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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Proper 12B/Ordinary 17B/Pentecost 10 July 29, 2018


In the Sunday Pasch, Lord God, you call us to share with one another the living bread that has come down from heaven.  Fill us iwth the charity of Christ and stir us by his own example to break the bread of earth as well adn to share it generously with others, so that every hunger of body and spirit may be satisfied.  We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 6:1-21

"Love that feeds hungry crowds cannot be explained. Love that turns no one away cannot be explained. Love that causes one to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another cannot be explained."
"Chasing Jesus," William H. Lamar, IV, "Chasing Jesus," The Christian Century, 2003.

"Who do you relate to in this story? Philip? Andrew? The boy? Someone in the crowd? How does where you enter the story impact your understanding of the meaning of Jesus feeding the 5,000?"
"Jesus and the Feeding of the 5,000 and a Man Named Karl," Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2015.

"Perhaps we can move through these texts, allowing for the bread metaphor to hold them together, but not getting blocked in our interpretations by the dominance of the loaf."
Commentary, John 6:1-21, Ginger Barfield, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

Ok, so we now switch to John's Gospel.  Today's text is particularly interesting to many scholars because it is right in the middle of a hotly debated section which is arranged and rearranged and so much of the work here is concerned with order and sequence. I am going to leave that up to you if you are interested in going down that particular rabbit trail.

Or, perhaps you may wish to think a little about why these two stories (last weeks and this weeks) are chosen together.

But here is a significant change in the ancient tradition that I do think has more to do with this lesson than last week's lesson, and that is the connection of this feeding with the Eucharistic feast.  This is also highlighted as we pause to notice the mention of the passover.

Here in this passage we see (very differently from the synoptic tradition) that Jesus gives out the bread as he does in the last supper narrative.  "Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.." (vs 11)

We might read the section on chapter 6 in Raymond Brown (John, vol 1, 348) to see the other places where there are textual parallels between this and the Didache- which was an early church teaching.

They respond to this revelation of who he is by wanting to make him King or by recognizing his prophetic nature. This of course accentuates the reality that he is the incarnate Lord, and that his work in feeding is transformative for the whole world. Jesus, like Isaiah prophesied, is the means by which God feeds the people with good things.

Here then the walking on the sea is again part of the passover theme and offers a glimpse of the promise the meal itself will hold for those who follow Jesus.

In recent weeks there has been a lot of talk about the feeding of people bread.  Here is what is interesting to me, the reality is that we as Christians are called to truly give people good things to eat. We are called to feed the hungry.  It is an amazing thing that we spend so much time figuring out how to feed those who come into our church that we will miss completely the point of the meal here made in the wilderness.  And, that is, that is a meal made in the wilderness. We are called to go out and feed people. We are called to share and to multiply what God gives us. We are to be Jesus' hands in the world.

This passage is echoing the Eucharist because the Eucharist leads to the feeding of the multitudes for Christians.  We are literally to make table in the midst of the community and feed people.  This uniquely Christian understanding of mission is tied into the Gospel. We are to feed their minds and their bodies. And, we are to do it out in the world.

The church can be so very narcissistic sometimes, thinking that it is all about us! The reality is this is all about the world and our call to be agents of feeding in it.  We are the new Eucharistic symbol that is to literally feed people.

To flip this around means that we are completely out of sync with the narrative story and in some ways let off the hook for doing the right thing in the midst of a very private gathering and failing our mission as Christians.

This was so powerful an event, all of Jesus' meals were so powerfully a part of the wholistic mission, that his followers would gather regularly during the week. They understood that feeding people was essential so they found those left out of the Roman daily distribution and fed them. Food and mission are one in the same. The tiny morsel of bread we consume at the Eucharist is to be a reminder of the greater mission all around us. When a church looses its connection to food and a common table for a shared meal it has lost much indeed.

Ephesians 3:14-21

"It is in the community of faith that we experience the love of God. We enjoy this mysterious internal relationship with God as we support and encourage and love one another, as we are "grounded" in the love of God."
"Grounded," Alan Brehm, The Waking Dreamer.

"The question that leaps to mind is, 'How do you preach on an overheard prayer? Should I?' "
Commentary, Ephesians 3:14-21, Sally A. Brown, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

" is in our life together as Christians that we find ever new vistas and insights into the vast world of God (Ephesians 3:18). If we have time to listen to one another, we discover stories of faith beyond our own."
Commentary, Ephesians 3:14-21, Arland J. Hultgren, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

Oremus NRSV Text

Several scholars have called this passage the Jewel of Ephesians. It is of course a passage that offers insight into early Christian prayer practice.

The author begins by speaking of the faithful worship of the new Christian community. And, that he himself prays to God for them and for their faithfulness. He is grateful because he shares in Christ's boundless love. 

So, the author kneels before God (v15).

Then he offers four prayers:
  1. for inner strength through the gift of the Spirit.
  2. for the risen Christ to be present so they may outwardly reveal God's love
  3. for understanding and comprehension that God's plan and love may be fully known and shared.
  4. for the ability to continue to grow towards God through Christ's love.
The prayer ends with a doxology. 

What appears to be merely a liturgy and a revelation of early church practice is also in fact deep theology. Early Christian theologians, Chrysostom among them, clearly saw the influence of Greek philosophy and platonism on the author's thought. 

The prayer seeks for the individual the grasping of the inner workings of the divine, the four spheres of God's reality punctuate the prayer and the person. The person is speaking as if they themselves may come to know, that Plato's cave may have light, that reason may understand the universe/cosmos. That the individual who prays is opening themselves up to the heavens quite literally in order to participate in the perfection of the divine. 

From Origen, to Aquinas, to Calvin the passage is interpreted as speaking about the divine love in this perfect way. These four dimensions of Christ's love interact with the human being as a vessel and at the same time with the fourths of the cross.

For you budding Greek philosophers out there you will say, "Wait! There were only three dimensions in Greek thought!" Yes, you are correct. but while our author of Ephesians is in fact playing on the deep philosophy of Greek he is in fact updating his own tradition. The wisdom tradition of ancient Judaism offers four dimensions. One for heaven, earth, water, and Sheol. The text is filled with other Jewish wisdom connections. (Markus Barth, Ephesians, 395-396.)

The author clearly wishes to bring into prayer the fullness of God and fullness of God's love and wisdom. When he prays the love that surpasses all understanding, we are to hear help us understand the fullness of your love. 
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

2 Samuel 11:1-15

"The story of a woman being forced into a situation where she uses her body as a tool for survival is a story as old as time."
"The Story of Patriarchy and HIV/AIDS: 2 Samuel 11:1-15," Melissa Browning, ON Scripture, 2012.

"The Chronicler probably because of the bad light in which David is portrayed omits this story. The creator of Deuteronomy to 2 Kings has no such hesitation and leaves the story with its great detail about David's manipulative behaviour. We have it in all it gory detail."
2 Samuel 11:1-15, Pentecost 8, Commentary, Background, Insights from Literary Structure, Theological Message, Ways to Present the Text. Anna Grant-Henderson, Uniting Church in Australia.

"In 'public,' sex is a commodity - sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively (a way to sell more magazines, say, or to increase cable TV revenues). In community, sexual love is a 'momentous giving' which depends, as [Wendell] Berry says, on the practice of love as opposed to the mere feeling of love."
"Sex in Public," Debra Dean Murphy, The Ekklesia Project, 2009.

Oremus NRSV Text

So, here is the passage in brief. David is a military victor. He is systematically conqueroring the nations around Israel. He sends Joab and Uriah the Hittite out to siege Rabbah (this is in what is called Amman today). David remains in order to take advantage of the situation and of Bathsheba who conceives a child. David tries to hide this. Uriah comes home and there is big trouble. David in turn tries this way and that to get Uriah killed and in the end hatches a plan with Joab to do so. There are big consequences in store for David in next weeks lessons. Needless to say the passage reveals the sinful brokenness of David and his kingdom.

I know that everyone is going to preach on John this week or the brave on Ephesians. But we have to pause here and consider the story and Bathsheba. Frederick Buechner wrote this about our passage:
"His first trick having failed, David had Uriah bundled off to the front again with a note to General Joab saying to assign him where the fighting was fiercest. Uriah was soon shot down by the enemy, and after a long enough mourning period to make it look respectable, David married Bathsheba himself. If Uriah could have known about the long and illustrious line that was to issue from that unseemly match, the chances are he would have considered his death none too high a price to pay.""Uriah the Hittite," Frederick Buechner, Buechner Blog.
I like Buechner much of the time. However, not in his view of this particular passage. I had to begin here because there is a courageous moment present in this passage the preaching of it which invites truth telling.

The problem we face here in this passage, is that David himself abuses Bathsheba and kills her husband in order to feed the insatiable hunger that comes with power - and it doesn't matter who is the issue of the relationship and what great lineage is hatched. In fact, while Solomon will also be a great king of power, we should remember that he enslaved his own people to do his biding.

Buechner's response is perfectly expected. The succession narrative, written by scribes at a much later date, is recognized as a major piece of literary work within the whole of the Old Testament itself. The authors of successive generations telling the story of both how the reign of Solomon is to be understood and also why its fall is assured because of the sinfulness within.

But let us pause and take a look at it from Rene Girard's perspective. Girard recognizes well within our text the reality that it reveals the struggle with the memetic (repetitive) nature of sexuality, desire, violence, and rivalry. Let us rehearse for a moment the root. Remember that the wisdom tradition of our faith ancestors, the Jews, is that evil enters the world not at the creation of man and woman or the eating from the tree of knowledge. No, evil enters the world through the desire for God's love, to be God's favorite, the rivalry between brothers, and the death of Abel by Cain. This is where it begins. 

What this reveals is that throughout the story we see the repetitive nature of this violence deeply rooted in the human story itself. What David does to Uriah is the same. He wants, like Cain, to have what Uriah has. To possess it and to make it his own. In this particular case that is Bathsheba. Do not make her into some kind of willing participant. No, she is seen in this text as property and as an object to be gained for the purpose of fulfilling desire.

The object of desire, Bathsheba, leads to the repetitive Cain like rivarly and violence. Uriah like Abel must die. We see the same sequence int he story of Amnon and Tamar and Absalom. It will likewise appear again with Solomon and Adonijah who is presented as Absalom's double.

Girard offers an explanation that this desire is rooted in the human psyche. It is metaphysical and repeats itself throughout human history. It is present in the succession narrative as it is in literature as it is in history. Bathsheba is only a pretext, an object, something that is a means to an end. We participate in repeating the damage (as we clearly see visible in the #metoo movement) because we fool ourselves into believing it is love, or that the object will satiate the hunger. Bathsheba does not change David's character. Girard reflects on this and writes:
The disappointment is entirely metaphysical...The subject discovers that possession of the object has not changed his being—the expected metamorphosis has not taken place The greater the apparent virtue' of the object, the more terrible is the disappointment (Girard, Deceit, Desire, ρ 88)
René Girard's theory offers a model in which we can come to see clearly the repetitive, or memetic, nature where in human desire, begets rivalry, begets a crisis that ends in scapegoating (here the scape goat is Uriah), and death. 

Now, my dear friend and Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann differs with me on this take of the story. Brueggemann offers that David is makes theological confession rejecting the royal prerogative making him both a fallen and noble king. Along with others, I think Brueggemann is suggesting that the death of Uriah, among others, is merely an outward result of David's misplaced belief as King he could do anything he wanted. In other words, David repents and returns to the Lord and this makes the narrative reveal David's nature as one of God's people who sins but is forgiven. I would argue, as does Girard and Jensen that the longing and desire for Bathsheba and Uriah's death has nothing to do with his kingship but is rather rooted in his fallen connectedness to Cain. What I am saying here is that Brueggemann, not unlike Buechner, miss the point that there is a dark side, a fallen nature, to the kingship itself. 

We remember God's words to Samuel at this point:
Obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king...
Yes, David does what is expected. He acts out what God warns. David inacts the mimetic story in his own life that is rooted in Cain's murderous acts. We can cry out all we want. But rulers will do this and many others things. God has warned us about kings. We are to have no other Lord but God.

(My thoughts above are largely taken from my reading of Girard and a journal article entitled Desire, Rivalry, and Collective Violence by Hans J. L. Jensen on the topic. It is an excellent piece and worth a read if you are interested in diving deeper into this topic.) 

Part of this is simply to say that if we are going to engage in this narrative we must engage in it as it reveals the continuation of a narrative that begins longs before kingship in Israel. We should be weary of how this reveals the nature of the nation state and its power, along with the power of rulers. We should also be clear that Bathsheba is not a willing partner to the great story of David, but is a human being objectified and abused as part of the ever repeating rehearsal human sin: desire, rivalry, and scapegoating. Like other humans objectified by rulers, she is one in a long line of the abused who live out their eternal story in scripture as part of the sacrifice to mimetic violence and the lesser gods of this world.

2 Kings 4:42-44

"Elisha's model offers us a life full of hope. It is not a life without challenges because we see Elisha constantly in the midst of challenges."
Commentary, 2 Kings 4:42-44, Garrett Galvin, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"These are no longer just Elisha's own words and command, but are now connected with the word of God, and God's promise that they will eat, and there will be some left over."
Commentary, 2 Kings 4:42-44, Sara Koenig, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"The passage depicts the miracle of daily existence: human community and holy living are dependent upon the abundant providing of God, human generosity and willingness to share, and attention to equity."
Commentary, 2 Kings 4:42-44, Elna K. Solvang, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

Elisha has just finished feeding a ton of people who had been suffering from a famine. Then this man comes to bring food. Elisha says give the food to the people. But there was not enough. The food was but a little bit and there were more than one hundred people there. But Elisha insists. Does the story sound familiar?  The people in fact eat and there is food left over. 

Sometimes the church and her people believe that being a prophet is about preaching, shaking the fist at the man, or giving it to the powers that be. Yes, we are to speak a Godly word. But passages like this remind us that prophecy always goes hand in hand with actually feeding people. It is not enough to tell people how to do this or that. Prophetic people and prophetic churches actually reject the message of scarcity by the powers that be and embrace the notion that there is plenty to go around and because of this view make sure people have food to eat, clean water to drink. 

The prophetic church invites the men and women who enter our churches to bring their first fruits not to the service of the church but instead to feed the people. 

Let me once again lean on Walter Brueggeman about this work:
The present form of that contestation, I propose, is the felt and often denied tension between the gospel narrative that specializes in social transformation, justice, and compassion and the dominant narrative of our culture that I have elsewhere termed “military consumerism.” The contestation that is constituted by prophetic preaching is in our own time, as always, profoundly difficult because the dominant narrative, the one contradicted by the narrative of YHWH, is seldom recognized as a social construction and is almost never lined out in its full clarity and claim. The contestation, moreover, is difficult because the YHWH narrative is rarely recognized as a genuine alternative to the dominant narrative and is more often reckoned as a footnote or a pin prick to the dominant narrative but not a real alternative. In our time and circumstance, the narrative of US military consumerism and the YHWH narrative of social transformation, justice, and compassion are deeply intertwined and there is great resistance to sorting them out.
The narrative that Elisha and all the other prophets undertake is not merely a narrative that contradicts the economic systems of the empire, it is one that actually makes a different economy work in the world. (From Prophetic Imagination by Brueggeman, you can read the first chapter here.)

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