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Friday, July 10, 2015

Being sent, accepted, and rejected (B15O)

It's a weird ritual, but it's the one we go through at least once a week and keep coming back for more. It's a ritual that gathers us in the name of a God who is revealed in the public execution of a teacher who rose from the dead, wherein we gather to praise the God who sent him and revealed self to us through him, we listen to stories millennia old from cultures and languages oceans away, we gather around bread and wine to ask God's Holy Spirit to transform them and us into what we most truly are were meant to be, and then we hear those joyful words:

Get out of here. Mass is over. Make something of your lives.

Well, we've got the poetry to disguise the urgency and terseness of that sentiment. We take the edge off of it, some of us do, by singing a rousing song while some people are obediently making their way to the exits, and we massage each other's bruised egos when they don't seem to value the music as much as we do. But hey. The guy in the fancy get-up said "Go." Who are you gonna believe?

Ite, the plural Latin imperative of the verb ire, "to go," is pretty strong. The way ancient Rome generally said "goodbye" was Vale (pl. valete) which is more like "be well, go in good health." But the liturgy doesn't seem to have time for those niceties. Instead, it just says "Go" - "begone! Get out of here. shoo!" just in case we've started liking the apparent homogeneity inside the building too much. Get out, the man says. "Go and announce the gospel of the Lord." Almost like Jesus does with the Twelve in today's gospel.

Jesus, at least, gives the apostles some instructions and a mild warning about the dangers awaiting out there. In fact, Mark's gospel makes a larger point by telling in this story in three "chapters," which, when taken together, ring an ominous bell. If today's verses from Mark 6 are part one of that story, next week's gospel, which tells the story of their breathless return to Jesus with tales of wonder about their first crack ministry (in pairs), is part three. The intervening verses, skipped in the Roman Catholic version of the lectionary but preserved in the Revised Common Lectionary used by other lectionary-based Christian assemblies,  tell the story of the murder in prison of John the Baptizer by the tetrarch Herod Antipas. The story of John's death in Mark roughly parallels in detail the death of Jesus later. By any reading, the inclusio of this story, sandwiched between the missioning and return of the twelve, is a cautionary tale about the real price of faithful discipleship.

Other interesting details in Sunday's gospel include the reference to wearing sandals and carrying a staff, which, in these verses so close to the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand, might be meant to allude to the exodus narrative, with its command to eat the Passover meal "…with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand…." (Ex. 12:11) Already here, not even halfway through the narrative of Jesus's ministry, Mark expresses a connection between mission and death, between journey, providence, liberation, and food, that will come to their full expression when the band makes its way toward Jerusalem and the events of the week surrounding Jesus's last pesach.

What I'm trying to suggest here is that it is the nature of the church to be sent, that it is not static, but on a journey, that that journey is taken together, that it's nature is to call out evil by its name and heal what is broken in the name of the Abba of Jesus, and that it's a dangerous journey, always has been, and we're damned smart to think twice before embarking upon it. In the words of scripture scholar Daniel Harrington in the Sacra Pagina volume The Gospel of Mark: 
"The enduring theological significance of this passage is its role as a call to the church to never forget its origin in a community of missionaries: the Twelve are among the first recipients of a resurrection appearance in 1 Cor 15:3-7, a tradition that has been described as "community founding" and mission inaugurating. The church's self identity is as a community that is sent; it is to "travel light" and to proclaim the word in freedom and fearlessness. Like Jesus it is to confront the power of evil and serve as an agent of God's healing power. As many churches today are engaged in a continuing quest for identity in a complex world, this rather simple narrative should always be a conversation partner." Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina), John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J Harrington, S.J.; Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., editor, Sacra Pagina series, © 2002, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. A Michael Glazier book.)

In the first reading, we hear from the prophet Amos, who was like a Yankee preacher preaching abolitionism in Richmond before the Civil War. One of the earliest prophets, he was not one of the nabi'im (from a professional "band" of prophets) but a shepherd and dresser of sycamore figs (he knew the routine of hastening the ripening of the fruit by puncturing it a few days before harvesting.) From the southern kingdom of Judea, which was subject to the stronger and wealthier kingdom of Israel to the north, Amos went to prophesy at the shrine of Bethel, the holiest of the northern shrines, against the policies and breaches of the Torah of Jeroboam II, by most accounts an otherwise successful ruler. The problem was that the political and economic success of the north had brought about excesses that created desperately poor people in the land, made others wealthy, and meanwhile the wheels of religion turned as though all were well. Amos warned against continuing on this road, predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria if they did not repent. It was Amos, you will recall, whose vision of equality and justice inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and many others through the ages with his condemnation of worship without justice, and his dream of a desert transformed by water:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
Prophets, like Amos, like Jesus and probably like the twelve, know that something is wrong in the land. God is just, and the way to make right what is wrong in the world is to remember who God is and what God wants. Amos's solution is a return from religion to justice. That is also Jesus's solution. But it doesn't take a prophet to know that something is wrong in the land. The prophet just has that extra ounce of courage to say it out loud, and to give a voice to what we already know. The routine of civilization isn't working out for everyone! The question is, do we see the dissonance between our "alleluias" and the policies, neglect, and violence that we allow to undermine the hope of so many in the world, even in our own cities? Do we understand that God's mission is liberation, a world whose people understand and act upon their fundamental equality and relationship as children of one divine householder? That salvation is the restoration to health, physical, emotional, and spiritual, of every person? Is the church taking its Sunday meal with sandals on, staff in hand, ready to walk out with all hands and stand at the sea with an army at our back, until the waters part?

The psalmist also sees the return of justice as the harbinger of peace, and both as signs of the Lord's favor in the present day. God's promise is that a day will come when "kindness and truth shall meet, justice and peace shall kiss," a promise we remember in song today. The day is now. God is already here. What is lacking is our conviction and our moving forward. Which is why, I think, we need to pay attention to those words at the end of our ritual: Scram. Do some good with your lives. God has already left the building and is waiting outside.

Here's what we're singing at St. Anne this weekend.

GATHERING:   Go Out and Tell the Good News (Laura and David Ash, OCP)
RESP. PSALM:   Your Mercy Like Rain
PREP RITE:   Turn Around or The Summons
COMMUNION:   Be Not Afraid
SENDING FORTH:   I Send You Out or Anthem