Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fifth Sunday of Lent 2010


Isaiah 43:16-21
43:16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,

43:17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

43:18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

43:19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

43:20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,

43:21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126
126:1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

126:2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

126:3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

126:4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

126:5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

126:6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Philippians 3:4b-14
3:4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:

3:5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;

3:6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

3:7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

3:8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,

3:11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

3:13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,

3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8
12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,

12:5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"

12:6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

12:7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
First, if God were about to do a new thing, if even now, right now, just now, here, now! it sprang forth...why would we not perceive it? Why wouldn't we notice it? Why wouldn't we see it? Isn't that the very, very modern question of faith? The post-modern question of God? The post-death-of-God question of religion? That if all of this were true, wouldn't it be indisputably true? That all we'd have to do to wipe away all doubt and make belivers of all the world, would be to Just Prove It? But if God did a new thing, if even now it sprang forth, wouldn't that Prove It?

Or does everything new look so strange, its very strangeness makes it impossible to see it? And if only seeing is believing, is that why we cannot perceive it?

It's not an idle question. Isaiah ties this "new thing" directly to the Exodus, directly to the great acts of God in history, to "mak[ing] a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters," and "bring[ing] out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick." You've all seen the scene: Charlton Heston standing in the wind with his arms stretched out as dramatically as arms can be outstretched, and the water standing like two walls on either side of a perfectly dry sea bed, until the armies of Egypt enter the water, and then they are swept away in a watery flood. Who would not believe, after seeing that? Who would not think that a new thing, and perceive it as it springs forth? Who would even need to ask if you'd seen it?

But it doesn't Prove It, because Israel regretted that miracle almost immediately, and by the time of Isaiah had regretted the deal with God that got them out of Egypt, and had even paid for that regret with the Exile to Babylon. A lot of water under the bridge by the time Isaiah tells Israel God is about to do a new thing, and asks if they can perceive it. And since then, several thousand years more. And still, the question is as pertinent today as when it was first spoken. And still it is only a sign that will satisfy us; nothing less than proof, the world says, will do.

John's gospel is all about signs. Semeia, he calls the miracles of Jesus. Signs. But the story here from John is not a sign. It is one of the two stories common to all four gospels. The other is the crucifixion.

John shares almost nothing with the other three gospels. There is no nativity story in John, no sermon on the Mount or similar set of miracles, almost nothing about Jesus' life. Even the "Last Supper" is radically changed in John, and focusses upon Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, rather than telling them to eat a meal in remembrance of him. There is no indication at all that John knew the same stories that Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew.

Except for this story; and the crucifixion.

There is an extravagance here that exceeds the stories in the other gospels. In Mark and Matthew, the story is almost the same: an unnamed woman brings ointment to perfume Jesus with at his last meal: a clear precursor of his impending death, which only she seems to foresee. Jesus tells his disciples what she was done will be told in memory of her, but who she was is lost in those gospels. Luke places the story well before the last week of Jesus's life, and makes the woman a prostitute, not one of the company of Jesus. For Luke, it becomes an object lesson in the theology of grace. John follows Luke, shifting the anointing from the head to the feet; but he names the woman, and puts the objection to the expense solely in the mouth of Judas, who will be the betrayer.

Lazarus here is Mary and Martha's brother, and his resurrection a sign. But where it points is already unclear, because already people are eating at table with Lazarus and ignoring the miracle, the proof!, he presents. Already they are looking at other signs; the new thing springs forth, but they cannot perceive it. Or they can. Mary can; or at least she's just grateful. Judas cannot; or at least, he's just spiteful.

Isn't there anything God can do to just override who we are and make us believe in what God tells us? If God can't even make us see what is right in front of us, what hope is there for us?

Orwell said: "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," and there's little doubt he wasn't talking about religion. But it's true; we are too tempted to look at the bigger picture, the larger circle, the things beyond our grasp and power and authority, and think them more important precisely because we can't control them. So much easier to be in charge of things you aren't in charge of; so much easier to exert authority with no hint of responsibility. Mary Matalin proved that recently in her interview on The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert pulled out a Republican Talking Points Bingo Card, and rather than have Colbert shout "Bingo!" before the interview was over, she was carefully constrained in what she said. Her cliches and talking points removed, she had remarkably little to say, and was remarkably meek (read "dull" in TV talking heads parlance) about saying it. She did say one interesting thing, though: in response to Glenn Beck's call for Christians to abandon churches which teach "social justice," she tried to claim that Jesus said we should teach a man to fish, rather than....well, apparently, rather than fish for him. The best reference Colbert could come up with was Jesus' claim to make his disciples "fishers of men," but that wasn't quite what Matalin was talking about, so she dropped the subject. But it's an interesting point about responsibility: if we are not responsible for our brothers, if we are not in fact our brothers' keepers, wouldn't teaching them to fish be enough for us? Since the poor are always with us, doesn't that mean God means for some people to be poor?

How hard indeed it is to see what is in front of one's nose.

If there is no hope for change, there is no point to Christianity, there is no basis for belief, no reason for faith. If Lent does not call us to the things of this world, if Lent does not remind us Jesus was a homeless itinerant who depended wholly on the kindness of strangers for his daily bread, and if the things of this world don't include the people in it; if we are not called to care for them, then there is no basis for Christianity, no reason for us to listen to the word of God. If the new thing springs forth, and we cannot perceive it; if the extravagant promises of this liturgical season, that: "Those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy/Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves," are not promises that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, what is the point of our preparation, our repentance, of humbling ourselves? What else could Paul have meant when he said this:

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,
If he did not mean it is how we prepare ourselves to perceive the new thing that God is doing, the thing that is so unlike this world and its ways, that is so new, that it can only appear as strange, what else could he mean? And if that new thing is how important it is that we care for each other, and uphold each other, and treat each other, even the stranger, the atheist, the non-believer, the non-Christian, as a brother and a sister in Christ, as a child of God, because God is the one who gives water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, the one who gives all to everyone, who are we to restrict what God has given? People are not jackals and ostriches, but if God provides even for them, God provides for all people, too. Lent calls us to the things of this world; hope and change are the basis for faith and belief. If we would come home with shouts of joy, carrying our sheaves, we must bring everyone home with us; not as a sign of our God, but as a proof: a proof of our trust in our God. And let us do it now; not as some grand, sweeping effort which will encompass the world; but in our daily lives; among the friends and family we know, and the people we daily encounter. It is there, literally in front of our nose, that the change will be perceived, if it is ever to be perceived at all.

Let all God's people say: "Amen."



Picture from Vanderbilt University Special Collections.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Preston said...

Well said. I real love Colbert he real shut her down. I real felt she real did not know the scripture she was referring to, no real surprise there, even though she is very good at her day job. Let’s face it, she is very smart so if she real knew the subject she would have hit this with a response “out of the park”. Instead, she said very little. Too funny.

4:15 PM  

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