Archive for August, 2012

Who Hopes for What he Sees?

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

John 6: 56-69

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Jan and I stood alongside our burial plots last Wednesday afternoon.  (I trust it will many decades before we need to use them!).

Our post retirement home is nestled in a long forgotten, old village cemetery in Eaton NY.  Eaton is the northern tip of Appalachia, economically and culturally and geographically and historically.  Its rural poverty has come rather lately to its 250 year history, but is as harsh and weather beaten as any such rural immiseration.  Its country culture receives some odd jostling from Colgate University and Hamilton College, both a very few miles away.  Its spot on the edge of the great cliff of the Allegheny plateau places it at 1200 feet above sea level, with lakes and great lakes 1200 feet below within a thirty minute drive.  Its history includes nearby Peterboro, a town built in the 1850’s by Gerritt Smith for freed slaves, some of whose descendants live there still; and the Oneida Community next door, whose three hundred Perfectionists lived ostensibly without sin and within complex marriage for thirty years, 1845-1875; and the shores of Gichigumi the shining big sea water, near the wigwam of Nicomis, daughter of the moon, the homeland of Hiawatha, 1200 feet down north.

Our burial neighbors will include some born before the Revolution, some several who died in the Civil War, many veterans of the wars of the 20th century, and one fellow, who was interred in 1962, but in whose youth fought with Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish American War.  One wonders about the ongoing work of mowing and trimming, and moreso about the volunteer leadership needed to keep managed a venerable, small graveyard.  Our hostess told us there had been no burials this calendar year, to date.  They bury until November 1 and then after May 1 or as soon as the ground thaws in the spring.

Jan said she liked the spot.  I volunteered that this was good since we would be there for a while.  Actually, when you amortize $400 per plot over the course of eternity, the cost is really very little.  The rent is too high across the country, but not in the Eaton Village Cemetery.  Of course I had sometimes mused about having a bit more upscale social location, going forward.  Maybe something on the East Coast—Chatham, Castine, the Cape, North Hampton—something with an ocean view, and ‘east coast standards’ of comportment and attire and presentation.  Jan reminded me that I am a Methodist preacher, a country preacher at that, and can not afford ostentation, neither fiscally nor spiritually.  Besides, she counseled, see all the beauty here…Yes, see it, and hear it…

Beauty is heard as well as seen.   We jog past this place so I know what the music of that meadow brings.  The rooster, or more than one, as dawn breaks.  The cattle, feet away, lowing, as cattle do.  The wind in the evergreens and the two Oak trees.  An occasional auto, a more occasional truck, a very much more occasional airplane.  Visitors with crosses and flags and flowers and tears.  And then the sound of nothing, of silence.  Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name.  In the deep winter the deep silence is sonorous.  I think of the fourth months of real winter, and the covering, the bed cloth of four feet of snow, and it is well with my soul.

Let me reveal that I begin this way for a discreet homiletical purpose.  I preach as a dying man to dying men, as Luther counseled.  More so, our series of summer sermons has addressed hope in the face of death.

Apocalyptic language and imagery in the New Testament is a language of hope in the face of death.  The cosmic resurrection of Christ and the life he offers is a word of hope, spoken into the teeth of cosmic, universal, individual, personal death.  All of our sermons this summer have been very human attempts to announce this unseen hope, embedded, deeply embedded in New Testament apocalyptic language and imagery.

Sometimes, at our worst, we move through life with the supposition that death comes to others, to other people and peoples.  It something that befalls others.  This very human daily supposition is not limited to young adults, to this new wave of temporarily immortal 18 year olds soon to wash up upon the BU beach.  Nor is it limited to distracted, over technologized middle aged parents, trying to keep a household afloat amid the Great Recession of our era.  Nor is it limited to the mature, or the very mature, we who should probably know better.  Time flies?  Ah no. Time stays.  We go.

A pastoral digression. I assign you an exercise for this week or some week.  It is patented, informally, by me, but I give it freely.  It is the RAH OOPS formula for preparation for post retirement.  O: write your obituary, at least a first draft which others can redact as needed.  O: compose your funeral order of worship with hymns and texts and participants and memorials.  P: select a photograph you do not mind being used in days of grieving, in the newspaper or in the funeral home.  S: locate your last location, your place and manner of burial or cremation.  Place these materials, in the same box or safe deposit box in which you already, already, have placed your DNR, your living will, your will (you may choose to remember Marsh Chapel in your will by the way), and any other significant materials.  How your family will thank you! But, as you are mortally aware, all of this preparation, good as it is, is not good enough, not enough.

For all of this preparation lacks the main thing needed in the face of death, in the face of the power of death William Stringfellow so ardently and artfully described, and at the grave, at the end.  What matters at last at death is hope.  Hope.  The best thing about apocalyptic, about Apocalypse Then, is hope.  If someone asks you in the grocery store what you heard this summer at Marsh, or from Marsh, you could say, “They preached on the theme of Apocalypse Then, and I heard a word of hope.”

Which brings us to the conclusion, the END, if you will, of this summer’s Marsh Chapel national preacher series on the theme ‘Apocalypse Then’.  I am personally and deeply grateful to my colleagues here at the Boston University School of the Theology for their leadership and voice and presence this summer.  They gave two summer Sundays.  They gave hours of preparation.  They gave the best of their hearts and minds.  They gave a willingness to treat the hardest material with the finest of skill.  Their very presence brought us hope.  It happens that we all share an interest in New Testament Apocalyptic.  With you I thank Dr Jennifer Knust, Dr James Walters, Br. Larry Whitney and Dr. David Jacobsen for their preaching this summer.

So what have we learned?

Apocalyptic theology in the New Testament is a language of hope lifted in the face of death.  At least, this is how I would conclude and summarize our announcement of the Gospel this summer.  Apocalyptic followed the prophetic hope for justice on earth, and preceded the late platonic hope for life in heaven, building on the former and preparing the way for the latter.  We need them all, to some degree.  The prophets hoped for a righteous earth.  The Gnostics hoped for a glorious heaven.  The apocalyptic hope in the face of death is hope ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, a hope for the apocalypse of heaven on earth.  As Paul wrote, ‘Hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience’. (Rom.8)

The first Sunday, we recognized the delay of the parousia, the failure of the primitive apocalyptic hope of the earliest church, and its origins in Jewish Apocalpytic.  We saw how this material is often consolation literature, developed among those outcast, those downtrodden, those forgotten, the least and the last and the lost.  Apocalyptic gives voice to the hopes of the disinherited: “ We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—an age by the way that was supposed to have seen ‘the end of history’!—out onto a far-off falsehood, like the raptures of fancy, fiction or facsimile—in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life:  negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through.

“Most especially—places like Marsh Chapel with a rich heritage of hope must also expect of ourselves a rich offering to the future that comports with our inheritance, to whom much is given, from him much is expected—we are not free to neglect a common hope.

Here is our freedom.  Pray daily for the hope of the world.  Think creatively about the hope of the world.  Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope.  The future is up to you.”

The second Sunday, we saw in the very word, revelation, which is rendered apocalypse, the inbreaking of God’s love in earth, as when Paul said he had received the gospel by ‘apocalpyse’, by revelation.  Apocalpytic gives voice to the hope of faith. Why…we will become a beachhead in the invasion of God’s new creation.

Here: a New Creation.

Here: a community that listens.

Here: a gathering of mutual concern.

Here: people of glad heart.

Here: people of happy passion.

Here: not I must I shall, but I may I can

Here: love divine, all loves excelling….

The third Sunday we saw again how communal and common the ancient eschatological material was in its casting and framework.  Apocalpytic gives voice to the voiceless, those left out by the reigning regime, including those left out of decent health care in our time (those unfortunate enough to live in a state other than Massachusetts!)  “Yes, there will be bad news, there is 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.”

The fourth Sunday we were treated to a careful interpretation of the beheading of John the Baptist, its apocalyptic foreground and background, its history in theology, and its comparisons to contemporary, common, family dysfunctions.  The horizon of hope remains, the hope of blueberry pies cooked and enjoyed against a better series of familial arrangements than currently we experience.

The fifth Sunday we were taught again about the profound pessimism out of which Apocalyptic comes, the despair at seeing anything finally righted or rightwised in a crooked world, and the shout of anger and courage faith kindles in such darkness.  Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage, wrote Augustine.  Apocalyptic gives voice to the anger and courage present in those who despair, including those injured by handguns in this country, and those willing to question the pervasive dangerous presence of guns (300 million) in our land.

The sixth Sunday we were shown the emergence of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel, and the centrality of his apocalyptic hope for the rest of his work, especially that found in his magnum opus the Epistle to the Romans.  Apocalyptic gives voice in the face of death to the power of God’s overcoming grace.  Resurrection is resurrection…from the dead.

The seventh Sunday we explored the horizons of endings and beginnings, and how the apocalyptic world view both aids and distorts our contemporary vistas. Apocalyptic gives voice to thinking about the environment, about nuclear energy and weaponry, about choices and decisions in the global community.

The eighth Sunday we were reminded of the crucial influence across the New Testament of Apocalpytic, which one called the ‘mother of Christian theology’.  It’s not nice to neglect mother, we determined!  Apocalpytic gives voice to honesty about real evil, in real time, from the Holocaust to Ruwanda: “Mark’s Jesus offers the beginning of his apocalyptic gospel.  It is a song in darkness, a seed cast across a dark landscape.  Yet, amidst the darkness, Mark’s gospel speaks…a promise of dawning light.

The ninth Sunday we listened again for the gospel in the hour of Jesus’ Crucifixion:  the dark hour in which the light of God’s presence somehow continues to shine: “Mark’s gospel of an apocalyptic cross is therefore not just an orientation to a past, but a costly opening to a future, a new age, that draws us in our lives forward even in death’s deepest shadows.”

We have both the freedom and the responsibility at Marsh Chapel to ring the bells of learning and piety, of mind and heart together, in a way that will inspire and guide another generation by the best insights of the faith we share.   We have aimed high and stretched out.  One year on new dimensions in ministry, another on leadership in the Methodism, another on Darwin and faith, another on worship and preaching, another on church renewal, and now, Apocalpyse Then.    You will find these sermons published in our annual e-magazine MOTIVES, located on our website.  While there are few University pulpits remaining across the country,  your radio support, your generosity, the ongoing support of Boston University, and the hard labor of my staff and colleagues here continue to allow us to treat hard topics with tough love.

Apocalpytic is a song of hope, a hope of heaven on earth, a divine hope.  It asks of us a certain height, a certain inclination, a change.  It moves our self, our being to a new center, one in the green pasture, the great meadow of hope.

In the year of my birth, 1954, Howard Thurman, then in his first year as Marsh Dean, gave lectures at what was to become my alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan.  These later were collected in a book, THE CREATIVE ENCOUNTER.  With his minimal Christology, tangential connection to Paul, perennialist inclination against narrow religion, and distrust of large portions of the biblical tradition, Thurman would at first seem an unlikely interpreter of apocalyptic material.  Yet his typically digressive, imaginative reflections, that winter’s OWU Merrick lectures, at one point touch the marrow of our theme for this summer.  Thurman is trying to examine and explain the religious experience (notice his phrase).  I wonder you have had such?  Its measure for him is not unlike the apocalyptic hope lifted this summer:

“There is a point at which for the individual the surrender of the self in religious experience gives to the life a purpose that extends beyond one’s own private ends and personal risks…What happens then when there is a new center of focus for the life?  The answer to that, in part, is this.  At such a time as the new center becomes operative, the individual relaxes his hold upon himself as expressed in the self-regarding impulse.  A different kind of value is placed upon his physical existence.  Death no longer appears as the great fear or specter.  The power of death over the individual life is broken… The individual operates from a new center with all that is derived therefrom.  The expression is the alteration of his private life growing out of a new value content.  God has become the custodian of his conscience.  This is of great significance.  The center of loyalty allows meaning for the personality; the shift is from some primary social group loyalty…to loyalty to the command of God. (73-81, passim, THE CREATIVE ENCOUNTER).

I wonder.  Are you sensing the divine generosity inviting your one life to circle around a new center?  Prayer will guide you.  Even suffering will perhaps prod you.  A moment in worship may lift you up. A friend, a word, a kindness, a note, a sunset, a kiss, a laugh—these are intimations of religious experience that are not religious.  But real they are.  I wonder.  Is your center shifting?

I believe, in a way I cannot understand in full or articulate in full, that God’s love outlasts death, is stronger than death, and overpowers death.  But is something I do not see.  It is something I sense, though I cannot see it.

But who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see.  And wait for it with patience!

 

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

The Apocalyptic Cross in Mark’s Gospel

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

Mark 15:33-41

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

Today is the next to last sermon in a series of sermons called “Apocalypse Then.”  You have been listening patiently for about a month and a half to sermons about the meaning of the apocalypse and apocalyptic texts.  So today with this next to last sermon I can say definitively:  “the end is near!”

Apocalypse then has been a series of sermons devoted to understanding what apocalyptic texts meant in their own day as a prelude to hearing what they might mean to us today.  A series like this is needed because we live in a culture fascinated by the more lurid and spectacular features of apocalypses:  the four horsemen of Revelation, rapture texts and being left behind, or the cosmic conflagration of Armageddon.  What we have been uncovering here is that apocalypses have influenced a lot of New Testament literature:  including Paul’s letters and the gospels.  In fact, to speak of Jesus as resurrected from the dead is already an apocalyptic claim.  Over the last weeks, the series of sermons has helped us see past this spectacular facade to see how apocalyptic has affected the way we speak of good news.

Last week I made the case that we need to think carefully not just about what apocalypses portray, but about what apocalypses do.  Apocalypse comes from a Greek word meaning to reveal, to unveil.  The proper focus of apocalypses, and of related apocalyptic writings, is to reveal something about God and God’s purposes.  In fact, what they reveal about God is usually disclosed as a way of gaining a transcendent perspective on some present difficulty or anomaly.  It can be tempting to read the more spectacular features of apocalyptic writings and fixate on their more vivid characteristics:  seven seals, the end of the world, or beasts with mysteriously numbered names.  We miss the point spectacularly, however, when we do not get at the purposes of apocalyptic writings.  That purpose goes deep:  apocalypses do what they say, they reveal—and they reveal God amidst difficult circumstances.

So today, with this sermon, we turn not to an apocalypse, but a writing profoundly influenced by apocalyptic way of thinking:  Mark’s gospel and the death of Jesus in chapter 15.  I intend to recount the death of Jesus and highlight its apocalyptic character.  Now this may seem counterintuitive.  We usually associate the death of Jesus on the cross with Lent.  Jesus’ death is about my personal sin, my guilt, and Jesus’ heroic, sacrificial endurance of pain and torture for my sake.  For as long as we can remember, this Lenten orientation to Jesus’ death has always been personal and had no trace of this cosmic end of the world stuff.  The cross is Lent, and Jesus’ death for me; but apocalypses—well, they are something quite different.

But as soon as we start looking closely at our text, Mark 15:33-41, Jesus’ death does not really conform to expectations.  And this is just as true today, as it was in the ancient world.  In fact, Yale Prof. Adela Yarbro Collins helps us by comparing Jesus’ death here to other kinds of death in the Greco-Roman world and in the religious orbit of early Judaism as well as the Christianity that emerged out of it.

Prof. Collins points out that the Greco-Roman world placed much stock on stories of the noble death.  The classic example is the death of Socrates.  We may recall that the great philosopher ran afoul of the leaders of the city of Athens.  Socrates was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth of the city.  As a philosopher, Socrates intends to lead a consequential life.  He had questioned openly the assumptions of his fellow citizens and invited them to open dialogue about the truth they claim to know.  But having alienated them in the pursuit of that truth, he willingly accepts the verdict they give:  Socrates should die.  In a surprising scene where he rejects the option of exile, Socrates willingly drinks the hemlock that kills him—and he does so in a way that freely and openly welcomes death in the presence of his students.  The philosopher’s death, accepted freely and willingly, becomes a type of “noble death” in the ancient world.

While not identical, there is an interesting parallel in early Judaism and emerging Christianity.  In the centuries before Christ, there is the story of the Jewish Maccabees, who resist the Hellenizing tendencies of their context.  When a certain Greek ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes demands that Jews give up certain Jewish dietary practices, the Maccabees become known for their resistance.  One of the books of the Maccabees recalls the resistance of a mother and her seven sons, who are threatened with torture and loss of life if they fail to relinquish their ancient ways.  The stories are graphic for their portrayal of torture, but what makes them remarkable is the nearly joyful way in which the successive members of this family hold to their faith in the face of the most awful treatment at the hands of their Greek overlords.  Their martyrdom, their strong and joyful witness becomes a religious model for dealing with suffering and death.  In death, they are virtuous examples.

These summaries from Prof. Collins are helpful.  They help us see ways in which people deal with death in the literature of the time.  But the story of Jesus is so different.  Mark does not recount Jesus’ death as something like a Greek philosopher’s noble death.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus resolved to follow the Father’s will—a noble thing to be sure.  Yet Jesus also prays in the Garden darkness that this cup pass from him.  The night before his death, Jesus still hopes and prays for a different outcome than death—it is in his eyes decisively unwelcome.  As for Jesus’ death itself, it is not the same as some serene philosopher’s death either.  Jesus cries out twice on the cross, the second time a wordless shout that marks his death.  Jesus dies not with his disciples close by, but alone–the only ones of his supporters are women who are afraid even to stand close by (15:40).  Whatever Jesus’ death is in Mark 15, it is not the noble death of the philosopher.

What may be more surprising is that Jesus’ death in Mark is also not the same as the virtuous example of the martyr’s death.  Jesus’ death is not described like those of the Maccabean martyrs, or even the later Christian martyrs, who march to their deaths before the empire’s torturers and executioners in confident faith for all to see.  Again Jesus’ death is marked by cries and shouts.  The first cry is not a confession of faith, but a cry of abandonment to God:  “My God, My God,” Jesus cries,” why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus dies not with words of trusting faith, but with desperate cries of being Godforsaken.  Mark even underscores the point with his mention of the timing:  Jesus’ death on the cross is a relatively brief one.  While crucifixion was a public, tortuous, slow asphyxiation on the cross, Jesus’ death did not last for days as some victims’ did.  He dies surprisingly quickly.  While Jesus did resolve to go through death in obedience to God’s will, the mode of his death was not like the martyrs’ virtuous examples.

Why?  Why would Mark describe Jesus’ death in this way?  Why would Mark portray Jesus death not as noble, but ignoble, scandalous?  What is going on here at the cross?  It is not the noble death of a philosopher.  It is not the virtuous example of the martyr.  Just what is Jesus’ death about?

In Mark, the cross is an apocalyptic moment.  It is an occasion of apocalyptic revelation.  We have seen how it works.  Last week we looked at Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his gospel in Mark.  In that text, Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan only to see the heavens ripped open; a heavenly dove, a cosmic symbol of God’s brooding over the waters of creation; and a heavenly voice address Jesus:  “You are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  A heavenly tear, a cosmic symbol of creation, and a voice announcing God’s Son made for an apocalyptic theophany in Mark 1.  Now here, at the foot of the cross Mark describes the scene of Jesus death—here the temple veil is ripped from top to bottom, the voice of the centurion acclaims Jesus as God’s Son, and a cosmic symbol is given.  As Jesus dies on the cross, from noon until 3, the whole world is cast in apocalyptic darkness.

Mark wants us to understand.  Jesus’ cross is no heroic death, no virtuous example of death; it is the apocalyptic turning of the ages—an apocalyptic revelation of God.  As Jesus dies on the cross, it is accompanied with a cosmic sign from the prophet Amos:

On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;…

I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day. (Amos 8:9-10a, c)

In a cosmic, apocalyptic sign the world goes dark in the shadow of the cross.  God’s judgment appears, yes, but also creation’s morning—for an only son.  This death of Jesus is not about nobility or virtue.  It is a paradoxical sign of the turning of the ages that reveals the depth of divine love precisely in human weakness.

How did theologian Douglas John Hall put it?  Again, I paraphrase:

 

God’s revealing is simultaneously an unveiling and a veiling.  God conceals Godself under the opposite of what both religion and reason imagine God to be, namely the Almighty, the majestic transcendent, the absolutely other…. God’s otherness…is not to be found in God’s absolute distance from us but in God’s willed and costly proximity to us.

 

Mark’s gospel does not explain Jesus’ death—Mark is too concise and taciturn for that–but reveals God through Jesus’ death in a strange apocalyptic theophany like Amos’ Day of the Lord.  It may be hard to wrap our heads around, but in this God-forsaken, tragic, ignoble death, a painfully human and fragile death—God is there.

 

Princeton’s Clifton Black in his commentary on this text cites Nathan Glasser’s Schocken Passover Haggadah, where Glatzer describes these words found on a cellar’s walls in Cologne, where Jews hid from Nazis

 

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when feeling it not.

I believe in God even when He is silent.

 

According to Mark, Black says, “so also did Jesus believe at the moment of his death.”

 

Jesus’ death is revealed, therefore, as of the “old age.”  For three hours, darkness reigns on earth at noon.  Jesus’ death is judgment, it is cosmic mourning, it is the final rage of creation gone awry.

Then, when Jesus dies, the darkness has already receded.  The temple veil rips as a sign of the boundary-breaking God’s changed relationship with humanity.  The centurion, the Roman centurion of all people, confesses faith.  Mark’s apocalyptic portrayal of the cross looks like this:  whatever signs of newness, of God’s intention to renew the world, emerge from the deep shadows of the incalculable revelation of the cross.

That also means we need to put some of our traditional theologizing aside here.  Mark’s portrayal is not about satisfying an angry wrathful God.  Mark’s story is not about moral examples to be followed.  It is not necessarily even about paying a ransom to the devil.  Mark’s recounting of the story is just too compact and lacking in sensationalism for any of that.  Instead Jesus’ death is the turning of the ages—a revelation of God where God should not be: in the midst of death doing a new thing.

The notion is counterintuitive, but a profound one at the heart of Christianity’s cruciform faith.  Theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:  “only grief permits newness.”

Mark’s gospel of an apocalyptic cross is therefore not just an orientation to a past, but a costly opening to a future, a new age, that draws us in our lives forward even in death’s deepest shadows.

Toward the end of his life in his Winter years, Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked which of the many buildings he designed was his favorite.  He said:  “the next one.”

It may not seem like much, but a vision of the dawning new age empowers even in the midst of the deathly hold of the old order.  It is a promise you can hold on to, even in all the darkness of the cross.

In his book on the Christian funeral, Emory’s Tom Long recalls an interesting practice of resistance among slaves in the 19th century.  Long writes:

 

During the time of slavery in the southern United States, slave owners were known to take Bibles away from slave preachers, fearful that the biblical message was stirring up insurrection.  There are moving accounts of these preachers standing beside open graves and leading funerals, reciting Scripture from memory while holding open folded hands as if they were cradling a Bible.

 

It seems all we have is a promise and open hands.  Yet I suspect Jesus would understand.  When he cries out on the cross, he laments before God his being abandoned:  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  The words he uses are the familiar words of Psalm 22.  In that moment, we see Jesus sharing in the most radical, Godforsaken state of what it means to be a human being in the face of injustice, abandonment, and death.  Yet as Adela Yarbro Collins points out, absolute despair is a retreat in silence. Jesus shouts, yes, but he shouts to God.  Jesus cries out, yes, but he cries out to God.  Jesus speaks words of Godforsaken-ness on the cross, yes, but he speaks them to God.

In doing so, his lament itself is a form of holding on to the promise.  His complaint to God makes no sense unless he holds up the promise to God and asks:  is it still good?  Is it?  The cry, the shout, the Godforsakenness all belong there—because lament is the flipside of a life lived according to promise.

In his book Meditations of the Heart, BU’s Howard Thurman expanded this idea even further to include human encounter with death as a whole.  Thurman writes:

…the glorious thing about man’s encounter with death is that fact that what a man discovers about the meaning of life as he lives it, need not undergo any change as he meets death.  It is a final tribute to the character of an individual’s living if he can die “unshriven” but full-blown as he lived.  Such a man goes down to his grave with a shout.

 

At Jesus’ death, at his apocalyptic death things are revealed as they really are.  It is not about nobility or virtue.  It is about the turning of the ages, the strange mysterious place that speaks from death and yet bears witness–shouting witness–to the promise.  It is a strange, shadowy place…of God’s new creation.

 

~Rev. Dr. David Schasa Jacobsen

Professor of Homiletics, Boston University

The Beginning of Mark’s Apocalyptic Gospel

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Mark 1:1-15

Click here to hear the entire service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

Mark’s Gospel begins with this simple superscription in chapter 1:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”  The word “good news” is the same as “gospel.” It is not a literary designation, as in “the Gospel of Mark;” rather it is a word, euaggelion, which means good news.  When the person we call Mark begins writing, he intends to communicate euaggellion, the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

But Mark’s good news is not the kind of chirpy news you would find nestled in a Reader’s Digest. It is not that warm and fuzzy feature that the networks tuck in at the end of the nightly newscast either.  Mark’s gospel of Jesus Christ, his good news, is apocalyptic.  He offers an apocalyptic gospel.

 

Now to us in this great liberal chapel, such news may not sound good at all.  We late moderns may be inclined to think of apocalyptic not as good, but as primitive–perhaps some detachable feature of early Christianity that we can take or leave.  For those of us used to a Christianity that is reasonable or plausible, apocalyptic sounds more like the crazy relative we keep hidden away in the attic.  We know we are related, but he/she seems just a bit too crazy to take seriously, let alone talk about in public.  So when Mark offers the beginning of his apocalyptic gospel of Jesus, we might be inclined to demur.

 

However, a century of critical Biblical scholarship has been consistent on this point.  The high water mark of 19th century liberalism believed that the Kingdom of God, the gospel Jesus preached (Mark 1:15) was about the inexorable march toward progress of the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.  But the critical work of Biblical scholars like Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer made that liberal view untenable.  These scholars reminded biblical interpreters that Jesus’ gospel was not a cover for the liberal myth of progress.  Jesus’ view of God’s kingdom and its gospel was apocalyptic—something strange to our modern ears. Decades later, the great Biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann conceded so much.  Our scientific world had no room for miracles or three-tiered universes of heaven above, earth, and hell below.  Faithful Christians, Bultmann said, would need to learn to demythologize this unwieldy apocalyptic message of Jesus. But then Bultmann’s own student, a scholar named Ernst Kaesemann, had pushed the problem back to the center.  Kaesemann argued that the apocalyptic view was not easily dispensed with.  In fact, he called apocalyptic the mother of all Christian theology!

 

The mother?  Now that hits close to home!  We might be tempted to keep a friendly distance to apocalyptic thinking.  What reasonable and morally sensitive person today has need of mythological horsemen, stories of rapture and being “left behind,” or cosmic conflagration?  Granted, some apocalyptic texts are just problematic and Christians need to learn to think about them and reinterpret them.  But the core of Käsemann’s argument about apocalyptic’s motherly role is still relevant.  The gospel is about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  How can we really speak of resurrection apart from the apocalyptic worldview which gave it currency in the Jewish world in which Christianity emerged?  For those of us who listen for that gospel in a late modern context, we just cannot write off mother!

 

Perhaps the problem is lack of precision about what exactly makes Mark’s gospel apocalyptic.  While the spectacular visions of apocalyptic literature are hard to ignore, lately scholars have been pointing to what apocalypses do.  The word apocalypse itself does not mean “burning judgment” or “cosmic catastrophe.”  What apocalypse means in Greek is “to reveal.”  Apocalypses are about divine revelation.  A brilliant scholar of apocalyptic literature, Christopher Rowland, made just such a case a couple decades ago.  He titled his book on apocalyptic literature:  The Open Heaven. Apocalypses reveal something about God, something that gives a perspective in the midst of life in chaos.  Other scholars point out that an apocalypse is a genre of what is called revelatory literature.  In other words what makes an apocalypse apocalyptic is that it reveals.  Therefore, the purpose of apocalyptic literature is to disclose something from a transcendent perspective…and in a way that helps to make sense of some difficult anomalies of life.

 

In the Jewish and emerging Christian world, apocalyptic is an at least four-century long dialogue about the righteousness of God from the standpoint of some sort of problem of theodicy.  Through the centuries it asks questions like the following:  How can God be just or righteous, and these awful Gentiles have destroyed the Temple?  How can God be just or righteous, and these Greeks force us to abandon our traditional ways around Sabbath, circumcision, and obedience to the divine law?  How can God be just, when those who act in God’s name are persecuted and killed by those idolatrous Romans?  How can God be just when the righteous dead never receive any vindication in this world that is now so clearly in the grip of anti-divine forces?  These are the kinds of profound questions of theodicy and the righteousness of God that writers of apocalyptic texts ask.

 

So now we come back to Mark’s gospel.  Just what exactly makes Mark’s version of the good news so apocalyptic?  On a general level, we can see some of the more spectacular elements of apocalyptic throughout the Markan story.  When in Mark 1:15 Jesus comes preaching the coming Kingdom of God’s reign, he announces it as gospel/good news of God.  What he means is demonstrated in his Galilean ministry of kingdom proclamation in the following chapters.  Jesus heals the sick as a sign of the dawning kingdom.  Jesus casts out demons with apocalyptic authority.  He forgives sins, offering God’s end-time mercy even now in his Galilean ministry.  When Jesus feeds people, though they start with just few loaves and fish, there is more than enough and everyone is filled: a sign of the eschatological banquet.  Not even nature escapes his concern.  Jesus himself contends with apocalyptic forces as he walks miraculously over the waters of chaos, and rebukes and silences demonic storms with his mere word of command.

 

With all these elements of the Markan gospel story we can see:  this apocalyptic world is not just some neutral space of choice and human freedom.  Elements of human and natural life are vividly portrayed as in the thrall of cosmic evil:  demons, forces, principalities and powers as Paul would say.  God’s good earth has been corrupted by evil forces that require some sort of “strong man” to overcome.

 

Here we see the importance of Mark’s apocalyptic revelation at the beginning of his gospel.  Right here, in this fifteen-verse prologue to the Gospel of Mark, Mark includes his crucial moment of apocalyptic revelation.  In the first few verses, Mark has us focused on John the Baptist, an end-time prophet sent to prepare the way.  But even John confesses–for all the powerful signs of his ministry of repentance–that a “stronger one” is coming.  Then Jesus appears.  The text words it this way translated directly from the Greek:  “and it came to pass in those days.”  “Those days”—that is end-time talk.  When Jesus appears in vv. 9-11, he, too, is baptized by John just as all the crowds are—except when he comes up from the water.  What Jesus sees and hears in these early verses of Mark is an apocalyptic vision.  The heavens are opened, the dove descends, and then a divine voice that only he and we readers get to hear says:  “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  This is an apocalyptic moment of revelation replete with open heavens, cosmic symbols, and heavenly voices.  We who hear the text are privy to Jesus’ own revelation as are no other characters in the text.  We and Jesus know that Jesus has a messianic, prophetic identity and mission.  As he sets out into this difficult apocalyptic world, he does so in light of this divine revelation, in light of this mysterious, transcendent perspective.

 

Please note further what the apocalyptic elements of this revelation point to.  First, the heavens are not merely opened, but ripped apart, schizomenous in Greek.  God in this apocalyptic revelation is breaking down barriers.  As Duke Biblical scholar Joel Marcus puts it, there is a “gracious gash in the universe.” God has committed Godself to entering this broken world to fulfill God’s kingdom purposes.  Second, when the dove descends, it is not just some pretty symbol.  The language of the dove goes back to God’s original purposes at creation, where the Spirit broods over the waters in anticipation of God’s creative act.  God is not yet through with this broken created order.  What of the aural disclosure of God’s relation to Jesus?  This is language of prophetic anointment and messianic kingship, language that reminds us of all the promises of God in the Hebrew Bible:  the psalms and the prophet Isaiah, too.

 

At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, God reveals Godself, God’s purposes and Jesus’ otherwise secret mysterious identity.  We hearers are, right there at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, given a transcendent perspective on the sixteen-chapter apocalyptic struggle that is about to ensue.  What is the point?: in the midst of God’s good creation, which is nonetheless in the thrall of anti-divine forces, God rips open the heavens and places God’s imprimatur on Jesus in such a way that Jesus and we readers are privy to this transcendent perspective.  We now know, even in the midst of life’s most hellish conditions, that God through Jesus is committed to the fight against cosmic evil.  God is revealed as ripping open heavens to break the boundaries that give cosmic evil the upper hand.

 

Of course, Mark’s strange vision of Jesus’ significance may still just seem too far out.  Apart from movies, books, and a few sectarian groups, our world is not that crazy for apocalyptic.  We probably live our lives largely in the light of reason, and in relative comfort.  Mark may offer an apocalyptic gospel, but on the whole, our world, our late modern reality is not buying.  Mark may well defer to Jesus the exorcist, but when faced with struggles of mind and spirit, we late moderns are much more likely to refer to psychologists and medical professionals.  Mark’s Jesus may celebrate eschatological banquets of an apocalyptic kingdom where all are miraculously fed, but for us these matters are better left for the rational adjustment of public policy on food, agricultural production and foreign aid.  Jesus may rebuke storm demons and silence the wind, but we are far more likely to stick with the weather channel and its talk of low pressure systems and the jet stream as we deal with matters meteorological.  In the end, Bultmann was right:  our worlds are different and are not amenable to Mark’s apocalyptic gospel of Jesus.

 

But on a second look, even we find our reasoned worlds interrupted by intractable evil.  We experience this in multiple ways.

 

Personally, we experience this with the struggle with disease.  For all our progress against cancer, there still seems to be something of a strange virulence to it—the body turned against itself.  Cancer may be a describable biological process, but we nonetheless feel compelled with our language to “wage a war” against it, to fight it as if it were something more.

 

Socially, we bump into this with the mysteries of life together.  We experience an inability to find ways of even talking with each other about solving problems like gun violence after another massacre of innocents—situations where we cannot only not do something, but even imagine talking about doing something.  In such moments it is as if we felt we were in the grip of something that is bigger and different  than our capacity to reason and act as free persons.

 

At the broadest level of our shared humanity in this world, there are also those powerful experiences of corporate evil that force us to recognize the very limits of enlightened reason among free citizens to do what is necessary.  The 20th century was supposed to represent the triumph of reason, technology, and astounding feats of human accomplishment.  For all that, it was also the century of repeated, bloody wars and a holocaust.  For all the talk of “never again” in both warfare and silence about mass extermination, the incomprehensible bloody trail marches forward to Cambodia, the Balkans, and beyond.  Is it any wonder that Quebec General Romeo Dallaire, the head of the UN forces in Rwanda in the 1990’s, mysteriously titled his book about that awful event, “Shake Hands with the Devil:  the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.”?  We sometimes experience evil in just such a way.

 

It is true that we may not have the same mythology.  Yet we still deal with the mystery of intractable evil, ask questions of our mysterious selves, and yes, pose questions of theodicy to a mysterious God.  Here Mark’s strange apocalyptic gospel registers:  good news for a good creation gone awry.  It is good news in the face of the struggle with intractable evil.  And the good news is this:  in the face of these intractable realities, God has not given up, but comes closer.  In Jesus’ baptism, the apocalyptic news revealed is that God is not staying behind the cosmic curtain of the heavens.  God has transgressed the very boundary between heaven and earth. In Jesus, God has been mysteriously revealed as the uncontainable other.  This God does not remain in the holy separation of eternal otherness.  Instead, in Jesus God is revealed as coming close with a divinely authorized risky love that leads all the way to the cross.  This is no triumphant fix-it God.  It is also not an aloof God of aseity and impassibility.  This is a God who apocalyptically reveals Godself precisely as the mystery for us in the face of our broken realities.

Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall captures this apocalyptic mystery in a helpful way.  Here I paraphrase him:

 

God’s revealing is simultaneously an unveiling and a veiling.  God conceals Godself under the opposite of what both religion and reason imagine God to be, namely the Almighty, the majestic transcendent, the absolutely other…. God’s otherness…is not to be found in God’s absolute distance from us but in God’s willed and costly proximity to us.

 

In her article “Preaching to Horror-Struck People,” Rebekah Eckert, saw a deep connection between Hall’s thoughts about the mysterious revelation of God’s otherness in risky proximate love, and the story of Victor Munyarugerere. Victor is described years later in a newspaper report about his actions during the Rwandan Genocide.  Amidst the bloody context of extermination in the 1990’s we hear this unexpected news story of his risky proximity:

 

Victor Munyarugerere, a Catholic lay counselor married to a Tutsi woman, used creative tactics to save the lives of about 270 people.  Dressed up as a priest and doling out bottles of whiskey and wine to soldiers at checkpoints, he shuttled carloads of children, women and men to safety at the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali.  “I decided that I preferred to die saving people,” said Munyarugerere. “Tutsis and Hutus are all children of God.”

 

This risky proximity however is never just for times of extreme social and political duress.  It is also for personal lives lived under difficult circumstances.  Rev. Samuel Proctor, BU grad and eminent preacher and homiletician tells the story of a mother who, “working for Mrs. Cartwright from sunup to sundown every day and then coming home to cook and do laundry for her own children without a mate or the inspiration of a faithful companion.  We saw that,” Proctor said, “and we heard her singing Zion’s songs in the dark.”

 

This revelation of a God who in Jesus rips open heaven to come close is itself the core of Mark’s apocalyptic gospel.  Mark begins his gospel with this revelation to show God’s loving abandon for a good creation gone awry.  It is not an apocalyptic gospel of easy answers.  It is, however, a word about God’s love, a risky proximity, in the midst of the darkness.

 

In the early 20th century a group of artists formed a collective in a small community just north of the German city of Bremen.  The town of Worpswede was of no great repute.  It sat on the edge of a long sparsely inhabited swamp-like region known as the Teufelsmoor, the Devil’s moor.  One artist, a painter in the group, crafted a painting he called, “the Sower.”  In the picture, the sower casts his seed on the ground—it is a typical motif and theme in painting from the period.  But this artist’s sower casts his seed across the landscape he came to know in the collective:  the Devil’s moor.  As he does so, the sower casts his seed in the dark, but toward a small dawning light.

 

I suspect the writer of the first gospel written would have understood.  Mark’s Jesus offers the beginning of his apocalyptic gospel.  It is a song in darkness, a seed cast across a dark landscape.  Yet, amidst the darkness, Mark’s gospel speaks…a promise of dawning light.

 

~Rev. Dr. David Schnasa Jacobsen

Professor of Homiletics, Boston University

Endings and Beginnings

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Click here to hear the whole service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

 

Have you heard!?  The world is ending!!  It’s very exciting.  Fires.  Floods.  Hail.  Earthquakes.  Wars.  All manner of natural and human-made destruction.

At least, this is what most readily comes to mind when the language of apocalypse is invoked in our late modern context.  It is a bit distant from the Greek definition of something hidden being made manifest or revealed, which is far tamer.  Interestingly, in the biblical witness it is not the fires and floods and hail and earthquakes and wars that in themselves constitute the apocalypse, but rather they are signs pointing to what will immanently be revealed.  Biblical apocalyptic vision arose in continuity with the prophetic tradition of Israel.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and all the rest spent half their careers warning of all of the bad things that would happen to the Israelites if they did not repent and return to right relationship with Yahweh and then they spent the rest of their careers warning that the nations of the world would come to naught if they failed to recognize Yahweh and the chosen people Israel.  There are at times glimmers of more positive prospects in the prophetic witness, of what good things will come upon turning back to Yahweh.  Apocalyptic follows in this pattern of warning of dire times ahead after which a new, just, righteous age will follow.

Occasionally, as I am returning to the chapel from hither and yon on campus, I encounter an apocalyptic preacher on the sidewalk along Commonwealth Avenue in front of Marsh Plaza.  These preachers usually have a great deal to say about how tragic, unfortunate, and painful events in our world are signs of God’s judgment upon society for all manner of evils.  They have a constitutionally protected right to freely speak their views on a public sidewalk, just as I have a constitutionally protected right to think them wrong.  I have two problems with contemporary apocalyptic preachers.  The first is that the social and cultural evils that these preachers are decrying are the very same sociocultural changes that I take to be achievements over prejudice, violence, and inhumanity.  Gay marriage and a woman’s right to control her own body often top their, and my, lists.  Apart from our contrasting ethical visions, however, my second problem with the contemporary apocalyptic preachers I encounter is that they almost never provide the second half of the apocalyptic vision.  There is much talk of judgment, damnation, and destruction, but no talk of the new order to be ushered in in place of the judged, damned, and destroyed one.  While biblical apocalyptic can be considered good news as it offers the promise of a better tomorrow in spite of the toil and tribulation of today, contemporary apocalyptic seems to offer nothing but toil and tribulation, which is nothing more than bad news.

One of the things that differentiates the apocalyptic worldview in the bible from the prophetic view is that in the prophetic view it is still possible for humans to self-correct, while in the apocalyptic view humanity has passed the tipping point.  The prophets were constantly adjuring Israel to repent and return to Yahweh.  “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Thanks be to God!”  It is actually not the case that apocalyptic figures and writers actually thought things were worse in their societies than prophetic figures did.  Rather, the prophetic figures felt that the leaders of their society still had enough control over the society to bring about changes that would return Israel to Yahweh.  Apocalyptic figures, by contrast, felt entirely out of control.  This largely had to do with the fact that they were living under the occupation of the Roman Empire.  Even if Israel wanted to go in a different direction and become more godly, they could not because they did not have any control over their own destinies.   Thus it is that since humans are unable to rectify the situation, only God can step in and fix things.  Only God can overturn the present order and usher in a new order of peace, prosperity, and right relationship with God.

This feeling of being out of control marks the apocalyptic view in our contemporary context as well.  Karen Armstrong, an independent scholar of religion, spoke at Ithaca College during my freshman year there in October of 2001.  She was extraordinarily helpful in interpreting the events of September 11th of that year in terms of the fundamentalist mindset that inspired and motivated that day of death and destruction.  Her book The Battle for God explores how fundamentalisms across religious traditions are responses by religious people to a loss of control brought about by the apparently secularizing forces and assumptions of modernity.  These religious people then follow their fight or flight instinct, and those who follow the fight path often understand themselves to be instruments of God in righting the world.  Certainly, there is a great deal more to religious fundamentalism that an apocalyptic worldview, and not all people with apocalyptic views are religious fundamentalists.  However, the feeling of having lost control that drives the modern rejection of modernity that is fundamentalism is the same feeling of having lost control that inspired the apocalyptic texts of the bible.

One of the challenges in responding to apocalyptic texts, apocalyptic preachers, and fundamentalists is that the view that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing to be done about it but wait for God to set it right can feel very foreign.  I wonder, however, if we might not be a bit too quick to abide in the feeling of otherness, perhaps as a strategy for not having to face how familiar the apocalyptic view might be.  Perhaps I am the odd ball out, and perhaps none of you have ever felt like things had gotten totally out of control.  Life in ministry, I have discovered, provides frequent exposure to the feeling and experience of things being totally out of control.  Ministry also provides ample opportunity to see how, if people would simply make this, that, or the other decision and act on it, as opposed to the one they did decide on and act upon, things would have gone so much better.  I confess, I have at times found myself daydreaming about how things might have gone had someone wiser been in charge.

Is this really so much different than the apocalyptic vision?  Not really.  After all, the apocalyptic vision is very much an imagination that things do go better when someone of infinite wisdom, namely God, is in charge.  On the other hand, my imagination of how things might have been better inspires me to decide and act more wisely.  This is to say that I learn something from watching how the decisions and actions I and others take work out, as well as from the imaginings of how things might have gone.  At the end of the day, however, my imaginings remain in the subjunctive mood of what might have been or what might yet become.  This is in stark contrast to the way in which the apocalyptic imagination of what might be inspires fundamentalist decision-making and action.  The fundamentalist is so inspired by the apocalyptic imagination that she or he attempts to impress the subjunctive mood of what might become into the indicative mood of what actually is.

The work we do together here in this space, week by week, in gathering together in worship, is very much a subjunctive imagining of what life might be like if God were in charge.  The readings, prayers, sermon, music, and sacrament of the liturgy reveal to us the ways in which we ought to live in the ideal world of God’s realm.  Live justly, walk humbly, confess your shortcomings, forgive one another, rejoice in joy, weep in lamentation, and break bread with one another.  Of course, life in the world is not nearly so ideal.  Justice is ambiguous.  Humility is mistaken for weakness.  Confession leads to judgment without forgiveness.  The joy of one is the sorrow of another.  Those we break bread with may stab us in the back.  We learn from these experiences as well as the imagination we return to, week by week, of what would be better.  Furthermore, our worship practice provides a safeguard from thinking that we should attempt to impose the subjunctive mood of worship on the indicative mood of life.  That safeguard is the strangeness of the liturgy.  The clergy wear funny robes.  The windows are made of stained glass.  The pews have no cushions.  These things, and many others, provide a sense of strangeness to remind us that, while much of what we experience here may point to a better way of being, in the end, a worship service is not life.  That better way of being exists apart from the day-to-day walk of life.  The better vision informs life, and so transforms our lives, by reminding us that life is not always and necessarily out of control.  The ongoing work of transformation by information indicates that at every moment of our lives the world is ending, and is beginning anew out of what was and what might yet be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

~Brother Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+