Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Lent: Compressed into Conflict

Lent 2018
"Compressed into Conflict"
the witness of a privileged Caesarean Gentile

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church
February 25, 2018
Genesis 17:1-16, Mark 8:27-38

I’m a patient man, though I don’t suffer much foolishness. So it surprises even me that I can’t quite shake that itinerant rabbi’s message that took hold of me a while back. It must have been on the Jewish Sabbath, because the teacher was surrounded by eager listeners of an ilk that I don’t often associate with. To be honest, they don’t much like me and my kind either. They appeared to have the traditional attire of the worshippers of Yahweh…. Yes, I can utter that name, because I am not part of the covenant people – though my people and their people come from the same stock. In fact only an hour’s walk west of this newly named city of Caesarea Philippi – Tetrarch Phillip’s monument to Caesar – is the site of the northern temple. It was the rival to Jerusalem’s claim as the true sanctuary of Yahweh. We all know that the covenant people, who claim to have worshipped only one God since Abraham, were once also worshippers of Yahweh’s wife, Asherah, who the old stories revered as El Shaddai, the many breasted.

My ancestors were left behind when Assyria defeated the northern kingdom, and since then we have been pragmatists. We have reshaped ourselves to suit and serve the ways of whoever is in power. Some would call us Samaritans – though my family has long since given up adherence to the God of Abraham and Jacob. Pragmatism has served us well. Our family land happens to be on top of the nearest source of marble for building. When Herod the Great built his temple to Caesar right here at this ancient shrine to Pan, god of fertility and wine, the marble came from our quarry. That was about thirty years ago, and I have grown up in comfort and convenience, with Greek tutors and time for leisure.
So, as I was saying, I was relaxing in the shade of the trees around the Spring of Pan on the steps of Herod’s temple, when my attention was drawn to the crowd of Jewish peasants gathering to hear the teaching of one of their many itinerant rabbis. This one’s name was Jesus, though that is not unusual these days. The name means “savior” after all, and given the wretched, almost enslaved conditions of most of the population, it’s not surprising that “Jesus” tops the list of popular names for baby Jewish boys these days. Imagine the hopes and disappointments of the mothers and fathers who named their child Jesus hoping they would share in the wealth of a warrior who could topple Rome, or at least oust the empire from Palestine and restore the glory of David and Solomon.
Rumors had been circulating about the marvelous deeds of this particular teacher and healer – giving some to hope that the salvation claim might be true – though his message seemed more about peace and forgiveness than victory and retribution. He seemed unafraid to sit with lepers and engage those possessed by strange spirits. He seemed like a kind man with an easy grace and an easy yoke. Or at least that’s what I had heard. That day though, there was something different. I could tell from the first moment I laid eyes on him. There was a tension among his followers, or maybe between him and his followers. I’m not sure the gathered crowd would have picked up on it until he started to speak. But then, when he did, it was clear that a corner had been turned. He was now headed in a different direction. If before he had been headed away from confrontation with the unholy alliance of Rome and Jerusalem, of empire and temple, he was about to turn the tables. He was about to intervene.
And here is where the paradox comes for me. My family is well situated. Our status has been reinforced by the powers that be, by the system that puts a few of us in comfort and many in distress. Comfort and convenience have been our way for generations – though it hasn’t always been safe or easy. Now, this kind healer was speaking as if directly to me. If you want to truly, deeply live life for all it can be, if you want your whole self, your vitality to thrive, you must give it up. You must give it away. Holding on to what you’ve got, clinging desperately to your privilege, is actually a kind of poverty, an addiction, – a kind of death. You must lose your life to gain it.
Why does this compel me?
What is happening to me that I would choose to leave my comfort and convenience, my safety and my security?
As his gaze turns to me, as he looks deeply into my eyes, knowing me, as if, like Yahweh, he was present at my making in my mother’s womb, I hear his voice though his lips do not move.
He knows what it is that possesses me.
He knows what I truly worship, and it is not God.
Did I hear him say follow me?

Or did that voice come from somewhere deep inside?

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