueberry picking from the canoe followed by blueberry pancakes made in a cast-iron pan at the camp, wonderful. If I could pick what heaven is like, I would defiantly choose Blueberry Island on a calm hot summer day in late July.

But Blueberry season also reminds me of another less happy blueberry story, one that points out that we are not quite in heaven, yet. I usually tell this story for a laugh because really if we weren’t laughing we would have to cry. So I guess I’ll tell it that way here to.

One summer, the last summer my grandma Jean visited Maine before her death, blueberry season came early. For my mom blueberry season means a flurry of activity. She bakes pies, she makes muffins, she boils mason jars and puts up blueberry jam for the winter. As she would explain to my grandmother, if there are blueberries, all other activities must and will stop. There will be a full day in the kitchen. My grandmother however could not abide with this nonsense.

You see Grandma Jean had left her own farm behind as a young teenager and never looked backed. Her family lost their farm in Iowa during The Depression, piling up all their worldly belongings on the back of their old Ford and trekking across the country to seek a new life in California. These were hungry times and the family barely survived. I can only guess at how wrenching this loss must have been for my grandmother, she dealt with it and with her new life in California by refusing to have anything to do with farming ever again. Her cooking reflected this decision; she never met a can of cream of mushroom soup that she did not like. And the idea of spending a day making jam seemed preposterous to her.

So there was my mom in the kitchen boiling jars and picking through the flat of blueberries as she removed the little leaves and green berries that inevitably get caught up in a blueberry rake. And there was my grandmother sitting at the kitchen table and offering a running commentary about the fruitlessness of making homemade jam during the modern age when you can just as well go to the grocery store and by blueberry jam for three dollars.

This argument masquerading as a discussion and hiding within it decades, if not a lifetime of mother-daughter pain and frustration finally ended with a daring repost of the part of Grandma Jean. “But Mom,” my own mother said, “I like to make jam and besides tonight we’ll have a fresh homemade blueberry pie.” “Blueberry pie,” Grandma said, “I hate blueberry pie.” Ok then, no blueberry pie for Grandma and no love and approval for Mom who had somehow and perhaps not entirely accidentally chosen to live on a farm and to therefore emulate her grandparents rather than her mother. As for me observing this whole exchange, I just tried to make myself disappear.

Thinking about blueberry pies, blueberry season, and the heavenly place that is Blueberry Island this past week while also hearing these lectionary readings brought this family fable to my mind. Reminding me about how unlike heaven even earthly heavens can be, especially once people and families with long memories get involved. And really we were and are such a lucky happy family. At the end of the day we love one another, we show up for one another.

By contrast, as I’m sure you noticed, the Herods were indisputably a mess, as Mark points out in this long digression on the death of John the Baptist. Mark is a decidedly ungenerous critique of the Herodian family, although few surviving writings have much that is positive to say about the Herods and the lengths they took to secure their Roman sponsored dynasty.  Nevertheless, in this story the gospel writer goes through exceptional lengths to embellish a set of unsubstantiated rumors about Herod Antipas, Herodias and an unnamed daughter that upon further inspection don’t quite hold up. But never mind the facts, by the time Mark was written the Herodian dynasty had lost much of its influence, crushed, Mark implies, by the weight of its own corruption. And he certainly does give us a tabloid shocker version of their history complete with a degraded, sexually suspect puppet king, a wicked bloodthirsty and conniving queen, and a beautiful young princess willing to do just about anything to please her father, or her stepfather-it depends on which manuscript one is reading-and her mother, or her stepmother, see above, including luring her father into executing a righteous man, Mark’s hero John the Baptist. Who needs a hot, thrilling, and violent summer blockbuster when one can simply read today’s gospel lesson.

In terms of facts here’s what we do know. Herod Antipas had John the Baptist executed. Herod Antipas was married to Herodias who had been previously married to his brother, another Herod whom Mark confuses with Phillip the tetrarch of an area north of the Sea of Galilee. Antipas himself had also been married to a Nabateaian princess who may or may not have been named Thalamus. According to the historian Josephus Herodias had a daughter named Salome by her first husband, though the young women in this story may also be a daughter of Antipas from his first marriage named Herodias like her mother or stepmother as some manuscripts of Mark suggest and as the NRSV would have it. At any rate Herodias’ daughter, Salome, she really did have a daughter named Salome really did eventually marry Phillp, the tetrarch another half-brother of Antipas sometime around 33 C.E.

Whatever the details of this sordid family history might be, and however fishy Marks version the gospel story makes one point clear the dynastic aspirations of the Herodian family were not only fruitless they also produced nothing but trouble, either for those sympathetic to Jesus and John the Baptist or for their own heirs. Indeed their attempts to secure their privileged position both at home and with their Roman patrons came at a high personal and familial cost; dividing brother against brother, mother against daughter, and wife against husband.

I’m not a huge fan of how Mark chose to deliver this message today. Did he really have to provide so much ammunition for future purveyors of erotized Orientalizing representations of the Herods? Oscar Wilde had a lot to work with. Did he really have to take the oh so obvious narrative tact of blaming political corruption on out of control male lust and the wilds of a bloodthirsty women? Tell me something else. But clearly all was not well, either in Judea or in Galilee during the latter Herodian period, and no amount of political, ideological, or familial intrigue had improved the situation. Both John the Baptist and Jesus were killed, at least in part, because of the extremely difficult political circumstances there. And by the time Mark was writing another of their followers had certainly been caught up and killed by the disastrous rebellion that changed the Judean and Galilean landscape forever. How sad that this little earthly slice of heaven, the chosen land of pomegranates and fig tress and honey, had become and still has often remained a home not of peace and harmony but of conflict and pain. Did the Harrods know what they were bargaining for when they sought to displace the Hasmonean, those heirs of the brothers Maccabees who more or less ruled the area before they did. Did they sometimes regret their palaces, their power, and their influence? I guess we’ll never know, because beyond their building projects and the coins they minted what remains of them are literary depictions that are largely unfriendly. For obvious reasons the gospel writers really had nothing at all nice to say about them. And larger public opinion, Mark suggests, was also openly critical.

Whatever led to the beheading of John the Baptist, the Judean and Galilean public were outraged, as the rumor about John’s possible resurrection suggests. It seems that this rumor was in fact historical and it followed the following logic: since Antipas had unjustly killed a righteous man he would certainly be haunted by the act. He was doomed to face what he had done, when the resurrected John justly returned to accuse him and give him his due. Part of what the theory of the resurrection could do for first century Jews, many of whom believed in it long before Jesus ever entered the scene, is promise that horrific murders would be avenged and that in the end God would not allow the righteous to suffer. John had won in the court of Judean and Galilean opinion. And Antipas would not easily live his decision down.

Our epistle lesson in its own way refers to this promise of resurrection, extending it to include all of Jesus followers and emphasizing not the revenge that resurrection offers, but the many good gifts that accrue to those who are faithful to the hope of its coming.  As was also the case with the Herods, dynastic succession is in view in Ephesians. But in this case the dynasty envisioned is described as a gift of god, rather than as a result of human effort. Writing to a wide circle of Paulean Christians, Ephesians promises that he followers of Jesus can rest secure in a divine heritage given to the whole adopted family. We have been chosen since before the foundation of the world, Ephesians writes, we are wanted children, destined for adoption, though Jesus Christ, and we have attained an inheritance given to us by divine will. Our belonging is made visible with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit which serves as a sign of the coming fulfillment of our family-centered hopes.

The relatives of Herod may have gone through extreme lengths to keep their wealth in the family to secure their rather tenuous position as Roman client-kings. But according to Ephesians, the followers of Jesus have simply received every spiritual blessing from the only ruler who truly matters. One family’s dysfunction led to the death of John the Baptist, another adopted family’s confidence in a purpose granted them a home in the heavenly places while they awaited the redemption to come.

Reading these visions of heaven the last two weeks, I am struck by how often images of family and belonging appear. Defending his apostolic credentials to the Christ followers in Corinth, which is the context of the story of the man who viewed heaven that we read last week, Paul calls himself their parent proclaiming that he would gladly spend all that he has for the Corinthians, wouldn’t any parent do the same? In his letters his regular labels for them include, holy ones, brothers and sisters in Christ, and children of God. And he concludes his second letter with an admonition to agree to live in peace and to greet one another with a kiss, just like any happy family would. Ephesians takes the family metaphor even further; believers are recipients of a divine heritage written in God’s will as it were, and they are a part of God’s household knit together in love. These visions of paradise and disclosures of the heavenly secrets lead both writers to exhort their audiences to find a way to  embody and live out that most elusive of human arrangements, the happy harmonious family.

The problem of course is that happy harmonious families can be less like paradise for their members then Paulean metaphors suggest. As sociologist Cindy Patton points out, the love identified with family feeling can turn out to be, “an insidiously structured form of obligation, rather than an expression of mutual recognition and regard.” One must submit to the point of view of the family and thereby serve the family’s needs, an obligation that can come at a very high cost for some members. Just think about the scenario Mark was imaging for the daughter of Herod or Herodias, whether or not these events happened as he described them. A young preteen aged girl, the Greek word used to describe her suggest that she had not yet hit puberty, dances before her father and as a reward for pleasing him is asked to participate in a plot to execute a troubling critic of her family’s regime and in a particularly horrific way. Her love for her family requires that she debase herself and become a party to murder. Or what about Herodias passed off from brother to brother, well actually from uncle to uncle, so that family wealth can be retained?  What about Herod the Great’s sons Herod Antipas and Phillip, the tetrarch who had witnessed the execution of their three elder brothers on the order of their very own father? Or what about the followers of Jesus in Corinth that knew a little family of about a hundred believers already competing over which of their leaders could boost of the best heavenly vision? How long did it to go from new believer in Christ to competitors for God’s and the rest of the adopted family’s affection? And don’t even get me started about David who I’ve managed to avoid the last two weeks. Now obviously these are extreme examples of what families, actual or adopted, can do to one another, and to their children in the name of preserving the family name. But perhaps that is the point. Whatever heaven is like, and whatever paradise looks like, surely those who belong there do not and cannot behave like this. Surely God intends something else for God’s children. Surely there is some other way. Surely, it is possible to intimately love one another without causing one another harm.

When my mom and my aunt Donna were little girls my Grandma Jean would make them matching dresses by hand. On the wall in the little room in the farm house where my son sleeps when we visit there is a picture of the three of them dressed in matching outfits.  My grandmother is so sophisticated with her elaborate necklace, velvet top and perfectly coifed 1950s hair. My aunt Donna and my mother are wearing coordinated velvet jackets and white button-up shirts with peter pan collars. My aunt, the elder of the two girls has her hair combed to look just like her mom. My mom, the little one has her hair parted on the side; all three are smiling the broadest smiles you can imagine. All three are so lovely, so beautiful really, that my heart breaks. Why couldn’t my grandmother honor my mom’s choice to live on a small farm in Maine? Why can’t my mom forgive my grandmother for being, well, so very very, difficult? Why did it take more than thirty years of buried pain and stony silence for my mom and her sister to speak to one another again? Does the loss of an ancestral farm in Iowa have to reverberate forever, if that’s what caused the whole mess? Why couldn’t Grandma Jean have pretended to like blueberry pie?

Blueberry season in Maine is the perfect antidote to apocalyptic visions of doom and destruction; with every purple berry gracefully adorning every improbable blueberry bush, a bush that has somehow eked out its survival on a pile of granite boulders in the middle of a wild pond., a tiny delicious bit of heaven arrives to greet the summer once again. My sons and I paddle out to see the bushes just like we have every year since they were born. We watch the king birds chattering to one another as they flit from branch to branch of the stunted hemlock trees on the Island. Their young have newly fledged. If we are lucky the loon comes back, sometimes with a baby on her back. We spend the morning glad to be alive, glad that we too belong to this wild pond and to one another.

Adopted by the world, secure in the spiritual and material blessings that have marked my own life, I think about the family of which I am a part and the families I have chosen. What sort of heritage am I passing on? To whom do I belong? I suspect that I have made my own mistakes, that I too have served as a reminder that we are not yet in heaven. I am confident that I have. To paraphrase Ephesians, I may be destined for adoption and have forgiveness through Christ and have the grace that God has so graciously extended to me. In the meantime I am human and to be human means to fall and participate both knowingly and unknowingly in the fullness of all our human heritages for good and for ill. Nevertheless I too have a vision of paradise. In my paradise Grandma Jean loves blueberry pie. Her red hair, a color that never faded sparkles in the sun. And she sees my mom and loves her for who she is. In my paradise I would also like to imagine that Herod Antipas, Herodias and Salome are together with John the Baptist dancing even now.  Mark’s battles are no longer mine. In my paradise, having cast off the sin that clings so closely and found myself blameworthy and blameless, both at the same time, I discover that we are all family and I am very very glad.

May all of us know that we really do belong

May we be glad for the blessing of being here.

And may we all find a way to enjoy a delicious blueberry pie.

Amen.

 

~Rev. Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust

Associate Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins,

Boston University

A Hometown Prophet

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

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Good morning,

It is a wonderful privilege to be here at Marsh Chapel with some many friends and former students and collogues on this warm July day. I am especially pleased to be in Marsh Chapel and be reminded about how much I really do love being a professor at BU, as much as I’m enjoying my summer vacation.

I’ve been living in Maine the last several weeks, helping my parents out with their farm and trying to finish some writing projects which are going so-so. As some of you may already know, living in rural Maine means driving, a lot. It takes a half an hour to get to the nearest book store, grocery store, or home improvement store and even longer if I want to access certain, probably unnecessary luxuries urbanites like myself have come to depend upon for our daily maintenance. So I’ve been driving more than usual which means I’ve been listening to more radio than usual most often MPBN the public radio station in Maine. Can we just stop for a moment to say thanks to MPBN, WBUR, and public radio in general? I would not survive summers in Maine without it. As a result of all of my radio listening, I am highly informed. I am also however, getting tired of listening to prophets. Between call-in shows and news programs, I’ve heard just about every sort of reaction to the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare by now. Especially from those running for president, but also from just about every other sector of our society as well: journalist, politicians of every strip, law professors, the proverbial man on the street, pundits from one think tank or another; all of whom who are busily spelling out what will certainly happen next, what this means for our future. A great number of the voices on my radio are not unexpectedly prophesizing doom in the form of government intervention, lack of access to medical treatments, a sicker population, and even death panels, which have reappeared under the guise of purported set of policymakers eager to pull plugs and deny life support. For some, Obamacare is yet another sign of the decline and fall of American civilization. Others however are glad for anything that gets us closer to healthcare for all, even as they spell out the limits and unintended consequences of this new law.  As for me sitting in the car listening to the radio, I just find myself happy that first Romneycare and now Obamacare have made it possible for our older son to remain insured under our policy until he is 26. Now that he is 23 this really matters to us as a family. I am also hoping that this change will allow a friend of mind with a pre-existing condition to find a way to get out of a truly soul-killing situation at work while keeping health service for himself and his family; that is my prayer. If Jesus were consulted, perhaps he would agree that healthcare coverage is a good thing. After all, as Mark says in our gospel lesson today, though Jesus could do no deed of power in Nazareth, he healed a few sick people anyway. Healing people seems to have been among his priorities.

At any rate, driving around rural Maine thinking about our sermon series this summer and working on a chapter about the Book of Revelations that is due by the end of July, which swiftly approaches, I find myself in prophesy overload.  What is it about American culture that makes prophesies of doom so very popular? Why do we love to envision dystopia instead of utopia in our movies and on our TV shows? Do we really need to destroy New York City one more time, and do we need to interpret events as sure signs that further misery must certainly be on the way. Must our public prophets be so fixated on telling us what’s wrong with the world, or our Christians recount once more how near God’s judgment must surely be. Must we be kept in a constant state of fear and discouragement? I sometimes think the drip drip drip of bad news and prophetic warnings about a worse future has done more to alienate and isolate us one from another than it has provoked change for the better or helped us find a way to be a people of faith. And when this never-ending stream of bad news is combined with assurances that the day of finally initiated destruction and punishment are inevitable, don’t we risk putting ourselves on the side of the very things we supposedly hate? I mean really, why bother to fight the tide of suffering if God is going to destroy everything anyway? Shouldn’t we just concentrate on saving the righteous few while leaving the rest to their fate, however horrible?

I am also worried that today’s gospel lesson doesn’t much help me in my current malaise, at least not at first reading. After all in Mark, Jesus instructs his disciples to shake the dust off their feet if the village they visited didn’t welcome them. This testimony to them, or against them as the NRSV has it, appears to contain within it some sort of ritualized threat. Some manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark take the point further, adding the warning, truly it would be more tolerable for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than it will be for that city. By shaking the dust of their feet the disciples were saying, “good bye, good riddance, and good luck to you when God’s judgment comes, you’ll be sorry.” Is that what Jesus was trying to tell the residents of Galilee then? Listen to me and my disciples or else? I think it is possible to read Mark’s gospel this way and certainly people have, including those who are even now claiming that the end will come in this generation, that God’s punishments are swift and sure and that only those who are righteous in those particular ways that current prophets of doom understand the term, will be saved.

I would like to call our attention to another feature of Mark’s story, the verse, “And he could do no deed of power there except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Isn’t that curious? Jesus was unable to perform miracles in Nazareth, really? From Mark’s perspective and ours today in this chapel, Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and the son of Man, so surely Jesus could do whatever he wanted to do. I checked Matthew’s version and he appeared to have the same reaction I did, when he read Mark. Editing the problem away, he simplified the verse to read, “Jesus did not perform many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”  Of course, from Matthew’s perspective, Jesus could have performed miracles, but he chose not to since he was annoyed. But, that’s not what Mark says, according to Mark, Jesus could not perform miracles, he was not able to do it, though he did manage to heal a few people. Then Mark adds, “And he was amazed because of their unbelief.” So the NRSV that’s printed in our bulletins this morning reads, “unbelief,” but I would like to amend that translation of the word pistis to suggest instead, lack of faith or unwillingness to trust instead. As I often tell my first year Greek students, pistis and its opposite apistis were doing words, a fact that sometimes lost in our words belief and unbelief. Perhaps a Protestant emphasis on inward transformation, that transformation that takes place when one believes in one’s heart in Jesus Christ, has helped us to forget that in antiquity and maybe today pisitis, faith, trust, loyalty, and also belief, involved doing things like getting up and displaying our loyalties in our daily actions.

Back in the day when Mark was written, one could have faith and show loyalty to one’s city, one’s gods, one’s family, and even the emperor. This pisitis was clearly visible and was supposed to be seen by all. It seems to me then that the apisitis, the lack of faith of the people of Nazareth offers a possible key to Mark’s interpretation of events that transpired there. The rejection of their hometown prophet by the people of Nazareth in my reading was related not to some lamentable failure in their part to believe to assent to a set of doctrines, inwardly, within their souls, but to their inability to trust in and therefore show loyalty to the good news that Jesus wanted not only to share but also to do, to do with them and for them. Because that’s what Jesus was up to, good news. It’s the gospel of Mark remember. According to Mark, before Jesus arrived in Nazareth he expelled a demon by the name of Legion from a truly miserable man who lived among the tombs of Gerasenes, he cured a women who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and as a result had lost everything to doctors, who couldn’t heal her. We know something about that in our culture. And Jesus had raised a twelve year old girl from the dead. If those are not a series of acts that bring good news I don’t know what would be.

Whatever wisdom Jesus was teaching in the local synagogues, that wisdom that led his former neighbors to marvel at him, I suspect that his words and his actions had more to do with healing, health, and hope, than with end times judgment, God’s wrath, and the current list of reasons why we should be filled with despair. If so, then the problem in Nazarath was that Jesus’ former friends and neighbors could no longer hear and enact good news in their daily lives. And using their familiarity with Jesus and their family as an excuse it was this inability of act on the basis of renewed hope that prevented their hometown hero from performing a deed of power while he was there. But, why should they believe in good news when the drip drip drip of bad news had taught them to expect the worst. I can just imagine how it would be hearing every day of the latest abuses of the Roman prefect, the latest conflict between the local Galileans and the local Judeans, the latest Roman tax hikes, the empty fishing nets, the daily March of scarcity, illness and want, you name it. Perhaps bitter experience had made it clear to them that expecting the worst is the more sensible and frankly the safer way to live. So someone is ill, a cure can’t be found and she has lost everything to doctors, what else is new. Ok many are struggling to find food and shelter and a living while others have so much more than they need. Show me a village, or a city, or a nation where that isn’t true. Yes, to adopt Marx’s terms, Nazareth as we know was burdened with a foreign government quite understandingly it didn’t much like. I can just imagine Jesus’ neighbors asking him, “Do you really think that demon or those legions can be expelled?” Believing in good news, acting like good news can and will maybe happen is really just too painful. You of all people should know that mister hometown boy.”

If my interpretation is right, then Jesus could not perform a deed of power in Nazareth because no one was willing to play on his good news team. His fellow Nazarenes were simply too attached to their despair to allow themselves to even desire a change for the good and to lend themselves to making good prophesies come true. And who could blame them, but in a world were even good news, my son Axel’s access to healthcare, my son Leander who survived a broken neck because doctors at Brigham and Women’s knew what they were doing, my dad’s heart attack didn’t kill him last summer, and my friend with the pre-existing condition who can dare to imagine a better life. When even this good news can get drowned out by threats of doom and fears of the bad things that will surely come, I would like to be on the side of good news this morning. The good news we can actually proclaim. The good that Jesus actually did by healing even a few. I might go so far as to argue that the threats of doom and the insistence that we only see gloom keep us from envisioning deeds of power that are actually already in our grasps. Those positive changes for the better however small, that help us live, honor our neighbors, and remind us that God made the world for good.

Listening to Moth Radio on my way back from the mountains last week, told you I’ve been listening to a lot of radio, I heard the most wonderful heartfelt story by Alif Shfalk, a Turkish writer struggling with writers block and her journey through it. I know about writers block. She described her sense, after a devastating earthquake shook her neighborhood, that she had once again had lost faith in what she was doing. Her heart is like the pendulum, she said, that swings back and forth between a necessary optimism that enables her to keep writing and this other darker loss of faith she could no longer believe that her writing, her work, was worth much of anything. In face of larger works in the world, really why bother? Yet, at some point she noticed something else, a difficult neighbor with whom she could finally share something, enemies on the block with whom she for a moment became friends. And the small ways that people manage to reach out to one another out of empathy. “That’s what we writers want,” she concluded, “Something to remain, a spark of empathy and the possibility of a change.”

Trusting in the possibility of some good news is hard, or at least it has sometimes been hard for me, and I’m probably the most privileged person I know. Big deeds of power however, seem to require that we risk it. And by big deeds of power I don’t mean flashy predictions by prophets who purport to know exactly what God has in mind, or who can boost of their fitness at biblically inspired detective work. Paradoxically the Markian Jesus tells his disciples the gospel he is sending them to profess requires not flashiness, but a walking stick, sandals, and a single cloak. This gospel requires vulnerability and a willingness to trust even our very lives to the wellbeing of strangers, come what may. This gospel, Paul adds, is made evident in weakness, however powerful and amazing our visions and startling our revelations, even of paradise. The prophesy I think the Markian Jesus is trying to get us to hear, is not one of doom, but of the daily good news of the many blessings we all have and the possibility that maybe, somehow, we can do, be, and know good news ourselves. And so as that pendulum swings toward why bother, or worse, self-satisfied predictions of the doom of someone else, I think Jesus is saying stop it, listen, look, notice, even now I am healing a few people; even now a spark of empathy can ignite; even now good news remains possible.  Yes, there will be bad news, I’m sure I’ll hear more of it as I continue to drive around the state of Maine. There’s no use pretending otherwise, but do we really need to hurry it along? Why not be harbingers of hope and allies of health and people who wish well for others? Yes, bad things are happening, really really bad things and hiding our heads in the sand will not make them go away. Yes we can rest assured that more bad news is coming tomorrow and frankly the weight of sin and suffering is and will continue to be heavy, but whatever the final bad news will be assuming that such finality must and will someday come, our daily job, our daily task is to be people of the light, if we can possibly manage it. As the Psalmist put it “We are to ponder God’s steadfast love and wonder at the beauty of our beloved city.” As Mark suggests, we are to go out on our journeys ready to encounter one another, openly assuming the best from our neighbors, even when experience has taught us bitterly to expect the worst. Above all we are to anoint with oil those who are sick, not to tell them that they deserve the misery that’s coming to them.

On a beautiful summer day in the state of Maine, in a flash rainstorm at the top of Mt. Washington, after a long climb with friends and watching people be kind to one another, perfect strangers meeting in the general store, on the T, in the subway in New York, and even on the roadways going back and forth from one place to another, all I can think is, who wants all this doom anyway? Can we please stop wanting it? May we err today on the side of good news? May the drip drip drip of daily sorrows fail to win the day and may God’s true prophets speak to us of hope and wholeness and refrain from wishing for the worst.

Amen

 

~Rev. Dr. Jennifer Wright Knust

Associate Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, Boston University

Ring the Bell

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

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Sermon text is unavailable at this time.

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel