Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Watch out."

Every so often, I would make allusions to the words “Baptismal Covenant” and I do that mainly because, and unless we get intentional in bringing that to the forefront of our Faith Journey, there’s a good chance that they’ll remain in the sideline, meaning, we’ll eventually end up forgetting about it. It’s a simple case of the law of disuse.

For one thing, they’re rarely brought out in the language of our weekly Eucharistic celebrations except for the first half of that said covenant; which is basically the creedal affirmation of our faith and also, when there are actual baptisms taking place. It’s only then that we get to go through the exercise of responding to some serious questions.

They are questions that point to our mission as children of God; our mission to present ourselves, before the world and through the totality of our being, as God’s vehicle in furthering God’s intent of leading others toward the path that’ll ultimately unite all of creation.

It also reminds us of the challenge we have agreed to engage in, namely, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, meaning everyone, not only those who think and speak and dress like we do but everyone, including those who differ from us in matters of culture, of political persuasions and status in the community. Our Baptismal Covenant continues to remind us of that mission.

It also reminds us of the commitment which we pledged to do, and that is to strive for justice and peace, again not just justice and peace among our kind, but among all people, and to willfully respect the dignity of every human being.

These are some of the specific reasons why we need to be constantly made cognizant of our Baptismal Covenant and for us to “walk” it rather than just “talk” about it.

And it’s a tall order for us to follow. That, I don’t deny. I mean, yes, we want to follow Jesus and to have him central in our lives but the truth is that that “all persons” thing, that’s just so prone to be violated and that “strive for justice and peace” thing? Well, you know what I’m talking about.

We can always argue and defend our culpability in this regard by pointing to our flawed humanity as the culprit but that shouldn't be made as an excuse for our continued disobedience of such injunction. We need to smarten up or else.

Well, put that aside for now and listen to this minor confession. With 10 and 12 years gap between me and my two other siblings and being the youngest of us three, I didn’t have any idea how my parents were with them when it comes to discipline. But when I was growing up, I was more of an “obedient” son. And that, I think, was due to how my father molded me more than the scolding I would get from my mother. Between Mom and Dad, my father was the disciplinarian; a very serious gentleman and yet he had subtle ways of getting his message across.

I remember those occasions when he would entertain visitors and I happen to “hang around” just to be nosy, and Dad would give me a certain look and I knew exactly what he meant by it. And I'd get the picture. I’d leave and just do my own thing.

But then there were times when I kind of “failed” to get the message or “pretended” I didn’t see it, and he’d give me that other look which I came to learn the hard way as “Watch out! Smarten up or else.” 

Through the years I kept that in me and I learned that obedience does not necessarily stem out of fear but rather out of respect for someone with authority.

It is with these two images of responsibility and discipline that I invite you to revisit our Old Testament Reading for today.

Here once more are the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

“Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the Lord. This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You haven’t attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the Lord. I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the Lord.”  (Jeremiah 23:1-4 CEB)

I'd like to imagine Yahweh casting down that “look” on those who had been entrusted leadership and sending them the message, “Watch out. Smarten up or else”.

For us to better appreciate this imagery, we need to go back to the early beginnings of leadership in Israel. Recall that for a time, Israel as a people did not have any formal form of leadership. There were the great Pillars of Faith, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and Joseph, but for the most part, the tribes of Israel were kind of loosely federated. 

Their next semi-formal leaders were the Judges who did an outstanding job by themselves but as it turned out, Israel wanted to be just like the others in their area. They wanted to be governed by kings.

And Yahweh would have discouraged them if it were entirely up to Him but we learn that Israel got what they wanted; thereby entering into an entirely different level of relationships with their new leaders.

And that’s when the issue of responsibility for God’s people began to get out of hand. There followed a long series of what could be termed as “lousy kings”. Yes, Saul started to be the leader they ever wanted but he later devolved into self-absorption and got obsessed with getting rid of David.

With David, yes, we was the greatest king that Israel had and yet, he, too, was flawed. He was an adulterer having seduced Bathsheba. He even arranged for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband.

Even Solomon who allegedly was another great king having built the magnificent Temple, he, too, was flawed and so did the long line of kings of what would be known as the divided kingdom; the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Their times could be mildly described as less than savory.

The bottom line is that those leaders, the kings of Israel, did not do well in carrying out the responsibility afforded them by their seat of power and authority. They did the opposite. Utilizing the imagery that was common then, the imagery of shepherds and shepherding became helpful in bringing out this sad reality. The kings of Israel were just like shepherds who had been given the responsibility of taking care of their flock, of protecting them from any harm induced from the outside but who, instead, reneged on their responsibility as leaders of the flock.

And so, Yahweh, having chosen the prophet Jeremiah to speak his Godly Truth, has come back to them and said: “Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” or as the New Revised Standard Version would have it “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.”

It was the kings, the “shepherds” of Israel, who were being held accountable for the failure in their leadership. Rather than attending to their sheep’s needs, they were instrumental in their dispersion to places unsafe for their sheep. Rather than gathering them into safety, they have caused them to scatter in harm’s way.

“Watch out. Smarten up or else.” Strong words for Jeremiah’s time and, yet, so contemporary!

This imagery of shepherds abusing their power and failing in their responsibility has continued to be operative among those who had been given the seat of leadership in the religious world, including Christianity.

There had been many occasions when this Scriptural passage has been thrown at clergy who have failed in this regard. All of us know of cases that spotlight a few in the ordained ministry who have failed. In recent years, the whole world has become aware of the scandal of clergy who abuse children, who steal from their congregations, who violate the trust given to them. Somehow the words “Watch out, smarten up or else” have become so apropos.

So where does this take us?  Are these words echoing in your hearts as well? Where’s the good news in this?

In the world of Crime and Punishment, the guilty ones are usually handed out with punitive measures commensurate to their crime. In the language of some church traditions, it’s time for “fire and brimstones” to fall down. But notice that Jeremiah does not say that of Yahweh. We know that the God pictured in the Old Testament is often that of an obdurate Judge who punishes the offender. But in this particular passage from Jeremiah, God does not do that.  Instead Yahweh says that he will raise up “shepherds” over them who will “shepherd” them.

By virtue of our baptism and as affirmed by us or our Sponsors or Godparents in the Baptismal Covenant, we have become those shepherds. We are the shepherds, both lay and ordained, who will seek to gather those sheep that had been scattered and bring them back under the guidance of our Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus.

In your own little worlds and spheres of influence, it is there where you are called to continue to do the shepherding for those who are out there, just waiting for you. And when you begin to do that, you shall also have heeded the caution: “Watch out. Smarten up or else”.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tell others about Him.

Certain events are indeed worth remembering and especially if they have become part of a collective mindset such as those of a given people or nation.

On this first week of July, two great neighboring nations remember something significant that took place in their respective history as a people. Our friends and neighbors up in Canada are, on this very day, July 1st, celebrating their 145th anniversary of their beginning as a self-governing dominion of Great Britain and as a federation of four provinces. Today, with more provinces and territories added, Canadians are celebrating this historical landmark with all sort of civic activities along with the usual long weekend festivities.

For Americans, on Wednesday, the 4th of July, we will celebrate our nation’s independence from England when, two hundred and thirty-six (236) years ago, fifty-six (56) of America’s brave forefathers signed what we refer to as The Declaration of Independence.  Along with our Canadian friends, we too will be having all sorts of civic celebrations. Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of the week and it would have been a lot better had it fallen on a Friday or a Monday, making it a long weekend. Right?

But while that would have been indeed much better in terms of an extended period of time off from our work routine, that should not deter us from making a meaningful remembrance of that bold action which our forefathers made in finding a resolve from their ever-growing burden of being subjects of a foreign rule.

Each year, therefore, on the 4th of July, rather than making it a time for travel, merriment and libation by the grill or doing domestic chores like house clean ups or garage sale adventures, the reason(s) for celebrating the anniversary of our nation’s independence should include an appreciation of the early struggles of our nation to seek freedom from the bondage of oppression that they once endured.

While this sounds a bit like a losing proposition, as in the blurred familiarity of why we do it, the need to revisit the circumstances attending to such declaration of independence should not remain unattended; otherwise, its significance could be lost in thin air. The reality is that, through the years, the true reasons for celebrations like Canada Day or Happy 4th tend to get sidelined, unless there becomes a more intentional act of creating opportunities of making them known by succeeding generations.

This is the same kind of sentiment that the early Christians were having vis a vis their relationships with their former faith as practiced in Judaism.

Recall that in some sense, Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism and by that I mean that we can trace our beginnings from the Jewish religion. This is why we still keep the Old Testament in our Holy Bible in spite of it being a literature in and of the Jewish faith.

There was, however, one big event that led to the formation of a new faith we now call Christianity. It was none other than the belief that the Messiah, the Anointed One, had come in the person of Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth as prophesied by the early prophets. This Jesus was the Word that became flesh; lived among mankind but also died and rose again and ascended to be with God the Father.

This was the turning point for us Christians. In due time and with that faith belief in Jesus, followers of this new movement began to be identified as Christians and in many ways, differed from their Jewish faith practices.

But not all did that. There were those who were not willing to let go of ideas and faith practices that they were accustomed to. There were still many who went by the expectations as set forth by their former religion. There were even those who believe one needs to be Jewish first before he or she can be Christian.

This ambivalence was getting serious. The leaders of the early church had to remind others of what Christianity is all about; that it was about the supremacy of Christ Jesus over the Law and the Prophets and that this should be reflected in their faith practices. They needed to be in contact with Christ Jesus because the “old has passed away and the new has come”.

Mark was among the early Christian writers who had to tell the post-apostolic community that there should be no more room for any ambivalence whatsoever when it comes to the essentials of faith; that they should not be misled by those who fostered the idea that Judaism was a requisite for the Christian faith.

And so, Mark, along with others like Matthew, Luke and John began to write what they remembered others said happened to Jesus; where he went and what his band of disciples encountered; what they remembered Jesus said about love and mercy and justice; about the Kingdom of God and most of all about the supremacy of Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone upon whom all things should be founded on.

Among the things included by Mark in his gospel is this nice little story within a story. Some biblical scholars call this style as “sandwiching”; just like making a sandwich where you take two pieces of bread and put meat or something in between.

In this gospel story we heard today, we learn of two miracle stories; the first piece started with the coming of Jairus asking Jesus to heal his sick daughter and this was “sandwiched” by the story about the healing of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and piece number two is the culmination of the first story ending in the raising of Jairus’ daughter back from the dead.

Now, what do you think Mark had hoped to accomplish by doing this, by telling this miracle stories? I’m quite sure he said this not just to remind them that Jesus during his earthly ministry did a lot of healing and this one of those great “miracles”. I also would like to ask you how do you think this is related to the problem of ambivalence, as I pointed out earlier.

These two miracle stories, one story within a story; Mark’s “sandwiched” gospel stories, had a lot to do with what the early church needed to be reminded of. So, let me work on this a bit and hopefully you see it as I see it.

Remember that the people Mark was trying to reach with his gospel were those whom I call “half and half”, i.e., half Jewish, half Christian, not in ethnicity but in practice and only in this context. They were the ones who needed to be reminded that it would now be Jesus and no more of the Law or the Prophets; that Jesus is supreme.

Let’s assume for a moment that we are those “half and half” Christians/Jews and as such, things we do and eat and how we behave are those expected of us as set forth by the Levitical laws. The Book of Leviticus practically told us how to live out our faith. The Levitical laws were the ones taught us by our parents and their parents and their parents' parents. Got the picture?

Now, for us to hear of a story involving a woman who had been “bleeding” for twelve years and coming to “touch” Jesus, or at least part of his garment, that would have immediately reminded us of what the Levitical law expects to happen.

Part of Leviticus Chapter 15 deals with stuff like this. I mean it’s really bad in that a woman who had an “issue of blood” is considered unclean, impure; even the place she touches or sits on is to be considered unclean.

 What makes this woman’s case quite serious is that she had this for twelve years. In other words, for that long period of time, she has practically been “dead” by being constantly considered impure and not being allowed to resume back to her place in society. Read this chapter and you would really appreciate the seriousness of what this woman did to Jesus.

Remember that we are still ‘imagining’ ourselves as among the "half and half" 1st century Christians. The “half Jewish” part of us would have expected the story to include some drastic counter measures to come from Jesus. We would expect something punitive to come from Jesus after he asked the question “Who touched me?” Maybe something like, “Stone her!”

Mark, however, tells us that Jesus said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." We would have opened our mouth wide in disbelief and asked “Who is this Jesus who would do such a thing?”

The words that Mark tells us Jesus supposedly had said are radically different from what we had always been told. The “half Christian” in us is enlarging each time we listen to what Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ has told the woman. We now believe even more in Jesus!

His ways go beyond our understanding; his ways are radically different and exceeded those prescribed by the Levitical law. Jesus, who allowed the unclean woman to go healed in spite of having touched him tells us that only in him and our faith and not in any prescribed Levitical law can we have the eternal healing we need.
Now, do you see the connection? There’s more.

In the Markan “sandwich” literary style, piece number one was the story about Jairus asking Jesus to heal his daughter, which was interrupted by the story of the bleeding woman. Piece number two is when Jesus, along with Peter, James and John finally arrived only to find, as was earlier told him, Jairus' twelve-year-old daughter already dead. In fact, others already started mourning.

Mark continues to say that Jesus said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. And the biggest surprise happened.  Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.”

Remember that we are still ‘imagining’ ourselves as among the half and half 1st century Christians. Like as before, the “half Jewish” part of us would have expected the story to end differently.

But listen to what Mark said Jesus did. He took her by the hand. Our mouth would have again opened wide in utter disbelief. Oh my Lord! Doesn’t this Jesus remember what the Book of Numbers says of this?

Our “half Jewish” side tells us that Jesus should not have touched her: a dead woman! But he did and that would have rendered him unclean as well. And yet we learn that by that touch, life came out of death! Again, this Jesus proclaims his supremacy over what the Law would have him do.

I wonder whether Mark was successful in reaching out to his 1st Century readers. I know he did clear it up for us; so let’s go back now to where we are.

Many centuries have passed and through those years there are reasons why we ought to continue in reminding fellow Christians of the supremacy of the Lord God over all things. It becomes our mission to continue that.

To some degree we could find some affinity with the characters in our miracle stories. Like Jairus who defied the barriers of his culture and even his religion and begged Jesus for his daughter’s healing, so could we put down those barriers that hinder us from our search for the real source of our well being and plead our case to our Lord Jesus. He once assured us “who are heavy laden to come to him that we may have rest”.

Like the unknown woman who was tormented with her issue of blood for some lengthy time thereby putting her as some kind of “untouchable”, so do we have “issues” of our own that at times tend to isolate us from the rest of our community.

Learn from her. Having entrusted her trust for healing on the hands of conventional sources but with no effect, at times we travel on the same direction arriving at the same end result of getting nowhere. Learn from her. Defying all cultural restrictions, she approached Jesus convinced that if only she could touch even just the hem of his garment she would get healed.

She could be our model in our search for the often-evasive true source of life and happiness. With her healing, she was restored to her faith and social communities. With our healing from God, those of us who had been considered almost “dead” by others could now have our “life” back and be restored in our circles of fellowships.

Indeed, we may find ourselves in life's conditions like those encountered by Jairus or this Unclean Woman and when we do, let it be our bold action to come and seek out for His healing and when we find Him, allow ourselves to be touched by God in and through Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May there be that full assurance that God be supreme in our lives and Jesus as the chief cornerstone in the building of our spiritual edifice.

We need to tell others about Him.