A Vision for 8th Day's Consideration
October 30, 2011
Matthew 23:1-15, 23-24, 27, 37-39
[The following teaching, given without notes, is being written down after the event. To get what was occurring please stop here and read the texts listed above. In the service Patty Wudel read the two texts from Isaiah 25 and Matthew 23 with much care and feeling. The teaching started with the reading. I followed by placing a stool before the altar, taking the mike and sitting down on the stool.]
Wow, what a pair of texts! – the soaring vision of Isaiah of all people coming to a mountain to share in a feast hosted by God – and the scathing anger and sadness of Jesus a few days before his crucifixion.
What do you want to do with these texts? Shall we go around them or through them?
[Heads were nodding eagerly urging that we take on the texts. (Thanks Patty for your compelling reading!)]
OK, let’s go for it. I’m sitting on this stool with mike and no notes for a couple of reasons. First I want to connect with you as directly as I can so that your energy will flow into me and my energy will flow into you. When this happens it gives the chance for something special to occur.
Secondly, I want to use some props to bring home what this text is about, including this scarf and my body. Notice what happens when I put the veil over my face. I look out and I see you “sort of” and you see me “sort of.” When the veil comes off I see you and you see me clearly. That’s the difference between being strangers and being community. As strangers we see each other “sort of” or vaguely. As community we see far more clearly.
Isaiah 25:6-9 describes the “messianic age” as Isaiah saw it, the change that will occur with the coming of the Messiah which in Greek is translated “Christ.” The Gospel text in the lectionary for last Sunday was the parable of the great banquet, Matthew 22:1-10. In this parable of the “end times” Isaiah 25:6-9 is clearly in view. With the coming of the messianic age, it describes God throwing a banquet of delicious food and drink of the kind that melts in your mouth, the kind that poor people especially dream about. Rather than a select group, God throws this banquet for all people. Let that sink in.
During the banquet God will “swallow up death” and God will remove the veil (or covering) over people’s eyes. What does “swallow up death” mean? Let’s come back to back. Meanwhile let’s note that lifting the veil means what it says – removing obstacles to sight. An admired professor walking across campus with several students pointed to an individual in the distance and said, “I hate that man.” The surprised students asked “Why?” The professor said, “Because I don’t know him. If I knew him, I would probably love him.”
In addition, during the great banquet God will also remove all marks of disgrace from the guests, anything that would cause groups and individuals to be excluded. In a society that segregated the physically and mentally challenged, this was really good news.
As a step in thinking about the meaning of “God swallowing up death” let’s think for a moment about the gift of life in the form of the human body. This summer I spent a month in a program where we traded manual labor of cleaning, doing the laundry, etc. for board and room and the opportunity to study the art and craft of writing. We worked in the daytime and took classes at night let by a woman who is both a writer and performance artist.
A major learning I took away is the distinction between my thinking confined to my head and thinking with my whole body. There is a huge difference. I recognized that I, like most white males, am programmed to live in my head with only vague awareness of what my body has to say. In that course we were introduced to speaking, writing, and communicating nonverbally with input from our bodies. I found that every time I got a taste of being grounded in my body, I felt a new kind of energy and connection with myself and others. This helped me think both about my individual body and about our collective body as a community or as scripture refers to the church as “the body of Christ.”
What part of your body do you associate with compassion? That’s right – the heart. What about power? Notice when I stand up and sit down on this stool. Where does the power come from to do that – that’s right, the region of the pelvis. Put these two sources of compassion and power together and you get “powerful compassion” and “compassionate power.” What better way to describe the essence of what we are called to be about in the world as individuals and as a community!
One of the things I got hold of this summer was the vision of grounding and filling myself in my own body and the collective human body with whom I am in community. In the writing class, I experienced myself as part of that body. I found that I was able to take in their affection and support as well as give back and when I did so I felt expansion in my very being. I felt more alive.
This is only a piece of what happens at the messianic banquet where God will swallow up death. There is more, and our bodies, individual and collective, is a place to reflect on the power of that promise. The text, I believe, also pushes us to see ourselves as part of the body of the whole human species along with animal and plant life. When the body of Christ and the world suffers, we suffer, and either and both thrive, we thrive.
We at 8th Day are beginning an envisioning process to think through again our identity and call. I would like to put into the hopper for consideration Isaiah’s vision in 25:6-9 along with the analogy of “body” in all its forms and its capacity for powerful compassion and compassionate power.
Let’s turn now to our text from Matthew 23 where we encounter Jesus’ scathing anger and deep sadness. Jesus is angry and sad because he has a vision to share. Scripture ways, “without vision, the people perish.” Without vision there is apathy. If you and I have no vision and purpose in our lives we fall into apathy. We may deny the apathy. We may cover it up and even repress it, but without vision there is a vacuum which we experience in our bodies as apathy. I am inclined to experience apathy in my body in my shoulders. When I am apathetic, my shoulders express it by slumping. Not a good feeling. Not a good place to be for very long.
Jesus was passionate, fully alive. He was vehemently angry and deeply sad. His vision was being roundly rejected by most of his country men and women. Jesus expressed his vision as the kingdom of God or the reign of God breaking into culture. His movement, the Jesus movement, represented a sign that this vision was no longer something in the future but available now. In his parable of the banquet feast Jesus alludes to Isaiah 25:6-9 - a sumptuous banquet for all people – not just for the privileged. Contrast this with the vision of our current political system. Second, the people swallow the good food and God swallows death and the covering over the minds and hearts of the people so that they may participate in the banquet for eternity. Death and blindness will no longer be a given.
This vision lived on in the minds and hearts of the people except that over time it shrunk, and in the process of shrinking people heard something very different from what Isaiah saw. In the second century BCE book of Enoch the banquet that accompanied the coming of the Messiah excluded gentiles. A century later the Qumran Community in addition to excluding gentiles excluded all imperfect Jews along with people with any physical blemish.
When Jesus came on the scene, he revived the Isaiah vision. His campaign was to declare by word and deed that God’s kingdom that Isaiah had foreseen in his vision was at hand. Receive it and join in this movement of living this truth. Mahatma Ghandi said that we must become the change we seek in the world. Day by day Jesus was that change. People could see it, taste it and let it into their bodies – the vision of powerful compassion and compassionate power.
The details of the vision are important. Over the ages people like us have substituted our own details with the result that the vision shrinks. This is what Jesus faced – the vision of Isaiah was no longer clear to the people. The religious leaders, like the high priests and the Pharisees embraced a shrunken vision. It is the same today. Conservatives ignore the universality of the vision. Liberals shrink the second part of the vision – the vision of God swallowing up death and the covering over the eyes of the gentiles.
How does God swallow up death and the covering of gentile eyes? The Biblical way of thinking about Jesus’ death is that the deeper we go the deeper it takes us into the love that heals the human condition. The Biblical way of thinking about Jesus’ resurrection is that without it there is no transfer of power from Jesus to the Jesus movement.
By the time Jesus gets to this scene in the temple in Matthew he knows he is going to die and the people who are going to make it happen are watching his every move. Jesus has only two choices at this point. He can take his disciples and “get out of Dodge” and go back to a friendlier Galilee; or he can stay in Jerusalem, do what he has to do, and let things run their course. This means that he is going to die in a brutal way. In the matter of public execution, only the Romans had the power to execute people and their way of doing it was by public crucifixion as a way of warning the public to conform or else.
Jesus cannot be Jesus and back off. What we see enacted by Jesus in that last week of his life and in fact from the beginning of his ministry was a level of surrender to God to the point that death was no longer an issue. It was an issue Jesus trusted God to handle. He was sent to launch a movement that could be compared to a human body to carry on after his job was done.
Everything he has stood for and fought for is on the line. Soon it will all be up to God – not his enemies, not his friends, but God. Jesus has an idea of what God is going to do, and he has told his friends. He said that God would bring him back. They didn’t get it and if they can’t get it, the crowds certainly can’t get it. So what he has to do is make the issue he is dying for as clear as possible. This is what this text is all about. This is what the anger and the sadness and the love behind that anger and sadness is all about.
This is the way and only way I can understand Jesus’ incredible non violent boldness. He understood that God had released in him a level of understanding of God’s loving will that superseded the understanding of his peers and the celebrated teachers who held forth in the Temple. In sum, God had raised up in him gifts which matched the new age that Jesus envisioned. In his heart Jesus knew that God expected him to exercise those gifts without holding back, even when exercising those gifts stirred up the kind of fear and hatred that would lead to his death.
Slowly, surely, Jesus introduces his followers to what life can be like if death is not an issue. Jesus tries to clue them in to this vision of God swallowing up death and the covering over human eyes. A clue to the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is given in Psalm 43 which is part of out lectionary today. The key word is vindicate. Jesus knows faithfulness involves acting with powerful compassion and compassionate power to the point of death. Given the rejection of the Biblical vision by the culture, death is part of the deal. Someone or something must come into play to “swallow up” death. Jesus gives up his life and God comes back on stage in bringing Jesus back to life. The New Testament understands this as vindicating Jesus as his chosen one and giving him back to the movement he had launched. Jesus is now present in the movement in a hidden, invisible and equally real way as in his physical body. Jesus has changed bodies.
He is in us and we are in him. We are not left to ourselves. We have each other in a special way through Christ, and Christ has us in a special way through our life together in community. We get hints of the power of this mystery as we exercise toward one another and in the world powerful compassion and compassionate power.
Sometimes I get really anxious about the language that floats around the Church of the Saviour family to describe our call and our being. We talk about surrendered lives, answering calls, sacrificial living in ways that make the power come from us. If only people are serious and committed enough, these are the kinds of fruit that will show up.
In our 8th Day envisioning process I think it is critical that we be careful with language that elevates our piety, language that calls attention to ourselves. The danger for the Pharisees exists equally for us – the danger of pretension, the danger of hypocrisy.
How do we avert that? How do we stay clear of that box?