19 Pentecost: Get Ready to Rumble…with God!

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Today, once again, the gospel reveals
the uncomfortable dinner table argument
between a radical first century Palestinian peasant
and the well-educated
upper class Westernized Christianity
that uses the Church
as a sheath for preserving its artistic achievements.

It is a conflict
between the perspective of ancient wisdom embedded with common people, and centuries of ruling classes.
One is rooted in the experience of life
at the harsh margins of powerlessness
and subject to violence wielded by empires.
The other perspective is from that small cadre
of the powerful in imperial Rome,
within later European colonialism,
and still later American imperialism –
all of which ruled over the social equivalent
of Jesus and his friends in later times.

It is a conflict
between zealous first century Jews
suspicious of granting authority and power to anyone,
and zealous patriots
of 21stCentury American Civil Religion
too eager to grant religious significance
to their own righteousness.

The language of worship and theology
practiced in popular Christianity –
whether conservative Evangelical,
traditional Roman Catholic, or Mainline Protestant –
is a domesticatedreligion.
It stands in contrast to a rough,
subversive to coercive authority religion
that comes to us from the margins.

But this is nothing new –
either in Christianity or other religions.
In every civilization,
from imperial China
to the Ottoman empire
to contemporary nationalistic Hindus and Buddhists –
religion gets domesticated
by the principalities and powers.
In order to incorporate and support
the interests and idols of culture for nationalistic purposes,
kings, presidents, prime ministers, generals,
legislatures, and corporations,
must cool religion down.

Whatever the hot burning coal
that formed a religion at its beginning,
it must be formed into a cold iron statue
in order to serve the institutions of social control.

That is because the origins of religion,
its prophets and sages,
are subversive to the principalities and powers.

Biblical Christianity is subversive of imperial culture
regardless of who the emperor is.
Where we seek refinement
the Bible is rough around the edges;
where we appreciate gentleness and couth
the Bible is militant;
where we insist upon reason
the Bible is outrageous and miraculous;
where we craft high-toned language, art, and music,
the Bible speaks in vernacular.

Today’s gospel offers a spectacular example.

That reading from Luke
is proceeded by a verse attributed to Jesus
that I bet few, if any of us, would recognize.
In fact, I can’t remember it ever coming up
in the lectionary.
In the verse just before the story we heard today,
someone asks Jesus,
“Hey Jesus, where will the reign of God arrive?”

That in itself is not an unusual question.
People always wanted to know
when and where to expect the big transformation.
Jesus answers,
“Where the corpse is, the vultures will gather.”

I am not making that up,
go look in your Bible at the end of chapter 17
and you will see it for yourself:
“Where the corpse is, the vultures will gather”?
I can’t remember a single Victorian hymn,
or contemporary praise song
with those words from Jesus:
“Where the corpse is, the vultures will gather.”

The Biblical Jesus was combative,
subversive, undermining of authority,
and dismissive of formality.
But not just to the religious and Roman authorities,
he was that way with God!
Jesus, like the sages and prophets before him,
argued with God,
and wrestled with God,
and in the process
sometimes changed God’s mind.

Our Enlightenment ancestors who formed
the Christianity we have more or less inherited,
were captivated by what they called pure reason,
and so they could not imagine a God
who changed anything –
especially God’s mind.
They lusted for a universe
that operated with order and predictability.

So our images of Jesus
are crafted upon the high arts of literature,
music and architecture,
and they transform Jesus
from peasant to King.
Yet we hardly notice the painful tension.

We have all seen it:
Jesus with his arms spread straight out on the cross,
not hung there and suffering,
but his own body forming the stiff shape of the cross
and wearing the royal crown of a European king.
Usually in such Christ-the-King images,
Jesus is also wearing an embroidered chasuble,
that poncho-like vestment of priestly gear,
and so morphing him
from reformer to company man.

That is an iconic example of what I mean
about the Bible and Jesus being domesticated.
Think of the Bible stories you learned as a child
and how rarely we talk about them now.
If we did not allow our children to watch
“Silence of the Lambs” and “Halloween XXVII,”
they would be terrified by the Biblical God in those stories.

We have domesticated the Bible
and the Biblical characters
because they are subversive partisans
that engage in combat with Pharaoh and Caesar.
And that means they are subversive to us
and to our way of life
because we are endlessly entangled
with the self-interests of Pharaoh and Caesar.
But they also engage in combat with God
and that is useful information for you and me, too.
God expects a fight from us
not a polite prayer
with impeccable syntax
that whimpers our neediness.

God requires a fight from us,
and where there is resistance
we need to push back.

The fact is, our little issues do not amount
to so much as a pimple on the back side of the universe,
so if we want some attention from God
we better be prepared to kick up some dust.

Now please, don’t just discount what I am saying
as some aggressive spiritual testosterone
from a cranky old male priest.
The Judeo, Christian, and Islamic traditions
are rife with women mystics and saints
every bit as passionate and tough
as what I am describing about biblical spirituality.
Just so you do not think I am exaggerating,
let me take us by the hand
and drag us back to today’s text.

In our polite,
and culturally filtered
New Revised Standard Version of the Luke’s story,
the judge says:
“I will grant her justice,
so that she may not wear me out
by her continual coming.”

But listen to a translation
that is more interested in capturing
the original sentiment in the Greek text
than being literate:
“I will grant her justice,
so that she will not pummel my eye.”
In other words,
so she will not give me a black eye!

That is a huge difference!

If we are translating Luke’s story
from a position of privilege and power,
in which we respect the arbitrators of justice
because they are our kind of folk,
then we want this parable to suggest
that the old widow
gets what she is asking for
because she is a nag.

If our position in society is at the top or the middle,
rather than the bottom or the margin,
then we want to imagine that the judge
is tired after a long day’s work
and does the right thing by giving into the old gal
even though she is clearly a disagreeable sort.

But this story was told by an illiterate peasant
with a very different experience of people in authority,
especially the police and judges.

Jesus’ experience of authority
is from the bottom up,
not sharing a Church pew with them.
So in Luke’s story, the judge gives up
because the widow is scrappy
and likely to give him a black eye
if he keeps denying her justice.
Again, I am not making this stuff up!

You know as well as I do
that when we change the perspective on something –
see it from the top down instead of from the bottom up
or vis versa – it will look and sound differently.

The Bible is like that,
and our job is to hear it
from the bottom up now and again.

When we do,
one of the first things we bump into
is a rough and tumble relationship with God
rather than a passive, enjoyment
of a beautiful sunset or symphonic choir.

“The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah promises on behalf of God, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke…(instead) I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. “

But, you know what?
That day isn’t here yet. Clearly.
So until it is,
we need to be like that persistent widow
and be ready to rumble with God.
And if we are to take Jesus seriously,
God ain’t the only one
we need to be ready to rumble with.