Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mothers and Prophets

MOTHERS AND PROPHETS Oxnard United Church of Christ, 13 May 2012 Every time a child is conceived, God begins creating two miracles. Two: a new life and a mother. Almost all our favorite characters in the Bible are prophets: from Miriam, to Moses; from Elijah to John the Baptist; from Huldah to Anna. God gave us these prophets. God gave us their mothers. I am here this morning to talk about two of these mothers… Let’s start with Hannah. Most of us here probably remember her story. She was loved but she was barren and in a society where barrenness was considered a curse, she cried and prayed and pleaded to Yahweh to remember her and Yahweh did. She gave birth to a son and named him Samuel, which meant, “I have asked him of Yahweh.” And in her prayer in Chapter 2, comparable to the power and the passion of Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1. 46-55, we encounter a mother’s faith, a faith I’m sure she taught her son, a faith that continues to challenge us today… Let me read some of her prayer’s most powerful affirmations… The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength, God kills and brings to life, God brings down to Sheol and raises up, God raises up the poor from the dust, God lifts the needy from the ash heap However you read Hannah’s Prayer the message is clear—God will make things right. And most important, God is on the side of the poor, of the oppressed, of the hungry, of those whose only hope is God. This was the faith of Hannah, the same faith her prophet son, Samuel, had. Most of us here probably remember the son more than his mother. The message has not changed. Hannah and Samuel’s faith remain. We worship and serve a God who actually takes sides. If we read our Bibles and pray everyday, which I hope everyone in Oxnard does, then we will grow, grow, grow in the knowledge that the God we serve and worship has always been on the side of the poor. From Genesis to Revelation, we read about our covenant relationship with Yahweh that requires us to take care of the widows, orphans, strangers and foreigners, yes, illegal immigrants, among us. From Genesis to Revelation, we are enjoined to feed the hungry, offer drink to the thirsty, welcome the sick and the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. We know whose side God is on but are we on the right side? Those of us who take pride in calling ourselves Christian, are we on God’s side? Do we let poor widows give everything they have, even the little money left to buy food, so that we can build our temples and our buildings as monuments to our messianic complexes? Mary of Nazareth believed in a God who brings down rulers from their thrones but lifts up the humble. She believed in a God who fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away empty. And this faith, I know she taught her Son, the One we call Lord and Savior. Hannah and Mary knew what God required of us. It is not burnt offerings or ten thousand rivers of oil or mighty buildings. Then and now, God requires of us to do justice and to love kindness and to take sides…And the message will never, ever, change. We worship and serve a God who takes sides. A God who takes the preferential option for the poor. A God who brings down kings and kingdoms. A God who weeps with those who weep and who cries with those who cry. We worship and serve a God who, in the fullness of time, in the life and ministry of one Jesus, son of Mary from Nazareth, did the greatest act of taking sides—God became one of us. God left heaven to be with us. And God continues to take sides—as we encounter God among the least of the least, among the hungry and the thirsty, among the prisoners, the strangers, and the sick, among the homeless and the naked, among those devastated by nature’s wrath and by humanity’s greed, among those whose only hope is God. Let me share with you a story told by John Dominic Crossan, probably the most read Historical Jesus researcher today: He imagines a conversation with Jesus. He asks Jesus what he can say about Crossan’s research. Jesus says he has done great work, his research is excellent, and his reconstruction of Jesus is the closest to the real person. Crossan is ecstatic about Jesus’ praise, until Jesus adds: “One thing you lack.” And Crossan, asks: “What is it, Lord?” And the reply: “Sell everything you have, including all the royalties you’ve received from the books you’ve written about me; give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me.” Crossan says, “I cannot, Lord.” Yes, my dear sisters and brothers, the final test. Those of us who take pride in calling ourselves Christian, worship and serve a God who takes sides; but most importantly, the Christ we worship and serve wants us to sell everything we have, give all the proceeds to the poor and follow him. Hannah and Mary gave the very best they could offer to God: their children. And their children did so, as well. They offered the very best. They gave their lives for others. Are we ready to do so? Did our mothers teach us to do so? For most of us, our mothers taught us how to care and how to share. They showed us how to live in love, how to pray. Our mothers taught us how to live through life’s pains. They showed us how to give our lives for our friends. Our mothers taught us how not to be afraid. Their love showed us that, whatever happens, we will never, ever, be alone. For many people, IMMANUEL, God-with-us, is actually spelled M O T H E R. Again, I ask: are we ready to offer our very best? Did our mothers teach us to do so? I believe they did. I know they did. Amen.

Thursday, April 05, 2012


LAST WORDS Last words are important to many of us. Famous last words include Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios” and Antonio Luna’s “P___ -Ina!” The thousands among us who watched the coverage of FPJ's wake several years ago will remember the variety of remembrances of people who talked about his last words to them. My late mother's last words to me--when we were in the very cold Emergency Room of the Philippine Heart Center--were: "Anak mainit, paypayan mo ako." And, of course, the most famous last words ever memorialized would be Jesus’s Seven as found in the gospels: Mark and Matthew have one; Luke has three; and John has three. Many Christians do not read the Bible. We read books about the Bible and parts of the Bible. If the Gospels were movies, the way most of us “read” is akin to watching only parts of a movie, not the whole show. Now, who among us only watch parts of a movie or telenovela--5 minutes of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows or 10 minutes of Amaya? The Gospels are complete narratives. I propose studying Jesus’s Last Words based on that fundamental assumption. In other words, if Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were movies or telenovelas, then Jesus’s dying words play important roles in how the stories play out. Last Words-- Matthew If one reads Mark and Matthew from beginning to end, one will discover that both narratives privilege Galilee as locus of God’s activity. Most of Jesus’s healing, teaching, and preaching ministry happen in Galilee. In the Matthean and Markan narrative Jerusalem is bad news. Jesus is betrayed in Jerusalem. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and executed in the Holy City. Jesus dies in Jerusalem. One can even argue that God forsakes Jesus in Jerusalem, thus at the point of death he cries, “Eli, Eli lama sabacthani?” or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many of us who grew up in church and in Sunday school remember the countless number of Bible verses we memorized. Many of us hated the ritual. I know I did when I was growing up. We thought those verses were useless until something happened in our lives and then the verses suddenly took on a life all their own. The Jesus of Matthew was rooted in the Hebrew Scripture. At the lowest point in his life, near death, Jesus was not blaming God. He was quoting Scripture. Psalm 22 to be exact. I have witnessed people pass from this life to the life beyond and quite a few were quoting scripture. Remember that Matthew does not end with Jesus dying on the cross. The gospel ends with God raising Jesus from the dead. Psalm 22 begins with despair but ends with triumph and an affirmation of faith in a God who saves; a God who liberates. Especially the least among the least. Go and read it. Jesus’ last words in Matthew celebrate the promise of Immanuel. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us. Always. Last Words—Mark In Mark, Jesus cries, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani” and dies. Unlike Matthew, the risen Jesus does not appear in the ending. Check your Bibles. The gospel ends in 16:8, where we find women silent and afraid. What we have in the story is a young man who tells the women that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee and will be waiting for them there. Jesus is not in the tomb. He is not in Jerusalem. He is not where we want him to be. He is back in Galilee where his ministry began and he is waiting for us there. And we are afraid. Why? Because we know that this path will eventually lead to the cross. We know that following Jesus will lead to suffering and, yes, death. Unlike Matthew, Luke, and John where we find beautiful stories of the resurrection—Jesus appears to Magdalene, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, by the beach and eats breakfast with his followers, Mark offers a young man with a confirmation of a promise – Jesus is risen just as he told you. We do not see Jesus. We are told to believe he is risen. And it is only in going back to Galilee, in places we do not want to go, in ministering among the poorest and the most oppressed, that we will eventually find him. The last words of Jesus in Mark are dying words. The gospel does not end with Jesus’ triumphant words as a risen Lord but with a young man’s affirmation of God’s resurrection power: that hope is stronger than despair, that faith is greater than fear, that love is more powerful than indifference, and that life will always, always conquer death. Last Words—Luke Many Filipinos love the Gospel according to Luke. I read somewhere that our favorite parables are The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan. Both come from Luke. A lot of the scriptural support for the Roman Catholic Church’s theology of preferential option for the poor is based on Luke. God is definitely pro-poor in Luke. Jesus’s birth is announced to poor shepherds. Jesus's first sermon--which almost gets him killed--is a proclamation of good news to the poor. And this God who loves the poor so much is most often described as a loving parent. From Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, to Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the Father of the Prodigal Son who waited patiently for his son’s return, to Father Abraham who takes poor Lazarus into his bossom… the Gospel of Luke reminds us, offers us metaphors of God’s unconditional love as parent. At the cross, two of Jesus’s last three words in Luke are addressed to his father. Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If God is our parent and we are all God’s children, then we should ACT as brothers and sisters. This means not behaving like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or like the Rich Man in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This means acting like the Good Samaritan who did not consider the wounded Jew as an enemy but as a brother. Jesus in Luke challenges his followers to love their enemies and to do good to those who hate them. Jesus set the example. We call ourselves Jesus followers but do we really follow? If Jesus is our "Kuya" then our words and our deeds should remind others of our "kuya." Bombing Afghanistan, invading Iraq, trampling on Philippine sovereignty in the guise of "visiting rights"-- are Jesus's brothers and sisters supposed to do these things? Jesus says to one of the criminals crucified with him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Filipinos are social creatures. The worst punishment for Filipinos is solitary confinement. Many Filipinos turn on radios and televisions when they are alone, not to listen or watch, but simply to create a semblance of community. God’s salvation is a community project. No one can be a Christian alone. When God saves, God saves communities and peoples. To celebrate the incarnation is to celebrate that God has left heaven to be with us. So no one lives and dies alone. God is with us. In the midst of death on the cross, Jesus reminds his fellow victim that he is not alone. Hindi siya nag-iisa. Then Jesus says, “Father, into they hands I commit my spirit.” Luke follows Mark and Matthew’s lead here. Jesus also quotes an Old Testament Psalm. In this case Psalm 31. It is also like Psalm 22, a Psalm of deliverance. Jesus believed in a God who will never forsake. And God does not forsake Jesus. Many of us pray Jesus's prayer before we sleep at night. We commit everything to God, yet we stay up all night thinking of so many things only God has control over. Let us follow Jesus. Even in death, he knew that he was safe in God’s hands. We are never alone. We will never be alone. Last Words—John If one reads the Gospel of John from start to finish one will discover that the story celebrates the discipleship of the unnamed. In other words, the most effective followers of Jesus in the story have no names. The Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well, who runs to her people to share her experience with Jesus, is unnamed. The young boy who offers the five loaves and two fish so that Jesus can feed over five thousand people is also unnamed. The beloved disciple who plays a role bigger than Peter’s in the story is also unnamed. But most important of all, the only disciple who we find at the beginning and at the end of Jesus’s life is also unnamed: Jesus’s mother. We find the two—Jesus’s mother and the beloved disciple—at the foot of the cross. Jesus says to them, “Woman behold your son; behold your mother.” Jesus asks that his two faithful disciples take care of each other. Love is the key theme of the Gospel of John. God became human because of love. The world is supposed to be blessed by our love for each other. Jesus in John leaves his followers only one commandment—for us to love one another as Jesus loved us. Mothers behold your sons; sons behold your mothers; parents behold your children; children behold your parents. We are members of the family of God and our primary task is to live in love for each other, like a family: each one willing to offer one’s life for the other. Then Jesus says, “I thirst.” Again, in the Johannine story, particularly in his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus is the Living Water. Thus, many people find it puzzling that the one who says he is Living Water is suddenly thirsty. And he is given vinegar by his executioners. Like Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s quotations, John’s “I thirst” represents a quote from the Old Testament--Psalm 69. Faith draws strength from the past. Like Daniel’s three friends who faced death, yet believed in a God who will deliver them as God has delivered in the past, Jesus affirms the same unwavering faith in a deliverer God. And God did deliver Daniel’s three friends. And God delivered David (who wrote the Psalm). And Jesus believed God will deliver him, as well. Then Jesus says, “It is finished.” The End. Jesus is dead. Remember the only commandment Jesus left his followers in the Gospel of John—greater love hath no one than this, that one offers one’s life for another? Jesus does exactly that. His life was an offering. And we are challenged to do the same. At the beach Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Jesus… We are asked the same thing. Can we love as Jesus loved? Jesus was not alone when he faced the cross. And his last words on the cross affirmed his faith in God, in people, in the transforming power of love and life, and empowered him to face death. Psalm 22 which Jesus quotes in Matthew and Mark, Psalm 69 which he quotes in John, and Psalm 31 which he quotes in Luke celebrate a God who delivers, a God who liberates, a God who will always take the side of the poor and the oppressed, a God who will not forsake us. And God did not forsake Jesus. And God will never forsake us. (Preached at the Binan UCCP, Good Friday, 21 March 2008. Updated.)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Women and the Empty Tomb: Making Sense of Mark's Ending

Imagine you are part of the original audience of the Gospel of Mark. Christianity is about 40 or so years old. You are a second-generation believer. You believe, like many in your community, that Jesus has been raised from the dead. You believe, like many in your community, that he appeared to Peter, and then to many others, and then to Paul. Then, this short gospel comes along. It is disturbing. It does not have any stories of the risen Christ appearing to his disciples. Moreover, it ends with women at the empty tomb silent and afraid. You do not even shake the hands of the one who read the gospel. No one did in the whole congregation. Actually, even today, most people don't care about the Gospel of Mark. They would rather read Matthew, Luke, and John. These gospels end right--like Walt Disney movies. Matthew ends with the Great Commission and the Risen Christ's promise of Immanuel. John has the "Do you love me" cycle, and a beach scene to boot. Luke has special effects, Jesus ascending to the heavens. Mark's ending sucks! It is worse than the ending of Fernando Poe Jr.'s Sigaw ng Digmaan. He dies. FPJ is not supposed to die in any of his movies. If he does, he's supposed to resurrect (like in Panday III), or be shot after the credits (like in Sierra Madre), or have a twin brother somewhere (like in Probinsiyano). Some fans reportedly almost tear down a moviehouse where Sigaw... was showing. Mark's ending: women at the empty tomb, silent and afraid...Crap! Take a single verse in the Bible, say John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”). Take five biblical scholars using the same method for interpreting scripture, say redaction criticism. And what do you have? Five different readings. There is no such thing as a disinterested reading or reader. Interpretation is always perspectival and particular. Interpretation always involves choices. Take a popular character in serials, say Darna. Take five faithful followers of the show, including my youngest son, and ask them why nobody in the narrative recognizes Narda as Darna, and vice-versa. And what do you have? Five different reasons. Take Mark’s ending, 16:8 which reads, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Check out your Bible. Most have a footnote on verse 8 that says ancient manuscripts end on this verse. Verses 9 to 20 are later additions—attempts of ancient communities to make sense of Mark’s ending. If you subscribe to the argument in synoptics studies that Mark was written first and both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source document, then Matthew and Luke also provide endings that try to make sense of Mark’s. You find in your Bible then at least four or five different attempts at making sense of Mark 16:8. Two of the more popular attempts at making sense of Mark’s ending come from feminist interpreters. The first one, a historical-reconstructionist perspective, argues that the women did not remain silent and afraid. How could the gospel ever spread if the first witnesses remained fearful and quiet? The second one comes from the literary perspective. Jesus’s followers drop the ball. The men drop it first. And then the women. The Markan Jesus tells his disciples God will raise him up several times in the narrative. The men don’t believe him. The women came to the tomb to anoint a dead body, to celebrate a fallen comrade’s life by anointing him in death. They did not go there to welcome a Risen Lord. How about us—the text’s present readers—will we also drop the ball? If Mark were a movie, it definitely does not end like a Walt Disney movie. It’s open-ended, much like the book of Jonah. The narrative ends at 16:8 with women silent and afraid. I propose the following readings that try to make sense of that ending. “Watch” the “movie” we call Mark. One can argue that its major theme is suffering-- vicarious suffering to be exact. Its lead character inaugurates a mass movement that begins in Galilee. When the movement eventually reaches the power center of Jerusalem, its leader is executed. Then the young man at the tomb tells the woman that their leader has been raised, and is waiting for them in Galilee, where everything started. And the cycle begins again. His followers are to follow the same path as their leader—the path of vicarious suffering. Wouldn’t you be afraid and silent? “Watch” the movie we call Mark again. If one focuses on its major characters, one discovers quite fast that most of them are men. Jesus’s disciples are all men until you get to the crucifixion scene, almost at the end, where, like an afterthought, the narrator tells the audience that Jesus had women disciples. Listen to the young man’s pronouncement at the empty tomb—it’s for the men. The risen Christ is supposed to meet the men in Galilee. The women has had enough of this “all men program.” Tama na. Sobra na. Palitan na. Wouldn’t you be afraid and silent when you realize the repercussions of saying “enough” to patriarchy and androcentrism? If one puts “the vicarious suffering cycle” reading with the “all-men-program” reading together, you’ll have women—by their collective act of disobeying the young man at the tomb-- saying “enough” to the cycles of violence that ultimately always victimize women and children. Now, wouldn’t you be afraid and silent? A reading of Mark focused on the disciples would soon show that, more often than not, they cannot understand what Jesus does and what he says. Over and over Jesus has to explain his words and his acts. In chapters 8, 9, and 10, Jesus tells them about his suffering and his resurrection, and they misunderstand him. The narrative ends with women coming to the tomb to anoint a dead body. No one among Jesus’s named disciples believed that he will rise again. But one woman in the whole narrative does believe. Read Mark 14. There an unnamed woman gate-crashes a party for Jesus and anoints him with expensive oil. And Jesus says that what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. What did she do? She did an act of faith. She believed Jesus. She anointed Jesus’s body for burial because there would be no body to anoint later. There would only be an empty tomb—as the named women disciples discover when they came with their anointing oils. Only one person in the entire gospel believed that Jesus will be raised up. One unnamed woman believed in the power of the resurrection. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that goodness will always triumph over evil; that hope is stronger than despair; that faith will drive away all fear; that love is greater than indifference; and that life will always conquer death. Now, if you are one of the many who did not believe Jesus and suddenly the one you thought was dead has been raised and is waiting for you in Galilee, wouldn’t you be afraid and silent? (updated 8 March 2012)