June 24, 2009

The Hemorrhaging Woman

by Debra Dean Murphy

Mark 5:21-43 (Fourth Sunday After Pentecost)

(Image: Holy Spirit Dance, Gwen Meharg, watercolor.)

When we read the story of Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman (or a leper or a paralytic or the demon-possessed), it’s tempting to see only the private moment—a two-person encounter isolated from the larger social order.

But these meetings—while they are personal and often quite intimate—are also confrontations: they are conflicts between an old order and a new one; between a religious system rooted in purity codes and the fear of bodies (women’s especially) and an alternative social practice meant to signal God’s coming reign of wholeness and well-being.

The encounter between Jesus and the hemorrhaging woman is this kind of confrontation, this kind of conflict. First, the woman approaches Jesus—a social and religious taboo of the highest order. Not only will she render Jesus unclean by coming into contact with him, she will compromise the purity of the whole group.

We are conditioned in our culture to think of healing as first of all a highly individualized, exclusively physiological event. But Scripture is quite clear that healing has to do with the mending of all creation, and that curing the sick has to do primarily with restoring a person to his or her community. At its most basic level, health involves, as EP endorser Joel Shuman has written, “a set of assumptions about the relationship of a person to his or community and its place on earth.”

So well-being is not just about a clean bill of health for me from my doctor, but also must be about the well-being of the place I live, the people (and plants and animals) I interact with, the entire community of which I’m a part. As Wendell Berry puts it: “the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and... to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”

When we pray for someone to get well—to be healed of an illness or infirmity—our prayer also ought to be for the well-being of the place, the people, the neighborhood, the land: the whole “kin-dom” to which that person is connected, “kin to,” as we say in the South—to which he or she is bound in relationships of mutual responsibility and care.

When Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” it is an invitation to full restoration. He is inviting her (and us) into the Kin-dom/Kingdom of God where the last shall be first; where the hungry are filled with good things; where enemies become friends; and where diseased, broken bodies become part of the One Body—taken, blessed, broken, and shared with a suffering, waiting world.


June 18, 2009

Not By Sight

by Brian Volck
Mark 4:35-41

What to make of this short, dramatic tale of wonder and power? Jesus tells his followers to “cross to the other side,” a phrase which, in English, is full of associations Mark’s rough Greek may not sustain. Is this merely a simple boat crossing or a prelude to the passion, a window on death’s terror?

A storm comes over the water – suddenly, as desert weather will. The Son of God is asleep, undisturbed by the drama of crashing waves and a boat not far from being scuttled. His followers shake him awake, anxious to know if he cares.

We don’t learn if Jesus answers them in words before he rebukes the wind and sea. The elements simply obey. A “great calm” settles, and Jesus asks why they were so terrified, why they had not faith.

“Filled with great awe,” they wonder aloud who this teacher is. Read (just as it was written) post-Resurrection, the disciples seem characteristically dim-witted, the twelve stooges. We, who sometimes imagine we understand God, can’t imagine why they didn’t see divinity in the body of a sleeping Palestinian peasant.

I’m writing this from Arizona, where I spent yesterday repairing screen doors and roofs in the Hopi village across the highway from the parish I’m staying this week. I’m trying to see Christ in persons whose lives, circumstances and appearance so differ from mine. I haven’t gotten it down yet. Let me know if you have the secret.

Even when, before our eyes, he stands or sleeps or rebukes the wind, God eludes our mind’s grasp. We walk by faith, we’re told, not by sight. Or knowledge. Or certainty.

Si comprehendis, non Deus est,” Augustine wrote: “If you understand it, it is not God.” And our task? To get up and walk in that darkness of unknowing, following the one whom even wind and sea obey.


June 13, 2009

A Nation of Prisons & Forgotten Corporal Acts of Mercy

by Brian Volck

Martin Marty, of the eponymous Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, is not often quoted at EP gatherings, but he has something to say about the work of EP endorser Tobias Winright, whose review of two books on the American way of imprisonment appeared in a May issue of The Christian Century.


June 11, 2009

Just a Kid. Just a Seed. Just a Church.

by Joel Shuman
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

He was just a kid, so young and apparently insignificant that his own father didn’t consider him worthy even to attend the sacrifice offered by the traveling prophet Samuel. Sure, he was good looking, and he was tough, and he had some talent, but by and large everyone who knew him assumed he’d spend his days as an adult the same way he’d spent those of his adolescence: tending sheep, playing with his sling, writing poetry, and playing music. He was hardly a suitable replacement for a great warrior like Saul. Yet David, the least of Jesse’s sons and the unlikeliest of leaders, was chosen by God and anointed by Samuel to be King over God’s people Israel.

It was just like the God of Israel to do something so totally unanticipated. He had, after all, chosen to redeem the world through the as yet unborn descendants of a pair of skeptical senior citizens named Abram and Sara. When those descendants were enslaved and oppressed by the mightiest political, economic, and military power the world had known, He called upon a hot-headed, inarticulate fugitive named Moses to take up their cause and lead them to freedom. More than once He responded to their recurring disobedience and loss of faith with reassurance and forgiveness. Why should it surprise us to discover that when Israel demanded a king (so they could be like the other nations), God responded (after an initial false start) by choosing so improbable a candidate as David? It is, quite simply, the way the God of Israel and of Jesus works: divine power manifest in human weakness, divine purpose made present in the midst of human folly. As the Psalmist says, “Some take pride in chariots / and some in horses / but our pride is in the name of the Lord.” David, whom no one expected to be God’s anointed – His mashiah – was filled with God’s Spirit and became the greatest of Israel’s kings, a “man after God’s own heart” who was destined to be the ancestor of the One through whom God would bring salvation to all creation.

The story of David serves as a nice example of the lesson Jesus taught when he told the parables in today’s Gospel reading. The reign of God, when it came, would appear first of all not as an overwhelming counter-presence to Roman or any other imperial power; rather it would come quietly, unassumingly, underwhelmingly. The Kingdom of God, Jesus explained, is like a mustard seed.

The basic lesson of this parable is easy enough to grasp. In Jewish tradition the mustard seed was proverbially known as the smallest of seeds; its diminutive size made it a favorite image of the teachers of the faith, encouraging them, as the prophet Zechariah said, not to despise the “day of small things.” God’s reign was like this most miniscule of seeds because God’s reign began with insignificance. What could be a less likely indication that the creator of heaven and earth could be at work changing the world than the anointing of a teenage shepherd as king. And what could be a better sign of that unlikely work than something as small as a mustard seed? What could be a less likely beginning for the establishment of God’s reign than a peasant teacher from Galilee and his rag-tag group of disciples? This was God’s Messiah? These were the people through whom God was going to change the world? Not likely. Not likely at all. They were practically nothing. They were like, well, like a mustard seed.

But seeds do not remain seeds, and the mustard seed, when sown in fertile soil, eventually sprouts and grows and becomes the largest plant in the garden, a shrub that can grow up to 15 feet high, big enough, Jesus tells us, to offer shelter to birds.

Big enough to offer shelter to birds. Hmmm. There’s an irony here that we dare not overlook. God’s reign begins in insignificance, like a little tiny seed, and then it develops, and it grows, and it matures, and it becomes … a shrub. Just a shrub. Not a mighty oak, nor one of the famed Cedars of Lebanon, but a modest, unassuming, and most of all still insignificant shrub. What’s that about?

What it’s about is a metaphor for the way God works in the world. God begins with weakness and impotence and insignificance, and God works through those things, and they become God’s salvation, even though the world is likely to continue to regard them as weak, impotent, and insignificant. God’s work in the world is the life together of God’s people, and in Scripture God’s people are seldom impressive by any standards except God’s. God enters the world as a peasant from an obscure Middle Eastern tribe, as an infant born to a poor unwed teenager. When that infant grows to become a great teacher with many followers, he suffers the most ignoble death imaginable – at the hands of the government. When God breaks into history and raises him from the dead, he leaves his work in the hands of the very people who abandoned him at the end of his life. When God sends the Holy Spirit to empower them to preach and demonstrate the reality of God’s reign, they gather followers who turn out to+ be every bit as weak and ambivalent as the people Israel had ever been. And still, God continues to work, and the Kingdom is planted, and it grows, and birds take shelter in its branches.

David was just a kid. The mustard seed grows into just a shrub. And I am part of a little church: a small, mostly unremarkable group of people who live together in rural Northeast Pennsylvania, doing the best we can to raise our families and pay our bills. On Sundays we gather to worship God, and we stumble along as best we can. We hold Vacation Bible School and we host Vision and we baptize children and we gather, warts and all, around Jesus’ table.

You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds to me like God has us right where he wants us. It sounds to me like our weakness is the very soil for the seeds of God’s Kingdom. It sounds to me like we better be careful, for before we know it we might find birds taking shelter in our branches.

When that happens, thanks be to God.


June 01, 2009

The Trinity and THE SHACK

by Debra Dean Murphy

If you are a savvy and astute reader of Trinitarian theology who can elucidate the fine distinctions between, say, Augustine and Origen or Moltmann and Marshall or Zizioulas and LaCugna, you may or may not be up on the latest (actually, the only) treatise on the Trinity to capture the popular imagination: a little self-published tome called The Shack.

But you should be. Not because it’s a good book—it isn’t. But because, as indicated above, its sales are in the stratosphere. It is loved—fiercely loved—by an astounding number of Christians of all stripes.

The Shack has struck a chord, I think, because most people have not learned much about the Trinity from their participation in church life—or at least they think they haven’t. (“Trinity Sunday,” in an odd way, keeps the doctrine of God’s triunity remote, exotic, and “special”—something to be observed this one day of the year and expounded upon with clunky analogies).

But the Trinity permeates the church’s life and witness. When we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we name the Trinity as the church’s “determining reality” (Miroslav Volf). In the Eucharist, the gathered community “incarnates and realizes its communion within the very life and communion of the Trinity” (John Zizioulas). The justice, equality, freedom, and generosity that we seek to embody in our common life all have their source in the Trinity, in which “none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal” (The Athanasian Creed).

People who read Augustine and LaCugna know this. But the people in the pews are reading The Shack. Those who love systematic theology—it’s beauty, order, symmetry—can critique this pop-treatment of the Trinity without breaking a sweat. But we (theologians, pastors, preachers, educators) have done a poor job of communicating how it is that all we do as Christ’s body the Church is shaped by the pattern of love-in-communion that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Until we’re able to communicate this in imaginative, engaging ways—that is, until we’re able to help others see (in worship, in preaching, in missions, etc.) that they already “know” what the Trinity is, people will go elsewhere for their theology; they always do. And while they may find fragments of wisdom and truth (as The Shack surely contains), they will have an incomplete picture, a distorted view, blurry vision.

And we will find ourselves, every year at this time, wearily dusting off that mysterious, ancient relic known as the doctrine of the Trinity, putting it on public display with a few corny examples to try and explain it, only to happily reshelve it again when the day is thankfully, finally over.