V Pentecost, Year B

Main Text

Gospel Anthropological Reading
Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions
Gospel So What?

Epistle Anthropological Reading
Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions
Epistle So What?

Main Text

2 Sm 5:1-5,9-10 or * Ez 2:1-5
Ps 48 * Ps 123

2 Cor 12:1-10
Mark 6:1-13

(2 Samuel 5:1-5)
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, "Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel." So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

(2 Samuel 5:9-10)
David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.

* (Ezekiel 2:1-5)
He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, "Thus says the Lord GOD." Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

(2 Corinthians 12:2-10)
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

(Mark 6:1-13)
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

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Gospel Anthropological Reading

Chapter 6 contains some wonderful irony. Jesus has just accomplished these incredible miracles while away from his people but as soon as he brings the blessing of God’s reign to them they refuse to see. And Jesus can’t believe their unbelief.

He then sends out the twelve on their missionary journey and they travel village to village casting out demons and healing the sick. There is then a crucial narrative interlude that we shall examine next week, the death of John the Baptist. The following week we look at the twelve as they return from their journey of healing and the ensuing mimetic crisis.

What is the gospel of Mark communicating to us? God’s mighty work goes unnoticed by the masses but not by the principalities and powers. The inter-textual weaving of the conflict stories and the miracle stories demonstrates the direct correlation between the working of the power of God and the working of the sacrificial mechanism. When God works, the mechanism is exposed and judged and so engages its retaliatory appetite.

The series of questions expressed by those in the synagogue begins with an acknowledgment that Jesus ‘got something.’ He ‘got’ wisdom and mighty works. Now those are pretty impressive things to have attributed to oneself. Yet, their next series of questions reveals that they think that Jesus is a fake. Whatever it is he is saying in the synagogue pretty well ticked them off. It was something they did not want to hear.

Since the very next story is all about the scapegoating mechanism, it would make sense that whatever Jesus was teaching would also have referred to this. Luke makes this connection in his telling of the story in Luke 4 where it is precisely the omission of the violent God sayings from Isaiah that deconstructs the story of God as the synagogue hearers know it. For Mark, as well as for Luke, the prophet without honor theme is connected to the revealing of the forgiving healing Father.

Scholarship has tended to blur some important lines here. It is often assumed that Jesus simply took over lock, stock and barrel the views of God prevalent at his time. This is an unfortunate consequence of historical Jesus studies. Jesus’ understanding of the reign of God, to be sure, has temporal margins, thus creating a sense of ‘redemptive history’, or in other words, eschatology. But we are convinced that the real question is how Jesus uses (and subverts!) language concerning the character of God found in the larger ‘mythos’ created in apocalyptic. Samuel Sandmel warned us long ago of the problem of ‘parallelomania.’ It is good to heed this warning here.

We believe a key to this ‘apocalyptic problem’ of the Synoptics lies in Gert Theissen’s research on the passion narrative. Theissen (Gospels in Context) is able to show the dramatic events that were unfolding that led to the development of the passion narrative AND the little apocalypse (the tradition underlying Mark 13). When one also considers the previous generation’s judgement that “apocalyptic is the mother of early Christianity” (Kasemann), it is possible to form a thesis that explains the apocalyptic structuring of the gospel, both in its tradition stage as well as in its written stage (at least for Mark and modified in Matthew). The gospels are marvelous, in that we see Jesus through the eyes of the early Christians. The forgiving God is the stumbling block that begins the destructuring of the Jewish apocalyptic world view in all four gospels. It is possible that the Lukan-Johannine Jesus (the late Jesus) actually reflects more the ‘ethos’ of the historical Jesus than that of the Mark-Matthew tradition.

The apocalyptic Jesus of modern scholarship is a figment of the academic imagination. For too many, Jesus’ use of apocalyptic language and imagery has seduced them into not seeing the differences between Jesus’ spirituality and the world of apocalyptic. That Jesus utilized apocalyptic as a vehicle to communicate is beyond doubt. Scholars need to give Jesus a break, as though he is someone whose deep spirituality had not touched many lives. He is far more creative then he is given credit for. And the early church is portrayed as Jackson Pollack, randomly throwing the paint of their ideas on the canvas of history. They created the gospel, and thus Jesus. Well, is the servant greater than the master? Might it be that Jesus actually thought for himself? Might it be that he actually thought something through? Can it be that Jesus actually taught his disciples something? Can we conceive of such a thing anymore? Does Jesus have anything to contribute to mimetic theory? After all was he not…a prophet?

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

No real historical-critical issues present themselves for us, instead, we shall note three things. The first is what Hamerton-Kelly calls the ‘mimetic network’ of the synagogue hearers. “The theme of the unbelief of the crowd becomes even more negative in the account of the rejection of Jesus in his home town of Nazareth. The hometown crowd recognizes his wisdom and miraculous power but is unable to believe it because of their preconceptions. They know his family and therefore it is impossible that he could be what he appears to be. Their ambivalence is well described as ‘scandal’ (6:3), because the dynamics of scandal are the dynamics of mimetic rivalry, of the model that both attracts and repels. Scandal begins with the assumption that we are potentially our model’s equal and can always be the same as he. We want not only to equal but also surpass the model; if we achieve that, he ceases to be a model. We do not want that, however, because the tensions of our desire depends upon his modeling, and so we desire a contradiction, to surpass and be surpassed by our model. We attack and cherish, hate and love, diminish and exalt him. This is scandal, and it is the essence of anxiety (and addiction) because it is the love of what one hates and the hatred of what one loves. Mark tells us it is the state of the hometown crowd in Nazareth with respect to Jesus.” (The Gospel & The Sacred)

Wow! What a loaded paragraph. The unbelief of the hearers is analyzed in terms of scandal, a familiar Girardian term. This scandal leads to the ultimate double bind of love-hate relations, a theme Girard explored in Things Hidden. If we project the dynamics of this model into the sphere of social structures we shall immediately see the dynamics of competition, capitalism and the free market system. We can see the way the dynamics of negative mimesis have presented themselves under the banner of ‘freedom.’ We know these dynamics in our congregations and our ecclesial gatherings. It’s as real at the office as it is at home. If we take the time to analyze our own personal journey we find it there as well. Our scandals. This is the ‘mimetic network’ of which Hamerton-Kelly speaks and which has been given articulate and elegant structure by Walter Wink (The Powers). It’s everywhere.

Second, following Ched Myers (who interestingly doesn’t have much to say politically on this narrative), we observe that, “without their co-operative faith (6:6) – that is to say, their openness to a new order – Jesus can accomplish none of the ‘mighty works’ (6:5) that have aroused the hometown crowd’s suspicion. Jesus’ retort represents his programmatic break with the social structures of kinship: he understands now that his vocation will be rejected in his native region, by his relatives, and finally in his own household (en te oikia autou). He must concede that he is a ‘prophet without honor,’ stripped of status and robbed on clan identity. Disowned, Jesus withdraws and takes up itinerant mission to the village circuit (6:6b).” (Binding the Strong Man)

As we saw in Advent, Jesus’ mamzer (bastard) status haunts him. Jesus was an outsider. From cradle to grave, the gospel’s signature is that this man comes from the margins. We have seen this time and again in the gospels. What he brings is not to be found at the mimetic center, where power, glory, wealth and fame reside with their consorts law, order justice and violence. What he brings is the Creator’s love and benevolence that humanity could not see.

Unfortunately, this incomprehension can be seen all over the history and literature of Christianity. Jesus is constantly being assimilated to ‘popular religion,’ i.e., to any form of religion that is grounded in negative mimesis, no matter how simple or sophisticated it may be. Girard explains why this is so: “Christians have failed to understand the true originality of the Gospels. They subscribe to their adversaries’ concept. They believe the Gospels cannot be original unless they are talking about something utterly remote from myths. They are therefore resigned to the Gospels not being original. They espouse a vague syncretism, and their personal beliefs are far behind Voltaire’s. Or else they try in vain to prove exactly the opposite of the ethnologists, but always within the same frame of reference. They waste their efforts trying to show that the Passion is radically new in every respect. They tend to see in the trial of Jesus, in the crowd’s intervention, in the Crucifixion, an incomparable event in itself, as a world event, whereas the Gospels say that Jesus is in the same position as all past, present, and future victims. Theologians see in this only more or less metaphysical and mystical metaphors. They do not read the Gospels literally, and they tend to make a fetish of the Passion. Unwittingly, they play the game of their adversaries and of all mythology. They once more make sacred the violence that has been divested of its sacred character by the Gospel text.” (The Scapegoat)

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Gospel So What?

Are we not the ones to whom he comes? Do we listen? Do we hear his challenge? Do we react or do we repent?

These are not unimportant questions for Christianity today. They are essential questions for they are questions we ask of ourselves. Does Jesus really have something to say to the church today, to us today, here and now? Or have we hardened our hearts to his voice so that we are uncomprehending? In a world of consumerist expansionism, where destructive ideologies reign, have we so assimilated Jesus to the gods formed by our mimesis that we no longer know Jesus, but an anti-Christ of our making?

Is the church today willing to address these hard questions head-on? Or will the church simply replicate the reaction of Jesus’ hometown folk and reject him? How long will the churches persist in some kind of Nietzschean submission to human culture?

The Jesus sold in the Bible book stores is a fugazi (a fake, for those of you not from New York!). The popular portrait of Jesus so smacks of middle class consumerism it makes you want to throw up every time you hear it preached from a pulpit. Speculative scholarship has drawn some weird conclusions about Jesus, but it sells newspapers and magazines, so we find ourselves exposed to pseudo-intellectualism. There’s always good old American Fundamentalism being sold in market tabloids. Come on, you see it every time you go in the grocery store. Left Behind. People ought to be doing just that with these books. Leave ‘em already. Then there’s the really reductionist Jesus of the so-called Jesus Seminar, a Jesus so tiny you need an exegetical microscope to find him in the gospels. Bu this stuff sells. People read this stuff and they think it is true because it has someone with a Ph.D. behind his or her name. Is there such a thing as exegetical malpractice? Good heavens.

Short of saying there is way too much inverted christology being preached from Christian pulpits across America and around the world, we invite the church to do what the synagogue hearers did: to let Jesus share his vision of God and the gospel, and to make a judgement. Hopefully our ears and our eyes will be open and we will not be uncomprehending of the marvelous things Jesus does and will do with those who believe.


Some Sermon Thoughts

I wonder why it is that in mainline churches, so little healing is preached or celebrated, while there are “out-of-town” healing ministries that come along from time to time that draw considerable numbers.

I don’t think it’s that our congregations aren’t ready to accept the possibility of a “new order” to use Ched Myers phrase. If that were true, no one would go out to see the visiting healers. Instead, I think it’s the result of this story. That is, we preachers know that if we preach too much gospel, we’re likely to get tossed out on our ear (if we survive at all).

My guess is that almost all of us who allowed ourselves to be drawn into the craziness that is ordained ministry did so because we had a vision, a vision of the peaceable kingdom as a potential reality in the here and now. We may have toned it down a bit to make it past the committees that would be frightened if they knew how white-hot our hearts burned for this vision. And then we had to deal with historical-critical method in seminary. Nothing wrong with the method as far as it goes, but no room there for incendiary belief.

And then we finally get into the parish, and discover that folks are more concerned about who’s choosing the decorations for the pot-luck than they are in a New Creation. (Not that they wouldn’t be interested if we told ‘em about it, but nobody has so far.) Suddenly, we’re a little nervous about the vision. We all studied the gospels in seminary, we know what happened when Jesus proved not to be the familiar entity he was supposed to be.

And so we comfort folks with the hope of a kingdom yet to come, but we’re a bit reluctant to “sell out” for a kingdom that can be present for our folks in the hear-and-now. Who can blame us? What good is it to preach gospel if it gets us kicked out? Who’ll they hear it from then? Maybe it’s better to try to sneak it in the side door, a little at a time.

Maybe it is, but I’m convinced that if we can preach our vision, if we can recover the fire, great things can happen. Yes, some folks may get a bit testy, especially at first, but we’re not condemning where folks live, we’re just holding up a vision of something much better. (They’ll make the comparisons themselves, probably more forcefully than we’d want.) As clergy, we really are out-of-towners, no matter how long we’ve been around. We can be the agents the folks in our reading today wouldn’t let Jesus be. Mighty things can result, if we’ll step out of the “local kid” guise and let fly with the vision that got us here in the first place…

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

“Mysticism does not have the patience to wait for God’s revelation” – Soren Kierkegaard

In our text today, Paul describes an ‘out-of-body’ experience he had. It is the only place in the Pauline letters that he does so. If we date the Corinthian correspondence, following Robert Jewett’s chronology, to sometime in the year 55, then Paul is alluding to an experience that would have taken place just prior to or at the beginning of his first missionary journey, some seven years after his conversion (assuming a conversion date of late 34 C.E.). His escape from Damascus would then have taken place sometime in late 37 (mentioned in 11:30-32).

Mystical experiences are both difficult to explain and harder to explore. They are sui generis, outside the categories of the rational and logical. Those who seek mystical experiences often find themselves disappointed; this is because these kinds of experiences cannot be sought, they must be given. Nevertheless, people down through the ages have sought some deeper connection to the ‘other-worldly’ to the divine. When people seek mystical experience it indicates their weariness with the current order of their mental-spiritual universe; they seek something, to quote Barth ‘totally other.’ Our own age with its explosion of techniques and new age ideologies is but the contemporary manifestation of an age-old desire.

Mystical experience provides a certain epistemological security; if my experience is mine and it feels real to me, then it functions as a place to begin that cannot be doubted because I experienced it. Unlike theological reflection done by the rational-logical mind, with its constant slicing and dicing of ideas, its questions and doubts, mystical experience is owned because it is personal. Many have had certain experiences they cannot explain. My first real mystical experience occurred in October of 2004; it was an experience of the pure love of God. It occurred during a guided meditation. Since that time I have had other sorts of experiences I would describe as mystical. They give a certain grounding to why I do what I do. But they are intensely personal and thus private.

Unlike so many modern mystics, Paul does not either encourage others to imitate his mystical experience nor does he offer techniques for experiencing transcendence. And unlike so many modern mystics, Paul refuses to allow his mystical experience to be the place from which he speaks. Paul’s mysticism is tempered by his theology of the cross. It is in his suffering, the insults he endures, his hardships that he rejoices, where he sees God active. Why? Because for Paul, life is not about living beyond the human, but precisely in the depths of his humanity. Just as God was most fully active in the cross of Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, so also it is in the cross of our lives that God does God’s best work.

We are, all of us, a combination of experiences, some of which seem to reach heaven itself, others which plunge us into the hell of our existential abyss. It is these later that Paul says we rejoice in, for it is in darkness that light is most fully revealed, where God’s grace is sufficient for our every need, where we become open-handed and utterly dependent on the goodness of God, trusting in God to bring about good from evil, grace in sin and life from death.

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Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

Paul’s mysticism has been explored by a number of commentators. I personally do not find much of it very helpful inasmuch as the commentators themselves do not approach this topic from the inside, as those who know the kind of reality of which Paul speaks. They seek to scientifically understand that which cannot be understood except from the inside.

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Epistle So What?

Our contemporary desire for ‘other-worldly’ experience runs deep. The use of narcotics is a prime example that we seek something other than what we can find in the hum-drum mundane existence we live in. Massive group gatherings, whether concerts, political rallies or mega-church services all point to our desire to know deeply, to know for certain that we are not alone, that we are more than just isolated bits of cosmic dust, that the temporal can be eclipsed by…the eternal.

This desire is not wrong, it is just too often misplaced. We can ill afford to become modern Gnostics, each trying to get the other to replicate our mystical experience thus validating for us the truth that we seek. Mystical experiences are not mimetically duplicatable. This is precisely the problem with cults; they offer a duplicatable technique to access the divine. Christians do this too, when we say that this mode of worship or a certain style of singing or prayer will automatically lead you to God. This ex opere operato view of technique is false. What we could say is that such-and-such a style of worship or praise has been beneficial for many, recognizing that no spiritual technique is for all.

Finally, we must always come back to a theology of the cross. For too long we have been told that our ‘bad’ experiences are times when God was absent, rather than seeing in them opportunities to experience the grace of the good God, the abba of Jesus. It is in the abyss of human life that God shows God’s self to be most active. It is during these times we are called to sing praise. North American Christians will soon discover just how hard life can be. Will they despair or will they learn to carry their cross and rejoice in the One who raised Jesus from the dead…and has promised to do the same for them.

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