O Sapientia -- Wisdom's Feast

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

Torture: Who Cares?

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 Met’s Klinghofer: Does Art have a “Contract with Society”?

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”?

On Prayer and Pentecost

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

Easter Essay: Believe the Story or Trust the Promise?

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.

Free Download: Bible Study for Holy Week

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.

Redeeming the Bones: A Ritual of Participation

(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.

Body of Christ, Body of Life

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:5-25; Mark 4:3-8; John 3:1-17

The church sign can be easily read by anyone driving by: “You can’t be a devoted follower of Jesus unless you are part of a local church.” Does the church that posts this sign not trust the people with Jesus’s message? What is the meaning of “incarnation” if not “embodiment” by individual persons of the spirit of the Christ? Is the “Body of Christ” for members only?

The Apostle Paul created the metaphor of the “Body of Christ” as the community of followers. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, he explains the meaning of the ritually-shared meal: “The cup of God’s gracious benefits that we consecrate means that we are involved in the blood of the Anointed, doesn’t it? The bread that we break means that we are involved in the body of the Anointed, doesn’t it? That there is one loaf means that we who are many constitute one body, because we all partake of the one loaf.”* In Romans 12:5 he says, “Just as each of us has one body with many parts that do not all have the same function, so although there are many of us, we are the Anointed’s body, interrelated with one another.”

Paul’s letters might seem obsessed with how individual bodies are used and abused in the ongoing struggle between “sin” as conventional society defines it and ushering in the reign of God. But when “sin” means the “corrupting seduction of power” as in The Authentic Letters of Paul  we move beyond individual bodily wrongdoing. Paul writes:

    For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by seductive corruption and death. For by sending God’s own “son” – a participant like us, in an earthly life attended by seductive corruption – to deal with that corrupting power . . . [we] live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to God’s purposes and power. . . . (Romans 8:2-6)*

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is not particularly concerned about bodies. In the story of Jesus’s last supper with his disciples he does say “Take some [bread]; this is my body!” But these words likely were a liturgy of remembrance practiced among the early followers of the Way, and not specifically said by Jesus on any particular occasion. Talk in Matthew and Luke about how it’s better to lose one of your “members” than your whole body; or how the eye is the lamp of the body and when it is clear, “your whole body will be flooded with light” were conventional wisdom, not unique to Jesus. What was unique to Jesus was the certainty that we don’t need to worry about our bodies, what we eat, or drink, or wear.

Jesus’s conversation with the pharisee Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is best understood as commentary on who Jesus was, not a pronouncement by Jesus about himself. Those beloved words in 3:16-17 are a testimony to the profound experience of the people in John’s community. In the face of opposition from the prevailing culture around him, the writer stands up and lobs his grenade: “This is how God loved the world:” he begins, “God gave up an only son, so that every one who believes in him will not be lost but have real life.” Then he warms up: “After all, God sent this son into the world not to condemn the world but to rescue the world through him.” Finally the bomb explodes: “This is the verdict: Light came into the world but people loved darkness instead of light. Their actions were evil, weren’t they? All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed. But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God.” Nicodemus came in the dark of night to encounter the light offered by Jesus.

By the time John gets done with him, the pharisee is pretty well discredited, whether the words are attributed to Jesus or not. Nicodemus seems to be deliberately dense. When he doesn’t get the double meaning of the Jewish word, ruach (spirit, wind), Jesus’s mocking question is devastating: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” This story is a set-up for a continuing polemic between the writer of John’s gospel and diaspora Jews in second-century Syria. Rome had destroyed the Temple and changed the Jewish religion forever, and then along came the followers of Jesus’s Way, wanting to overturn Torah. This was not an esoteric debate about the nature of the Godhead.

Fifty years earlier, the Apostle Paul had written to the community in Rome (Romans 8:9b-17): “If anyone does not have the spirit that was in the Anointed, that one is not one of his. . . For all who are led by the power and purpose of God are the children of God . . . and if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with the Anointed. . . .” Paul was talking about Covenant. Whenever anyone (Paul’s “all”) joins Jesus in the relationship with God that is so close as to be the same as a father, we are then children of God, and heirs of God. What do we inherit? Not a strip of real estate in the Middle East; the heirs of God, brothers and sisters of the Christ, inherit the realm/kingdom of God, where distributive justice rules.

The caveat is that we “suffer” with Jesus, but not the “suffering” of persecution for religious belief, as conventionally understood. Paul is saying suffering is what happens when we participate with the spirit of Christ in restoring/reclaiming God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion; when we attempt to live in radical abandonment of self-interest and fail. Mark’s Jesus agrees: Like the seed that falls on good soil or poor soil or hostile soil, sometimes what happens is that even if by extraordinary commitment we succeed in achieving that radical abandonment of self-interest, the systems of retribution inherent in Empire – “the seductive corruption of power” – intervene.

Nicodemus should have understood that the spirit of the Christ is like the wind. It blows where it will, and no one knows where it comes from or upon whom it will descend. The “children of God” are not some superior race, attending churches on Sunday. They are whoever joins the program – Christian or non-Christian; people “of the book” or not. Does God’s rule of non-violent, distributive justice-compassion hold sway? No. “But if we are hoping for what we do not see, then we are eagerly looking forward to it through our own perseverance” (Romans 8:25).

“Very truly, I tell you,” John’s Jesus says, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” These words apply to the Church today, not to those who decline to believe the story, or who dismiss as irrelevant the intellectual theological debate. Jesus’s authority and inclusiveness are in sharp contrast to the belief system the “body of Christ” has offered through those churches that find the language on that sign to be necessary. Instead of a sustainable way of life and the restoration of nonviolent, distributive justice-compassion in Covenant with God’s rule, the Church too often has complied with the violent, retributive injustice that seems to be the norm for organized civilizations.

Eco-theologian Michael Dowd speaks of the Body of Life – an interdependent web that includes all life forms – and calls for “an entirely new role within the body of Life” (Thank God for Evolution, New York, Viking, 2008). The Dalai Lama teaches that “phenomena depend on other factors for their existence, they are not independent. This . . . emptiness of inherent existence is their own ultimate truth.” (How to Practice – the Way to a Meaningful Life, Atria Books, 2002). The embodiment of God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion – the incarnation, the personification of God’s kingdom – is anyone who participates in the struggle to actualize it here and now.

Creating and supporting unjust systems is far easier than ushering in the kingdom of God. The fig tree cannot give fruit out of season; the leaders of the Temple collaborate with the oppressors; the eyes and ears of the people are closed. Still the call is there for those who can hear it and have the courage to respond. The Holy Spirit is the seed that is left in the ground after the tree has been uprooted and burned. That same spirit falls on all varieties of ground, takes root where it can, rides on the wind, blows where it will, and no one knows where it comes from or where it will go next.

The best kept secret is the identity of the body of Christ.

*Sources for quotations:
The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010)
The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, 2010)

Food for Thought: February 2 – The Presentation of the Lord

[Excerpt from Theology of Exile Volume I: The Year of Luke]

Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84 or Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

In the midst of the liturgical progression from Epiphany to Lent, tradition calls the church back to the mundane details of Jesus’ infancy.  Luke’s Chapter 2 fills in the story from birth to circumcision to presentation as the first-born son to the coming-of-age of a gifted religious leader anointed by God.  In The First Christmas (HarperOne, 2007), Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that Luke’s purpose was to set up the birth of the Jewish Messiah as a counter to the birth of the Roman Caesar – also hailed as the “Savior, Redeemer, Son of God.”  The scene in the temple in Jerusalem confirms the child Jesus as the expected one who would redeem Israel from bondage to imperial injustice and oppression.

Luke’s story is grounded in the mandate in Leviticus 12, which requires the mother to follow specific rites of purification, 40 days after giving birth.  But the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary seem to overturn Luke’s references to Leviticus 12 by bringing in verses out of context from the prophet Malachi.  The result is that Malachi’s messenger is assumed by supercessionary Christian tradition to be John the Baptist, who is sent from God to announce the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple.  That Lord (Jesus) “will purify the descendants of Levi. . . . Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord.”  Why? Here a subtle, unquestioned, antisemitism seeps through.  The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem are now pleasing to God because the people have been purified of the old, Jewish religion.

In Malachi’s own context, the sons of Levi have been purified by the Lord through a process that burns away faithlessness to God’s covenant.  God’s covenant is not about belief.  God’s covenant is about active, distributive, justice-compassion.  If the liturgist does not stop at Malachi 3:4, but reads on to verse 5, God’s judgment is made clear: “I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

The tradition of the Presentation of the Lord dates from the fourth century, and by the time the Revised Common Lectionary was put together, the emphasis of Malachi on the coming of the Lord’s justice was overtaken by the theology of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews.  The language has deviated from salvation as liberation from injustice to salvation as freedom from the fear of death and the “one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” The writer of Hebrews, a sermon written about the same time as Luke was writing his gospel and his sequel, the Book of Acts, pulls together much of the Hebrew scriptures and uses them to develop a particular Christology, which has little if anything to do with God’s Covenant of distributive justice-compassion, or with Luke’s subversive suggestion that Jesus the Christ came to establish God’s rule in opposition to the empire of Rome.  Instead, again, verses are taken out of context to emphasize tradition.  The writer is in the midst of setting up an argument that Jesus became the mediator between people and God – the High Priest.  In order to achieve that position, Jesus had to first experience “the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).  Because of that suffering, he was purified, and achieved the position as High Priest so that he could “make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” with his own body and blood.  The ultimate sin, according to this writer, is unbelief in Jesus as the High Priest of God – the refusal of the people to accept the “better covenant, enacted through better promises” (Heb. 8:6-7) – more subtle antisemitism.

The festival of the Presentation of the Lord, also called “Candlemas,” may have begun as a celebration of the revelation of light, even rebirth from the darkness of political oppression to liberation and covenant with God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, but the Hebrews passage casts the pall of substitutionary atonement over the festivities.  Given the vagaries of the Christian liturgical calendar, which has to deal with the moon-based movable feast called Easter, the verses from Hebrews 2:14-18 perhaps serve to remind the people of the coming season of Lent.

The organizers of Christian tradition were masters of the appropriation of local cultural myth and metaphor.  The Christ was nearly immediately defined as “the light of the world” (John 1:1-6).  Luke’s Simeon sings what became known in Catholic liturgy as the nunc dimitis: “Now let they servant depart in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to all Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  The date for the presentation has varied, depending on when Jesus’ birth was supposed to have occurred.  Once December 25 was agreed upon (as opposed to January 6), February 2 became the day.

February 2 is the time in the Planet’s yearly orbit around the sun, halfway between solstice and equinox (15 degrees Aquarius), when, in the northern hemisphere, the light noticeably changes from the darkness of winter to the increasing brightness of spring.  In northern agricultural life, this time of year brings the first births of livestock, and milk and eggs once again become available, if not plentiful.  The Celtic Goddess of Wisdom, Bride (“breed”), in charge of poetry, smithcraft, and healing, became the Christian saint Brigid, who was reputed to have been the wet nurse for the baby Jesus.  Brigid’s feast day is February 1, which conveniently appropriates the old pre-Christian festival celebrating rebirth and the increasing light (Imbolc).  Milk and milk products (cheeses, butter) are on the menu for the feast.  The festival mass for this day is called Candlemas.  As the light returns to the world, the Christ is revealed.  (Punxatawny Phil is hardly the final bastardization of sacred metaphor.)

This festival can be reclaimed, using the metaphors of justice-compassion from Malachi, Psalm 24, and Luke.  The prophet Malachi challenges the leaders of the people to take care of the oppressed; the writer of the psalm says that those who are authorized to “ascend the hill of the Lord” and come into the temple are those “with clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false.”  Old Simeon says he can die in peace, now that he has seen the one who will be a light to all the world.  Anna speaks “about the child to all who were waiting for the liberation of Jerusalem.”

The festival can be reclaimed using the metaphors of the natural world, the ultimate wisdom of the created universe, in which no being is denied the abundance assured by God’s Covenant of distributive justice-compassion, with a Eucharist of milk and honey, bread and wine.

One:        Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and those who have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without price, for our God calls us away from oppression and greed to a realm of justice and love [pour wine].
God calls us away from famine and poverty to an abundance of milk and honey. [pour milk]
Wisdom orders all things well: First the grain, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear [break bread].
To inherit Wisdom is as sweet as the honeycomb [pour honey into a bowl];
Wisdom has set her table.  She calls from the highest places, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Come, for all has been made ready.”
[All are invited to come to the table, dip bread into milk, honey or wine.  Take as many pieces of bread as is desired.  Some may wish to feed one another.]

Appalachia Poster Child for Systemic Injustice: West Virginia A Theological Challenge for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

In Matthew’s midrash of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus tours all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, curing all kinds of diseases, and proclaiming that God’s kingdom has come. The verses in Chapter 4 selected by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday after the Epiphany are the preface to Matthew 5:1 through 7:29, the great Sermon on the Mount. Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, and invites his disciples to leave their nets and become “fishers for people,” traditionally interpreted to mean saving souls from hell. But John Dominic Crossan, points out that Jesus could have brought his message anywhere in Roman occupied Judea. Why Galilee? Why Capernaum? Perhaps because Herod Antipas had built a commercial fishing operation on the shores of the lake, in direct competition with the local fishermen such as Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the others. Roman imperial foreign policy, “Romanization by urbanization for commercialization” (Crossan, God and Empire, p. 102), had predictable results: namely rampant unemployment, poverty, and deprivation. What used to be freely fished from the lake now was only available at high prices from the markets. Fishing boats that had been in fishing families for generations now were taxed as franchises. Perhaps the phrase survives in the tradition because Jesus said it as a bitter joke. In the systemic injustice brought about by imperial, commercial interests,“people” are the only things left to be fished for.

It is a parable for twenty-first century Appalachia. Instead of “Romanization by urbanization for commercialization” we have state subsidization of multinational corporations for economic exploitation. West Virginia’s gas, coal, and timber wealth is controlled by out-of-state commodity interests, which are limited by weak or non-existent state regulations that often benefit those who are able to pay their way around them. Case in point: The “debtor in possession” agreement protecting Freedom Industries from financial responsibility for the chemical spill that now pollutes the Ohio River from Wheeling to the Mississippi is the same J. Clifford Forrest who filed the original Chapter 11 for the company (Charleston Gazette-Mail, 1/18/14).

In the first century, the Apostle Paul read the riot act to the hapless Corinthian house church, which had fallen into the usual factions and disagreements that every organization falls into. Paul’s sarcasm is scathing: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” They have apparently forgotten what Paul taught them about the saving grace of the risen Christ. They have reverted to the hierarchical Roman social system of patronage, and are fighting over who owes what to whom and why, and who deserves to sit at the head table, and who will get the best food. Some of them have even begun eating their meal before coming to participate in the sacramental communal meal because they don’t want to associate with people who are beneath them in the Roman social hierarchy. Piety in the form of proper behavior is clearly the order of the day.

West Virginia’s status as a poster-child for Appalachian systemic injustice was further illustrated by the New York Times of January 21, 2014 (“Law’s Expanded Medicaid Coverage Brings a Surge in Sign-Ups”).  Sabrina Tavernise describes the mind-set of the people of Mingo and McDowell counties in southern West Virginia, where the Freedom Industries chemical spill polluted the water supply: “Lack of economic opportunity, low levels of education and the resulting despair have driven a raging drug epidemic and created a kind of fatalism.” She quotes Lavetta Hutchinson, a nurse in McDowell County who said, “People think they are going to live as long as they are going to live, and there’s nothing they can do to change it.  They don’t see the value of prevention.” They hate President Obama and his “Obamacare” plan; they refuse to apply for health insurance in the West Virginia exchanges, but when offered permanent eligibility for Medicaid, they sign up. A caveat, however, according to Tavernise, “it remains to be seen how Medicaid coverage will work once millions more people across the country are in the system.  Low reimbursement rates discourage specialists from taking Medicaid patients.”

Indeed, “people” are the only life forms left to be fished for. But it is tough going, convincing the people that it is when they lose their life and livelihood that they will truly find it. That teaching has been reduced to a New Age self-help mantra (“follow your bliss”), often masquerading as Christian piety: “God has a plan for you.”  Tavernise reports that a woman at a recent enrollment event used “biblical terms to disparage Mr. Obama as an existential threat to the nation . . . [The volunteer assistant thought to himself,] This man is not the Antichrist. He just wants you to have health insurance.” Meanwhile, life expectancy for men in McDowell County, “a remote patch of mountains dotted by coal mines and forests logged for timber . . . is 64 years – the lowest in the country, and even lower than Pakistan.  Rates of smoking and diabetes are nearly double the national average, and almost half the men are obese.”

Jesus’s first words in the version of the Sermon on the Mount from the sayings gospel of Thomas are, “Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven’s domain.” Thomas is largely assumed to be without the gloss of late first-century Christian interpretation, which assumes that the poor “in spirit” are the ones Jesus was talking about. But Jesus said the poor, who have nothing that the conventional, imperial world deems of value, own the kingdom of God – just like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. In the twenty-first century, the earth that the poor and disenfranchised should inherit has become a commodity to be exploited. West Virginia land use rules do not assign mineral rights to land owners.  Frackers claim ownership of marcellus shale mineral wealth right from under the people who have owned the land for generations; surface coal mining destroys the mountains, the streams, and the valleys, and trumps all environmental regulation from potable water to clean air statewide.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) took on the role of victim in the Elk River chemical spill (The New York Times, 1/18/14): “You feel like everyone’s turned against you,” he complained, “outsiders” want the energy and chemicals that come from West Virginia while demonizing the industries that created them. “People say ‘not in my backyard.’ But in West Virginia we’re willing to do the heavy lifting.”  Poor brave West Virginia – doing all that hard work with no regard for the health and safety of workers, citizens, and the land itself. Governor Tomblin promised to “never back down from the EPA.” “Montani semper liberi!” Manchin declared: “Mountaineers are always free.”  Free to live in poverty; free to work for minimum wage; free to die. Coal and chemical industries employ 4% of West Virginians; Walmart is the top employer; West Virginia ranked 49th in median household income in 2009.

This is freedom?

The first century Corinthians had decided that the message of the cross is foolishness. Paul says it’s only foolishness to those who are not being saved. But the “saved” are not the fittest, the richest, the smartest who deny others access to the means of survival: food, clothing, shelter, even the work required to earn them. In 1 Cor. 1:17, Paul says that he was not sent to baptize people, but to proclaim the gospel so that “the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” The power of the cross is not saving people from hell. The power of the cross is in the radical denial of self-interest that overthrows social systems of patronage that have strayed far from Jesus’s experience of God’s kingdom as a seamless fabric that supports and sustains all of life.