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25 September 2009

The Scandal of the Virgin Birth

Scandalous! The scandal of the Gospel may have been the crucifixion for Paul. But for far too many others it is the specific circumstances of the Incarnation. Human flesh and blood. Worse, a woman's flesh and blood - that she was not sexually experienced only mitigates the horror and shame a little.
Dr. Cornell West suggests that the scandal is the proximity of the Messiah to urine and feces. I suggest that the proximity of the Messiah to a
woman's offal is even more untenable.
I've been having (or trying to have) a conversation off and on with some church folk about what it means (and meant) that Jesus of Nazareth was woman-born. And how that impacts how we understand the expression "Son of Man" in the Gospels in particular, but also in other parts of the scripture.

God uses the Hebrew expression
ben-adam to address Ezekiel and remind him that he is only human.
Daniel sees the Aramaic equivalent bar-enosh in a vision that testifies that this child-of-human-flesh is no ordinary mortal.
The Gospels translate the Hebrew (and Aramaic) description into Greek:
huios to anthropou, anthropological offspring. Jesus applies the term to himself seeming to mean both mortal - he will die on that cross and, more-than-mortal; he will transcend that cross.
The mortality of Jesus is inseparable from his humanity. And the historic creeds of the Church through the ages affirm that Jesus inherited his humanity biologically, from his mother.

What is at stake in proclaiming that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God and the Son of Woman is not some radical departure from the Gospel. It is the radical (radix = root) Gospel.

But if we call Jesus the Son of Man (in the generic sense of course), we don't have to think about that woman's body or the
parts of her body with which Jesus had the most intimate contact.
The poet Frances Croake Frank asks:
Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the
dark dank of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
"This is my body, this is my blood?"
Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the
dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
"This is my body, this is my blood?
Well that she said it to him then,
For dry old men,
Brocaded robes belying barrenness,
Ordain that she not say it for him now.
To be continued...

15 September 2009

Can't We All Get Along? Or At Least Behave?

Rodney King's much ridiculed but heartfelt plea, "Can't we all just get along?" has stayed with me since the LA riots memorialized by his name. I have found myself asking that question off an on since then. This summer has me asking, "Why can't we get along?" And "Why can't we disagree agreeably?"
Health care reform town hall meetings...Joe Wilson...Serena Williams...Kanye council and vestry fights...campus shootings...domestic violence...violence against children...
There is a stunning lack of civility in the United States right now. Much of it is political and partisan, racially tinged and directed towards our President, his administration and family, but not all. Rage-based crimes on our highways and in our neighborhoods, including those perpetrated by and against children are commonplace.
I don't know if it is a lack of home training, a lack of common sense or an increase in violence on TV and at the movies. But it has got to stop. Not so much for God's sake. But for our own. We who have to live here. And our children.
We are shaping a world for our children. And we are shaping children for this world. And I am, quite frankly, past concerned. I'm downright scared.
At the risk of oversimplifying, let me suggest that those of us who believe that everyone (including the past and present Presidents - and anyone who loves or hates them equally), is created in the image of God, treat everyone as though our words and deeds were the only proof of that truth.
And for those who don't believe? Perhaps our actions if not our beliefs will be contagious.

11 September 2009

Remembering 9/11

Luke 13:1 One day there were some people in the presence of Jesus who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

In the days after 11 September 2001 I found myself turning to this text, drawn by the image of a collapsing tower, the reverberating question, "Why?" and, the inadequacy of the implied response of those to who Jesus is speaking - somehow the dead deserved to die because they were sinners, (really bad ones).
That judgmental response: America is a sinful nation (full of homosexuals and/or racist foreign policies), the people of New Orleans are depraved, debauched and practice voodoo, the people of Asia aren't Christian, they're Muslim or Buddhist or some sort of heathen - they deserved 9/11, Katrina, the tsunami.
Jesus' words remind us that we are all sinners, that horrible deaths are not divine punishment, and that we all are called to repentance, victim and survivor alike.
What Jesus does not answer in this teaching is "Why?" Why is there evil in the world? Why do people suffer? Why do good people suffer? Why do people suffer inordinately? Why do bad things happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why? Lord, why?
Theologians and biblical scholars call the question and attempts to answer it "theodicy," or "God's Justice," as in "How can a just God allow/tolerate evil?" And, "The holiness of God is such that even the presence of evil in the world does not diminish it."
The response in quotes may be theologically correct, but it is unsatisfying. I turn again to the response of Jesus, what he says and what he leaves unsaid. Jesus takes on the practice of blaming the victim because it to is sin.
But he does not answer the question, "Why?" Perhaps, he does not because he cannot. Jesus knows that sometimes there is no answer to the cries of pain and suffering uttered by the human heart. He will not suffer bad theology and the piling on of more pain by would-be pastors and theologians.
He leaves the question unanswered because there is no answer that will suffice.
Jesus' response to the question why did some people die in the collapse of the towers of Siloam in the New Testament, in New York, at the Pentagon and in the field of Shanksville, PA is silence.
The answer is in that silence.
And I am listening...

04 September 2009

Whose Prayers Does God Hear?

So much of the language of Christianity and other religions is exclusive with rewards - blessings and salvation - either exclusively or predominantly for members and insiders. Perhaps chief among those rewards is the privilege (and promise) that the Sovereign God hears our prayers. And that even if God hears the prayers of all humanity, we who are in special (or even right) relationship with God have special, intimate access. Many earnestly invite others into that special relationship, but there is still an us/them, insider/outsider dichotomy.
There is a passage in the Jewish and Christian scriptures that models a radically different practice. In his much celebrated prayer marking the Divine Habitation of the temple when God physically moves into the temple in Jerusalem in the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon entreats God to hear the prayers of foreigners.
1Kings 8:41 “When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42 —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built..."
What strikes me is that Solomon isn't praying for the conversion of the outsiders. He does pray that foreigners would know and reverence (fear) his God. But not that they would adopt the religious practices and beliefs of his people. It seems that many religious people and communities practice the opposite: once people have joined or converted, then they are assured that God will hear them.
What would this world be like if we all prayed that God would hear and answer the prayers of people who don't believe what we believe or worship how we worship?
There is something else in this text, Solomon imagines a world in which outsiders find prayer to his God desirable. Do the pious folk in any religious tradition - particularly those that advocate conversion - conduct themselves (ourselves) in such a way that anyone outside our communities actually wants to pray to our God?