Sunday, May 8th

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Last week a powerful prophetic and poetic voice went silent. Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan died Saturday, April 30th of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old. Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957.

Daniel Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear war heads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release.

Berrigan was not an ideological leftist. He opposed abortion as adamantly as he resisted the Vietnam War. In 1992 he was arrested in Rochester, New York while protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood facility. Needless to say, he received no little criticism from the left for taking this position. For Berrigan, however, opposition to abortion followed as naturally as opposition to war from his over-all commitment to peace and resistance to violence. He was a longtime endorser of the “consistent life ethic,” and he served on the advisory board of Consistent Life, an organization that describes itself as “committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia.” See “Daniel Berrigan, priest, prisoner, anti-war crusader, dies” National Catholic Reporter May 2, 2016.

I remember Daniel Berrigan chiefly as a poet and a prophet of peace and reconciliation. Berrigan published more than fifty books of poetry, essays, journals and commentaries on the scriptures. He had a gift for recognizing the sacred in what most of us would view as profane-perhaps even obscene. He was able to see the face of Jesus in all people and especially in those we often fear to look upon. Here is a poem by Daniel Berrigan. May he rest in peace and may eternal light shine upon him. 

The Face of Christ  

The tragic beauty of the face of Christ
Shines in the face of man;

The abandoned old live on
in shabby rooms, far from comfort.
Outside,
din and purpose, the world, a fiery animal
reined in by youth. Within
a pallid tiring heart
shuffles about its dwelling.

Nothing, so little, comes of life’s promise.
0f broken men, despised minds
what does one make-
a roadside show, a graveyard of the heart?

Christ, fowler of street and hedgerow
cripples, the distempered old
-eyes blind as woodknots,
tongues tight as immigrants’-all
taken in His gospel net,
the hue and cry of existence.

Heaven, of such imperfection,
wary, ravaged, wild?

Yes. Compel them in.

Source: Berrigan, Daniel, Selected & New Poems (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 80. You can read more about Daniel Berrigan and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

A discussion of the appointed texts for the  Seventh Sunday of Easter follows. For those of you who might, like Trinity, be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord, I invite you to re-visit my Post of Sunday, May 12, 2013 where the appropriate lessons are discussed.

Acts 16:16-34

This marvelous story from Acts poses numerous problems for us moderns. Demons and demon possession don’t fit seamlessly into our 19th Century world view. Then again, our 19th Century world view is coming under increasing strain in this 21st Century that is calling into question the mind’s capacity to conduct the sort of objective inquiry capable of yielding the scientific certainty we all thought the empirical method could give us. So instead of falling all over ourselves to find “rational” explanations for seemingly miraculous events narrated in the Bible, perhaps we should allow the scriptures to school us on the limits of human understanding and open to us portholes into a universe far too marvelous to fit into our constrictive rational constructs. I am not suggesting, of course, that we can or should return to the 1st Century way of looking at things. What I do suggest is that, contrary to our progressive prejudices, chronological progression does not equate with growth in wisdom, understanding and insight. I maintain that the past contains as many important insights that we are prone to forget as it does errors we have properly rejected.

Rather than seeking to reconcile the biblical narrative with 19th Century rationalism, we should be challenging this failing conceptual model with deeper understandings of reality. Walter Wink seeks to do just that in his book, The Powers that Be (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress). Referencing the Hebrew Scriptures, Wink points out how nations, cities and individuals were believed to have had angels representing them. The same concept appears in the Book of Revelation in which each of the seven churches in Asia Minor is said to have its own angel. Revelation 2-3. Just as at the heart of every individual there are motivating values, goals and priorities, so also at the heart of every church, corporation, government and social organization there is an ethos, a personality of sorts that guides the decision making process and conduct of their members. This “angel” falls and becomes “demonic” when an institution, such as a government, turns away from its divine vocation to provide for the wellbeing of its citizens and becomes merely self-serving and self-perpetuating.

John Dominic Crossan addresses the phenomenon of demon possession in his book, The Historical Jesus (c. 1991 by John Dominic Crossan, pub. by Harper Collins). Crossan describes individual demonic possession in Jesus’ day as a microcosm of Rome’s occupation and domination of the Holy Land:

“Think, now, of demonic possession. George Nickelsburg, speaking of the Book of the Similitudes/Parables of Enoch in I Enoch 37-71, a work that dates ‘around the turn of the eara,’ he says that ‘on the one side are God, the heavenly entourage, the agents of judgment…and God’s people…On the other are the chief demon Azazel, his angels, and the kings and the mighty…[who] would have their counterparts among the Roman generals, governors, triumvirs, and monarchs whose activities in Judea are well documented sources. The author might also have had in mind the late Hasmoneans and the Herods’…. For this representation…Roman imperialism meant that God’s people were possessed by demons on the social level. Notice, by the way, the somewhat schizophrenic implications of demonic control: it indicates a power admittedly greater than oneself, admittedly ‘inside’ oneself, but that one declares to be evil and therefore beyond any collusion or cooperation.” Ibid. at 313-314 (citations omitted).

In order to survive, the occupied peoples must to some degree internalize the practices, values and ethos of their occupiers. But in so doing, they bring into their very psyches the oppressive conditions that threaten them externally. Is it any wonder that individuals in these circumstances crack under the strain? Is it any wonder that they experience the occupier of their homeland as an occupier of their minds and hearts as well? And should it come as any surprise that this hostile occupier so internalized takes on a life of its own and becomes a separate entity within?

Let’s apply these insights to our lesson from Acts. The woman in the story is first introduced to us as a slave. That is enough to tell us that her life is not her own. She is the property of her masters who view her as a source of revenue. It is not clear why she was following Paul about. Was she doing that of her own accord? Were her masters encouraging her to do so in hopes that Paul would compensate them for giving credibility to his preaching? We can only speculate on that score. It is clear, however, that once the demon’s grip on the woman was broken, her value to her masters was gone. What is broken here is a relationship governed by economic exploitation and oppression. The woman is no longer a mere “revenue producer,” as the corporate world often terms and values its employees. Therefore, in their eyes, she is worthless.

The slave relationship as described in this narrative is uncomfortably close to those governing our own social and economic realities. I have described in previous posts the tendency of our educational system to produce units of value for the labor market rather than well rounded citizens capable of full participation in public life. Our nomenclature is littered with language suggesting that one’s “net worth” is the sum of his/her assets less liabilities. What one is worth is often equated with one’s earning capacity. What cannot be measured in dollars is, like the nameless woman in our lesson, without value.

Paul’s offense, then, was far more than a simple crime against property. It was an assault on the entire Imperial/Patriarchal hierarchy that defined who one was, how much one was worth and to whom one answered. “These men…” the woman’s owners told the local magistrates, “advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” Vs. 20. Not surprisingly, the authorities react with outrage, beating both Paul and his companion Silas and throwing them into prison. We are left to wonder what ever happened to the woman set free from the spirit of divination that held her in bondage. How, if at all, did that change the nature of her legal bondage? How did the rest of her life unfold?

Paul and Silas find themselves in prison where, as they would otherwise, they worshiped and gave thanks to God. An earthquake breaks open the doors of the prison and the guard in charge naturally assumes that Paul and Silas, along with the rest of the prisoners have taken the opportunity to flee. His determination to slay himself with his own sword is understandable. His Roman superiors would not have taken his dereliction of duty lightly and would likely have designed a much more unpleasant demise for him. He is relieved to learn, however, that the prisoners have not fled and turns to Paul and Silas with the question: “What must I do to be saved?” Vs. 30. It is hard to say whether the guard was moved by his prisoners’ songs and praises or their refusal to flee when given the opportunity. Needless to say, something about Paul and Silas impressed him deeply so that he turned to them in this moment of anxiety.

The salvation of the guard and his household further illustrates Luke’s literary purpose of narrating the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ through everything that happens to the apostles, even their misfortunes. Just as I would like to know more about the woman liberated from demonic possession, so also I wish I knew more about the other prisoners incarcerated along with Paul and Silas. Why did they not flee when the earthquake afforded them the opportunity of escape? Were they moved in any significant way by what they heard and witnessed? Again, these loose ends are left for us to ponder.

Psalm 97

This is a psalm of praise which asks nothing of God. It begins with an acknowledgement that “The Lord reigns.” Vs. 1. This simple statement is a shot across the bow to all claims of national sovereignty. The earth belongs to the Lord and all other claims of ownership are relative and subordinate to God’s final authority. Even the Promised Land was given to Israel only in trust and subject to revocation.   Clouds, mist and thick darkness evoke memories of the cloud that led the people of Israel through the wilderness as well as God’s appearances on Mt. Sinai. Vs.2. Fire is also a purifying force that burns away Israel’s enemies, but might also be employed to purge Israel itself. Vs. 3. Lightning, thunder and earthquake are all images used throughout the psalms to symbolize the coming of God. See, e.g., Psalm 18:6-15; Psalm 68:7-10; Psalm 144:5-6.

There is some rich irony here. The heavens are said to proclaim God’s righteousness, whereas human worshipers of images made of these created glories have not the understanding to do the same. Vss. 6-7. Zion and all of Judah do hear in the terrifying phenomenon of nature the voice of the Lord and rejoice in his just reign over all the earth. Vs. 8. In her early history, Israel did not necessarily deny the existence of other gods. Nevertheless, if such gods there be, they must necessarily be subject to the God of Israel who reigns over all the earth. Vs. 9.

Verses 10-11 illustrate that this God who reigns over the earth is not indifferent to the conduct of his human creatures. God is not a neutral observer of history. This God takes sides and, specifically, God takes the side of the righteous against evildoers. Righteousness, of course, is measured in terms of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, the ones who give thanks to his holy name. vs. 12. Nevertheless, as the prophets and other psalms illustrate, Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant is a light to all the nations of the world and a revelation of God’s gracious will for all creation.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

This lesson represents perhaps the most egregious act of textual butchery, literary dishonesty and ecclesiastical deceit ever practiced by the lectionary goons. Before proceeding further, please read the unedited, unsanitized, uncut and unpolished version actually given to us in the text. Revelation 22:12-21. As you can see, the troublesome fact that the “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves falsehood” have been excluded from the new Jerusalem has been conveniently hidden away out of sight. Vs.15. It is also highly ironic that the lectionary makers have seen fit to omit the very verses warning against omitting anything from the Book of Revelation. Vss. 18-19. Is it possible to treat the scriptures with any more contempt?

Well, now that I have had a chance to vent my spleen, let me say that this section of Revelation is a fitting climax to the book as a whole. The drama began in the throne room of God and the Lamb where the Lamb alone was found worthy to open the sacred scroll revealing God’s redemptive purpose for creation. Now we see the Holy City in which God and the Lamb reign-no longer in heaven above, but on earth and among human beings. “I will be their God and they will be my people,” the refrain ringing throughout the prophets and amplified in John’s gospel, has now come to pass.

Yet, as the scurrilously omitted passages show us, the new heaven and the new earth do not come about without a cleansing. Not all that now is will be part of the new age to come. Perhaps not all people will be part of the new creation. Jesus leaves open the possibility that one can become so thoroughly disfigured by sin that the image of God is no longer visible. “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” Matthew 7:23. We ignore Jesus at our very great peril. Of course, we are not in a position to determine who is beyond redemption. Only Jesus can make that call. For our part, we must assume that all people are capable of salvation, all people are deserving of mercy, all people are worthy of an opportunity for repentance. Moreover, it is worth remembering that the line between good and evil runs not between nations, races, clans or individuals but through the middle of every human heart. For “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God,” St. Peter tells us. I Peter 4:17. So how much of our lives are being lived eternally, that is, in love for God and our neighbor? Are we accustoming our eyes to the light of the Lamb now so that it will not blind us when it breaks through in all its fullness? How much of who you have been and what you have done today is worth preserving for eternity?

John 17:20-26

What we have in this lesson is only a snippet of Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples wrapping up the “farewell discourses” and leading into the passion narrative to follow. Here Jesus weaves together into a single poetic fabric the Christological claims he has been making for himself throughout the gospel. Today’s reading seems to address the objection raised by the good Judas in chapter 15, namely, if Jesus really is the Savior of the world, why is he revealing himself only to a select few? John 15: 22. Jesus makes clear that his final prayer is not merely for the twelve, but for all who will believe in him through their preaching. Vs. 20. Jesus says essentially that he is praying that the love between Father and Son that has existed from eternity might bind the disciples together just as it unites the Trinity. Such love manifest among the disciples and poured out upon the world glorifies God. The reality of God living in the midst of God’s people under the gentle reign of the Lamb proclaimed in the Book of Revelation is fulfilled in some measure in the church.

Jesus prays that his church may become “perfectly one.” Vs. 23. But this oneness is perfect only in a qualified sense. Truly perfect oneness will only be achieved when the world itself is drawn into the Trinitarian love that is God. It is for the world, broken and hostile to God as it is, that the Son has been sent. The Son’s love for the world is precisely what overcomes the hostility of the world. It is for this reason that Jesus concludes his prayer with a plea to his heavenly Father “that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Vs. 26.

Although this is not an Ascension Day text, it might fruitfully be used as such. The trouble with the feast of the Ascension is that we often turn it into Jesus’ going away party. It is anything but that! God’s right hand is not somewhere deep in space. It is at work in the heart of creation. To say that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father is to say that he is more intensely present to us than ever before. As the hymn tells us, “Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” ‘Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing,” Text Brian A. Wren, Music T. Williams published in Lutheran Evangelical Worship, # 389.

 

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