9 Pentecost: A parasite that worms its way into our hearts and minds

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Texts for 9 Pentecost (2 Kings and John)
Youtube video follows text

Okay, it is the 21st century
and we have discovered planet 452b
that may be an earth-double.
How can we not
see stories about Elisha and Jesus
differently than earlier people did —
and how can we not
ask different questions of such stories,
even from when “we” first heard them?

But here is an open secret:
These stories were not even intended for us.
We are strangers to those ancient story-tellers,
living on another continent
2000 and more years away.

So let’s recognize these stories
were not even meant for us.

2 Kings reports four miracles
performed by Elisha
in order to demonstrate
that he is an appropriate successor
to the prophet Elijah.

Then, a thousand or more years later,
John attributes the same miracles to Jesus
in order to demonstrate
that JESUS is an appropriate successor
to the prophets Moses, Elijah, and Elisha.
In all of John’s miracles stories,
Jesus one-ups
his predecessors.
That is the point of the stories.
We just hear the miracle,
and in our 21st century seat,
ask if such things could really happen?
Or even reject the verasity of such stories.

But for the author of John’s gospel
the point of the stories is not for us,
rather, it is that Jesus’ wow-factor
is bigger and better than
Elijah’s and Elisha’s wow-factors.

Elsewhere in 2 Kings
Elijah and Elisha
are walking along
followed by a bevy of lesser prophets –
disciples so to speak –
when they come to the river.

Without skipping a beat,
Elijah smacks the water with his robe
and the two of them walk through the water
on dry land – echoing back
to Moses at the Red Sea.
Jesus doesn’t need no stinking magic robe
for him to actually walk ON water.

Likewise, Elisha does three food tricks
during a time of terrible famine,
the final one we heard this morning:
he feeds a hundred men
with only a single tithe of food
someone gave him.
In other words,
he had just enough to feed one prophet
and yet, after feeding 100,
there was stil food left.

Well, Jesus has just enough
to feed one family
but after he feeds 5000
there is plenty left over.

In a more innocent time
such a competition of miracle stories
was used by preachers
and evangelists
and ordinary folks sharing their faith,
to prove
that Jesus was God.

I can remember thinking that
as a kid.
In my Sunday School mind I thought,
”Wow, walking on water, that proves it!”

But I don’t remember any sermons
in which it was pointed out
that the other great prophets of Israel
did such miraculous things too.

And when I was a kid
no one ever told me about Milarepa,
the great Tibetan spiritual master,
who could fly.

We had Jesus who did such big stuff
but any other stories we heard
were dismissed as mytholog —
or cartoons.
At least that was my childhood,
I don’t know about yours.

But that was then
and this is now.

There are still churches
that speak of the Bible as proof of itself –
churches that try to hermetically seal
its members within a cocoon of thinking
so they are not troubled by obvious questions
raised by using the bible for proof of itself.

But in our tradition,
the authority of the Bible
is not that it is an unassailable,
or an eyewitness account,
nor the belief that the Bible
is a meticulously detailed
factual version of events
recorded verbatim
with the miraculous assistance of God.
It is none of those things,
at least from our tradition.

The authority of the Bible
is that we are the same community
in another time
and in another place
seeking, struggling with, and encountering
the presence of God in our midst.

We are the same community of the Bible
doing the same things
and seeking the same things
and struggling with the same things
as those people did thousands of years ago.

The problem with the Bible
is not the Bible itself;
the problem is what we have laid on top it.

As the early religious movement survived Jesus
it aged and developed and spread,
and then it became the religion of an empire.
When that happened,
Christianity sought to harmonize the Bible.
It felt the need to harmonize
all the conflicting stories
because they wanted it to also reinforce
the countless beliefs it brought to the Bible —
from far outside the Bible.

In other words, and for example,
five hundred years after Jesus,
Christians living in what is now Turkey
and who were citizens of Rome,
wanted to make Scripture
conform to their worldview
and religious assumptions.
They didn’t want the gospels, for example,
to contradict each other
or to be in tension with what they believed,
so they imposed upon them
an interpretive matrix
that mushed things together,
ignored internal contradictions,
and made things fit.

But they were not alone.
Christians in Ethiopia did that
and Christians in Egypt did that
and Christians in Spain did that
and Christians in Britain did that
and Christians on the Minnesota prairie did that.
We have rung the Bible
through paintings,
stained glass images,
maudlin, triumphant, and sentimental hymns
and spirituals,
and every other kind of art
and cultural prism at our disposal
until the people,
and ideas of the Bible
look and sound like we want them to.

We did all of that
to harmonize the wildly divergent,
utterly disorganized,
and truly eclectic stories of the Bible,
as if they formed a clear image
and delivered proof for our way of thinking.

Here is an interesting way to think about this.

Let’s say that everyone
who is a part of this congregation
has been keeping a spiritual journal
that describes our understanding
of what God is doing in our lives –
or in some cases,
complaining about what God
is not doing in our lives.

And let’s say that the people of Trinity Place
have been keeping their journals since 1806
when it was first formed.
And now let’s pretend that somehow,
all those scraps of paper
were brought together and typed into a computer.

What we would have
would be a wild mishmash of perspectives
flowing across a period of time
that witnessed the second Industrial Revolution;
two world wars;
a cold war;
the discovery of electricity,
flight, and
the splitting of atoms;
not to mention the rise and fall
of antibiotics,
terrorism and many more wars.

The quality of writing,
the breadth and narrowness of perspectives,
the quality of wisdom and insight,
the peculiarity and ordinariness of content
would be wildly different
from person to person
and generation to generation.

Just imagine the differences
we might find between
Bunny Bell,
Kathy Flick,
Beth Henderson,
Howard Sabin,
Cam Miller,
Sherry Gibbon, and
Kim Donselaar?
What kind of violence
would we have to do to all of that writing,
that all those people
over all those generations produced,
in order to make it offer a harmonious
point of view?

So one of the truly wonderful
and amazing things
that is happening these days,
is the effort to return to the Bible
without all of our harmonizing efforts.

But we will never be able to strip away
everything we have laid over the Bible
and there is no pure and pristine original
to get back to and uncover anyway.

For one thing,
the Bible was originally told not written.
When it did get written down
it was done in disconnected scraps
by a variety of editors
over a great many years
and cultures
and languages.
So there is no original Bible
for us to uncover
and say, “Ah ha! Here it is!”
as if it were a buried pirate treasure.

It came to us in pieces
over time
and from different voices
and cultures
and languages.

But what is exciting,
is that we can begin to see
what we have laid on top of the Bible
and recognize it as our effort to harmonize
what was not originally in harmony.
We can learn a lot about ourselves
by seeing what we have shellacked the Bible with,
and we can learn more and more
as we keep digging.

So one thing that means,
is you will not hear me say,
“Jesus walked on water
therefore Jesus is Lord of Nature.”

What I might say instead,
is that this story originates
in the Gospel of Mark
who uses it to proclaim Jesus as Lord
even over Nature,
and that John retells it,
a generation and a half later,
to proclaim Jesus is greater
than Elijah and Elisha.

You see, it even changed purpose and meaning
from Mark to John.

So I do not proclaim that something in the bible really, really happened.
Instead, I try to point out what the particular
editor or author hoped we would see.
And like Paul or Augustine or Dorothy Day,
I will converse and argue with the story
rather than simply believe
what Mark
or John
or the 2nd Council of Nicea
may have wanted us to believe.

But that still leaves the question
of whether or not
Elijah could part the waters of the Jordan;
and Elisha could feed a hundred men with a portion allotted to one man;
and whether or not
Jesus could walk on water
or feed five thousand
with an amount normally shared
by a single family;
or for that matter, whether or not
Milerapa could fly?

We all come to such a question
from a different place,
and I come to it from a place.

I am more inclined to focus on small details
like this one in John’s story.
“Jesus knew that the people planned to come
and take him by force
and make him their king,
so he left and went into the hills alone.”

I mean, listen to that!
There is so much more for us
in that one measily sentence
than wondering about miracles.

Jesus, “taken by force.”
The crowd, “wanting to make him their king.”
Jesus, stomping off to be alone in the hills…

I like to think of the bible as a holy parasite
that worms its way
through our thoughts
and into our hearts
causing us to see the world differently
and do things that risk our own self-interest.

A sentence like that one
is a parasite
and it will worm its way inside
if we drop our guard.

All miracles require is a “yes” or “no.”
It is all the other stuff that is more dangerous.