Thursday, May 11, 2017

Interpreting (Unequal) Scripture: Listening for the Shepherd's Voice

What are the scriptures for?  How do we relate to these texts in such a way so to receive the abundant life that Jesus offers us?   That is why Jesus came isn’t it?  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] 

Sometimes, reading the scriptures, it is easy to forget this.  Today’s lesson from I Peter is a good example.  It gets a bit right and a whole lot wrong.  It provides a meditation on the imitation of Christ’s suffering.  Just as Jesus suffered and died unjustly, without engaging in retaliatory violence, so too should we be willing to suffer, entrusting ourselves to God’s judgment.  However, the audience addressed by the text is not, in fact, “we” but rather slaves.  “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”[2]  The lectionary reading conveniently leaves out this verse, which immediately precedes the passage we heard.

The text goes on in a similar vein to encourage married women to similar feats of patient suffering.  “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives conduct.”[3]  Not only should wives submit to spouse abuse, but they should feel responsible for their husband’s behavior in the process.  “He’d change if only you were good enough.”  What a load of crap. 

In fairness, the letter goes on to address a larger “we”: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”[4]  Hard to argue with that, except it seems a bit too little, and much too late.  I Peter draws on the image of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the example of Christ’s Passion to reify being a victim – “better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”[5]  Hmmmn.  Maybe.  This seems to miss the whole point of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, which was not an exercise in celebrating victimization, but in revealing the mendacity and godlessness of the ways in which we make victims of one another quiet contrary to God’s will, so that we can instead enjoy abundant life together. 

Now, I don’t wish to scapegoat the author of I Peter.  He struggles with the question of Christians suffering persecution in a violent culture, trying to make meaning out of a difficult situation; situations where we often feel powerless and wonder if God is punishing us.  No, he assures us, sometimes good people suffer unjustly, just like Jesus did.  It isn’t your fault.  Just as God raised up Jesus, our suffering will become a means of righteousness in ways we can’t yet see.  The writer promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To God be the power forever and ever.”[6]

Even so, I Peter falls short in its understanding of Jesus’ suffering and our own.  Reading it encourages us to explore afresh Jesus’ example and the suffering servant poems in Isaiah.  Is that what they really meant?  Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   We misunderstand scripture if we read it as a unitary text or even as a text that was meant primarily to be read.  As James Alison reminds us,

They have always been a series of texts which rub against each other in a constant process of mutual elucidation.  Thus was it before the time of Jesus, at the time of Jesus, and so it is now. Furthermore, the Scriptures were never designed to be a Final Version for a reading public. They were designed as a base text for public proclamation and commentary. That is: from the beginning, the liturgical function of explaining and narrating the “wherefore” of things, of events, of stories and of festivals preceded the production of texts. The texts are, as it were, manuals for preaching or exposition, helped along by their divergences, their internal references, their allusions, repetitions and contradictions. These allow the person doing the teaching to take advantage of the hooks, the hints and the bifurcations so as to get more juice from their possibilities, from the various “How would it be if...?” and so on. Which is to say that it is the performance which is important, because it is the performance which makes the story come alive and allows it to be applied to the “today” which is always the moment of challenge in any good Liturgy . . .[7]

The performance being spoken of here is not simply that of the preacher or teacher, but the performance of those of us who find ourselves on the inside of the story of God-with-us, our willingness to make that story our story and bring it to life. 

It is not so much what the text says that is important, but rather the interpretative lens of the people bringing the text to life, bringing it into conversation with the larger biblical, Christian, and human witness.   For example, reading this passage from I Peter in relationship to today’s Gospel reading, when I’m told to obey the voice of my master or my husband who is abusing me, I have to say that I Peter sounds a lot like the voice of the thief in Jesus’ parable, who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  It doesn’t sound like the voice of the Shepherd, who comes to bring abundant life.  I don’t recognize this voice.  I’m not going to follow it.[8]

Notice, too, that the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep undergoes suffering voluntarily, as an act of freedom, in solidarity with those who suffer so that they will not have to suffer anymore!   He opens the gate so that the sheep have freedom to come in and out, to find good pasture, to be nourished and to enjoy life.  He releases the sheep so that they will no longer be sacrificial victims.  In John chapter 10, Jesus is using an image of the sheep brought through the Sheep Gate of the Jerusalem Temple complex, where you can check-in any time you like but you can never leave; until, that is, you are slaughtered as a sacrificial offering.

Who is doing the interpreting makes a difference doesn’t it?  If I’m a slave reading these texts, I must ask, “Where is the freedom and abundant life that Jesus was willing to die for?”  Or, as so many African slaves did in these United States, I might read I Peter in light of the Exodus narrative and ask, “If God freed the Hebrew slaves, why should I be treated any different?”  As a slave master, should not my conscience be seared by the realization that if I own slaves, much less mistreat them, I am complicit in the suffering of Christ?  

Even on the terms of the argument of I Peter, if slaves and wives are suffering unjustly in imitation of Christ, then those who cause their suffering are doing so in imitation of those who persecuted Christ.  This is simply a way of saying that there is no true reading of scripture that is not self-implicating, that doesn’t allow me to find myself on the inside of the story.  But where we find ourselves in the story can be quite different for different people:  it all hangs on our relationship to the victims of suffering.  Jesus enters into solidarity with our suffering in order to resist it, to judge it, and finally, to overcome it.  He does so nonviolently, but not passively.  He invites us to imitate him in his resistance, not in the making of victims, much less in some masochistic embrace of suffering for its own sake.

Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   Be careful what scripture you read.  You may not like where you find yourself in the story, because the community of interpreters includes slaves as well as masters, women as well as men, immigrants as well as citizens, people with pre-existing medical conditions as well as health insurance company executives, lay people as well as clergy.   As a cleric, I have not invariably found myself to be comfortable with where I find myself in the story.  Most of the oxen that Jesus gored belonged to religious leaders!  We cannot interpret these stories together without being variously liberated, convicted, admonished and encouraged by where we find ourselves on the inside of the story. 

It is, of course, Jesus, who is the interpretive key, but not just the Jesus back then and there; rather, the living Jesus present in the gathered worshiping community.  It is here that we read the words of scripture and wrestle with them together, confident that Jesus is present with us, and that this Presence is made known in the scripture and the breaking of bread.  We know that our interpretation of scripture is not completely off the mark, so long as it is productive of the kind of community that is able to share abundant life from its communal reading and enactment of the story of God-with-us.  

If our reading of scripture can’t help our world to be more like a green pasture, and less like a slaughterhouse, what good is it?  The truth of scripture is found, not simply in our interpretation of the story, but in how we live it together.   How we live it is, in fact, our interpretation of it. 

[1] John 10:10.
[2] I Peter 2:18.
[3] I Peter 3:1.
[4] I Peter 3:8.
[5] I Peter 3:17.
[6] I Peter 5:10-11.
[7] James Alison, He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24,27b): How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible reading?”  Lecture for the “Voices of Renewal” Lecture Series at Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio, 9 October 2001.
[8] John 10:4-5.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Living the Dream

When I was about seven years-old, my great-grandmother, Bess Caron, died.  She was 83 years-old.  We called her “Old Granny” to distinguish her from my maternal grandmother (her daughter-in-law), who no doubt appreciated being thought of as the young granny.  Old Granny had been a widow for more than half her life, and split her time living with her three children.  So, we had her for a third of each year, plus holidays when the extended family was together.

I don’t have many clear memories of Old Granny; more of gestalt, a felt-sense of her overall presence, radiating warmth and love.  She had a vintage fur coat that was almost as soft as her skin.  I’d fight with my cousins about who got to sit next to her in the backseat if she was riding with us, so I could cuddle up to that coat.  Being the oldest great-grandchild, I usually won!  That is how I remember Old Granny: being enveloped in the warmth of her presence.

When my parents informed me that she had died, I do vividly remember throwing myself on the sofa and weeping like only a bereft child can.   But that was pretty much it:  an explosion of grief, and then I was OK.  Children are remarkably resilient.  Thought to be too young for the experience, I did not attend Old Granny’s funeral.  But not long after she died, I had a dream. 

In the dream, I was in my grandparent’s house, where Old Granny lived part of the year.  I walked into the bedroom where she stayed – the last place I had seen her before she died.  I was, understandably, a little apprehensive about going into the room, but felt compelled to do so. 

When I walked in, there she was in luminous splendor, much as she had been when alive.  I can’t recall her exact words, but the gist of it was that she assured me that she was just fine and that all would be well.   What a gift that dream is!  I never had another dream about Old Granny that I can recall, but that one was enough.  It has lasted me a lifetime.   

Since then, I have sat with people as they died, attended and officiated at many funerals.  Having done so, I can’t say I look forward to dying, even as I recognize that it is as a sacred part of life.  But I can honestly say that since my dream, I’ve never been afraid of death.  I absolutely trust my Old Granny.  All will be well.

Now I suppose you could dismiss this as “only a dream,” as if dreams are not important; as if they are not a part of the fabric of reality, containing their own evocative power.  I’m not one of those people.  It seems to me that all truly creative experiences have a dream-like quality to them: containing a depth of meaning that can never be fully plumbed, a capacity to invoke their fulfillment in waking hours.  The vision that comes to us, dream-like, is no less real than the life it inspires while fully awake. 

My dream is that death is swallowed up by love.  It is a dream stronger than any of the nightmares I’ve ever experienced, far more liberating and generative in its consequences.  From it I’ve received, well, life – a freedom and joy in living here and now unburdened by the specter of death.  Death comes and goes, but life endures because love never ends. 

Now, it seems to me that part of the power of my dream lies in the continuity between the Old Granny I knew all too briefly in life, and the Old Granny who remains with me even after death.  My experience of her overflowed the boundary between life and death, you might say.  That is what the power of love is like.  Thus, it is that, however marked the discontinuity between her former and current mode of being, Old Granny abides in Love, objectively, and not just in me; this power is available to, and sustains, all things.  Even so, my dream remains a very personal one. 

The appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his death shares in this dream-like quality.  There is continuity and discontinuity between the pre- and post-Easter Jesus. Jesus really is present, but in a different way that is not immediately recognizable to his friends. 

Here, the dream-like experience of Jesus is collective in scope – he appears to more than one of his disciples – but it is time limited.  He only appears to them during a forty-day period following his death.  That was enough to last a life-time for those who saw him; enough to last in perpetuity for those who, as scripture tells us, are blessed because they believe even though they have not seen.  

We are in the position of having to decide whether to trust the apostles’ dream of Jesus, just as you must decide whether to trust my dream of Old Granny.  None of us knew Jesus in his lifetime, just as none of you knew my Old Granny in her lifetime.  But the dream lives on or, rather, comes to fulfillment in those inspired by it – those who receive the Spirit of Jesus.  

You may not have met Old Granny, but you can share in her spirit through me and pass it along to others.  So it is with Jesus, but on a scale and with consequences far more profoundly life-changing than those who receive the spirit of .my Old Granny. 

What I realize now, without in any way diminishing her unique dignity, is that what Old Granny shared with me is the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Love Incarnate, in which she participates even now.   What Old Granny witnessed to me, in her own beautiful way, is God’s dream for the Earth, the dream that Jesus made so very real: the power of love bringing the whole creation to its fulfillment, when all will be well.  Sin – all that seeks to separate us from love – and Death are swallowed up in Love, bringing life out of death again, and again, and again, until all things are made new.

How this is so is a great mystery, just as the origin of the universe itself is a great mystery.  As Thomas Berry observed, “The universe seems to be the fulfillment of something so highly imaginative and so overwhelming that it must have been dreamed into existence.”[1]  It is the realization of God’s dream: an emergent process moving toward an increasingly creative, diverse, complex, and self-consciously integral mode of life.  Death and resurrection is the deep pattern of the universe, it is how God’s dream comes to fulfillment.  This is the profound meaning of the apostle’s experience of the risen Jesus.  We are now conscious participants in the larger life processes of the universe.  We must choose to live God’s dream. 

We are living at a perilous time in the emergent process of the universe.  For the first time in its more than 4.5 billion-year history, the delicate balance of the fundamental life systems of the Earth are being undermined by human intervention.  We are living through a period of unprecedented species extinction and ecosystem destruction.  Our impact on the planet has been so profound that some scientists believe we have entered a new geological epoch:  the Anthropocene.  The scope of human ecological devastation has approached a geological scale, to the point that life on earth as we have known it is increasingly unsustainable.  We are turning God’s dream into a nightmare. 
In the Gospel of Mark, there is a longer ending to the Gospel that scholars have identified as a later addition of an editor or editorial committee.  This version is unique in that the risen Jesus gives the following commission when he appears to his disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”[2]   Here, the implications of the good news extend to the entire Earth community.

There is a tendency to believe that the good news is for human beings only.   I grew up in a branch of Christianity that taught that salvation consists of believing in Jesus so that when you die, your soul would be whisked up to heaven.  Jesus will come again one day in a final mopping-up operation, to rapture the believers remaining on Earth before it is destroyed.  Doesn’t sound like very good news to me.  And it bears almost no relationship to what Jesus taught. 

The good news of Jesus is an invitation to wake-up and realize God’s dream for the Earth: a vision of justice, peace, and reconciliation in which human beings recognize, honor, and sustain the abundant life God intends on Earth.  This is the kingdom of God, doing God’s will on Earth as it is in heaven.  The focus is not on personal immortality, though that is not denied, but rather on the renewal of life for all beings.  In the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, a notoriously misunderstood scripture, God’s dream is of a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s home is on Earth with us.  It is a dream of abundant water and flowering trees whose fruit is for the healing of the nations.[3]  The root meaning of “salvation” is “healing.” 

We have been brought to this time to fulfill this specific commission, to share the good news of God’s dream with the whole Earth community, and to realize the dream together.  Easter, the celebration of the ever-renewing cycles of life, is a time to renew our commitment to fulfill this commission.  The great task of our moment in history is to adapt human life to the conditions and limits necessary to sustain the life systems of the planet upon which we all – human and non-human – depend.   The healing of the Earth would be very good news indeed.

This work will require a new collective dream experience, a vision of the possibilities for human flourishing in a mutually beneficial communion with the entire Earth community.  Such a dream is necessary to invoke the imagination and creativity of scientists, artists, engineers, teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and farmers, generating nothing less than a new way of living on Earth in fulfillment of God’s dream.  The dream is already here in us.  We have been given everything we need to realize it.   Let us choose to live the dream. 

[1] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1999), p. 165.
[2] Mark 16:15.
[3] Revelation 21:1-5; 22:1-5.