Text: Exodus 12:1-14; Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119-33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
We know what to do. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” Unitarian Universalists claim the “inherent worth and dignity of all humanity.” Christians claim the Apostle Paul’s ecstatic revelation that “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer ‘male and female.’ Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s anointed Jesus.” Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”
Ah, yes, but …
The fabled Sunday morning worship time is still the most segregated hour of the week. White liberals wring their hands and try to introduce spirituals and drums and generally appropriate Black culture into White liturgy with little success. Why? Can the reason possibly be that we’d rather give lip service than pay higher taxes that might alleviate the cycle of poverty, ignorance, violence, retribution, and despair? Why are we constantly voting for “austerity” – a dog whistle for racial and class repression – instead of the kind of distributive justice-compassion illustrated by Jesus’s “feeding of the five thousand?” John Dominic Crossan says, “[W]e prefer to emphasize a miraculous multiplication which we want but cannot obtain rather than a just distribution which we can obtain but do not want.” Do we not want justice?
Matthew’s Jesus spells out the ground rules for living in Matthew’s Jerusalem community, bogged down in the minutiae of normal civilization. “Justice” is based on what can be proved or witnessed to by at least two, but ideally three people. The hair-splitting continues as Peter demands to know how many times one person must forgive another. But this is easy piety. Paul dishes out the rough stuff. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law…. The [ten] commandments are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” In that context, the verses from Chapter 7 of Paul’s amazing letter to the Romans cannot possibly be reduced to apocalyptic judgment upon petty sin – which is how it is usually interpreted by those who would continue to collaborate with convention. Paul did believe that the day of the Lord’s restoration of the Kingdom of distributive justice-compassion was imminent – and indeed it is. All that is required is to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light….” Just like Jesus said – the Kingdom of God is here now, all we have to do is look and listen, all we have to do is step into that parallel universe.
Ah, yes, but…
Meanwhile, back in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt after the commitment of the people to God and the later exile to Babylon might be seen as parallel metaphors. Both are mass movements of the Hebrew people from their settled existence. Both events were triggered by corporate injustice – the oppression of the Hebrew people by the Egyptian Pharaoh on the one hand, and on the other, the complicity with injustice by the Israelite nation in their own land. Moses is the leader of the exodus, Ezekiel is the prophet that went to Babylon. The Passover ritual is a blood ritual that identifies clearly who belongs to God and who does not, and Ezekiel is the sentinel – the guardian of the faith, who warns the people when they are slipping into injustice and away from God’s rule.
The story of Moses is foundational metaphor for the historic Black church. Slaves were forced to give up their homeland religion and embrace the white man’s faith. Oblivious plantation owners never imagined that the story of the Hebrew people’s enslavement by the Egyptian Pharaoh, and their miraculous liberation at the hand of a God determined to intervene to save his own, would be so easily and obviously applied to the slaves’ desperate certainty that God would act for their freedom. Blinded by privilege, “dominant”classes in 21st century Western societies still cannot imagine being identified with Pharaoh. “White privilege” is the unquestioned and unseen cocoon in which most of the middle class lives. As a white woman, who came of age in the lily-white suburbs of 1960’s Detroit, the realization of that privilege is always a shock. And the time-frame is “always,” because even after 50 years of interaction with non-white, repressed cultures at home and abroad, I still fall into attitudes and assumptions that prevent me from melding with those minds and spirits. I am always a stranger in a strange land.
In a review of the just-published Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brooks attempts to reassure Mr. Coates that “the American Dream of equal opportunity… cherishes the future… abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow” (New York Times: “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” July 17, 2015). Brooks tries to mimic Coates’ narrative device by writing his column in the form of a personal letter – as though Brooks were the wise editor and Coates the idealistic, angry young writer who just isn’t willing to believe the inclusiveness of the American experiment. What Brooks is unable to do is to step outside the paradigm of dominator (white) privilege and consider the possibility that Brooks himself participates in Pharaoh’s Empire. He cannot see that the “American Dream” was built and is maintained with colonial suppression by and for Pharaoh’s 1 percent.
In the Exodus story, God seems to revel in deliberately “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh, so that Moses can demonstrate God’s awesome power through nine plagues. Only when the first-born children of the top 1 percent start dying does Pharaoh relent. Then he does not stop at merely letting the people go, he throws them out. God tells Ezekiel that if he warns the people about turning away from God, and the people pay no attention, then God will destroy the people, and their blood will be on their own heads. However, if Ezekiel does not warn the people, and they turn away from God, the people will be destroyed, and Ezekiel along with them.
What kind of God is this, who seems to insist upon retribution, pay-back, blackmail, extortion – but is that what is really going on? Or are we seeing the consequences of a transformational understanding of distributive justice? In his eulogy honoring the life and work of Rev. Dr. Clementa Pinckney (June 26, 2015), President Obama said that Dylann Roof had no idea God was using him that day to teach us all the meaning of grace (the radical abandonment of self interest). The point is that the leaders are accountable for the fidelity of the people to God’s rule, which is distributive justice-compassion, and the leaders are equally accountable for the consequences of infidelity. What an interesting concept for 21st century civilizations. We may ask, who belongs to God today, and who are the sentinels?
Four questions frame the difference between the continuing normalcy of civilization and its retributive systems of control, and participation in the ongoing struggle to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion, as taught by Jesus:
1) What is the nature of God? Violent or non-violent?
2) What is the nature of Jesus’ message? Inclusive or exclusive?
3) What is faith? Literal belief, or commitment to the great work of justice-compassion?
4) What is deliverance? Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?
The answers for Pharaoh’s conventional Empire are: violent, exclusive, literal belief, and salvation from hell in the next life. The answers for counter-cultural Covenant are non-violent, inclusive, commitment to the great work, and liberation from injustice in this life, here and now. These answers provide guideposts to the authentic teachings of Jesus, and to a faith that might swing the balance to distributive justice-compassion, to sustainable, conscious life on Planet Earth. But Covenant cannot be assumed by anyone, whether blinded by privilege or immersed in oppression. Injustice must be recognized, named, acknowledged, and owned. The Ten Commandments (that great foundation for conventional piety) are irrelevant, says Paul. What matters is the radical abandonment of self-interest: “. . . make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This is not about petty sin, but comfort at the expense of the environment; profit at the expense of well-being; personal advancement at the expense of relationship.
Participants in the unending struggle for distributive justice-compassion are the sentinels for our time. The proof lies in the results. Are you in?
Yes, but …
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
__________. First Light. Living the Questions Leaders Manual p. 24.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
Dewey, Arthur J., Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2010.
Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels (4th Edition). Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2010.
Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans (Third Edition, Revised and Enlarged). Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999.
Text: Psalm 23; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; John 10:11-18
Civilization defines justice as retribution – payback; an eye for an eye. But the deeper meaning of justice is distributive: the rain falls on the good, the bad, and the ugly without partiality. Civilization does not use that definition except in cases where there is clearly injustice if partiality enters the picture. The positive understanding of distributive justice is contained in the term distributive justice-compassion. The normal development of civilizations has historically led to systems for assuring safety and security of citizens. But as any reader of Charles Dickens must be aware, those systems often exclude the poor, the uneducated, those who are presumed to have no economic or social power (women, minorities). Continue reading The Radical Abandonment of Self-interest
Text: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 25:14-30
The Old Testament book of Leviticus is often used by religious liberals who want to deride biblical literalists. One can certainly get very lost in the weeds of ancient Jewish regulations for living in beloved community. The most intimate of human activities are subject to specific rules, which may account for the decision by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary to ignore all but 19:1-2 and 19:15-18. Those carefully cherry-picked verses appear twice in the readings for Year A (The Year of Matthew): Epiphany, and Proper 25, and it is very easy for worship planners and sermon writers to leave even those verses out. They demand judging your neighbor with justice; avoiding slander; prohibiting hate; and not keeping grudges – pretty tame stuff compared with some of the other recommendations in Chapter 19, such as verse 29a: “Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute,” which implies that doing so must have been fairly routine in some quarters. (The one about selling your daughter as a slave is actually Exodus 21:7-11, but that’s a digression into the economy of redemption.)
Within the recommended verses from Leviticus are found the basics for a transformed stewardship – and a sacred ecology.
Continue reading Yes, Leviticus: Sacred Ecology
Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21; John 1:1-5; 14-15
On this Sunday before the feast of the Epiphany (Orthodox Christmas Day), I invite us to look again at the advent hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel and specifically at the second verse in the familiar translation by Henry Sloane Coffin (1916):
O Come thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh.
To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in her way to go.
We sang the original Latin chant as our opening hymn. It is the first in the series of chants called the “O Antiphons,” and dates to the eighth century, C.E. (and possibly earlier). It begins with the call to Wisdom: O Sapientia. The United Church of Christ’s New Century Hymnal has this translation: “O Wisdom breathed from God Most High, your depths all cosmic bounds defy. Your might in gentleness holds sway; come forth and teach your prudent way.” The note at the bottom of the page suggests that “Sophia,” the Greek word for Wisdom, may be used. Then Wisdom becomes personified, as it is in the poems from the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books. Michael Dowd illustrates the importance of “personifying” deity – creating metaphors that help us understand the various aspects of sacred creation. Listen to these personifications of Wisdom from Sirach and Proverbs 8.
Those medieval monks were very likely onto something important when they put Wisdom first in their Advent prayers. Continue reading O Sapientia — Wisdom’s Feast
Twenty-two days have passed since the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee released its five-hundred twenty-five -page executive summary of its report on the CIA’s use of torture following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. On December 21, The New York Times called for a criminal investigation that – in order to be credible – “should include former Vice President Dick Cheney; Mr.Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; the former C.I.A. director George Tenet; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who drafted what became known as the torture memos”; among the “many more names that could be considered” are “Jose Rodriguez, Jr., the C.I.A. official who ordered the destruction of the videotapes; the psychologists who devised the torture regimen; and the C.I.A. employees who carried out that regimen.” On December 22, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an investigation of “serious federal crimes, including torture, conspiracy, sexual assault, and homicide, and [to prosecute where appropriate.”
The “Justice” Department has not responded. The Obama Administration seems to be sticking to its policy of “looking forward not backward,” perhaps unwilling to open the Pandora’s box of holding previous administrations accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Equally silent is the “progressive” branch of American Christianity.
Continue reading Torture: Who Cares?
The New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s 1991 opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” has provoked outrage among some who maintain that the opera is “anti-Semitic.” In a letter to the Editor of the New York Times (a version was read at the protest at the Met on Monday, September 21, 2014), Judea Pearl, the President of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, writes:
There is nothing more enticing to a would-be terrorist than the prospect of broadcasting his “grievances” in Lincoln Center, the icon of American culture. Yet civilized society has learned to protect itself by codifying right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane, distinguishing that which deserves the sound of orchestras from that which commands our unconditional revulsion. The Met has trashed this distinction and thus betrayed its contract with society.
Civilized society has indeed learned to protect itself. The “normalcy of civilization” as John Dominic Crossan defines it has been so successful at self-protection that rules governing law & order have led to systems that result in the suppression of human rights. The Apostle Paul went so far as to claim that social systems – the “law” – comprise the strength of sin itself. In response to repressive laws that confine people to particular neighborhoods, levels of income, categories of employment, and that hold minority populations to different kinds of rules from the majority – such as laws against loitering and parking; photo identification cards – people quite naturally look for ways to survive without violating the rules. But of course, countering those restrictions often breaks the law.
Distributive justice-compassion, or “restorative” justice, argues that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and that while the back-story may be compelling or repelling, violence is never the solution. When society’s protective systems “codify right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane,” who will call attention to the injustice that gets embedded in those very codes whose purpose is to protect and defend the safety and security of that society?
Continue reading The Met’s Klinghofer: Does Art have a “Contract with Society”?
Text: Luke 11:1-13; Luke 18:1-14; John 14:13; 15:7; 16:23; Acts 2:1-21
For many if not most twenty-first century Christians, prayer is magic. “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am; and whatever you ask in my name, I will do for you” (John 14:13, 15:7, 16:23). Along with the magic goes persistence, as described in Luke’s story of the widow and the exasperated Judge (Luke 11:1-13), and in the story of the neighbor who pounds on the door in the middle of the night demanding help (Luke 18:1-14). Traditional Christianity affirms that with God all things are possible if we pray in the name of Jesus; but progressive, twenty-first century followers of Jesus’s Way who embrace the reality of twenty-first century cosmology know there is no God out there or up there who will intervene to overthrow the laws of the physical universe no matter to whom we pray (St. Anthony, Pope John 23) or in whose name. But suppose that the heart of the Gospel of John (chapters 14-16) is an illustration of John Dominic Crossan’s definition of a kenotic God – whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death. When living in the absence of justice is a living death, as has been and continues to be so, prayer becomes the purposeful alignment of individual mind and spirit with the forces of justice and life. Continue reading On Prayer and Pentecost
Text: Galatians 2:16 “[B]ut we now see that no one becomes acceptable to God by relying on traditional religious practices. We gain this acceptance only through a confidence in God like that of Jesus, God’s Anointed” – Scholars Version (SV)*
Easter calls attention to the traditional, fundamental “beliefs” associated with the Christian religion – if only for a day. The secular world pays little attention to the nuances of Christian “faith” in a post-Christian world. Easter is a liturgical season that lasts for seven weeks. In Christian tradition, the time between the resurrection of Jesus and his “ascension” into the sky (Pentecost) replaces the time between the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Not only do most Christians concentrate on the resurrection story – often literally. Editorial writers for supposedly sophisticated secular media seem to feel obligated to attempt to find meaning in the traditional religious legend of a dead man walking out of his tomb. But “faith” does not mean “belief.” “Faith” means “trust.” “Faith” further means “confidence.”
The challenge for Christianity today is to reclaim for the twenty-first century the foundational scriptures of the first century. The earliest known letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the communities of Jesus followers in the Roman-occupied Mediterranean world is the Letter to the Galatians. In their introduction, Dewey et al. write that Paul is offering the Galatians a choice of living a life based on confidence in God, or upon traditional religious practices. “For Paul what is at stake is quite clear: a life of freedom, lived out of confidence in God or an existence still subject to the confining forces that dominate the present age.” The scholars’ translation of the original Greek opens the possibility for a fresh and deeper understanding of Paul’s sometimes murky language. Acknowledging the risk of anachronism, and claiming the ancient Jewish custom of midrash – which encourages argument with the text – what is at stake for followers of Jesus’s message and inheritors of the Christian religion is equally clear: A life of freedom, lived out of confidence in nonviolent distributive justice-compassion or an existence subject to the fear-based violence of political normalcy (Empire) that relies on religious fundamentalism.
In the first century, Paul preached confidence in God’s raising of the Anointed into God’s realm. Paul was certain that Jesus was the manifestation of the apocalyptic vision found in the Book of Daniel (see especially Daniel 7). Paul’s transformational realization was that God used a common criminal executed by Rome as the Anointed One who would restore God’s distributive justice-compassion to an oppressed Roman world. The conventional archetype for a savior/liberator in Greek/Roman tradition is a hero. But Paul’s transformational insight was that God did not choose a hero. Instead, the one that brought the possibility of the restoration of God’s justice to the people was a condemned, executed, enemy of the state. In the letter, Paul warns the “foolish Galatians” to pay no attention to the false message they had received from other itinerant followers of the Christ (the “Anointed One”) who did apply the Greek concept of a hero to Jesus.
Twenty-first century cosmology leaves no room for Paul’s first century interpretation of apocalyptic vision. Instead, Paul’s insight, coupled with Jesus’s own words reported in the gospels, leads to the realization that true power resides not in imperial power over others, but shared power with others. God’s distributive justice-compassion is then restored: The poor are blessed; the dispossessed inherit the land; the hungry are fed; the bereaved are comforted. “Confidence in God” today means living in the certainty that, as Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The choice – as the scholars write – is between a life lived in that certainty or “an existence still subject to the confining forces that dominate the present age.” Paul’s first century “present age” was no more or less subject to the confining forces of imperial injustice as the twenty-first century – when (according to John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg) we have the capacity to destroy the planet “atomically, biologically, chemically, demographically, and we’re only up to ‘e’.”
Paul argues that anyone who has the same confidence in God that Jesus did has no need for a physical sign carved into (or off of) the body. All that is necessary to inherit the promise of distributive justice-compassion given to Abraham is to live the life that Jesus lived. Paul writes, “So everyone of you who has been baptized into solidarity with God’s Anointed has become invested with the status of God’s Anointed. You are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or freeborn, no longer ‘male and female.’ Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28, SV, emphasis mine).
Likewise, there is no need for anyone to take literally (“believe”) the story about the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to be saved from hell in the next life, as traditional and fundamentalist Christians demand. All that is necessary to inherit the promise of God’s distributive justice-compassion given to Abraham is to live a life liberated (saved) from injustice here and now. The “traditional religious practices” (baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, ordination) are irrelevant for determining participation in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion. Indeed, “belief” in the literal story results in the dogmatic denial of the possibility of “God” as the universe itself, and destroys confidence in the goodness and distributive justice inherent in the evolutionary process, that “moral arc.”
Further, such “belief” reverses the traditional trust (faith) that Jesus’s death resulted in victory. In 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, Paul writes ecstatically from his apocalyptic first century vision:
What I am saying, my friends, is this: flesh and blood is not capable of inheriting the coming Empire of God, no more than the corruptible can inherit the incorruptible. Listen, now, I am going to tell you a wondrous secret: We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet signal. The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we [too] will be transformed. Because this perishable man must be clothed with immortality. And when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable and the mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:
Death has been engulfed by victory.
Where, O Death, has your victory gone?
What’s happened, O Death, to your fatal sting?
The law is what makes the seductive power of corruption so lethal. But thanks be to God for giving us the victory [over corruption and death] through our Lord Jesus the Anointed (SV).
The “seductive corruption of power” includes the injustice that results in the normal course of civilization, and the propensity to use imperial power over others. The law then acts to entrench that kind of imperial power – which extends to tribes, religions, corporations, and governments – and leads to the establishment of systems of injustice and death. What’s required is the creation of systems of liberation and life. Paul’s transformational realization is that anyone who participates in the work of creating those systems of liberation and life is participating in restoring God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion (the kingdom of God).
The whole idea of a hero that would come in to save the day (as present-day traditionalists believe) was anathema to Paul. The transformation is up to us, and it can happen in the twinkling of an eye.
*Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A new reading of Paul’s rhetoric and meaning by Santa Rosa, CA, Polebridge Press, 2010, 41-65.
A free PDF download of the Bible Study found in Appendix Two of The Year of Luke, is now available: “Holy Week: An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis.” Sea Raven’s three-volume series, “Theology from Exile: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity” Volume I The Year of Luke (published January 2013) and Volume II The Year of Matthew (published September 2013) are now available from Amazon (CreateSpace Author Page). Volume III, The Year of Mark, will be published in October 2014. This series is a valuable resource for progressive Bible study for “believers in exile,” who are drawn to the social justice mandate found in Jesus’s teachings, but no longer find meaning in orthodox interpretations of Old and New Testament scripture. The project is grounded in the biblical scholarship of Karen Armstrong, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar, as well as the transforming work of Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, whose theology of Creation Spirituality has reclaimed Catholic mysticism for postmodern cosmology. The Year of Luke sets up the argument, and The Year of Matthew further develops the question addressed by this series: whether and how ancestral scriptures remain relevant and revelatory to twenty-first century cosmology. Dr. Arthur J. Dewey, Westar Institute Fellow and Professor of Theology at Xavier University, said this about The Year of Luke: “It is not a mere commentary, it is really a genuine conversation with the voices of the tradition and the modern tongues. I like very much that you see that some texts can correct or at least unbalance others, especially when a text from the Hebrew Scriptures liberates a New Testament text.” Fred Plumer, President of Progressive Christianity.org said this about The Year of Matthew: “I was delighted to discover that Sea Raven has created something of great value here. Drawing on some of the best and latest scholarship available, she brings new life to words and texts that have lost their meaning and their intention for far too many people, including those leading churches. She accomplishes this with clear and even simple language and a clarity that I find rare with scholars. I only wish I had had this great resource when I was in the pulpit every week.” Ann Foard, a lay leader in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland said: “Sea Raven’s books on the Revised Common Lectionary help us better understand the 4th source of Unitarian Universalism—our Jewish and Christian tradition. When we strip out the miracles and myths, what can we learn about how to live in the world? The answer is not about superficial piety and exclusion, but rather about justice, love, acceptance and compassion. Sea Raven’s books are revelatory for those of us who may have consigned bible reading to the dust-bin of religious history, but nevertheless find meaning in Christian ethics.
(from Theology from Exile Volume II, The Year of Matthew: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity http://www.amazon.com/dp/1491077328)
Text for the Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
“Dem bones dem bones dem-a dry bones . . .
Now hear de word ob de Lord.”
Ezekiel: “And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves. . . . I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”
John: “Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to [Jesus], ‘Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone . . . [and Jesus] cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out.”
Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord . . . If you, O Lord should mark my iniquities, Lord, who could stand? . . . I wait for the Lord, my soul waits . . . more than those who watch for the morning. . . . For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.”
Paul: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
The orthodox message is, all we have to do is repent from our postmodern skepticism and sin and believe that just as Ezekiel raised the army of dry bones in the desert using God’s command, so Jesus, the son of God, in his most astounding miracle of all, raised Lazarus from the dead with his own divine power. God in turn raised Jesus from the dead, and so also will the spirit of the Christ who is now one with God raise bodily – physically – those who believe. Those who don’t believe, as cherry-picked Paul says, “cannot please God. . . . To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Is that really all we need, heading into the denouement of Holy Week and Easter Sunday?
In our postmodern, post-Enlightenment, post-Christian twenty-first century, these readings are in real danger of being lost to ignorance of what they may have meant to the ancient Hebrew world and the early Christian Way, and therefore lost to indifference about any prophetic relevance they may yet hold. In a world bereft of meaningful metaphor that reflects current cosmology, Paul and Ezekiel may possibly be reclaimed. The story about the resurrection of Lazarus is more problematic. Second century people were no more likely than twenty-first century people to take such a story as literal truth, but nonetheless, to put it in contemporary terms, the story of the raising of Lazarus is perhaps about as useful as Elvis Presley sightings – except for one word that John’s Jesus says to Martha: I AM the resurrection and the life. The verb is present tense, not past or future. The power of Jesus’s message is the certainty of eternal life here and now, not there and then. “Martha spoke of the resurrection as future, as ‘on the last day.’ Jesus’s response shifts to the present tense. . . . Martha thought of the resurrection as a future event at the end of time; but Jesus’s response corrects her misunderstanding and speaks of resurrection as a present reality.”*
When Jesus’s “I Am” sayings are understood to be about present reality – realized eschatology – they become an invitation to join him in raising the dead. “Raising the dead” is not about bringing back Elvis. Raising the dead is about returning from exile. Millions of people on this Planet are in political, physical, and economic exile from homelands, and from the basic needs for human survival: food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. Millions more are in spiritual or religious exile, no longer able or willing to suspend disbelief in the premodern gods and cosmologies that continue to prevail. Still more are in personal exile from sustainable relationships, estranged from family, friends, and social networks. Nearly all of us think we are exiled from the interconnected web of our own biosphere.
When Paul’s words from Romans 8 are read selectively – as they are in the Revised Common Lectionary – the result is to perpetuate the very misunderstanding that John’s Jesus gently pointed out to Martha. Such “cherry picking” is equally unfair to the shamanic experience of the ancient prophet Ezekiel, whose purpose was to encourage – that is bestow or invoke courage – on the demoralized Hebrew captives in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. We in twenty-first century United States are no less exiles from distributive justice than were those of the sixth century B.C.E. represented of old by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God will act to restore the people to their own land, promises Ezekiel.
Not only will God act to restore distributive justice-compassion, says the writer of John’s gospel, but – as the Apostle Paul proclaims – God has acted through the life and death of Jesus, and continues to act to this day whenever anyone – believer or not – chooses to accept the invitation. “[I]n all these things we are more than conquerors,” says Paul, at the end of Romans 8. We are more powerful than imperial rulers, because “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 our Lord.” The exile is over. The dead have been raised. The bones of the martyrs to injustice are redeemed and justified.
The dry bones raised by Ezekiel are a metaphor for those who died in the service of God’s justice: those who died working to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion to God’s Earth, and who themselves never saw the transformation. The army of dry bones is an army exiled from justice. Fairness demands that if Jesus was resurrected into an Earth transformed into God’s realm of justice-compassion, then all the other martyrs who died too soon should also be raised with him. “But in fact,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” It is the Christ – the transformed and transfigured post-Easter Jesus – who has started that general resurrection, which restores justice-compassion to a transformed Earth. The transformation has begun with Jesus, and continues with you and me – IF we sign on to the program.
This is a far cry from feeling sorry about petty sin, (which is the dumbed down meaning that most people think “repentance” means); it is also a very far cry from the deep and unforgivable sorrow that somehow we are personally responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion (substitutionary atonement). Petty sin, feeling sorry, even deep sorrow over an impossible responsibility, do nothing to empower people to radically change the way we live. Further, when that sorrow is experienced as “unforgivable,” the whole point of Jesus’s message is overturned.
A fascinating anachronism is found in John 11:2, if John’s gospel is read as a chronological narrative: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” This only makes sense if John was writing to a group of people who already knew the stories from Mark. Borrowing for a moment from the readings for Monday of Holy Week (John 12:1-11), this time before Holy Week seems an appropriate time to create a ritual of commitment to follow Jesus into and through the coming days.
Invitation to Participate in the Kingdom Community
One: There is a story in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 14, about when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. As he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. . . . Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” And what was it that she did? Knowing she would probably not have the chance to do so if Jesus were executed by the Romans – which was highly likely – she anointed his body in advance for burial. So I invite us – in remembrance of her – to anoint one another as a symbol of our commitment to do what we can to live in a community of nonviolent justice-compassion, knowing that the struggle never ends. [Start the oil among the people]
Invitation to the Meal
One: In Paul’s first letter to the community in Corinth, he scolds them for falling out of the practice of justice-compassion, and getting sidetracked by the normalcy of injustice. He reminds the people that he received from the Lord what he also handed on to them. Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed by those who were trapped in the very same forces of injustice that affected the Corinthians, and all of us, “took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘this is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” If the Earth belongs to God, then participating in God’s distributive justice means a radical denial of our own self-interest. As we share this bread, we share ourselves and make no distinction between them and us. [Start the bread among the people].
Another: Then Paul says, “In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant written in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” Again, in case we didn’t get it when he broke the bread, Paul’s Jesus says, the new Covenant – the new partnership with one another in God’s Kingdom – is written in blood. [Pour the wine and juice]
Another: Whenever we eat this bread and share this cup, we proclaim our participation in God’s ongoing, continuing work of justice-compassion until it is accomplished. [Start the wine and juice among the people]
* Borg, Marcus J. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. New York: HarperCollins, 2006, 199.