New wine (and lots of it!)

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 96

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Why is it that the language we use about our relationship to God is not nearly as vivid as the language used by the authors of the scriptures? The prophet compares the relationship between God and God’s people to that of a newly wed bridegroom to bride. Of course, we have to be careful of the androcentrism of the prophet, but the relationship described is one of joy and ecstasy. We tend not to be so vivid. For us, our relationship to God often seems one of duty. Too bad.

I love this passage from John’s Gospel. It is so rich — layer upon layer. You can read many layers of the life of the community as you peel back each layer. To start off, it begins, “On the third day.” If one stops right there and asks, “which third day,” it becomes clear that this is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. It captures some moment in the life of the post-resurrection community, some shift made by John’s community, at which Jesus showed up to help them make the transition.

The next phrase is “A marriage happened in Cana of Galilee.” Marriage recalls all of the language of God and God’s people married from Isaiah, Hosea and the whole Hebrew tradition. John probably wants us to be thinking in terms of the restoration of God’s people. Marriage was also problematic for the early christians. There were many groups who eschewed marriage altogether, as being too deeply implicated in the surrounding society. Such groups also tended to eschew drinking wine. They had water in their chalices at the eucharist. I wonder if John’s community was originally one of these communities. That would account for Jesus’ rather abrupt remark to his mother when she points out that wine has failed — “Woman, what is that to you and to me?”

She goes on to tell the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. He instructs to fill six (empty) stone water jars “according to the purifications of the Judeans” standing by. Stone makes them pure enough for the ritual ablutions (Lev. 11:33). Jesus tells the servants to fill them to the brim (20 to 30 gallons each according the NRSV). Then he tells them to draw some off and take it to the architriklinos, the person reclining at the head position of the three couches, the master of the feast. It was the job of the architriklinos to keep the feast moving, to make sure entertainment was appropriate, to mix the wine with water (if the architriklinos was the same as the symposiarch) and to keep everyone happy. He remarks to the groom that he has kept the beautiful wine until last.

This could be a reference to the good wine of the christian community — God has kept the best of God’s plan and promises until now. There is also an element of the wine of christian community replacing the purity designations of (some) Judean identity. It also seems to me that there is an element of wine in the chalice replacing water — John’s community at some point made the shift from being marriage denying to marriage embracing (a sacrificial understanding of the eucharist) and found this better. Or maybe they are saying to other christian communities, “Our water is way better than your wine.”

In all events, this story has been used to narrate any number of miraculous shifts within the life of the community, any number of “new wines” that won’t fit in “old skins.” The test of the transformation is whether it produces good wine. As the church faces many transformation even now, “on the third day,” to which Jesus once said, “Woman, what is that to you and me,” the question we must ask is does this new mode of identity (rites of cleansing) produce really good wine, or does it keep people (the unclean) out? Conservatively, Jesus made 120 gallons of wine. That makes for quite a party. Are we having fun yet?

revealing the mystery

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6,9

Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

It’s a shame that most of the language of the restoration of Jerusalem’s glory also involves langauge of political ascendancy. When God brings God’s people back to Jerusalem, God will re-establish the Empire as it existed in David’s time. Camels will come from all over bringing political tribute to the restored city. All the nations will worship Israel’s God. The images of peace and glory are truly attractive, but the cost is high: camels from Midian, Ephah and Sheba will bring gold and frankincense (political and religious tribute — taxes and worship); ships from Tarshish will bring gold and silver.

Third Isaiah’s images of restoration look back longingly to the glorious days of Empire. Second Isaiah’s language of the servant as a light to the Gentiles has a somewhat different emphasis. God’s uniting activity will cost God’s servant, not those to be united to God’s worship.

Matthew clearly alludes to the restoration language in Third Isaiah in his account of the eastern magicians’ homage of Jesus. In line with Matthew’s overall plan of Jesus replacing every institution of Jewish identity (Torah, food, Temple, priesthood, monarchy, etc.), here Jesus replaces the royal city. Tribute is brought to Jesus. The magicians depart to their own country by another “road” (hodos in Greek), a common nickname for the early christian movement: they have been converted.

I like Ephesians vision of things a little better. The unification of humanity into one, as co-heirs of God’s grace, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise has been God’s plan from the beginning. That mystery was hidden from prior ages, but has now been revealed through the church’s apostles and prophets, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” At the time Ephesians was written, probably in Asia Minor, Caesar was widely praised as having unified the inhabited world, having brought an end to (civil) war, and having brought the “pax Augustana.” Caesar had been elevated to the heavenly places in the Imperial Cult.

According to the author of the letter to the Ephesians, the Imperial Cult had it wrong. The church, a cosmic reality, was the mode of revelation of God’s plan for unity. This network of little groups meeting in houses all over the Mediterranean world, with little or no access to the public sphere, was what unified all people in one Body. Its importance went far beyond those locally gathered groups, even as far as the cosmic sphere. Caesar could learn a thing or two from this little church.

As our worship at our local altars links us with Christians around the world in their worship at the same altar, so we could teach Caesar a thing or two today. It’s a shame when our own internal strife prevents us from incarnating that unity. The author of the letter to the Ephesians knew full well that the church of his day wasn’t perfect, but it had a cosmic purpose. It has yet “to grow in every way into him who is [its] head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper function of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (4:15-16). That would provide the basis for all his ethical teaching. We would do well to hear that again and remember that our cosmic purpose is nothing short of the unity of humankind, not under political constraint, but in the freedom of faithfulness.

Born on the outside

Advent 4C

Micah 5:2-4

Psalm 80:1-7

Hebrews 10:5010

Luke 1:39-56

Sorry I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks. I had some papers to finish off for courses, and just didn’t find the time to get to the blog. But, the semester is over, so here I am.

This passage from Micah is very familiar to Christians. We hear it often. Matthew uses it in his Gospel to answer Herod’s answer to the magicians concerning where the Messiah would be born. It’s a very problematic text. It’s hard to figure out who is speaking to whom. It seems to me that subject and addressee change at least once in these two short verses. It’s also hard to determine when it was written. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, so it could be written in the time of Hezekiah, but there are also inclusions in Micah’s book from the time of the Exile in Babylon, so it could be about the expected return. Either way, it is unexpected. If the time frame is Hezekiah, and the threat to Judah from the north, why would the child-ruler (notice, not a king), be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. The Jerusalem monarchy and its progeny are not God’s chosen rulers. If in the Exile, again, why not a ruler from among the exiled nobility. Only the insignificant folks stayed behind in Judea. Ezra deals with the problems of intermarriage among those who remained behind. God would seem to be choosing a person of mixed heritage over the pure line of exiles. But then God has done that before — just see Ruth.

And, so we come to Luke’s story of Mary. Again, on the outside: God’s slave girl. The redemption of the slave girl echoes the laws concerning the rape of a virgin found in Deuteronomy 24. God has to redeem Mary directly, because no other redeemer was found for her.

Mary’s song is a standard format. It echoes Miriam’s song at the Red Sea, and Hannah’s song at the birth of Saul (yes, I know it says Samuel in 1 Samuel 2, but Hannah naming him because she had asked him of the Lord leads us to expect the name Saul — this is a birth story about Saul changed to Samuel when Saul fell out of favor). The ruler is unexpected.

Notice that Elizabeth is barren, like Sarah and Hannah, while Mary is unmarried. John the Baptist is the last in a line of miraculous births on the old pattern. Jesus is something entirely new. Of course, for Luke, the real interest is in the period of the Holy Spirit, which begins on Pentecost. Mary is the first evangelist of the Church. She is the Church. We sing her song, and keep it alive.

The day of the Lord

Advent 1C

Zechariah 14:4-9

Psalm 50:1-6

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-31

I suppose we have to begin Advent with a reference to the final arrival of Christ — Certainly nearly the whole of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is about how soon this will happen: with the sound of the trumpet we will be caught up into the air with Jesus. Zechariah describes a time when all the enemies of the people of God will be gathered before Jerusalem for one last battle, and God himself (yes the gender is intended) as a warrior will stand on the Mount of Olives to vindicate God’s people. Then, after these prodigies, there will be peace for ever. Luke uses imagery available in the background culture (even Stoicism describes the kosmos dissolving in fire) to describe the last days. Christians should not be worried, but rather unstoop and life up their heads for their redemption is near (unless, of course, you read the next 3 verses in which we are told to pray always for strength to flee the coming trouble).

What purpose is served by these predictions of times of gloom and doom (for everyone else) followed by times of peace for us? Such visions of the future seem to be a fixture in Judeo-Christian literature. Every age throws up its apocalypse, its gloomy future (followed or not by peace). In the seventies and eighties of the past century, it was mutually assured nuclear destruction. Now, it’s global warming. In every age, people have anticipated the worst.

For people under persecution or oppression, the apocalyptic vision serves to assure them that the oppressive force is not the true reality. Caesar only thinks he’s God. But why does such fascination persist when we are not oppressed? Why is the Left Behind series so popular? Two thoughts: such a vision serves to split the universe into good and evil (with us, of course, we hope, on the side of good, and preachers can use that for motivation to make sure we do what they think we need to do to stay on the side of good); and it absolves us of personal responsibility for changing the way things are. If it’s going to take a grand apocalyptic parousia of God to set things to rights, what can I do?

I find it interesting that we read this kind of literature from our canon at the beginning of Advent. During Advent, we are not really waiting for the final arrival of Jesus, but preparing ourselves to celebrate his first arrival. All language of the son of the human being coming on clouds with great glory notwithstanding, we are preparing to look for God arriving in small and hidden ways. We are subverting our own canon (not that I mind that). We are saying that what’s interesting about human history is already here; the divine is already among us, and is powerless, needs our protection, and won’t be swinging any swords. The grandiose has to accomodate itself to the mundane.

All the handwringing that we do, about war and peace, about global warming, or even about the ‘crisis’ in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion is misdirected if it absolves us from hope. “The world is coming to an end, so what can I do?” is not allowed. The divine is hidden here, not to be revealed out there, and requires something. I may not be able to bring down the global temperature, but I can change my habits. I may not be able to heal the Anglican Communion, but I can be attentive to communion locally. That’s where the divine is to be found. Advent reminds us we have to look for it.

Trouble ahead?

Proper 28B

Daniel 12:1-13

Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:31-39

Mark 13:14-23

Ah, you can tell we are coming to the end of the liturgical year! Tis the season for apocalypsis. Daniel 12 (all of Daniel, in fact) and Mark 13 are examples of apocalyptic literature. Both of them purport to show trouble ahead, and then beyond that, better times. The trick of apocalyptic literature, what makes it so appealing to its intended readers, is the accuracy with which it seems to predict the troubles we are now living through. Apocalyptic literature is always put on the pen of someone who lived a long time ago, and predicted these troubles. That way, we can trust also his prediction of the resolution of these troubles. Jesus seems to predict the destruction of Jerusalem. Daniel, in the Babylonian court seems to predict the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

What make apocalyptic appealing to us (living well past its intended audience) is the cosmic view taken. Events of this world are directly connected to events in the divine throne room. What is happening to us is not random, but part of God’s plan.  God has not forgotten us and left us to suffer, but all these things must take place in order that God’s appointed purpose can be worked out, and we will be part of that plan, just a few minutes from now.

The danger, of course, is to begin to think God intends this present trouble as a test for us. I suppose it is alright to think so when the trouble isn’t too bad, but when it makes no sense, we run the risk of turning God into a monster. Or perhaps, if we keep God out there on the grand political stage (our persecution will soon come to an end) things are o.k., but when it gets personal we run into problems.

R’s death and funeral this week is a good example. If that was part of God’s plan, God is a monster. The hope given in these passages is that God “has cut short those days” and the “shattering of the power of your people” has come to an end. These things are just facts (but not unnoticed in the heavenly court), and God will bring them to an end. For R’s widow, the future will be bright again. We will not always be powerless to comfort her.

All apocalyptic literature takes the perspective of a life beyond (and sometimes after) this one. These things are not the final reality. Whether in some future resurrection, or in some restoration of God’s divine plan, things will be set right. From the divine perspective, this is not the way things are supposed to be. The seers get into trouble when they try with too much detail to imagine how things are supposed to be. That often involves retribution of a particularly sordid sort against God’s enemies (the oppressed can easily become oppressors when the tables turn). The hope we have is that this wasn’t supposed to happen, and God will make it right.

Apocalypses also often include visions of worship (sometimes as if on hallucinogens). It is at worship where the divine order is restored, particularly worship in the divine realm. Our worship here is a reflection (sometimes feeble) of that divine worship, but provides a foretaste of things set right. The service for R on Monday gave us a foretaste of that divine restoration and resurrection. In it, all of us, R included, were raised to new life. Our grief was carried into the divine throne room and given comfort. Our lives were restored and a better future promised. Worship helps us to see things from the apocalyptic perspective, the way things should be even when they are not. It trains our imagination for that visionary work.

How noble the poor

All Saints’ Day Observed

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14

Psalm 149

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17

Matthew 5:1-12

I’m afraid this won’t be much of an entry this week. The events of the week (R’s hospitaliization, among other things) haven’t left me much time for working on a blog.

What I want to observe, however, is that both Ecclesiasticus and Matthew engage in the same kind of literature, the praise of the noble. It’s a standard literary form, and serves to identify the community being addressed, and its ethic. Ecclesiasticus goes on to praise famous men (sorry, it’s men only) by name — all the great names of the Jewish epic, and give reasons why they are worthy of praise. The intended audience of the sons of the nobility would carry away from this hymn a clear idea of what they should aspire to.

The beatitudes are exactly the same form of literature. Each could be translated “How noble the poor in spirit, or those who mourn, etc.” Reasons are then given why they are worthy of emulation. They point at exactly the opposite sorts of folks Ecclesiasticus is pointing at.

The events of the week lead me to reflect that we are noble precisely when we need the support of the community, not the other way around. It is the web of relationships that surrounds us that makes us saints, not our personal virtue (virtue only makes sense as a social category anyway). We are to make sure that that web of relationships is not so tissue-thin for anyone that it tears under stress. We do this by ennobling those who rely on the community (all of us). It is only through the help of that great cloud of witnesses that we can run the race. And those witnesses are those named in the beatitudes rather than in Ecclesiasticus’ hymn to famous men. These are they who have come through the great distress.

Teacher, that I might see.

Proper 25B

Isaiah 59:1-4, 9-19

Psalm 13

Hebrews 5:12 — 6:1, 9-12

Mark 10:46-52

Yesterday, I was composing this blog, and had the perfect reflection going on the healing of Blind Bartimaeus, and then I lost my internet connection. When the little box popped up telling me I had limited connectivity, I tried to save and continue editing. The whole entry disappeared into the aether somewhere, so I’ll try to reconstruct today (of course, it won’t be as good).

The Bartimaeus passage shows signs of having been worked and reworked any number of times. First, there is the weirdness of Jesus and his disciples entering Jericho, and then leaving Jericho with a large crowd. We have no idea what they did in Jericho. Is something missing? If Secret Mark is authentic, then yes. The sister of the man Jesus resurrected tries to see him, but Jesus refuses.

At any event, they leave Jericho, and alongside the road sits Bartimaeus (which just means son of Timaeus). Jesus has performed many cures and exorcisms along the way to this point in Mark’s Gospel, but we are not told the name of a single one of them: Simon’s mother-in-law, a leper, the man with the legion demons, the woman with the flow of blood, Jairus’ daughter, the Syro-phoenician woman’s daughter, none of them have names. Bartimaeus does. We are to pay attention. Gordon Lathrop, in an article in Worship, thinks that Mark is using Timaeus advisedly. Timaeus is the name of Plato’s dialog on cosmogeny, in which he proposes that the demiurge created the world (since God is too unmoving to do so). The Timaeus concerns sight and insight. I’ll have to reread it to catch any other allusions.

Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Son of David is a very rare title for Jesus, ocurring only here in Mark’s Gospel, in Matthew’s incipit, and in Romans 1. After the crowd shushes him, he drops the proper name and cries out “Son of David, have mercy on me.” It has become a liturgical title. When Jesus stops, he does not call Bartimaeus over, but tells the crowd to call him. They say to him, tharsei, egeire, phonei se: take heart, be resurrected, he calls you. Take heart is what apparitions said to those seeking visions of the dead. Jesus is appearing to Bartimaeus after his death (just as when he came walking on the sea — he said the same word to the disciples in the boat).

Bartimaeus throws off his clothes, leaps to his feet and comes to Jesus. This sounds like a baptismal liturgy: odd to be throwing off your clothes in the middle of the road. Jesus says to him, “What do you wish me to do for you?” Word for word (except for the change in the number of the pronoun and verb) the question he asked James and John when they came seeking a favor.

Bartimaeus replies, “Rabbouni, that I might look up.” Rabbouni as a title for Jesus occurs exactly one other time in the NT: when Jesus, whom Mary thinks is the gardener, calls Mary by name in the garden of resurrection, she replies, “Rabbouni.” Bartimaeus is encountering the risen Jesus in the midst of community. Jesus responds, “Your faith has saved you,” and Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the Way,” the only person in Mark’s Gospel to do so.

What does Bartimaeus see? If this story and the story of James and John are supposed to be linked by the question, “What do you wish me to do for you?” and if that story is to be linked to the crucifixion by the motif of sitting on the left and right, then perhaps Bartimaeus is linked to the centurion. When the centurion sees how Jesus expires, he says, “Truly, this man was son of god (that is, Caesar).” Bartimaeus, unlike James and Johh (at least in Mark’s story) sees Jesus in his glory on the cross.

The hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by a converted slave trader. He gives thanks that once he was blind but now he sees. He sees his own wretchedness, for one thing, but in seeing that, sees God’s grace. The Isaiah passage speaks of our iniquities blocking us from God. We have to see them before God can take action. Mark sees the brutality of the Roman state and has the centurion declare of a condemned and executed criminal, “This man was Caesar.” The places of honor go to two convicted murderers. Are we supposed to see the glory in such as these? Not comfortable. We are given the choice between jockeying for position, with James and John, or seeing with Bartimaeus.

Sitting at the right and the left.

Nathaniel, in his homilette at service last night, wondered aloud for whom it had been prepared to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he entered his glory, since clearly it wasn’t going to be James and John. He allowed that he had always thought it was the two thieves. That sent me to my concordance to the Greek New Testament. When James and John ask Jesus to sit at his right and his left, they use the word aristeros for left. Aristeros is a word of ill-omen in Greek, just as sinister is in Latin. The left hand was the hand you used, well, never mind (as Simon and Garfunkel said). When Jesus replies that to sit as his right and his left is for those for whom it has been prepared, he uses the word euonumos for left. Euonumos is a euphemism for left, and means exactly the opposite — it means “well named” or “good-omened.”

The word euonomos appears exactly twice in Mark’s Gospel: once here (10:40), and once at 15:27: “With him they crucified two revolutionaries, one on his right and one on his left.” (NAB). When the centurion who stood by the cross saw how Jesus died, he said, “Truly this man was son of god.” Son of god was a title for the Emperor. Here, he sees Jesus in his glory, with those for whom it has been prepared sitting at his right and at his left.

Immediately following James’ and John’s request, and the teaching to the ten, Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus. He asks Bartimaeus exactly the same question he asks James and John (the vocabulary is identical, only the number of the pronoun and verb changes): “What do you wish me to do for you?” Bartimaeus says, “That I might see.” See what? Jesus in his glory, just like the centurion does, and James and John fail to do. Jesus enthroned in glory on the cross flanked by a couple of murderers is not exactly how I imagine the Kingdom of God.

This insight forces us to question where we look for God’s glory. For Mark’s community, it might be reassuring to know that, as they faced martyrdom, they could be assured that places of glory were reserved for those facing a criminal death. What does it mean for us? Jesus redeems even those convicted of capital crimes?

The nations look on the one whom they have pierced in the Isaianic Servant Song, and are appalled. The are converted from the violence they have perpetrated on the servant. The centurion looks on Jesus and is converted from the violence he has perpetrated. If only . . .

Greatness and blindness

Proper 24B

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:35-45

The passage from Isaiah is the last of the great servant songs in Isaiah. The servant songs are startling poetry: they have defied easy interpretation since their first publication. Just who is the servant? The prophet? Israel? Some player yet to be named? And just how is the servant’s suffering redemptive for others? The theme of the suffering righteous one is a commonplace in ancient literature. For good examples see the Joseph story in Genesis, many of the psalms and my favorite, Wisdom, chapter 2. It would have been easy for early christians to tell the story of Jesus’ death along the lines of the story of the suffering righteous one. As I read it, the nations look in horror on the violence they themselves have perpetrated (possibly against Israel, or whoever the victim happens to be), and are converted from their own violence. Would that it were so.

The passage from the Gospel of Mark is the second to last episode in Mark before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (the beginning of the Passion portion of the Gospel). The last episode is the healing of Blind Bartimaeus. The two episodes read like a diptych, each interpreting the other. What James and John fail to see, Bartimaeus, despite his blindness, sees.

The image of cup and baptism are images of participation — we who are many are one for we share one bread and one cup. To have a share in Jesus means to have a share in his passion. Mark’s community was likely under persecution during the events surrounding 66-70 CE. While they had hoped for triumph, a new, ascendant Empire of God, they found instead persecution. Bartimaeus “gets it:” he follows Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.

We don’t live with Mark’s community’s persecution, but we can ask ourselves the question whose cup and baptism we share. Who else shares this washing with us, and drinks this cup with us? Refugees in Darfur? Civilians in Iraq? Winos on our streets? You pick the hot spot. What does it mean to share a cup with them? James and John didn’t get it (not at the moment, anyway). Bartimaeus sees and follows. How do we bring all that to our tables?

A hundredfold with persecutions

Proper 23B

 Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Psalm 90:1-8, 12

Hebrews 3:1-6

Mark 10:17-31

We surely take a beating in these readings about wealth. If you had any question about the corrupting power of money before you read these lessons, you should be disabused of it by now. Of course, that is not a very helpful message to be drawn from these lessons. Maybe Saint Anthony can sell all he has and move to the desert, but even he left behind a sister without much to sustain her. We are all pretty deeply involved in the money economy.

The man who approaches Jesus calls him “Good teacher” in the sense of teacher of the good. Clearly this man is looking for a teacher to whom he can attach himself to learn how to live. Continue reading “A hundredfold with persecutions”