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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

O God, you were a warrior, but you set your bow in the sky (B1L)

About five years ago, I read Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Jack Miles’ very interesting literary reading of the Bible as a book (rather than as a group of books, which is how one might read it in Bible study). He finds a wonderful thread of a story there, what we might call “the covenant,” in which God promises to deliver Israel out of the hands of their enemies, and finds, when all is said and done, that he can’t keep that promise successfully for very long. The warrior God of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land failed to keep the promise of protecting Israel from the time of David and Solomon onward. In order to be true to himself, God expands the promise to include all of the earth, so that there are no more enemies, as it were, for Israel - the new covenant included everyone.

In Miles’s story, God repents of the emperor-God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and becomes human in order to seal the new covenant in his own blood, to pay with his life for the failures of the past, and start something new. The new covenant, for Miles, is a wedding, the wedding feast of the Lamb as described in Revelation, when God and beloved humanity are joined forever in intimate unity.

Well, it’s an idea that takes some getting used to, but it’s original, and it has some charm. A literary reading of the whole Bible as a book is something that really never occurred to me after the years of studying it as a series of books written in different times, styles, and even languages, redacted and copied and re-redacted, with conflicting versions and varying texts of corrupt manuscripts. Miles’s idea hangs together well as he describes it, but it comes down as too unitarian for me. To me, God has to be a community, and his Christ comes across more like an avatar of a single divinity. For me, there has to be something communitarian about God, and the Trinity works fine. It’s not that I think it has to be that way; I mean, who knows? It’s just that I feel that the reality of divinity seems to be both mystically one and multiple, both simple and dialogical. That’s probably just cultural conditioning, but it’s all I got.

But the warrior-God of the Hebrew scriptures – there’s no denying that one. (This is not to say the portrait that emerges is not complex, it is; just that the warrior-king is a major thread.) And the story of Noah is one of the great stories both of sin and destruction and God’s repentance and amelioration.

Taken with the other great stories of sin and amelioration: the fall of the first humans, the murder of Abel and exile of Cain, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the call of Abram and Sara, and the Tower of Babel (with no apparent amelioration), the story of the Flood moves the story of humanity and God in relationship toward the covenant that will, for Christians, find its fulfillment and re-creation in the person of Jesus Christ. So for the New Testament writers, as we hear in Sunday’s
second reading, the destruction of the world by water in the Noah story is a great symbol of baptism, in whose waters sin is drowned and a person is re-created.

After remembering the story of Noah and how a New Testament writer sees the flood as a sign of baptism, the gospel presents Mark’s Jesus entering his post-baptismal desert retreat, then roaring out of the desert after the arrest of John the Baptizer with news for everyone: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” We can spiritualize that message all we want, but it is a word replete with political implications. What Jesus is saying is, “Whatever king you’re following, it’s the wrong one. Turn around from the direction you’re going, and believe in the king I’m about to reveal to you, a king who rules by service and love.” God is not about to flood the world again and destroy evil by force. In Jesus, God sets in motion a plan to subvert human evil from within, to expose the lie of the kingdom of violence and force by turning its rage against God himself, and then raising the innocent victim from the dead. By sowing the seeds of justice and equality on the lips and in the deeds of one who himself is a grain of wheat fallen into the earth and raised up in bounty, God shows that only the way of Jesus is true and can lead to life that death cannot end.

The bow of the warrior-king is set in the sky forever to remind God - and us - that violence doesn’t work, and that there is a new way. Lent is hardly enough time to begin to see how much we’ve given our hearts to leaders whose agenda is personal comfort, force, and victory over enemies. The new covenant is one of service, justice, and loving one’s enemies. Surrendering one’s life to the new way seems impossible to do alone. With courage, together, it may be possible. I hope someone has the courage to say so in church.

Here’s what were singing at St. Anne this Sunday:

Gathering: Lead Us to the Water by Tom Kendzia (OCP): Tom’s song is a simple gospel-flavored hymn that reminds us that it is God who brings us to the river of peace and light, and who is the source of the power to live a life of selflessness and service together.

Psalm 25: Your Ways, O God by Rory Cooney (OCP): There are a lot of versions of Psalm 25 available; I use this one because it has familiar verses for our cantors and preserves the refrain proper to today, which focuses us on the covenant of God.

Preparation Rite: Live the Promise by Rory Cooney (GIA): I wrote this song for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress as the theme song 15 years ago, and it became the anchor song of our 1993 recording Stony Landscapes. Congress fell on this same weekend 15 years ago, and I wanted to use the “bow in the sky” imagery to call attention to our hope in God in the worst of times. Other “sky” images, the cloud in the desert, the Bethlehem star, the “rainbow” of Christ’s arms stretched in crucifixion, all set up two final stanzas that call us to “hold on” and live the promise in spite of “fire in the city” and “blood that cries to sky,” as well as the ongoing threat of war (“battle in the family”) and ecological disaster (“a hole of death in the sky”). I was trying to capture the style of folk music with lots of repetition and tumbling imagery related along an oblique and asymmetrical axis. Whether or not this works, I’m not sure, but I think the song is still fun to sing, and evocative.

Communion: Turn to the Living God (Lori True). Lori's song in Gather 3rd Edition was the winner of our "new song" auditions in choir, though my sweet and kindly colleagues said something more like, "we like all of them - you pick." So I did. I like the scriptural allusion throughout the text, and the gentleness of the melody, which I hope will prove memorable for the congregation. (There's no way to assess this in advance; we'll just use it throughout Lent and see what happens!) The refrain is short enough that we will introduce and sing the song at mass itself. I'm looking forward to this.
Recessional: Jerusalem My Destiny (Rory Cooney).  Harkening back to the gospel as well as to the Lenten journey to God and community, the "Jerusalem" of our dreams, JMD has a verse that uses imagery from each of the five Sundays of Lent, with a bridge that is used on Palm Sunday. Today's verse admits that "other spirits, lesser gods / Have courted me with lies," but that the community is the place where we learn to discern the truth and choose a different path. Or, as I like to say, (where have I heard this before?) where we learn to "turn around and believe in the gospel."

I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign

of the covenant between me and the earth.

When I bring clouds over the earth, 

and the bow appears in the clouds, 

I will recall the covenant I have made

between me and you and all living beings.

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