1 November 2009
All Saints’ Day
Proper for All Saints’ Year B (RCL)

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

The passage from Wisdom of Solomon raises and answers a difficult question. It is the conclusion to the wonderful poem about the suffering righteous one (which is the source of the line “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”). The ungodly make a deal with death — they will eat, drink and be merry while they can, but the righteous poor man troubles them, so they agree to do away with him. The ending of the poem shows how mistaken they were. The righteous one is vindicated by God even after death. The problem faced by nascent monotheism was, “what happens when God doesn’t vindicate God’s people in this world?” The solution was a belief in resurrection: either the resurrection of the just only, for reward; or of both the just and unjust for respective reward and punishment. Not everyone within Judaism was agreed on resurrection — the Sadducees sought a political solution in this world and thought the Pharisees were copping out. Christians obviously sided with the Pharisees (interesting that we preserve such a negative assessment of the very branch of Judaism from which we descend). This poem is one of the classic statements of that position.

But, what does that resurrection look like? John gives us the story of the raising of Lazarus to show us what it doesn’t look like. It’s not the resusciation of a corpse. Lazarus’ resuscitaion and Jesus’ resurrection are contrasted in many ways: Lazarus dead four days, Jesus three; Lazarus comes out still bound in the grave clothes and the face cloth. Jesus’ grave clothes and face cloth are neatly folded up. Mary falls at (and grabs) Jesus feet. Jesus instructs Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him because he has not yet ascended. Jesus tells the crowd to “unbind” Lazarus and “let him go.” We are not awaiting some kind of revivication of our corpses. It’s not clear what we await, but Jesus already IS the resurrection.

Grief is still appropriate in the face of human death. Even Jesus weeps, and gets angry at Lazarus’ death (even though he brought it about by his delay in coming). As we process out into the garden, it is appropriate for us to grieve our lost companions, as we await whatever the resurrection is.

Leaving it all behind

25 October 2009
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25B (RCL)

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

The prose ending of Job almost ruins the book for me. God’s appearance to Job in the whirlwind is enough. But to have everything restored, like that makes up for what was lost just seems heartless. When I lived in Boston, I attended Church of St. John the Evangelist on Beacon Hill. The Church had a daily soup and sandwich program from 1 – 3 each afternoon. For a year or two I volunteered every Friday afternoon. There was a regular named Sleepy Joe. We were never under any circumstances to let the “clients” into the building, but one day Sleepy Joe talked his way past me. He helped me hand out sandwiches and soup. Over the course of the next year, I let him in every Friday. Sometimes he would help me make soup, or play cribbage with me. He told me his story (as much as one could believe it — everyone has a story). He had been a produce supplier to many of the downtown cafeterias until a teamsters’ strike had broken his company. Since then, he had lived somewhere (he would never say where) in North Station. He wasn’t a drunk (I never smelled it on him), and according to him, he had family, but he just chose not to take the help they offered. He was not bitter. This was just how things had turned out. It seems a more honest ending than Job’s story. Job says early in the book, “If we accept the good from God’s hand, shouldn’t we also accept the ill?”

Bartimaeus: my favorite story. A resurrection appearance: Bartimaeus calls Jesus “Rabbouni” the same title Mary uses of Jesus in the garden — my dear teacher. Only occurs twice in the NT. Also, baptismal. Bartimaeus throws off his garments to meet Jesus in the midst of the crowd. Also calls him simply “Son of David” second time around — a title rather than a name. Bart is the only person in Mark’s Gospel who follows Jesus “on the way” toward Jerusalem. The only one who “sees” what that means. One wonders who Bartimaeus had been before he was a beggar. Was he a beggar because of his blindness. Who was Timaeus, his father? Plato wrote a dialog called the Timaeus, has to do with the vision of the ideal forms. Is Mark aware of that? Bartimaeus sees the ideal of the cross and follows Jesus toward it.

Off center

18 October 2009
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24B (RCL)

Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm 104:1-9, 25
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

The final chapters of Job are among my favorite passages in sacred scriptures. Job has been requesting an audience with God, and he gets one. God shows up! And Job isn’t fried to a crisp by it. And God shows up in the same way as to Moses and Elijah. The story that sets up the poetry section of Job is written like a joke. “There was this guy. . .” Job had 7000 sheep, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 she-asse and 3000 camels! Yeah, right! The point of the story is along the lines of, “You think you’ve got it bad?! There was this guy named Job.” Of course the Deuteronistic school had said that the cause of calamity was God punishing us for sin. Leviticus had suggested that we might sin without being aware. Since you couldn’t turn to sacrifice for augury, to figure out who was at fault, well, it must be you, even if you don’t know it.

The joke/story accepts the Deuteronomistic theory and then pushes it to its absurd limit. God lets Satan punish Job just for the hell of it. The three friend then take up the Deuteronistic argument in spades. Just admit you’ve done something wrong, even if you don’t know what it is, and God will forgive you. Job insists on his righteousness. When he finally gets his audience with God, God never says, “You know, Job, you did mess up.” God just points out the wonders of creation, and asks Job if he can explain them. Whenever I’m complaining about how badly I’ve got it, it’s good to remember that Behemoth and Leviathan are part of God’s creation, despite their apparently evil nature, that the sun will come up tomorrow, whether I welcome it or not, and that the universe goes along with or without me. God does scold the three friends. They were absolutely wrong to say that Job must have sinned. The book of Job argues very strongly against the Deuteronomistic solution to the problem of evil.

In Mark’s Gospel, James and John ask Jesus to be granted to sit at his right and left. The word they use for left is “aristeron“, which like the latin “sinister” has connotations of “ill-omened.” When Jesus replies that it is not for him to grant to sit at his right and left, he uses “evonumon“, a euphemism for “left” which means, literally, “good-named” or “good-omened.” It’s interesting that he switches words. The euphemism for “left” shows up exactly one other time in Mark’s Gospel, in the description of the thieves crucified at Jesus’ right and “good-omened” left. James and John really didn’t know what they were asking! It had been prepared for the thieves to sit with Jesus in glory!

Both passages suggest to me that we need to get ourselves out of the center of the picture, and see how it all connects back to God. The passage from Hebrews suggests that it is exactly Jesus’ sumission that puts him in the presence of God, where he can make intercessions on our behalf. How do we come into the presence of God, and on whose behalf?


4 October 2009
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22B (RCL)

Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Psalm 26
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-26

Job has long been one of my favorite books in the Bible, but I must acknowledge, more for God’s response to Job than for the little wisdom tale that sets up the speeches, and which ends the book with Job restored to health and prosperity. Whenever I get frustrated, it’s good to be reminded that my problems aren’t at the center of the universe, and that the sun will rise tomorrow without my help.

But . . . Sometimes, I forget. When someone in the congregation gets ill, even when it’s serious, I’m usually pretty even-keeled. Especially if I can make sense of the medical reasons. My scientific mind is comforted by being able to categorize the illness: cancer, flu, COPD — whatever. We know the mechanisms and sometimes even the causes. However, every now and then, someone gets sick for no apparent reason. The doctors have no idea why, or even the mechanisms. Then, I can’t slot the event into a nice category. Who do you get angry at? Well, the story of Job knows: Satan and through Satan, God. We don’t like that so much, so we flounder about a bit.

I think Job was written in response to Deuteronomy and Leviticus, which both removed the aspect of divination from religion, figuring out whose fault something was. They settled instead for blaming the victim. Leviticus speaks over and over again of breaking the laws of purity without being aware of it. How is one supposed to find out about that? Job sacrificed for his children just in case — but it wasn’t enough. So, Job insists on his innocence contra Leviticus, and God finally shows up and agrees with him. He is innocent, but who the hell does he think he is, telling God how the world ought to be. We all need that now and then.

Divorce: What would happen to a divorced woman in Mark’s time? If she was lucky, she would go back to her father’s house and slave there. Otherwise, prostitution, maybe? And her kids? Disinheritied. No wonder Jesus forbids divorce. And as if to make the point, he blesses the children, the urchins, the nobodies. They are potential, but not yet real, heirs of the communities property. If disinherited, the became real nobodies. Jesus is saying, this is not a discourse about power, about what the law allows, who can do what, but about protecting the community. If the child he set in the midst of his disciples as they argued about who was greatest is in fact God’s ambassodor, then if one won’t welcome such children, one won’t enter the kingdom.