X Pentecost, Year A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am." So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me." So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, `Let us go to Dothan.’" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him" — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
1 Kings 19:9-18
At Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."
He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." Then the LORD said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that "the person who does these things will live by them." But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
"The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart"
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
Our text evokes many images. There is something primordial here, like the time in the beginning when the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. There is something salvific here, like the time Moses parted the Red Sea or when Joshua parted the River Jordan. There is something more then, something transcendent here too. Images of Leviathan or The Perfect Storm are evoked.
Something more is invoked here as well, something spiritual, something even shamanic. These past several years have convinced me that our understanding of Jesus can be enhanced through the context of shamanism. By this I mean the shaman’s power to heal, the shaman’s close connection with the natural energies of the creation. Jesus is intimately in touch with the creation because he is intimately connected with the Creator. His life in this connection to his Abba is the principle around which and through whom creation comes to be.
I don’t know how else to say it but according to Jesus we too can walk on water. We too can heal the sick, raise the dead and set the prisoner free; the sky is not even a limit. Needless to say, walking on water is outside the parameters of our normal everyday experience, but all things are possible. How so?
One of the aspects of this story that is important for me is that Peter is bid to walk on water. He is asked; he is invited to participate in this transcending of the “laws of nature.” Peter is offered an opportunity to share in a lordship in relation to creation, to recover the ab-original Adamic experience of the Garden. He takes the chance and over the side he goes. His desire to imitate Jesus, to be right at his side, to “follow “ in all things gives him this incredible courage to attempt the seeming impossible. Even as he falters and struggles with his experience the importance remains in his getting out of the boat and taking that first step with his whole being focused on his Lord.
In Jesus’ Incarnation, in his humanity, our relation to the creation is fully restored. We may fully share in the power of God’s reign. We may heal others, we may feed multitudes and sometimes we may just find ourselves walking on water. The only barrier to this is that we do not hear the voice of Jesus calling us to a specific action that may seem, if we were to heed his call, as the performing of a miracle. We see only the tumult of the storm around us and his still small voice escapes our unhearing ears. This barrier can be overcome by intentionally taking time to be with the Creator in the creation, to “be still and know that he is God.” (See our suggestion in the So What? portion of today’s reading).
Many of us spend so little or no time with and in the creation, the natural world, which is the world of the spirit as well, and so we do not learn her ways. Jesus, like any shaman, spends a great deal of time by himself in the wild, away from the cities and villages. His precursor, John the Baptist did as well. And so also may we.
Positive mimesis incorporates many aspects, some social, some psychological, some spiritual, some interdividual, some political, economic or linguistic, and some ecological. In the essay on ‘Ecospirituality’ I sought to explore what it means to experience creation from the perspective of the shaman, the one connected to the earth. Ecological thinking is, after all, more than recycling, or protesting. It is a comfort and love and oneness for and with the creation. This is the same creation for which we have been given the task of caretaking.
What we can do is to compare Jesus’ story with that of contemporary shamans; if we do, we observe that there is a real connection shaman or healers have with the natural world. It is to be truly human, recognizing our birth from the humus, that rich, loamy, fertile soil out of which we were molded. Humanness is humus-ness (note also two other words from the same root, humor and humility). It is beneficence to embrace this and learn from the Earth, our mother, about the Creator, our daddy. Jesus not only is positively mimetic toward fellow humans, he is also in a positive mimetic relationship to the creation.
Jesus imbibed deeply of the nature theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. I did not say natural theology. Natural theology has to do with the logical, rational mind (grounded in the violent Logos of Hellenism). Nature theology is quite different. Nature theology sees the abba (God the Father) everywhere exhibited in the imma (the creation). Psalm 8, says, “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord.” Jesus looked at the lilies and thought God did a much better job clothing them than Herod could do in all of his finery. He saw the birds of the air as better fed than the masses. The New Human, the obedient human is the One who journeys with us, each one of us and all of us, all of our days. He invites us always to join Him in his humanity and thus to share with him in his glory, in his divinity. (Then we shall walk on water. It has nothing to do with holiness or metaphysics and everything to do with love.)
In each of the four Gospels and in Paul, Hebrews and I Peter, as well as the Johannine letters, James and Revelation there is, in one form or another, a stress on the New Man. The New Testament overflows with positive mimesis because the New Testament overflows with Jesus. Salvation is whole and total. It is spiritual and bodily, individual and corporate, emotional and rational, ecological and theological. In short, salvation is Shalom, wholeness, peace.
When we consider Jesus as a shaman, what we are saying is that Jesus acted or behaved in a shamanic fashion. There are clues all over the gospel tradition if one knows how to look for them. What they indicate is an intimate knowledge of and relationship with the creation (spiritual and material, not separate but together as one). What we cannot do is trace the shamanic background of Jesus. For one thing, shamans are healers, but they learn how to camouflage their healing, their code is anonymity. So even if Jesus had some sort of mentor, it is utterly useless to try and figure out who that may have been. What we know for sure is that Jesus’ Abba was his mentor. Who better than the Creator to mentor one about the creation? “…and they shall all be taught by God.”
Gerd Theissen has an excellent summary of the discussion of Jesus’ miracles in The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998). In the light of his analysis we are most comfortable with Jesus as Charismatic, proposed by Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew. This most closely approximates what we understand by shaman. We find no reason to compare Jesus with ancient magicians in his healing ministry. What is frequently missed in the Jesus as ‘magician’ or ‘divine man’ categories is the full interdividuality of Jesus, who, like any healing shaman, is also interdividual in relation to the creation itself. There are huge differences between Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana. (Not apples and oranges, but apples and exhaust pipes.) Jesus never appears bound to forms, rituals or words. Why? Because magic is the fallen application of technique to healing and the manipulation of power. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964) says,
“Magic is a technique in the strictest sense of the word as has been clearly demonstrated by Marcel Mauss. Magic developed along with other techniques as an expression of man’s will to obtain certain results of a spiritual order. Strict adherence to form is one of the characteristics of magic: forms and rituals, masks which never vary, the same kind of prayer wheels, the same ingredients for mystical drugs, for formulae for divination, and so on. All these became set and were passed on: the slightest variation in word or gesture would alter the magical equilibrium.
In the spiritual realm magic displays all the characteristics of a technique. It is a mediator between man and ‘the higher powers,’ just as other (scientific) techniques mediate between man and matter. It leads to efficacy because it subordinates the power of the gods to men, and it secures a predetermined result. It affirms human power in that it seeks to subordinate the gods to men, just as technique serves to cause nature to obey.”
A Practical Suggestion on Spending Time with Creation
One of the beautiful aspects of sharing in the full benefits of the creation is that the ordinary and unfamiliar is transformed into the extraordinary and wonderful. This can be accomplished with a sit spot. A sit spot is an area you can retreat to where you can focus on the natural world. Ideally, it should be less than two minutes from where you live. Mine is our small suburban back yard.
We have seen feral cats, opossum, raccoons and squirrels come through our lawn leaving their tracks, we have identified over 18 species of birds that use our backyard to feed in, we have sat out there in sunshine and in rain and snow and wind. There are several types of lilies and roses in our yard and plenty of wild edibles on the lawn (dandelion, plantain and violets). Our little back yard is full of different experiences. Every day, every time, is a little different. Every season brings new insights. The creation has so much to teach us when we relax and listen.
Sit times are best done both morning and evening. Personally, I need my morning sit time, and it’s a great day when I do both. I wish I had known about the therapeutic value of sit spots when I was a pastor. I am certain I would have remained in pastoral ministry had I been aware of the lessons and the cleansing that time with creation (and thus the Creator) would bring. To quote John Kay, “It’s never too late to start all over again.” Every sunrise brings a new dawn, a new day, a new beginning. Jesus is the sunrise of the kingdom of God.
For those interested in such an approach there is an excellent self-study program offered by Jon Young titled The Kamana Program. Information can be found at www.wildernessawareness.org .
If I were going to preach on a text like this today, I would focus on the more than (apparently) human experience of Jesus and Peter. Previously, I might have elaborated on Jesus’ lordship over creation, or Peter’s bumbling faith or the disciples (church) caught up in a storm and needing deliverance.
But now I think it is important to share that there is a wealth of experience unknown to us that is ours in Jesus. These experiences occur at the margins of our understanding and require more of us than just logical thought. They can be likened to walking on water. If, like Jesus, we are in tune and in touch with the Creator and the creation, then why should we also not be able to these things that he did, and more, for ‘even greater things than I do shall you do.’ I would want to somehow communicate the whole expression of the New Adamic life given us in Jesus and the thrill of it all!