Proper 12, Year B
2 Kings 2:1-15 - link to NRSV text
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16 - link to NRSV text
Mark 6:45-52 - link to NRSV text
"They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52).
But what was it that they didn't understand? I've heard a lot of sermons over the years that suggest that the line of thinking that would have indicated Jesus' followers did understand would be something like this:
"Hey, this guy managed to make a few loaves and fishes feed thousands of people. He must be powerful. Heck, only God has that kind of power. I know ... he must be God!"
But that's not really the issue, and that's not how Jesus' followers would have thought or ought to have thought. Jesus' followers knew something that I think we also know intuitively -- and if not intuitively, by cold hard experience in the world:
Not all power in this world is used benevolently.
A lot of it isn't. Indeed, we tend not to think of power when we have it, or when it's used to our benefit; we think about it a lot when it's being used against us. That's also when we tend to think about justice as a category; power is used to an end with which we don't agree, and nine times out of ten we'll call it unjust, or at least unfair. Ask any teenager, and you'll probably hear a lot about it: the powers of this world can be capricious or malevolent ("out to get you") as well as just and good. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I so much enjoy ministry alongside teens. They're willing to speak up when they think they see power used capriciously or destructively; they understand that the powerful aren't necessarily good, and often they haven't bought in to the idea that the distribution of power in the world is pretty much as it ought to be.
Jesus' followers certainly knew that. You'd have to be living under a rock since infancy not to see it. The Roman Empire occupied not just Palestine, but the whole world as they knew it, and they cared mostly if not entirely about whether taxes were paid, commerce uninterrupted (see the "taxes paid" point), trouble minimized, and their power acknowledged as supreme on earth (sounds familiar, actually -- the same could be said of most empires). The same goals applied when it came to appointing local authorities -- building a city dedicated to the glory of Caesar (and paid for with taxes on the poor, not from compromising the lifestyles of the rich -- another phenomenon that sounds familiar to us) earned you a lot more points in the competition for Rome's favor than sweating about the welfare of peasants. And spiritual powers came in the same range as worldly ones -- some good, many capricious or malevolent. When a wonder-worker came to town, people would be asking not whether maybe he did it with wires or mirrors, but whether it was done with good or evil power. Miracles proved power, not goodness or godliness, and levitating around the town square would inspire more fear than worship or trust.
That's a theme we see in Mark from the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It comes up explicitly in Mark 3:20-27, when the scribes from Jerusalem question whether Jesus is casting out demons with the power of other evil spirits, and comes into play in many explanations of the so-called "messianic secret" in Mark -- Jesus' telling those healed by him not to tell others. But I've been thinking lately that the "Beelzebub controversy" in Mark 3 is a part of a broader theme prominent in Mark: the theme of power and its proper and godly use. It's a theme that comes up repeatedly, and on the day before our moving van arrives, I don't have time to treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves, except to point to the discussion that sets the context for Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, namely Mark 10:32-45, in which Jesus talks about death at the hands of Gentiles and new life to follow, and answers the request of James and John to sit at his right and left with what I believe is the centerpiece of Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Mark:
You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
So what does all this have to do with this Sunday's gospel? Our lectionary editors' wise choice of Hebrew bible readings for this week is a clue: the way in which Jesus uses his power over waters and the deep evokes, as does Elijah's parting the Jordan, the story of the Exodus, of a tiny and enslaved people being led out of slavery to a worldly power and into the desert where they are free to become a people who use power differently -- to feed the poor and care for the widow and orphan, or, as the prophet Micah sums up what Israel was formed as a people to do, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What Jesus' followers didn't understand about the loaves wasn't that they showed that Jesus had access to power -- Jesus' enemies said that much.
What they didn't understand was what their response ought to be. They didn't understand what it meant that God was, through Jesus, feeding all the people such that each had enough and no one accumulated too much -- much as God fed the Israelites in the desert with manna. They didn't understand that God's power over winds and waters in Jesus was like the parting of the Red Sea. They didn't understand that in Jesus, God was fulfilling the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-19 to raise up a prophet like Moses to do what Moses did. They didn't understand that what God was and is doing through Jesus is no less than forming a motley and marginalized crowd into a people, one people, God's people -- a people called to do with power what Jesus does with his: healing, empowering, self-giving even to the Cross, to knit together a whole Body joined in love and building up its weakest members.
That's who we are -- what we have been freed through Jesus to become.
Thanks be to God!
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
I was away this week at the Emergent Theological Conversation with Miroslav Volf, author of Exclusion and Embrace and Free of Charge. I'll probably blog about it in Grace Notes soon, but there was one thread in the conversation that keeps coming back to my mind, especially as I reflect on the gospel for this Sunday.
It started in a breakout group on global poverty, where the discussion generated a lot of energy and at least a little heat, particularly around the question of how much our intentions matter. Some people said things along the lines of “the important thing is that you do SOMETHING. It really doesn't matter what, as long as you do it with a heart to serve. Results don't matter; our attitude matters.” But there was something about that position I found disturbing. Let me put it this way:
If I were the mother in sub-Saharan Africa whose child might die of malaria for want of a $2 mosquito net, I would definitely feel that results mattered a great deal. If I needed a mosquito net to save my child's life and what North American Christians gave was a ham sandwich, the extent to which these people meant well wouldn't be much comfort to me as I mourned my daughter.
I thought of that conversation again in a later session with Volf as he was asked what he saw as the greatest problem in North American Christianity. The questioner noted that Hauerwas had, when asked the same question, named our biggest problem as sentimentality. Volf agreed with Hauerwas' answer, adding that our sentimentality was particularly dangerous spiritually when combined with the rigid judgmentalism that characterizes so much of the church here, and I agree. I'm not normally one to use this kind of language, but I often think that the best evidence I see around me for the existence and activity of what St. Paul called “powers and principalities” is the way that so much of the church here squanders so much of its resources on sexuality issues that seem like so much tithing of mint and dill and cumin in comparison to the immeasurably more weighty issues of justice and mercy and faith in our world. It's a distraction that might rightly be described as diabolical or demonic. At the very least, it's profoundly tragic, and all the more so for all of the good intentions involved.
And I do believe that most people's intentions are mostly good. But we Americans have far too often reduced Christianity to being about internal states. “Love” is a set of warm fuzzy feelings, and if you can drum those feelings up, that's enough. I think that's what Hauerwas and Volf were talking about when they named sentimentality as a profound danger to North American Christianity, because that's not what Jesus taught.
Indeed, Jesus taught in Matthew 25:31-46 that when he's faced with one group of people who intended to serve Jesus but did not provide for the real physical needs of those who were poor, sick, or imprisoned, and another group of people who do NOT intend to serve Jesus but who do provide for these needs, it's those with no intentionality to serve God but who do provide for the real needs of the poor who are honored by God and welcomed into Jesus' kingdom.
And besides, I remain suspicious of our intentions as long as our supposedly generous intentions perpetuate a world order that lines our pockets, increases our privilege, and kills other people's children. We can give sandwiches to the homeless or send grain to another nation, and that's something. But it seems to me that we guard most jealously something that we value more:
We hand out sandwiches, but we maintain a death grip on power. And I mean that “death grip” phrase: this puts us in a position of very serious spiritual danger. We hand out sandwiches while retaining the power to decide whose child eats and whose child dies. We get a twofold payoff from that: we feel generous, and since we're still in power, we can get off on our generosity whenever we want. We give and we take away, and either way, we get a fix of power over others, a power to which we are addicted and which rightly belongs only to God. That's idolatry of the worst sort as well as murder.
And that, at long last, brings me to the gospel for this Sunday, to a question that fascinated my first graduate-level New Testament class at St. Andrews in Scotland. In Mark 1:41, our text says that Jesus was moved with pity or compassion, but there's a fairly common variant in our manuscripts that says that Jesus was moved with “anger” to heal the leper. We found that pretty disturbing. But now, some seventeen years and many, many courses and books later, this is what I would have to say from the pulpit about the question of Jesus was moved with “pity” or “anger” to heal the leper:
It just doesn't matter. What matters is what he did. He gave everything he had to give, not to enhance his own power -- he understood that true power comes from God, and he had no interest in gaining worldly power -- but to empower the powerless. The leper that he met was an outcast with no voice at all in the community, and the man that went on his way after his encounter with Jesus was whole: brought back in to community, free to act in community to Jesus' advantage or not. Jesus didn't just give him a cure; Jesus gave him his voice.
And that's what we are called to do. Redistributing food and money is a something -- something important at that. But God is doing something even more profound in the world, and we are called to participate in it by using our power as Jesus used his: to empower the powerless. Send grain; work also for policies that share technology and make trade fair, giving people the power to feed their families. Hand out sandwiches to the homeless, but work also for policies to bring affordable housing to every community.
Does that sound overwhelming? It really wouldn't take that much. How many hours and how much effort do we spend trying to find out what would be the best computer or cell phone? Can we really not spare at least that many calories to learn what our elected officials are doing either to line our pockets or do justice toward the poor?
I'm reminded of a line from our Old Testament reading for this Sunday: “if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” We have no excuse to sit around complaining about how overwhelming our world's problems are as long as we're using our power, our voice, and our privilege in ways that further all of those things at the continued expense of the powerless. And we have even less excuse now that many of the world's leading economists have identified Millennium Development Goals that could end extreme poverty in this generation. Less than one percent (.7% is a figure often given) of the income (GDP) of wealthy nations would do it, and if the U.S. did no more than President Bush has already promised (but not yet delivered), we would be doing our share.
If you haven't joined the ONE Campaign yet to realize these goals, please do it today. Read websites like Oxfam's if you want more information on current events and how our participation in the world is furthering or hindering justice for the poor. We need not just to act now, but to act wisely. God has given us as a community gifts of wisdom and imagination to come up with solutions that could allow thousands upon thousands of children to live to see adulthood, and I believe that we are accountable for our use of time and imagination, our power and our voice, to further or hinder that agenda.
We can do it for Jesus' sake or for national security, we can be inspired by love or anger or both or neither. If I were preaching this Sunday, I think that would be my focus, and I'd be tempted to title the sermon “Inspired by Love and Anger,” from one of my favorite Iona Community songs:
Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God's own bias we ask him once again:
“How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self interest turn prayer and pity blind?”
From those forever victims of heartless human greed,
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
“Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners and dreams find their release?”
From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy,
The fear of lost advantage provokes the bitter cry,
“Don't query our position! Don't criticise our wealth!
Don't mention those exploited by politics and stealth!”
To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age,
We offer earth's indifference, its agony and rage:
“When will the wronged be righted? When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?”
God asks, “Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophecy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome, will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?”
Amused in someone's kitchen, asleep in someone's boat,
Attuned to what the ancients exposed, proclaimed and wrote,
A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools
Has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools.
Thanks be to God!