Sunday, July 5, 2015

On the Death of a Prophet

Below is a perspective that one can take of the sad and gruesome story of the death of John the Baptizer in Mark 6:14-29, the gospel reading for July 12, 2015. For my exegesis and preliminary notes on this text, which I have updated from three years ago, go to this link.

In a curious way, this death story is also a resurrection story. Mark presents the death of John as the interior story of his familiar bracketing technique, where he begins one story, then inserts a second story, before concluding the first story. The outer story of this bracket is the story of Jesus sending the twelve in 6:7-13, which concludes in 6:30. The interior story is John’s death. By bracketing the stories as connective stories, the mission of the twelve is the resurrection power of the death of John. Earlier in Mark the same pattern occurs: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14). The power of coercion, even unto death, lies with Rome. The power of resurrection lies with the gospel. It is like the prophetic words of Archbishop Oscar Romero who argued that if he were put to death, he would rise up in the spirit of the people. Coercion unto death is the ultimate and only power of Rome. The gospel does not overcome that power by its own coercion, but by the promise of resurrection. The promise of resurrection is not so much “having a mansion on the other side,” as it is the enduring power of the gospel that even death cannot overcome. Resurrection is not a weird Christian death-wish. It is simply the profound act of denying death its place of ultimacy.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Covenant and Community

Below is a sermon that I preached 6 years ago, when Sunday fell on the 4th of July weekend and Mark 6:1-13 was the gospel text. The references are a little dated, but the association between the gospel text and covenantal community seems contemporary enough for me to share it.

If you want my rough exegesis and preliminary notes on the text, I have updated my work from three years ago here.

Blessings to you.

Covenant and Community
Mark 6:1-13; II Samuel 5:1-12
July 5, 2009
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

Someone once told me that the most patriotic thing one can do on the 4th of July, is to read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety.  It seemed like a more formidable task back when I first heard it, since I had no copy of the Declaration around the house and the library that I frequented would not loan out its reference books—like the encyclopedia in which I found the Declaration—and it was closed on the 4th.  Today, of course, it is an easier prescription to follow.  The Des Moines Register had the transcript on its Op Ed page yesterday, which is a good thing because the manuscript is fairly difficult to read.  Or, one could google the Declaration of Independence and read it at any time.  For all of the banal and trivial stuff that comes along with the information age, there are also gems of true quality and meaningfulness that are now more easily at our disposal, and the Declaration of Independence is one of them. 

But, I must say that reading the Declaration of Independence can be as awkward as it is inspiring.  It is inspiring to read the forthright manner in which Thomas Jefferson and the team pressed their grievances against the British Monarchy with claims like “[The King of Great Britain] has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”  A simple illustration like that brings to mind a whole host of small indignities that are so frustrating, but which could be plausibly denied by an underhanded person in power.  The declaration is inspiring when the signers mutually pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in order to support the declaration.  And there seems to be just a sheer majestic quality language and form of the statement.  However, it is awkward to read references to the “merciless Indian Savages,” particularly when we know that this attitude toward Native Americans would lead to a new set of tyrannies.  It is awkward to read that a rejection of the slave trade was one part of Jefferson’s draft that was ultimately rejected by the Second Continental Congress.  It is awkward to remember just how many of the folks who signed their names to such an heroic declaration of human freedom actually owned human beings as slaves. 

And yet, there is one particular phrase in the Declaration that points to an idea that has enduring relevance, particularly in light of the political turmoil that we are currently seeing in the Honduras and Iran, over the legitimacy of their electoral process.  The Declaration declares that governments derive their just powers from “the consent of the governed.”  And it is precisely this quality of relationships that our Scriptural texts demonstrate to be essential to every form of covenant-making. 

The story that we have read this morning from Mark’s gospel is a stunning account of what happens to Jesus when he first begins to practice ministry in his home town.  We hear the incredulous crowd asking who this uppity boy thinks he is, trying to move above his station in life as a carpenter’s son and portray himself as a prophetic miracle worker.  They don’t deny the fact that Jesus is a prophetic miracle worker, they are just scandalized by the fact that it is one of their own who has attained this status.  And they reject him, which leads Mark to make one of the most stunning statements about Jesus’ ministry that we will ever hear.  Mark says “[Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  We might want to focus on the fact that Mark so dismissively says, “Oh, well, of course Jesus laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them,” but the point is that because of their unbelief, because of their rejection, because they were offended by Jesus, he was unable to do what he seems so easily to do elsewhere.  Even Jesus, without the consent of the governed, is unable to do the very things that amazed them about him. 

A counter-story to Jesus’ rejection by the people of Nazareth is David’s reception by the people gathered in Hebron.  They, too, note that David is one of them, of their very own “bone and flesh.”  They, too, recognize that David has done powerful deeds among them.  But, unlike the folks in Nazareth, instead of rejecting David for rising above his station as the youngest of his brood, a shepherd in the house of Jesse, they welcome him as their king.  They welcome him as God’s anointed. 

Please understand that none of this is clean and easy.  This gathering in Hebron is on the far end of a protracted civil war between the armies of David and the armies of Saul.  While these are the people of God and their chronicled history is part of our sacred Scriptures, the stories of murder and deceit and betrayal are all quite similar to the kinds of stories one might find in any place at any time where a nation finds itself at war internally.  But, even as the narrators are candid about the violence of this transition, they show repeatedly that David has one quality that makes him different from all of the other contenders for power.  David has the capacity to mourn the death of his enemies.  After refusing to kill his archrival King Saul with his own hand, he publicly mourns Saul’s death—much to the dismay of his generals.  Instead of killing Saul’s heirs—which would have been considered politically prudent—he mourns the deaths of Saul’s sons as they occur.  And when a rival, much-feared general from the other side offers his allegiance to David, David welcomes him with a feast and mourns his death when he is assassinated over a blood feud.  And the narrator shows that, as David repeatedly refuses to engage in tyrannical power mongering, the people repeatedly take note of it as a sign that he is indeed God’s anointed.  So, when they gather that day, they consent to be governed by David and welcome him as God’s anointed one. 

The same quality that Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues found to be essential to good governance is what the Scriptures demonstrate to be essential to covenant-making: A covenant exists when the people consent to it.  Now, that is not shocking news to those of us who participate every two years in Congressional elections or every four years in Presidential elections.  It seems to be the obvious factor that bodes badly for Iran and a form of governmental tyranny that is trying to suppress the voices of the people with the absolute power of a theocracy.  It bodes badly for both parties in the Honduras, to some extent, but especially for the military that is trying to establish governance through sheer force.  We can see quite clearly—even through the murky lenses of political struggles—how the social contract of governance requires the consent of the governed to be just and effective.  But, the stunning disclosure in our Scripture readings today is that even God abides by this essential quality of covenant-making.  Inasmuch as God is made known to us most distinctly in Jesus Christ, Mark’s declaration that Jesus was unable—unable!—to do any deeds of power in Nazareth because of their rejection is remarkable. 

A funny thing happens when Jesus is rejected at Nazareth.  You might expect—Jesus’ disciples certainly did expect this in other towns that rejected him—that Jesus might rain down fire from heaven and consume the living daylights out of those obstinate people.  No, when Jesus is rejected, he turns around and commissions his disciples—those who are in covenant with him—to go out into all the world and carry the gospel, knowing full well that they, too, might be accepted or rejected.  The God who comes to us vulnerable, and ‘rejectable,’ so to speak, is the God who sends us out not with coercive power, but with the invitation that all might receive and accept God’s reign among us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Overcoming the Myth of Scarcity

The Revised Common Lectionary gospel lesson for Sunday, June 28, 2015 is Mark 5:21-43. The reading has what some call Mark’s bracketing technique, otherwise known as a ‘sandwich,’ or some other way of identifying an initial story that is begun, then interrupted with another story, then completed. The intertwining of these two stories is evident in some ways, subtle in others. I will share some reflections below. If you want more detailed attention to the text, I have updated my translation and verse-by-verse notes from three years ago, which you can find here.

I want to play with an idea, that sounds a little Girardianesque, but I make no claim of knowing Rene Girard’s work well enough to claim this as a “Girardian Interpretation.” For great insights from James Allison and others on the weekly lectionary texts, see My idea is simply my idea: I don’t want to claim more than that or deny that Girard’s work has been very informative in my own studies.

My idea centers on how one daughter is healed while another dies. Jairus’ daughter, 12 years old, at the age of puberty, growing up in a relatively affluent and privileged home, is near death. As Jesus is accompanying Jairus to his home, the hurried journey is interrupted by a woman who, for 12 years, has been ritually unclean, beset by the “scourge” (see my exegesis) of bleeding, victimized by physicians, and impoverished by seeking help. The fact that she has lived with this scourge for 12 years means – among other things – that she will not die from it. Rather, it will continue to debilitate and impoverish her. It is ‘a living death’ if you will.

Within the bracketing of the stories, the bleeding woman is healed and Jairus’ daughter dies simultaneously. Whether there might have been lead time or lag time in real time is beside the point, because when Mark uses the bracketing technique it is proof that story-telling is the thing. One could say, then, that in terms of Mark’s formulaic composition, one dies so that others may live. I do not claim that this is a community-enacted ritual of appeasing resentment, such as Girard’s Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism describes. But, it does reflect a kind of rationalization of the necessary death of one in order that another may live, which often happens under the Myth of Scarcity, which posits unlimited need and limited resources. Jesus can’t be two places at once, so the death of Jairus’ daughter is the price for his healing of the bleeding woman. The other alternative would be to outpace the bleeding woman in order to get to Jairus’ daughter in time, and her perpetual suffering would be the necessary sacrifice in order for the young girl to be healed. Perhaps it is more akin to Sophie’s choice than Girard’s theory, but Myth of Scarcity seems related to Girard’s work on scapegoating.

By positing one story within the other and making them simultaneous stories, Mark is – at least formulaically – positing an either/or for the healing of the two “daughters.” But, of course, we know – much to the derision of the ancient wailers and modern skeptics alike – that Jesus visits Jairus’ daughter, declared her death to be more like sleep than a mortal end, and raises her. In doing so, the either/or is overcome. The Myth of Scarcity is overcome. The daughters both are made whole – one with a daring act of desperate faith; the other amid scorn and skepticism.

But, this is more than a formulaic way of heralding Magic Jesus or Super Jesus, able to leap tall buildings and heal two daughters in one story. Something happens to Jesus in this story. If I’m reading my Old Testament correctly, Jesus becomes ritually unclean when the bleeding woman grabs his garment. Jairus’ daughter becomes the same when Jesus takes her hand. I am revising this earlier thought: Taking the hand of a dead person is also an act that leaves one ritually unclean. Jesus, in both cases, defiles himself in order to bring healing. All the shabazz about ritual purity and impurity is the first casualty of this story.

I would suggest that ritual purity laws – not their original intention, which I suspect was intended for sustaining community health and limiting infection – became something that impedes the reign of God and requires overturning if we are ever to break out of the cycle of the either/or thinking of the Myth of Scarcity. I would argue that for Mark not just the intertwining, but the order of these stories is important. The need of the daughter of privilege – Jairus would have been among the upper crust of Jewish society – yields to the need of the impoverished, unclean daughter of suffering. That is not how the Myth of Scarcity usually works. The young one has everything to live for while the older one is much farther along the road - that’s what appeases our conscience about choosing one over the other. How radical, then, that Jesus interrupts helping Jairus’ daughter – a fatal decision, it turns out – to be in impure solidarity with the bleeding woman, also a daughter, whose fierce faith and desperation drives her.

Solidarity with the suffering, even at the price of becoming ritually impure, is the cost of overcoming the Myth of Scarcity. That’s a heavy message to ponder this week.

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