Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Have You to Do with Us?

Scripture for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany includes Deuteronomy 18:15-20; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

There’s a preachable question. To be honest, I don’t find much in today’s readings that is preachable… at least by me. I failed to hear the muses singing over these passages.

Just this record of a stark encounter: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

No irrelevant detail, that tag “of Nazareth”. Two Sundays ago, we heard Nathanael have a harrumph moment when he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Like several other disciples in the circle Jesus would recruit, Nathanael came from the waterfront city of Bethsaida, and apparently he’d been raised to look down on those dirt farmers from Galilee, where Nazareth was just an insignificant village with not much going for it.

The fellow who poses our question today, however, is nameless. We guess he’s not to be remembered as an apostolic recruit. He might not have passed a CORI check. He may have been a street person living on the margin of town life in Capernaum. I picture him slipping in after the processional hymn, largely unnoticed until he blurts out his fear.

“Have you come to destroy us?”

“Oh, no! It’s crazy Ezekiel! Who let him in?” That’s one way to hear this story. No one’s surprised that old Zeke has been set off by a change in the force field of that little country church. Bring in a visiting preacher, and anything can happen. The vibes are different from their usual sabbath-day fare—and wouldn’t it be Zeke who’d be sensitive to that? Poor devil…

Or can we imagine a different way to hear this story? Could that fellow who cries out be the pastor of the congregation? Is it the rector who’s blown a fuse? Has he simply had it with all this emergent change rocking his boat, and is he the one who picks up in this Jesus fellow an implicit threat to the status quo and blurts out, “Have you come to destroy us?”

Perhaps that strikes you as an odd reading of the story—but let’s leave room for surprise. And however we hear this story, we watch as Jesus of Nazareth embraces the confrontation. I imagine him cut off mid-sentence in his sermon, but instead of being flustered by this interruption (as we mortal preachers might), instead of helplessly looking around the room hoping that someone will silence this man, Jesus now makes this man’s healing become the lesson he teaches. And it is a lesson in freedom from bondage.

However you understand the man with the outburst, Jesus silences his anxiety. That appears to be the first step in his recovery. Perhaps it’s not until we’re willing to practice silence in his presence that we receive the freedom Jesus gives. Until we let go of the tyranny of words, that domination we’re under from the morning news right through our working hours, that inundation of our senses brokered by an increasing array of electronic devices that have us more and more on the alert. Until we embrace silence and learn to pray without words, we are not receptive candidates for the freedom he gives.

“Be silent, and come out of him!” What we need to come out of us is our fear. Today’s
other lessons reinforce this message. The people of Israel are shown desiring as a successor to Moses a prophet who will protect them from ever having to encounter God. They have had such harrowing experiences as refugees from bondage in Egypt that what they have come to want most is safety, a smooth ride, no surprises—and from such desire comes a religion of fear, a religion that enshrines a frightening God.

Jesus has come to free people from bondage—all people, all bondage. In his First Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul coaches Christians how to help in the movement to liberate people raised in a culture that practiced the worship of idols. Maybe this is where we return to the question, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Have you come to destroy our favorite idols? What human society has no idols? It’s the universally besetting original sin, worshiping as if it were God something less than God.

In the Hebrew Bible, prophets express their outrage at Israelites yielding to the temptation to dance around the fertility poles of Canaanite religion; yet other passages suggest that it was common for a family to have its own household god, perhaps a shrine to ward off evil and misfortune. By the time we turn to the Christian scriptures, we’re in an imperial culture held together by an imperial cult, the emperor expecting to be worshiped as if a god.

We may practice more subtle idolatry. The American Dream. The Golden Years. Rugged Individualism. Personal liberty. Good things taken to excess become idols. Excessive and unquestioning loyalty, even and especially in the practice of religion, also in the exercise of politics. Believers may enshrine traditions, certain translations and interpretations of holy scripture—and of a nation’s constitution.

But it’s around food that Paul offers his coaching. There must have been a cozy bond between the butcher shops and the shrines where the best cuts were offered to gain the favor of the gods. And then the meat was put in the market for re-sale, and sometimes claimed by civic authorities to grill and serve at festivals where all ate for free.

Who could turn that down? Yet Paul urges that very self-discipline, if the tender consciences of recent converts to Christ were troubled by believers’ failing to draw the line separating the Kingdom of God from the ways of the world. “Rather than fail at caring for the weaker members of Christ’s Body, I’ll become a vegetarian!”, Paul announces.

His purpose is to teach and model strength that is God’s strength. Though it may appear to be weakness, true strength, God’s strength, serves and builds up others, rather than dominating and controlling.

Now, there’s a theme for Superbowl Sunday. Professor Matthew Skinner, who teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, writes on the Huffington Post Blog, and gets us thinking about football.

“Americans enjoy (the sport),” he says, “because, to a degree, football reflects the values of strength, courage, strategy, self-discipline, teamwork, and celebrity that American culture holds dear. It’s also refreshing to watch someone else get crushed by a 260-pound linebacker after you’ve had a lousy week at work.

“The problem develops when we let football (or other sports, or the military, or corporations, or other forces) define strength in terms of dominance…

”The Superbowl might prompt us to consider the hazards of an ethos in which rewards go to those who say, ‘We take what we want,’ and follow through on it.”

Skinner sees the Superbowl and the Bible sharing the ability to make us ask, What’s the proper use of strength? For many Americans, football defines power and manliness. For Christians and Jews, the Bible’s authors present a God who “uses power, subverts power, becomes subject to the power of others, and shares power.”

Our culture, he notes, celebrates both selfless heroism and arrogant domination that abuses the dignity of others.

“It’s something to think about,” says Skinner, “before the fighter jets fly over the stadium, the commercials for Bud Light and “American Sniper” roll, the guy at the bar makes another tasteless joke about underinflated footballs, and Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz take the halftime stage.”

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

For starters, he gets us thinking.

(Matthew Skinner’s post “The Super Bowl and the Church in a Culture of Dominance (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)” was posted on January 26, 2015 on The Huffington Post Religion page.)