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The Second Paradox: Redistributing Power (Reflections on this past week)

October 2, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday in the Season of Creation: Biodiversity Sunday, September 30, 2018

 Mark 10:1-16

In 1987 I wrote a college essay called “I am a feminist.” “I am a feminist,” it began.

I am a feminist because I believe the simple truth that women are human beings. I’m a feminist because men and women should enjoy equality, but do not. The long history of patriarchy is the history of men treating women as property, as possession, and as playthings, with impunity.

I went on to say a great deal about the history of patriarchy, and male privilege, and unequal power. Only late in the paper did I identify myself as male, and the implications of being a male feminist. I said that men themselves, and male patterns of behavior, need to be fundamentally changed.

A couple of weeks later, my mother and father were lying in bed. My dad was watching television, as he often did to wind down and fall asleep, and my mom was reading. My mom asked my dad if he could listen for a couple of minutes, that he might find what she was reading very interesting, and she began to read my paper aloud. After a couple of sentences my father asked what she was reading. I think he actually said something like “What is this crap?” My mother said, “It is a paper your son just wrote for school.”

I loved my dad. Everyone liked him. He was easy to like. So long as the very traditional world, the world of familiar traditions, that he’d come to expect was not deeply challenged. (I could talk about that for a long time.) My point is simply that people can look one way when they are enjoying their privilege and look very different when that privilege is threatened.

Our scripture reading this morning continues our reading straight through of the Gospel of Mark right where we left off last week, with a discussion of divorce, marriage, and children. I have never preached on this passage before. I have never wanted to preach on this passage before. In fact, I have avoided this passage through most of my ministry. As I hope we will see you in a couple minutes, Jesus does not mean what he has been taken to mean by generations of male church leaders.

Read Mark 10:1-16

We often hear these words of Jesus out of context, cited as if Jesus were making pronouncements on doctrine or universal ethics. He is not. I have avoided this passage because divorce is such a painful experience for those who go through it, for friends and family who watch the pain of a couple coming apart, for the judgments made from the outside about whether a couple has worked hard enough or just given up. Speculation is rife about deeper problems violence, abuse, or addiction. Generations of clergy have sent women back into unhealthy relationships with no advice but to pray for their husbands, when in fact they should have encouraged and helped women to flee the violence and abuse. Divorce is tragic, even when it is liberating. It is painful, and it hurts. And the pain is not settled by law.

This passage does not offer any comfort in the midst of such pain, and so I have not preached on it before.

But since we are trying to hear the whole story of Mark this year, I will try and place this passage about divorce and children in context this morning by inviting you to imagine three concentric circles. We will begin in the center, in the smallest circle – the immediate context for our scripture story today – and work our way out to ever-greater contexts. I will try and use these circles to track our progress this morning.

Circle One: Responding to a Hostile Question

First, the context for this specific encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees is that the Pharisees, as representatives of the Temple traditions, have come to question Jesus in order to entrap him. Their question, you see, is hostile. The Pharisees have been conspiring to destroy Jesus ever since he healed a man on the Sabbath (3:6). Now that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, their territory, they need a pretext to have him arrested. So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Divorce was a contested topic in Jesus’ day, and there were a range of answers to the Pharisees’ question among Jesus’ contemporaries. Some forbid men to remarry if their wife was still alive (the Essenes on the shores of the Dead Sea), other Rabbis stipulated ever more liberal conditions in which a man may “put away his wife” under a variety of conditions (the schools of Hillel), even to the extent of a man simply finding another woman more attractive (the school of Shammai). It is possible that the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to weigh in with his own opinion on divorce among his followers, but that is hardly a trap to destroy him.

Rather, they are most likely trying to get Jesus to take a position critical of Herod Antipas, as John the Baptist had done. You will remember that Antipas, the Roman ruler of Galilee, had divorced his own wife in order to marry his brother’s wife. It was a marriage of ambition. Among the elite, divorce and remarriage was often a form of political maneuvering, status improvement, and financial advancement. By marrying his brother Philip’s wife, Antipas was attaching himself to a high priestly and politically important family in a bid to be recognized by Rome as King over all Israel. For calling this divorce immoral and against the will of God, John the Baptist had been arrested and killed. (Think Henry the VIII and Sir Thomas More.) The Pharisees were either silent or accommodated.[i]

What ensues is classic Jesus, refusing the terms of the question and in turn asking his own. Whenever Jesus asks a question he challenges the assumptions of his disciples and his opponents alike, revealing their intentions, their commitments, and their purpose. Jesus always interrogates those who hold power over others.

“What did Moses command you?” he asks. The Pharisees respond by citing Deut. 24: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” This answer nicely reveals the patriarchal and male centered basis of divorce, according to the Temple. Jesus however rejects the authority of Moses, as he has before (7:1-13), as mere human authority and an accommodation to hard-heartedness. Being hard-hearted is, of course, Pharaoh’s disease, a stance against God’s intentions.

Instead, Jesus changes the subject of the exchange from divorce to one of marriage and God’s original intention in creation – relationships of equality, mutuality and life-giving support. He has escaped the trap.

But notice what comes next. When he is again alone with his disciples he both recognizes that divorce happens, but also recognizes the ability of both men and women to initiate the divorce. While this was common practice among the Greeks and Romans, this was well beyond the bounds of Jewish practice. While barring divorce for the purpose of remarriage, it yet gives women a new power of control within marriage.  

Circle Two: A Lesson in Redistributing Power

Let us now move on the second, slightly larger circle, encompassing the first. This circle includes the context for this challenge and riposte between the Pharisees and Jesus within Mark’s Gospel story. To remind you what we have covered in recent weeks, Jesus is on his way, traveling again over all the territory he had previously visited in his campaigns of healing, freeing, feeding and teaching, only this time with the purpose of going to Jerusalem. He has gathered around him a mixed group of Galileans and Gentiles, and he is preparing them for what is to come when he confronts the Temple authorities and their Roman rulers during the lead up to Passover. Most recently, the disciples have been discussing who among them might be the greatest in the kingdom movement, revealing that they still fundamentally misunderstand what Jesus has been showing them about renewing covenant community and practicing mutual care. So, Jesus offers them a paradox, something like a Zen koan, to chew on. This is the second paradox Jesus offers ‘on the way.’ Jesus tells them that “Whoever wants to be first must be last,” that those who aspire to be great must serve the least and most vulnerable. This requires attending to inequalities in power and redistributing resources and power in the community. He then illustrates this paradox in all kinds of ways.

  • First Jesus turns his followers’ attention to a small child. Children were among the most vulnerable, and here represent all who are made vulnerable. Children were not the repositories of hope for the future, as we think of them. They were non-entities, considered not yet human. In the first century there was 30 percent infant mortality. It was 60 percent by age 16. No wonder so many parents, both Jew and Gentile, brought children to Jesus for a blessing.[ii]
  • Second, Jesus points his followers to the fact that there is good being done “outside” the community that Jesus’ has gathered around him. Attending to these ‘others’ who do good in integral to this community. They must never neglect to acknowledge good when they see it.
  • Third, an in contrast to the good being done “outside” the community, Jesus points out that there is also wrongdoing “inside” the movement. He warns them that those who cause harm or “scandal” to “these little ones,” would be better off cutting off the hand or foot, or plucking out the eye, that caused the harm and cauterizing the wound with salt and fire. There is a Rabbinic tradition that suggests the scandal being referred to is sexual scandal – what we would recognize today as sexual violence or abuse. But it certainly applies to the neglect or abuse of any vulnerable person – those made poor, the immigrant in our midst, our children.[iii]
  • In our passage today, Jesus redistributes power in the family, giving women equal standing and control in marriage, and attends to children, those most often harmed in divorce. Unequal power, even in our most intimate relationships, makes home and family still the most dangerous place for women and children.
  • Finally, this whole section which we have called a Community Catechism is about the kind life we share in covenant community and the just relations between persons we foster, with particular attention to those who are vulnerable to abuses of power. “Since intimate relationships of marriage, family, and children live at the heart of a community’s life, [our scripture reading today] holds both personal and deeply social implications.” When Jesus says that we must receive the kingdom as a child, he is not suggesting adopting some kind of romantic simplicity or naïve trust but insisting that we must consider the perspective of victims and those made vulnerable in our society. Further, we must be willing to actually become ourselves the last and the least, risking our comfort, our status, our power and the pursuit of ‘greatness’ in order to serve others in justice and peace and speak truth to power.[iv]

Mark will conclude this section of his Gospel on Jesus’ paradoxical teaching with a story about a rich man who Jesus invites to distribute his wealth among the poor, and we will see that he is unable to do it.

The point Mark is making is that this kingdom movement that Jesus is building, the kingdom movement that we are a part of, is not a way to pursue power, prestige, status, greatness. It is service to one another, with particular care for the last and the least.

Let all Herod’s (and would-be Herod’s) be warned!

Circle Three: The Word in Our World

So . . . what shall we make of this Word as we look at our world this week?

My throat tightens up even now as I think about the display of patriarchy, male privilege, and pursuit of power that was on display this past week in the Senate Judiciary hearing.

Like many of you, I spent Thursday morning watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and Thursday afternoon watching Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s tirade. I was glued to my computer screen as Dr. Blasey Ford spoke about what happened to her at a party – what Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge did to her – when she was in high school. To be very clear, I found Professor Blasey Ford compelling, and I believe her. I also believe Judge Kavanaugh demonstrated in his personal demeanor and in his angry defense both why he is unfit for the lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, and why so many are working hard to put him there.

As I watched my computer screen, my insides were twisted in knots and my chest felt constricted. I could not sit still listening to Dr. Blasey Ford with measured tones describe her attack. I kept leaping to my feet to walk around the room. I could feel my blood pumping as she told her story and shouted at the committee members when they interrogated her. My eyes burned, and I wept angry tears each time one of the committee members attempted to tell her her own story, or commend her for her “courage,” or patronized her by explaining the difference between a legal proceeding and this informal hearing. I understand most of what was said by committee members on Thursday was said for the congressional record and the television audience, with everyone’s eye on their political future. I know the hearing was never intended, to be anything like the safe space of a therapist’s office. Nevertheless, I ached for repetition of trauma each time I saw Professor Blasey Ford pull her chin back as it physically trying to retreat from the speech directed at her, and knew this was being experienced by women watching all around the world. I felt complete helplessness when she described her most lasting memory: “Indelible on the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two – and they are having fun at my expense. They were laughing with each other. … I was underneath one of them while the two laughed.”

I am less interested today in calling Dr. Ford a profile in courage, or a hero, than I am in recognizing and respecting what she called her civic duty and responsibility to come forward and tell her story, and in making sure that what she has both done and endured was not done in vain.

img_0312

This fabukous graphic is by Nicole Vosper at emptycagesdesign.org

What lessons are we to learn? Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic,

The country learned a lot, this week, about the rarefied culture of prep schools and colleges and the elite institutions into which those schools feed. It learned a lot, at the same time, about winking impunities. It learned a lot about what America’s power brokers value, and whom they value. And, conversely, whom they do not.[v]

Just this morning Charles M. Blow wrote that the message sent by the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to survivors, mostly women, but also many men, is this:

Your pain is not our problem. Your bodies are not your own. Your voice, even at its strongest, is still weaker than any man’s, no matter how sniveling and snide. We are here to protect the order, an old order, in which men rule, even when unruly and reprobate.

“What those senators are saying to all of us,” he continued,

is that, for them, patriarchy and privilege occupy positions of primacy in this country. And, when that primacy is threatened, it is perfectly reasonable that those affected would whine and rage at the possibility of being denied that to which they are owed, as birthright and gender benefit. [vi]

Earlier in the week, Michelle Goldberg published an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Pigs All the Way Down” that captures what needs to change and suggests how we change it. As the nation waited to hear Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony, Ms. Goldberg wrote that “Regardless of what happens to Kavanaugh, however, this scandal has given us an x-ray view of the rotten foundations of elite male power… Kavanaugh’s nomination shows how sick the cultures that produce … our ruling class … can be.” But she alerted us that

Watching all this unfold is radicalizing for reasons far beyond Republican mistreatment of Kavanaugh’s accusers. His story shows, in lurid microcosm, how a certain class of men guard and perpetuate their privileges. Women who struggle ceaselessly to be smart enough, attractive enough, ambitious enough and likable enough have been playing a rigged game. As they realize that, their incandescent fury is remaking our politics. We’ll know things have changed when palling around with sexual abusers carries more stigma than being abused does.[vii]

Exactly!

The always eloquent Rebecca Solnit, whose groundbreaking text on sexual violence, Men Explain Things to Me, the book that spawned the term “mansplaining,” has recently written,

Feminism needs men. For one thing, the men who hate and despise women will be changed, if they change, by a culture in which doing horrible things to, or saying horrible things about, women will undermine rather than enhance a man’s standing with other men.[viii]

Jesus would wholeheartedly agree! We need a redistribution of power in our culture and even in our most intimate relationships. Rebecca Solnit again:

If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign.[ix]

Can this happen? It can. It is happening. And it is what Jesus need us to lean in and continue to do today. Especially men.

In searching for a hopeful word, but one born in hopeful anger, I finish this morning with the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change. But I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.[x]

May we be, and bring about, the change God needs us to be.

 

 

 

[i] R. Allen Culpepper, “Mark 10:1-12, Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark (A Feasting on the Word Commentary), edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. (WJK, 2014).

[ii] Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross. (Orbis, 2014).

[iii] Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. (Orbis, 1996)

[iv] Culpepper, ibid.

[v] Megan Garber, “The Pernicious Double Standards Around Brett Kavanaugh’s Drinking.” The Atlantic, September 28, 2018.

[vi] Charles Blow, “Victimizing the Victims Again: In the Kavanaugh Hearings, Republicans Made it Clear that the Old, Male-dominated Order Will Prevail.” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2018. I saw this piece only after I had finished preaching.

[vii]  Michelle Goldberg, “Pigs All The Way Down: Kavanaugh and Our Rotten Ruling Class.” New York Times, Sept. 24, 2018. The last is important, because whether the charged are leally substantiated, Brett Kavanaugh keeps a sordid company.

[viii] Rebecca Solnit, “Feminism: The Men Arrive,” in The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminist Essays from the author of Men Explain Things to Me.” (Haymarket Books, 2017). P. 87.

[ix] Solnit, “A Short History of Silence,” in ibid., p. 23.

[x] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, We Should All Be Feminists. (Anchor, 2015).

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The Second Paradox: The First and Last

October 2, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Third Sunday in the Season of Creation: Sustainable Energy Sunday, September 23, 2018

 Mark 9:30-50

Just like two weeks ago, I preached an extempore sermon this week on Jesus’ teaching that those who would be first must be last and least of all. This post will hold a place in my sermon catalog until I can get my thoughts from that day written down. If I get them written down… alas. Apologies to my online readers.

The First Paradox: Death and Life – Gift of Water Sunday

September 17, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation: Gift of Water Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Season of Creation was first adopted in 1989 by the Greek Orthodox Church. It spread rapidly among protestant churches in Australia, Europe, the United States and Canada, promoted by the World Council of Churches. In 2016 Pope Francis urged its observance by all Catholics. Resources for worship this year were prepared by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and reflect the global nature of our observance.[i]

 Mark 8:27 – 9:29

Do you remember all the rain we had at the beginning of this past week? On Tuesday I took advantage of a promised break in the constant rain to take my son and a few other boys for a hike in the woods. We missed our window though and as we started down the trail the rain resumed – we could hear the shhhhhhhhhhhhh of raindrops moving across the treetops in our direction. But we remained dry because the overstory was so thick that the rain barely reached us. My plan had been to let the boys explore and have an adventure on their own, so I let them journey on while I sat myself down under a tree. I breathed in deeply the wet soil. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of rainfall, and the drops of water working their way down the forest floor. And I thought about water.

Water is vital to life, foundational to all living things, basic to existence as we know it. Water truly is life. Or as we have learned to say in the language of the Dakota Sioux in Standing Rock, mini wiconi.

I let my mind wander as I sat there. Listening to the sounds of water falling now all around me, I thought about…

  • All that was growing in the forest around me, soaking in the wetness;
  • Hurricane Florence already bearing down in North Carolina, and of the millions of humans (not to mention wildlife) who would be evacuated, left without power, trapped by the rising water;
  • Typhoon Mangkhut which was even then gathering strength to do the same in the Philippines, and then on to China;
  • The inevitable and inescapable articles that would appear this week connecting climate change and extreme weather alongside the President’s future-forfeiting announcement this week that he is going to relax rules regulating the release of methane gas (a greenhouse gas 73 times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere);
  • I had just finished reading a book about rising sea levels, flooding, and the future of coastal cities like Miami and New York, which vividly described the sewage, disease and toxic effluent which is present when communities like those in North and South Carolina flood;[ii]
  • I thought of the courage of people like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who put together the scientific proof that the residents of Flint, Michigan, and particularly infants and children, were consuming lead in their drinking water, and of the criminal cover-up that preferred denial to truth-telling and adequate response;[iii]
  • I thought about the announcement two months ago that water, a living ocean, had been discovered in the polar region of Mars; and the announcement last month that our own arctic ice north of Greenland is breaking up for the first time in human history;
  • I thought of the waters of our local Bronx River, and our canoe trip on it earlier this year;
  • And the water in my own body;
  • And the waters of my baptism…

And then I fell asleep!

I don’t know how long I slept, but I woke up because I had a powerful sense of presence. I opened my eyes and there, right in front of me, not two feet away, was a snapping turtle. With one leg raised to take a step, it froze. I stared. We talked. And I prayed.

It did not escape me that one of the indigenous names for the North American Continent is Turtle Island. Eventually I got up and let her be so that she could continue on her way. This was, after all, her forest.

IMG_2783

We live in a world of beauty beyond comprehension, a glorious bit of earth and water resplendent with sight, sound, smell, and touch . . . a shimmering sphere created and destined to provide abundant life for all. The beauty within people – in their compassion, tenderness, courage, tenacity, and resilience – is another face of creation’s splendor.[iv]

As we turn to our scripture this morning we come to the second half of Mark’s gospel. We have been reading this gospel almost straight through on Sunday mornings all year long. Up until now we have followed Jesus on his campaigns of feeding, freeing, healing, and restoring hope in the peasant villages and communities of Galilee and surrounding regions. Central to everything he did was the idea of a Kingdom of God that could be apprehended, received, realized, only through fait – faith in the kingdom itself, a present and coming time when there will be no tyrants ruling over us, no cultural or physical walls dividing us, no poverty born illness making life more difficult than it already is, but instead a covenant sense of community, conscience and care binding us together.

At the very beginning of the gospel story, Jesus issued his first call for women and men to follow him – he invited them to join him in fishing for people as God’s kingdom is realized. Now, as we enter the second half of the gospel story, Jesus issues a second call for women and men, Gentile and Jew, to follow him – by taking up their cross and joining him “on the way.” He does not yet tell them where this way is leading. That will become clear soon enough. In the meantime, as they travel, he offers these instructions (chapters nine and ten) for the community he is creating.

The instruction begins in chapter eight with Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Various answers are offered before Peter declares that Jesus that he believes Jesus is the messiah, God’s anointed (8:27-30).  Jesus then instructs his disciples, including Peter, not to say a word about this because, frankly, Peter has no idea what he’s talking about. That becomes obvious just a moment later when Peter refuses to believe that a messiah must can suffer, be killed, and rise again. And not just a messiah, but all of us. And that is the point. Jesus is inviting us to join him “on the way” that entails risk and loss and potential martyrdom. Joining him “on the way,” involves confrontation with those who, and that which, oppresses life, and a necessary solidarity with those who suffer as a result.

I have printed the whole of Mark chapter 8:27 through chapter 10 in the bulletin this morning because these are the texts we will be reading from now through November. And they need to be appreciated as a part of a whole. I have found commentaries that describe these chapters as Mark’s garbage can or parking lot, the place he put all the stories and teachings he didn’t know what else to do with. But we will work to understand the pattern, because for Mark (as it was for Jesus) this is the pattern of discipleship.

  • Three times Jesus tells his disciples, the crowds, those gathered around him, what is coming. These are portents – warnings of what is likely to happen.
  • Three times his disciples not only failed to understand the portents but actually resist Jesus’ way: they actively work against “the way” he is teaching them. First Peter (8:32), then John (9:32 & 38), and finally James (10:32 & 35ff).
  • Three times Jesus invited them to consider a paradox: that those who seek to save their life will lose it, that whoever wants to be first must be least of all, that being great does not mean ruling over but serving other. These are like Zen Buddhist koans, riddles or puzzles to be worked out in the life of the community rather than rules to be followed.
  • Jesus then illustrates these paradoxes in his encounters with others, with a suffering father and child, a sad rich man, comments on family life, parables and sharp rebukes to his disciples. When the pattern becomes clear, it becomes clear that this is the pattern of new life. An embrace of risk and possible death or martyrdom as a non-violent community confront a community of violence. A redistribution of power within the community and reparation for past and justice. And a refusal to participate in a politics of power. We deal in greater detail with these topics in my Bible study on Monday nights. Here on Sunday mornings we need to apprehend the only way to follow Jesus is to stand in solidarity with him as he stands in solidarity with all those who are victims of martyrs to this violent world.

Jesus is preparing his followers for a confrontation. Over the next eight weeks we will join Jesus ‘on the way’ which will become increasingly clear is the ‘way of the cross,’ and we will listen to his lessons on life and death (the first paradox), embracing non-violence, redistributing power and resources (the second paradox) and renouncing power over others (the third paradox). These are the themes of these chapters.

As themes these are, I will grant, easy to miss. In the episode of Jesus freeing a child from a spirit that throws him down and torments, an illustration of death and life, a significant part of the story how Jesus’ cure looks worse that the original condition. When Jesus frees the boy of the violent spirit that sought to destroy him, the boy falls down ‘like a corpse’ so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But they would be wrong. Jesus ‘raised him up.’ The disciples are as yet to unable to see past their fear of death to embrace the life on the other side. This comes only with prayer.

And what is this prayer? Jesus needs those who follow him to reflect upon the real risks they are taking and the dangers they are confronting so that when the moment comes they can act on their best moral impulses on behalf of God’s kingdom way, and not from reactive fear.

Earlier this year I shared a story in a sermon that I would like to share again this morning, because it illustrates how difficult it can be to act on our best impulses in the face of real risk, and touches again on our worship theme for the day – God’s gift of water and our need to cherish it. [v] (I spoke extempore telling this story though I reproduce it here as I preached it before.)

The story took place during the time I spent (along with Rev. Sarah Henkel and Will Summers) in Standing Rock, North Dakota, as part of the clergy gathering of solidarity in November 2016. You will recall that the Standing Rock Sioux, joined by representatives of nearly every North American tribal body with support from non-indigenous people across the country, were occupying a portion of their own un-ceded land through which Dakota Access Pipeline was being laid to carry oil for export from the Bakkan shale oil fields in North Dakota all the way to ports in Louisiana. At issue was both indigenous sovereignty, which the United States has never respected, and clean water, on which the Standing Rock Sioux, and all of us, depend. By protecting their own watershed, the “water protectors” were protecting all of us.

The frontline of protest was the pipeline path, but while we were there a decision was made to take the protest to the governor in the capitol city of Bismarck. We gathered at the capitol building and a small group occupied the lobby. This group was told that the governor has already left the building – whether he was hiding or had fled we don’t know – and when they insisted the governor either come down or come back this first group was arrested and bussed away to jail. Those of us outside were then ordered to disburse. Instead, we marched three-blocks to the governor’s mansion and gathered on the sidewalk across the street from his home. The governor came out to watch us, but refused to meet with the indigenous leaders who wanted, among other things, a stop to the intense police violence at the protest site. That, after all, was the reason over 1000 clergy had come – to stand in solidarity beside indigenous leaders who were daily being beaten up, gassed, shot, infiltrated and chased by dogs. When the governor chose to watch rather than talk, standing behind the line of perhaps twenty armed police officers, four persons from our group crossed the street, stepped onto the governor’s property, and knelt down to pray for the meeting to take place.

At this point nearly a hundred militarized police appeared in full riot gear with masked helmets, shields, clubs, and assault weapons. They appeared from where they had been waiting around the corner for just this moment. They came from every direction. A young Sioux was snatched from our line and taken hostage by the police. With each order for our immediate dispersal, the line of police would advance toward us across the street. Our leadership was negotiating the release of the prisoner. And the weapons kept getting closer. We were offered a “free speech zone” several blocks away where we could continue our protest – out of sight of the governor, out of sight of the neighbors, and most importantly out of sight of the commuters now returning home from work. One very smart and experienced organizer suggested we walk back and forth on the sidewalk, moving but staying on public property, continuing to exercise our first amendment rights, and removing any legal basis for arresting us.

Now here is my point. I’ve been to enough protests and marches to know this was smart move. I leapt on the opportunity to start moving rather than simply standing in front of the advancing police line. And I experienced no small amount of relief from the fact that we were, for the moment, marching away form the weapons. Back and forth we went, I went, weighing my relief with my fear and a sense of cowardice, not feeling good about myself, but also not wanting to be hit. But when it became clear that the indigenous leadership was not moving, that one of them was still a prisoner, that negotiations were continuing … when it became clear that they were staying, then it became really clear where I belonged, come what may. At that point my sense fear evaporated, I had a sense of resolve instead, and I took my place again on the line.

Knowing where to stand, or who to stand with: this is the key. This is love, not as thought or feeling, but as solidarity. And this love casts out fear.

Solidarity ‘on the way’ is what Jesus is training his disciples for. Embracing Jesus’ way, joining him ‘on the way,’ absorbing this way of the cross, is what we do when we are baptized. When a representative of the long continuity and community of faith takes us in hand, plunges us beneath, or pours over us, cleansing and copious water, we are baptized into Jesus’ way of death and resurrection. And with the symbol of water this includes solidarity with creation. As it has been written, “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy.” And our immersion in local waters enters us into necessary care for creation. The Affirmation of Faith that we will read after our sermon hymn this morning develops a theology of the cross both ancient and contemporary, that of Christ crucified in a crucified earth and of Gods saving power and presence indwelling the created world.[vi]

Let us re-affirm our baptism into the way of Jesus, a way of death and new life, as we sing our sermon hymn, “Baptized in Water” (G2G, 482).

AFFIRMATION OF FAITH
Gurukul Theological College, India

 We believe in God,
who creates all things, who embraces all things, who celebrates all things,
who is present in every part of the fabric of creation.

We believe in God
as the course of all life, who baptizes this planet with living water.

We believe in Jesus Christ,
the suffering one, the poor one, the malnourished one, the climate refugee,
who loves and cares for this world and who suffers with it.

And we believe in Jesus Christ,
the seed of life, who came to reconcile and renew this world and everything in it.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the breath of God, who moves with God and who moves among and with us today.

We believe in the everlasting life in God.

And we believe in the hope that one day
God will put an end to death and all destructive forces.

 

 

 

[i] Seasonofcreation.org

[ii] Jeff Goodall, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of eh Civilized World. (Litte, Brown, and Company, 2017).

[iii] Mona Hana-Attisha, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. (One World, 2018).

[iv] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “A Theology of the Cross for the ‘Uncreators’” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, edited by Marit Trelstad. (Fortress, 2006).

[v] Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary, “Forty Days Hiding in Fear with Elijah,” March 12, 2018..

[vi] “Christ is baptized…” was written by Maximus of Turin in the fifth century. Cited in Benjamin M. Steward, “The Stream, the Flood, the Spring: The Liturgical Role of Flowing Waters in eco-Reformation” in Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril, edited by Lisa E. Dahil and James Martin-Schramm. (Cascade, 2016).

A Larger Table – Food Justice Sunday

September 17, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Second Sunday in the Season of Creation: Food Justice Sunday, September 9, 2018

 Mark 7:24-37

IMG_8728 (002)

On the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation I preached an extempore sermon extempore on Jesus’ encounter with a Syro-Phoenecian woman. This fabulous graphic will hold a place in my sermon catalog until I can get my thoughts from that day written down.

An Interlude on Eating – Climate Change & Environmental Justice Sunday

September 6, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The First Sunday in the Season of Creation: Climate Change and Environmental Justice, September 2, 2018

Mark 7:1-23

The Season of Creation was first adopted in 1989 by the Greek Orthodox Church. It spread rapidly among protestant churches in Australia, Europe, the United States and Canada, promoted by the World Council of Churches. In 2016 Pope Francis urged its observance by all Catholics. Resources for worship this year were prepared by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and reflect the global nature of our observance.[i]

I submitted my sermon title earlier this week. I called it “An Interlude on Eating” because the whole of the seventh chapter of the Gospel According to Mark is about food, and food justice. It is about who eats, with whom, what they eat, and how. It is situated between Jesus’ feeding of five thousand in chapter six and his feeding of four thousand in chapter eight. But what happens here in this interlude is crucial for understanding the issues these two feedings (as well as Jesus’ willingness to eat with ‘sinners and tax-collectors’) raised for his opponents and, eventually, among his disciples. And it will be the failure to work through these issues with Jesus that will foster the disciples growing resistance to the direction Jesus’ prophetic ministry was heading.

The first half of chapter seven, which we will read today, is literally about food, while the second half of the chapter, which we will read next week, uses food figuratively as a metaphor for ways we relate to one another. Together they lay the groundwork for the more inclusive fellowship Jesus is nurturing over against the religious and ethnic nationalism of the Pharisees.

This is also the last controversy Jesus will have with the Pharisees who have dogged his steps ever since he began his prophetic ministry in the village of Capernaum on a Sabbath morning not so long ago. Jesus has been healing, feeding, and freeing people throughout Galilee, renewing the fabric of covenant economics of ancient Israel in village after village. And the Pharisees have followed him – challenging Jesus’ assertion that humans can forgive one another (2:1-12); Jesus’ willingness to eat with sinners (2); his willingness to pluck grain and heal on the Sabbath day; and, now, his free feeding of five thousand without rules, ritual, or restrictions. The Pharisees were representatives of the temple-state in Jerusalem, and in our passage today they criticize some of Jesus’ disciples for not recognizing the authority of the temple traditions (the tradition of the elders) and for not observing the purity practices of the Pharisees – ritually washing their hands and utensils and only eating certain foods. Essentially, the Pharisees accuse some of Jesus disciples of behaving like Gentiles. Oh, if they only knew that when this encounter is over Jesus is going to cross the lake and repeat the free feeding, actually eating with Gentiles, they would be beside themselves.

Let’s listen to the encounter:

Read: Mark 7:1-23

On the final night of my vacation, I headed down to the beach in Naples, Florida to catch the sunset. Watching sunsets has always been an important part of my time in Florida. I get great peace from being by the water, and there were precious few opportunities to see ‘ the show’ during this past month. Though the forecast threatened rain, I took my chances and headed to the beach. I joined a small group gathered on the beach and was rewarded with quite a display. Off to the south, the sky was a beautiful blue, without a cloud in the sky. Just expansive, endless blue. Off to the north, however, the sky was grey, with the vertical lines that indicated that it was raining just a couple of miles out over the gulf. And right in front of me the top half of the sky was dominated by an imposing black cloud, a solid line across the horizon. But when the sun dipped below this line, oh, the most dazzlingly gold sun I have ever seen. Brilliant. It lit up the whole beach. I wore sunglasses. And then the thunderclap. It was so loud all of us on the beach jumped. And then the lightening. It streaked all through the sky – south, north, straight ahead – cutting bright lines through the blue, the gray and the black. It looked as if the sun were exploding. I have never seen anything like it. An English woman standing beside me suggested that if it were to start snowing we would have seen everything; I mentioned that hail was not out of the question. When the rain started, in large, fat drops plopping in the sand, we all turned to go. And stopped still, with an audible gasp. There, in front of the battle-grey cloud that dominated the heavens, stood a glorious rainbow – its red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet bands illuminated by the golden sunlight bouncing back to us off the reflective cloud.

2018-08-24 19.46.56

The rainbow – mentioned in our prayer of confession this morning – the sign of God’s covenant with all creation, God’s declaration that God intends for us life and not destruction. It was a welcome sign, and moved me deeply. This quasi-apocalyptic scene and heavenly sign was a fitting end to my vacation in which I had grown increasingly saddened by our capacity to ignore the harm we human beings wreck in creation.

I spent nearly all four weeks of my vacation in Southwest Florida, staying with my mom and visiting my grandmother. I had taken my son and my niece there for what we called “Grammie Camp.” My mom cooked up for them an immersion in Southwest Florida ecology (plus daily swims in the pool and other adventures). Together, we

  • Walked boardwalks through swampland;
  • Hiked the wilderness through cypress groves and mangrove forests, sharing the trail with gators;
  • Visited ecology and nature centers, bird rookeries, and botanical gardens;
  • Witnessed watershed preservation efforts;
  • Toured an wildlife rehabilitation hospital; and
  • Toured an eco-farm run by a Christian organization for the purpose of sharing best practices in sustainable agriculture learned from indigenous communities around the world.

What we did not do, was swim at the beach. All the Gulf Coast beaches south of the Caloosahatchee River are closed on account of deadly Red Tide. The Red Tide is a naturally occurring algae bloom that often appears in the late summer months. It is deadly to marine life and hazardous to humans, particularly those prone to asthma. But the Red Tide this year is already in its tenth month. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency. The beaches are all closed to swimmers. The sands in Fort Myers, Estero, Sanibel, Bonita Springs, and Naples are littered with dead fish that fed on the toxic algae or suffocated in the oxygen depleted water. One of the trips we intended to take in ‘Grammie Camp’ was to Mound Island in Estero, which had been the home of the Calusa, the native Floridians 500 years ago. The island can only be reached by kayak, and all the kayak companies were closed. Fishing has been declared catch-and-release only, which has depressed commercial fishing and driven recreational fisher elsewhere. The anxiety in the tourist industry was palpable.[ii]

The problem is exacerbated by the addition of another toxic algae with origins in Lake Okeechobee, which is the second largest freshwater lake entirely in the United States. This blue-green algae flourishes in the phosphorous rich waters of the lake – a result of agricultural runoff: fertilizers from lawns and farms, pesticides from sugar-cane fields. When water is released from the swollen lake during the rainy season, the algae forms a plume down the Caloosahatchee River, enters Estero Bay, and take up residence in every small cove and inlet. This toxic mix of algae flourishes in the unusually warm waters of the Gulf, a partial result of global warming.[iii]

In addition to the unimaginable tons of dead fish on the beaches, this deadly tide has claimed the lives of forty-one dolphin, one hundred and fifteen manatees, and a twenty-six-foot whale shark. But spookier than the bather free beaches, was the absence of birds. The terns, snowy plovers and sand pipers (you know the that chase the retreating water and then run away from the waves, over and over) – all gone

The evidence of our carelessness with creation was everywhere, and I did not need ’eyes to see.’ Destruction was unmistakable.

This is our fifth year observing the liturgical Season of Creation. Part of the reason for this new season is the recognition that the liturgical year is largely built around the life of Jesus, with the Season of Pentecost set aside to focus on the work of the Holy Spirit, but there is no season dedicated to our Creator; no season focused especially on our place in the created world and our vocation as human beings responsible to and for the world we live in. And this kind of attention is urgently needed today.

We live with what theologian Norman Wirzba called ecological amnesia. The causes for this are both physical and existential. Physically, we live at a distance from the productive use of land. Few of us see, let alone work in, the fields and farms where our food is produced. But existentially, we can get along just fine without knowing how deeply we need the earth. To get on with our daily lives we simply do not need to know about our connection with local, regional and global ecologies. We don’t notice the slow catastrophe of climate change until is disrupts our enjoyment of life, until it affects us.[iv]

You would think that with sinking cities in rising waters, with extreme weather exacerbated by climate change, Southwest, Florida would be acutely aware of environmental threats, but I did not see that evidence.

As I walked around my mom’s neighborhood I could see the damage from Hurricane Irma, that struck the Gulf Coast on this weekend last year, much of it still in need of repair. The water rose as far as my mom’s street, creeping right up to her garage door. And this, even though the expected nine-foot storm surge never materialized. If it had, water would have flooded my mom’s place (and submerged by grandmother’s). Yet just a few miles north of my mom’s home, a developer is draining a wetland and cutting down a woodland to build new homes regardless of the threat. Is he telling prospective homeowners that they will be in a mandatory evacuation zone? The construction has further displaced black bear who have now migrated south to my mom’s neighborhood where we twice saw them foraging for food, going so far as to enter her neighbor’s back porch to eat birdseed. These bear have no future now.[v]

Yet at this moment many churches have yet to even mention ’climate change’ in worship, or wrestle with the uneven way costs and consequences of our ecological denial are born by poor communities and communities of color, an unevenness known as environmental racism. Churches continue devising new building projects without having a single conversation about rising sea levels and how they will affect coastal cities. Much that passes as worship in our churches serves as an escape from these hard realities rather than as a space for helping us hear and receive this painful information in the context of our creator’s loving and reconciling work in the world.

To return to our scripture…

When the Pharisees question the behavior of some of Jesus’ disciples, Jesus does not defend them. Instead Jesus seems to take the approach that the best defense is a good offence. He attacks the tradition of the elders itself, calling it a pious disguise for the practice of injustice. “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” he says. A better translation might read, “How piously you ignore the requirements of God.” In saying this, Jesus places himself in the lineage of the prophets. He cites Isaiah, who calls out those who use religion as an evasion of moral responsibility, but alludes to Amos, who condemns ritual sacrifice and ritual practice in favor of justice, and of Jeremiah who looks for a new covenant written on the heart.[vi]

Jesus will, in the next several chapters of Mark’s Gospel, repeatedly urge his disciples to

  • Listen
  • Pay attention
  • Be Aware
  • Wake up

And in his most desperate hour, Jesus will ask his disciples to stay awake with him. He will do this because they (and we) have a tendency to drift into drowsiness when difficulties arise.

As a congregation that has woken up to the deadly threat climate change and environmental racism, we cannot go back to sleep. But we recognize how easy it would be. We observe the Season of Creation in this congregation as a way of staying awake to the complex, challenging, frightening and painful problems of our day. We do so to fight our ecological amnesia by reconnecting with our creator, reveling in the beauty of the created world, and taking responsibility for its precarity.

By the way, I recently learned the world precarity comes from an old English word that means ‘filled with prayers.’ To acknowledge the precarity of our world is to fill it with all our payers, for life, for health, for healing and wholeness.[vii]

As a hymn of commitment, let us sing “Touch the Earth Lightly.”

 

 

[i] Seasonofcreation.org

[ii] A brief history of the Calusa is briefly described, in the context of climate change and threats to Southwest Florida, is described by Jeff Goodall in The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. (Little, Brown and Company, 2017). pp. 26-30.

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/us/algae-toxic-florida-dead-animals-red-tide.html

[iv] Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation. (IVP, 2012). Chapter 1: Reconciliation with the Land, pp. 19-40.

[v] See Jeff Goodall, op. cit. on the level of denial among those truly shaping development in Florida. Goodall says the practices of realtors and real estate developers as Russian Roulette.

[vi] Martha Moore-Keish, Feasting on the Gospels – Mark. Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson. (WJK, 2014). pp. 200-205.

[vii] Robert Bly, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: A Poetry Anthology. (HarperPerennial, 2011). p. 35.

The Struggle to Be Human

August 1, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2018

Psalm 67         Mark 2:1-12

I have set myself two goals as we read our way through the Gospel of Mark this year in worship. The first is to try each week to hear something of the whole story of the gospel rather than the singular Sunday stories we are given by the lectionary. The second goal is  to lift up aspects of the story that are less commonly preached on. Now, it so happens that the lectionary takes a break from this gospel for the next four weeks, which conveniently, are the four weeks of my vacation. So we will use today to look back at a story the lectionary passed over earlier this year due to the timing of Easter.[i]

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

We are familiar with the basic narrative. Jesus is preaching the word in a house. This is the second time in Mark’s story that Jesus has taught in a house. The house is crowded, so crowded no one could get in through the door. There is a paralyzed man who has four faithful friends who want to bring him to Jesus. They cannot get in, on account of the crowd, but they will not wait, so they climb to the roof and open it up. They literally dig through it. I try to imagine the scene: the pounding on the roof, the thuds and echoes inside, and then the falling mud, stick, straw; the chaos and confusion; the press of bodies against one another as they push against the walls in an attempt to get out of the way. And I think of the noise: the sounds of confusion, the angry shouts and the panicked cries. And then down through the roof, as if from the sky, a human figure descends in their midst. And we are told that Jesus sees their faith. The plural is important. He did not see the faith of the paralytic, but the faith of the four friends.

What did Jesus see? What does this faith look like?

Faith in the Gospel of Mark looks like persistence, impatience, and pushiness, even shamelessness. It involves risk-taking, the defying of conventions, refusing to be denied. It is insistent.

Think of the leper who bounded up to Jesus and said, “If you choose, you can make me well”; or Jairus, the leader of the village assembly, kneeling before Jesus; or the Syro-Phoenician woman who convinced Jesus that immigrant deserve the same treatment as citizens; or the man with the withered arm who was unafraid to display his disability before a crowd. Think of Blind Bartimaeus, willing to be as loud as he needed to be in order to ask Jesus for what he wanted. And on, and on.

This is what Jesus sees. This is what faith looks like. This is what heals.

Over and over, in story after story, Jesus does not so much heal people as he acts as the catalyst for God’s power in people’s lives. And he encourages others to do the same for one another.

That’s right! One of the big points of the Gospel of Mark is that we can, we should, we must help one another realize the power of God in our lives. That is what is means to be fully human. One of the early church theologians, Irenaeus, famously said, “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That is not something we can take for granted. We are to struggle to be human, to be fully alive, as God intends. It is not too much to say that Jesus wants us to achieve or live up to our human potential as Children of God.

Ironically, our Monday Evening Bible Study, which has been studying the Gospel of Mark for ten months now, has discovered that deep within so many of us is a belief that Jesus asks too much of us; of more than we are capable of. We have been trained in this belief, of course, – to expect little of ourselves, of our humanity. “To err is human,” we think, and “What can you expect, we’re only human,” we say, which are both ready excuses, a mindset, a worldview, that asks too little and expects less of human nature.[ii]

But the Apostle Paul says that we must “grow into the fullness of the Children of God” and that even as we do, “we do not yet know what we will become.” We must struggle to be human, to become that for which “all creation groans and waits in eager expectation to be revealed”: humanity fully alive as God intends, taking our proper place within creation. (Romans 8:18ff)

Jesus says we will be able to do all that he did, and more.

walter-wink

Anticipating my upcoming vacation, I recently picked up the final book by New Testament scholar Walter Wink, from whom I have learned so much in classes and workshops. Walter died in 2012 from complication related to dementia, and this final book, called Just Jesus, is a memoir written with the help of many friends during his final year. In the preface, his wife June reflects on the process used by these faithful friends to help Walter summarize a life’s work of relationships, scholarship, and non-violent activism that he calls “my struggle to become human.” They would read to Walter from his writings, or Walter would remind them of stories which they would compose together as Walter was able – he narrating when he could, and when he could not speak he would nod affirmation or rejection as they told the stories, he changing words here and there to get them right. Again and again I have found myself weeping while reading these poignant episodes of failure and growth as Walter tried to become more human.[iii]

Walter Wink had spent the last decade of his life researching the enigmatic phrase, “the son of man” that appears in our scripture reading this morning. “Scarcely any topic in all research has received more attention with less result,” he has written. He published his findings in a book called The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man.

Here are some of the facts with which Professor Wink defines the problem.

“Son of man” (without definite articles) appears one hundred and eight times in the Hebrew Scriptures, ninety-three of them in Ezekiel. Curiously, God refuses to call Ezekiel by his given name, but addresses him on as “son of man.” No one else calls Ezekiel “son of man,” only God. A similar expression appears in the New Testament some eighty-seven times, all but three in the Gospels, and curiously eighty–four times on the lips of Jesus and no one else….

Herein lies the puzzle: Jesus apparently avoided designation as messiah [Christ], son of God, or God, though these titles were given to him after his death by his disciples. But Jesus is repeatedly depicted as using the obscure expression “the son of man” as virtually his only form of self-reference. Yet, his disciples, after his death, almost completely ignore the expression. Paul never once used it, nor any of the writers of the epistles. It appears only a few times in the writings of the Apostolic [authors]. So far as we know, no one worshipped “the son of man” or made that figure the one addressed in prayer….

Yet once the early church began talking about Jesus as “fully God” and “fully human,” the phrase “son of man” was taken to be a humble shorthand or oblique reference for “son of God.” It was often taken as a title and represented with capital letters as in Son of Man. Nothing could be further from Jesus purpose.

So, see if you can follow this:

“Son of” is simply a Semitic idiom meaning ‘pertaining to the following genus or species.’ Thus ‘son of the quiver’ is an arrow (Lam. 3:13), a ‘son of the herd’ is a calf (Gen. 18:7), and a ‘son of the night’ refers to something one night old (Jon. 4:10). Joshua and Zerubbabel are ‘sons of oil,’ that is, anointed ones (Zech. 4:14), and a ‘son of wisdom’ is a wise person (Isa. 19:11). Hence ‘son of man’ simply means ‘man’ or ‘human being.’ [iv]

Translators of Hebrew Scripture have now caught up with this. Thus, in our NRSV pew bibles, Ezekiel 2:1 has God address Ezekiel with the phrase “Hear, O mortal…” where older translations had “Hear, O son of man.” At the same time, New Testament translators continue to treat “son of man” as a title, capital letters and all, as you see in your pew Bibles this morning. But in Ezekiel and Daniel, “the son of man” is not a title or messianic office but refers to an archetype of humanity – he is the one who puts us in touch with our humanity. The Human One, Human Being, or simply Humanity are Professor Wink’s preferred translations. It is an inclusive image, as well. Perhaps my favorite example of this kind of use is in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which all of Narnia, captive to the Snow Queen who keeps the world “always winter and never Christmas,” longs for the arrival of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve to set things right.

Now let’s return to the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus sees the faith of four friends who bring a paralyzed man to Jesus. And what does Jesus say? Get up and walk? No, he says, “You are forgiven.” In particularly, “your debts are forgiven.”

Imagine, “You don’t owe anyone anything…

  • for your physical condition;
  • for your care, the care given to you, the years of caregiving;
  • for your needs, or neediness (if that is the case);
  • and quite literally, your financial debts are forgiven. Your medical bills, back-rent, and even the bill for the repair of the roof, are taken care of.

Can we hear Jesus say, “You don’t owe me anything, either.” How liberating that must have been!

And the scribes freak out. They think, “Who can forgive but God alone?”

Really?? Only God??

Think again about the phrase I used earlier “To err is human…” Do you know how to finish it?

“To err is human… to forgive is divine” (Alexander Pope, 1688-1744) which simply repeats the scribes error of expecting too little of human beings and leaving forgiveness to God.

The point of Jesus’ encounter here is that when we act like human beings, rather than something less than human… when we act as mortals can, as we should, then we

  • forgive one another,
  • extend grace,
  • release one another from burdensome obligations,
  • let go of hurts,
  • heal one another,
  • hold one another,
  • care for one another.

“So that you may know that human beings can do this,” Jesus says to the paralytic, “Get up [Rise up]. Take your mat, and walk.”

What Jesus asks of us, what God needs of us, is for us to be the human beings we were made to be, to struggle to be human in an inhuman world, to let Jesus direct us toward the power of God, available to us, at work within us, already, for the healing our lives and our world.

Let us take a moment to reflect, before God, what this means for each of us, and then let us sing our struggle and seek the aid we need, as we sing hymn 445, “God, How Can We Forgive”… (Ruth Duck, 1994).

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[i] Richard Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. (WJK, 2011).

[ii] Part of this is what Desmond Tutu has called “surplus powerlessness,” a learned passivity before the powers that control us. This would have been another direction to develop this sermon. Another part of is the teaching of “cheap grace” of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was so critical, which would have been another direction to develop this. Instead I follow the apocalyptic humanism found in Daniel 7 and developed by the anti-imperial theologians like St. Paul.

[iii] Walter Wink, Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, A Memoir. (Image, 2014). Walter writes poignantly about his work to recover an emotional life he had shut down in response to early trauma.

[iv] Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man. (Augsburg, 2001). These paragraphs are reprinted in Just Jesus (see above). Jesus term of self-reference is actually the awkward “the son of the man,” rather than “the son of man,” but that was more information than needed to make the points needed in this sermon.

 

Like Sheep Without a Shepherd

July 23, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2018

Psalm 23           Mark 6:30-44

Multiplication mosaic, Tabgha, Israel

I have been preaching straight through the Gospel of Mark this year, which has freed me up from manuscripts. What follows is not a text from yesterday, but some of the points I made while preaching. The photo above is of the mosaic on the floor at the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Galilee.

I began by introducing the idea of a literary sandwich – one story inserted between the beginning and ending of another story (like burger inserted between two halves of a bun), such that each story helps interpret the other (and makes a complete sandwich). Mark is full of ‘sandwiches.’ Since the Gospel of Mark was originally composed through oral storytelling long before being given written form, stories became linked by mutually illumining one another. For example, four weeks ago we had the story of a twelve-year-old girl who appeared to be dying interrupted by the story of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Mark 5:21-43). Only when this second woman’s faith heals her does Jesus invite the twelve-year-old girl to ‘rise up.’. Together, these two stories illustrate how faith itself is healing and how such faith can bring us back to life. The reference to ‘twelve’ suggests the rebirth of the entire people rather than the healing of individuals. (And so, so much more here; but we get the idea).

Over the last two weeks we have also been exploring a sandwich whose theme has been hospitality – the kind of welcome we owe to one another in the Kingdom of God.

  • FAILURE IN NAZARETH: Two weeks ago, we explored Jesus’ failure to perform ‘deeds of power’ in Nazareth when Nazareth failed to demonstrate hospitality to God’s prophet. On the one hand, they failed to perceive the prophet, seeing only the familiar ‘carpenter’s son.’ But on the other hand, their failure to perceive was reinforced by a legitimate fear that if he were a prophet he would be dangerous. The violent depopulation of nearby Sepphoris, the remains of which could have been seen from Nazareth, would have only been the most recent example of where talk of God’s kingdom could lead. Having been treated like a stranger in his own town, Jesus then sends his disciples out to heal, free, and share the good news of God’s kingdom in the homes of strangers, completely dependent on the hospitality of others.
  • ANTIPAS – THE WOULD BE KING: Last Sunday, the story of the disciples’ mission was interrupted by the story of a dinner party in Tiberius. Herod Antipas shows hospitality to government officials, military leaders and his wealthy patrons in a lavish birthday celebration. This party, the fruit of his colonizing of Galilee, brings not life, but death, as John the Baptist is killed for a foolish promise, a perverted sense of honor, and a very different sense of fear (of the prophet’s criticism of Antipas). All of this reminds us that the fear of prophets in Nazareth is well founded.
  • SUCCESS IN GALILEAN VILLAGES: As we pick up the story today, we learn that the disciples, now called apostles, have been successful in the Galilean villages they visited. They have healed, and freed, and shared good news, and they have experience the hospitality of God’s people. They have not brought God’s kingdom to the villages so much as found it there as they were welcomed. Now, completely tired out, Jesus invites them to Sabbath rest.
  • TO GIVE EVEN AS WE HAVE RECEIVED: But there seems to be one more lesson for these disciples/apostles – a large crowd from the villages has now come out to Jesus and his colleagues. We are told that Jesus has compassion on them, so he teaches by the seaside for the rest of the day. When the hour grows late, the disciples want to send the hungry people away to purchase food, but Jesus tells his disciples, “you feed them” We smack our heads as the twelve, who have learned so much about hospitality, fail to demonstrate it themselves. They must now learn to give even as they have received. With echoes of God’s feeding Israel in the wilderness, and of Elijah’s provision of food, Jesus shows them how.

One way to look at these stories in the sixth chapter of Mark is as a large sandwich about hospitality:

  • The failure to practice hospitality in Nazareth because of fear and their focus on the familiar;
  • The perversion of hospitality in Tiberius as Antipas uses it to consolidate and celebrate power;
  • The success of hospitality in the villages of Galilee as the disciples share news of the kingdom;
  • The demonstration of hospitality in a desert place as Jesus leads his disciples in feeding people.

Much else was said in this portion of the sermon, and I suggested there is much more to explore, but I only wanted to make one further point about political leadership.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd.” This might seem like a pastoral image, even sentimental, (as our reading of the 23rd Palm today might suggest to our ears) but it is in fact political, even military.

  • The metaphor appears in the commissioning of Joshua by Moses, ‘lest the people be sheep without a shepherd.’ (Numbers 27:17). Joshua is to lead the people into Canaan to secure land on which they can live safely and securely.
  • Jeremiah speaks of the people as sheep without a shepherd (Jeremiah 27:6) and promises God will raise up shepherds who will feed them (Jeremiah 23:4). To feed the people means to deliver justice. Shepherds here are kings, like David (the literal shepherd king) who will execute justice.
  • Ezekiel also promises a shepherd king who will feed them (Ezekiel 34:23) and protect them so that they may live securely in the land (34:35). The shepherd will also break the yoke of imperial slavery (34:27).
  • Isaiah alludes to the Exodus story where God brought the shepherds of God’s people through the sea (Isaiah 63:10-14).[i]

And this is just a sampling of this tradition. When Jesus says that the people are ‘like sheep without a shepherd,’ he is indicting the current political leadership who we have just seen gathered at Herod’s table and who have witnessed the death of the prophet John. I can just imagine him saying, to Herod:

You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they [are] scattered, because there [is] no shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:4-5)

Instead, it is Jesus we have seen doing these things, and it is now Jesus we see feeding the people and reconstituting them as the people of God. He is gathering up the fragments of the people, like the fragments of bread, and renewing their commitments and capacity for community from below through practices of hospitality, mutual care, and grace.

I ended by saying that we live in a time when political leaders have failed and are failing in their basic responsibilities. But thank God we live in a time when renewed commitment from below can both foster a different future and hold us together in difficult times. Congregations like ours practice welcome, hospitality, placemaking, mutual care, generosity and grace. If Jesus is to be found today, he is to be found calling out failed leaders and in offering alternatives, and in places like this sanctuary.

 

 

[i] Among many good summaries of this tradition, I have here paraphrased Ted Jennings from Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Insurrection of the Crucified: The ‘Gospel of Mark’ as Theological Manifesto. (Exploration Press, 2003).