A reflection on the readings for Proper 8B by Janine Goodwin
2 Samuel 1:1,17-27
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Several times in my childhood I tried to follow the schedule of a little pamphlet entitled, "Through the Bible in a Year." It started at Genesis in January and went through, a few chapters a day, to Revelation in late December. I always bogged down and gave up somewhere around Numbers. The problem wasn't with reading, even with reading difficult material: I read Lord of the Rings through several times over as a ten-year-old. There were multiple difficulties, which included the existence of large chunks of text that weren't moving the narrative along: I was used to reading novels and had no idea how to read the many different forms of literature in the Bible. Looking back, though, I think the worst obstacle was my piety. The very urge that led me toward reading the Bible made me afraid to read it.
I had been taught that the whole Bible was the flawless and significant Word of God and that it was unspeakably holy. I was supposed to know it, preferably by memorizing isolated verses while reading the whole thing through. The only attitude that seemed to be allowed toward the Scriptures was one of unquestioning reverence. There was no room to question or to dislike: if I had a problem with the Bible, it meant there was something wrong with me. This kept me from engaging honestly with the Bible. If I couldn't admit my confusion or even revulsion in response to the stories of rape and incest, my disagreement with many of the laws, my skepticism about whether God really meant every word--and if God did, why weren't we Christians doing things very differently?--I could only feel shame at my responses. I could try to reason myself into compliant agreement with whatever I read, but in doing so, I found myself trying to be dishonest with God. I tried to believe only what I thought God wanted from me rather than what I really thought. That's no way to build a relationship.
Yet I believed that if I expressed open doubt, I would be a skeptic and a blasphemer like Mark Twain, whose Letters from the Earth I read with guilty pleasure yet, in the end, with the same discomfort. I couldn't share Twain's condemnations: I saw his points, but could not walk away from faith with him. There was much in Scripture I wanted to believe and live by. I loved stories like today's gospel, in which Jesus gives life to a dead girl and an outcast, daring woman, two female human beings who were not valued equally with males by their culture but who were brought to healing by a radically inclusive love. I wanted the love Jesus showed to each of them, the healing he offered. I wanted to share a life of faith with others who loved those stories and believed in caring for everyone, even when the magnitude of that caring and its consequences scared me.
In time, I came to condemn the views I'd been taught at first, and to interpret Scripture in multiple ways. It is good to have more ways to approach Scripture and more knowledge, but I moved from what Aquinas would term "servile fear" to a certain over-familiarity. I interpreted Scripture the way I wanted to read it. I didn't allow the texts to be strange and different, but read them without humility or respect for their uniqueness. I did not consider the historical context and the cultural differences that make some scriptures, like the full chapter of the reading from 2 Samuel, difficult for me. The lectionary tells of the love of David and Jonathan: the full chapter tells of two killings, one out of mercy and one deliberate. I looked down on a worldview that would allow a wounded king to call upon someone to put him out of his pain and then make it all right to kill the man who did what the king asked. As a child, I had wondered whether such a story meant euthanasia was all right. As an adult, I was scornful of the barbarians. In each case, I overlooked the difference between my culture and that of the story, and lost empathy with the characters in the story.
As a child, I sat in church feeling distress and puzzlement as the Scriptures were read: how were these pieces to be put together? How were violent death, summary execution, and miraculous healing to be reconciled? Why wasn't anyone else puzzled about this? Why didn't I dare speak up? As an adult, I tried to make everything fit into a different, equally tidy pattern for years. I was confounded by people like the Rev. Gordon Graham, then a seminarian, who would chide our Cambridge, MA Education for Ministry class with the sentence, "That was before God was a liberal."
Finally, I walked away from trying to make Scripture fit into anything but itself, and have worked to give up both worshiping the Bible in unthinking timidity and matronizing it by trying to stretch and push it into patterns that please me. It is a wild combination of voices from various times, societies, and viewpoints, some of them contradicting each other. It is as chaotic as an inclusive congregation, as a small town, as human life. It is to be treated with love and respect and reverence, but not with unquestioning worship. It holds within itself the stories of many people who struggled with God and faith. As I once heard a seminary professor say, it contains everything necessary for our lives and our salvation--and a lot of other things as well. I am living with the contradictions, the questions, the doubts, the beauty and ugliness, the hope and the confusion. Life with God is messy. Life with other people is untidy. Questioning and humility are allowed. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but an openness to continue with doubts intact.
In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"
Saturday, June 9, 2012
A reflection on Proper 5, Year B Mark 3:20-35 by the Rev. Margaret Rose
A week ago I participated in the funeral in Atlanta, of a long time mentor, Burgess Carr. Burgess, originally from Liberia, had been a professor of mine in seminary and later was the preacher at my ordination some thirty years ago. He was an Episcopal priest and pastor. But his real claim to fame was that he was the General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches in the 70’s and helped to broker an early peace agreement in Sudan. He also called on the African churches not to accept Western money but challenged them to become independent and set their own agendas. By the 80’s though, he was living in the United States where his work included not only the university setting, but parishes, and United Nations agencies where he continued to advocate for peace and reconciliation in Africa and elsewhere. All that however, is background to the funeral at the Cathedral in Atlanta where he lived at the time of his death at age 76. When I arrived I went to the parish hall where the family had been directed to gather. When I got there, I thought I must be in the wrong place. This must be where the whole congregation is meeting before the service. More than a hundred people were there. I said hello to Burgess’s wife and his five children who I knew, but as I listened, I heard the others speaking to each other, “Uncle, could you tell me where to find some water.” “Oh Auntie, let me be with you.” “Mama, brother, sister”. All were forms of address to the others in the room. I knew they were not all biologically related. But this was family. There was no doubt. And they knew it. Certainly, part of this was culture—African and Liberian culture. Part was tribal. And Burgess did have a large family--- children, sisters, brothers…
But this was also a profoundly baptismal gathering. The people gathered to say good bye to Burgess Carr knew they were bound together in Christ, by the water of baptism, a bond which no amount of dysfunction can break. The funeral indeed was a family affair, full of the celebration of accomplishment and the sadness of loss and included those who gathered in the parish hall and called one another brother and sister and uncle and aunt as well as those who came from farther afield-- his parish family and folks like me whose lives were changed because of his presence.
I tell this story because it is, I think, what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel text for today, even though we have to dig a bit to get there. Let’s go back to Mark’s Gospel:
Jesus is taking the country by storm, crowds are calling him Messiah and the religious authorities fear he is inciting an insurrection. Just in the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, John, himself, already suspected of insanity with his coat of camel’s hair and eating wild locusts. Jesus has healed a leper, taught in the synagogues and fought with the Pharisees about what is proper on the Sabbath. He’d healed a man with a withered arm, chosen twelve disciples who leave families to follow him, and taken on a regular practice of sitting down with tax collectors and sinners and in what may have been the last straw, eating the bread of the Sabbath. The crowds were like a mash pit at a rock concert coming in closer to see who this man is, wondering what in the world he is about and telling the news about the country side.
The religious authorities were concerned. To give them their due, it was a time of religious confusion, one with epilepsy was often seen as possessed by a demon. There was fear everywhere that Beelzebul—or the House of Ba al would take over. Anyone drawing such a crowd was distrusted. What was authentic they wondered. What is real?
And in addition to the miraculous healing, Jesus was naming the financial corruption about the leaders, and addressing this evil head on.
Back in Nazareth, his family, when they heard about all this, were concerned that he had lost his mind. Mary of course knew that he was a little different from other folks. She and Joseph had already had that experience in the Temple when he was 12 and ran off to be teaching with the scribes and other rabbis. But this seemed a little over the edge. The Greek translation of this text suggests that Jesus’ mother and brothers set out, either to see for themselves what the heck is going on, or maybe even to do what we today would call an “intervention”. I can imagine them thinking,“ He has gone of his rocker; we know he has special talents, but what he is doing is not safe! We are going to have to get him out of there.” They arrive at the house where Jesus is and can’t even get in. So they send a messenger to say they are there, and Jesus pays no attention to them.
As a parent, you might hope that your child would realize the worry of a family and at least come to reassure you . But no. He stays put. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around, he indicates the crowd inside. “Here are my mother and my brothers as are all who do the will of God.”
I have always been a little annoyed at Jesus when I read this text. I feel bad---and not a little kinship with his mother and his brothers when they are left on the outside of the crowd. Jesus was not a family man. Those who call on Jesus to be the model of so called “family values” have not read scripture closely!
His response, in fact called the whole of Jewish culture into question. Family, bloodlines, history were formative from generation to generation. The bond of family was unbreakable and often condemned one to shame and guilt for generations past and allowed for wealth and power for the future. Jesus, steeped in and faithful to this culture, relativizes this biological bond and the choke hold it could sometimes have on relationships. Just as he exposed the corruption of laws which once created community, he questioned taboos of eating, healing and the corruption of Sabbath laws. Jesus invited the people gathered to see and know family in new ways. It was not just the mother and brother he had grown up with, but all were to be called brother and sister. Doing the will of God meant to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, beyond the bloodlines.
I still feel bad for Mary. She had suffered so much. But I suspect we would not be reading this passage, if Mark had written that Jesus went out to reassure his mother, then returned to preach the message of caring to the crowd.
I remember a children’s book I used to read to my daughters called, “Are You my Mother?” where a confused baby bird asks cows, and cats, animals and planes and even a steam shovel the big maternal question. The bird is finally reunited with the mother and his nest. For the young child, the book reassures that one’s mother is always there to claim us, as it should be. But for us, we are in a sense Mothers and Fathers and Sisters and Brothers for each other.
Which reminds me of the funeral last week, but even more to life in Christian community. It does not mean that we ignore our biological families. They are a part of our responsibility too. But it is through baptism that we claim that Water binds us in as deep a commitment as blood. That is not always easy. Christian community or “family” is often as dysfunction as those we grow up with. Yet Jesus calls us to have this broad view and care for one another as if each were a sister, a brother, a father, a mother.
And empowers us to answer Yes, to those who ask.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
This image of the Trinity is from here
A reflection on the readings for Trinity B: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17 by Janine Goodwin
Evagrius Ponticus, c. 346-399, wrote,
"If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian." Some translations omit “truly” and say simply, “If you pray, you are a theologian.”
Let us now honor theologians, and in doing so, honor ourselves, for every one of us is a theologian. We may not all be academic theologians or advanced students of theology,but we are theologians. We may be a bit intimidated by the title; it took me a long time to learn how to pronounce the word theologian (emphasis on the “lo” if anyone else is wondering). We may wonder exactly what it means. It means a person who thinks and speaks of God. The parts of the word are theo, God, and logos,words. Even if we only speak to ourselves of God, we are theologians.
The passage from Isaiah strikes me as a testament to the importance of this theological task. The prophet tells us that if we neglect that task, if we listen but do not comprehend and hear but do not understand, we are not healed and the whole earth suffers.
Because our thoughts and words about God shape our faith, our worldview, and our actions, it is well to think and speak consciously and conscientiously. Being a theologian is a gift, a responsibility, and a risk. It is a gift because we are created to know and love God. It is a responsibility because our theology shapes who we are in relation to others: being a theologian is not a solitary vocation, but a community one. It is a risk because we are imperfect people and when people or groups are uncomfortable with a new insight, it may be condemned, and that can be very hurtful. Because we cannot know God fully or control God, we run the risk of being wrong about God or of having an insight for which others are not ready: we may not know in our lifetimes whether our insight is valid or not. If anyone places more importance on being right than on being together, the resulting conflict may split the community of faith.
It is especially necessary to understand this on Trinity Sunday, when we contemplate the mystery of God's being and acknowledge that we can never entirely understand or control that being. Theology is not about being RIGHT. It's especially not about me being RIGHT and you being WROOOOOOONG. At their best, academic theologians set a good example, writing back and forth and learning from one another. As in all human endeavors, the best is sadly rare. Groups of Christians draw lines and tell their members not to go farther in a given direction, and the conflicts around those lines draw undue attention; it would be easy to see theology as a series of food fights about the nature of God. That is taking the short view: when we study the history of Christianity, we see that rifts often heal and ideas are often reconsidered. Evagrius was condemned by the Fifth Evangelical Council. Nevertheless, some of his work has continued to be influential. It is as impossible to be completely wrong as it is to be completely right.
Theology, then is not about being right: it is about being unafraid to say what we think, feel, and know, taking responsibility for our own ideas and insights, and admitting that we may be wrong. It is about being part of a community of believers that has the responsibility to listen to us without fear or narrow-mindedness. Sometimes we fail, sometimes the community fails; we all keep going, and the mysterious God of love very often works reconciliation over decades or over ages. Catholic, Orthodox,and Protestant theologians make community where there was once only condemnation. Women join the theological conversations on all levels of study from laity to professor and clergy. I have come to believe that the more inclusive theology is, the more we know of God.
I have come to believe that because of my own theological education, which began in a home shaped by small splinter churches that were heavy on judgment and short on love and has continued in the Presbyterian, ELCA, Episcopal, and Catholic churches. No one church was entirely home, and in each I found great gifts and unexpected griefs and constraints. Through them all, I have moved from a child's perception of the Trinity as three mean men prepared to judge me for thinking bad thoughts about the playground bully to an appreciation of the Trinity as the mystery of God's infinite self and an assurance that there is a sense of community, of love, self-giving and sharing, even within God. God is not just the keeper of the rule book. This does not mean there are no rules; there are. It is our work to know them and consider what they mean, just as it is our work to interpret Scripture without assuming we have its full and only meaning. There is a living, loving God who reaches out to us and includes us in the work of creation, who makes us join theirs with Christ, and it is our work and our play to discover that God through scripture, reason, and tradition, and to tell each other the stories that come from our discoveries. Let us be theologians to one another. As we rejoice in each others' theology and in the Trinity, the Trinity will rejoice in us.