Saturday, September 23, 2006

Proper 20, Year B (notes)

James 3:13-4:3;7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

JAMES 3:13-4:3;7-8a

-Chrysostum suggests that, just as mud can blind our physical eyes, ambition blinds our spirit.

- Wisdom will be known in the *actions* of the wise, not merely in their teaching. In other words, wisdom cannot be abstracted from its consequences, as if it were merely a question of “knowing” something.

- Wisdom-inspired actions will 1) pure, 2) gentle, 3) willing to yield, 4) merciful, 5) and bear good fruit.

- By contrast, what popularly passes for wisdom is little more than ambition. The world considers someone “wise” if they are a huge success, or manage to convince everyone how smart they are.

- This kind of (“earthly/devilish”) wisdom is about “selfish ambition,” not concern for one’s neighbors. It is about “getting ahead.” Such wisdom wants not just to *have,* but to have *more*. Those wise in its ways want to stand out from the crowd, to be better than others. Earthly “wisdom” in intrinsically competitive, and thus resents or envies the success/happiness of others.

- Dionysius wrote about unspiritual comparisons: “When a man has bought a large enough field and sees that his neighbor’s is larger still, he wants to increase his own so as to make his house greater.”

- Such “cravings that are at war within you” cause all manner of conflicts and disputes. Our wrongful desires – self-aggrandizing “wisdom,” competitiveness, envy, the need to be a “big fish in a small pond” – cause us to fight with each other.

- The epistler counsels that, when our desires are not met, we should not be “ready to murder” or engage in “disputes and conflicts.” Rather, we should “ask” (implicitly, ask God in prayer, but also perhaps each other?) If we ask and still do not get what we want, we should consider that we are “asking wrongly” – that is, asking for selfish things or at least for something that is not needful.

- The “pleasures” that the epistle writer identifies as the wrongful motives of the asker might not be as overtly sinful as greed or gluttony—they may include the prideful desire to be right, the ambition to “get one’s own way,” the desire to be influential or seem important to others.

- The antidote to this worldly-ambitious “wisdom?” Submit ourselves to God. Submission is the antidote to pride, to self-importance. Submission means we are not always in charge, that we do not always have to get our way. When we first submit ourselves to God, we can be “peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield” with each other. In so doing, we draw nearer to each other, and we draw nearer to God.

MARK 9:30-37

-Chrysostum commented of the disciples’ lack of understanding (9:32): “They were not altogether ignorant. They knew that he was to die, for they had continually been told about it. But just what this death might mean they did not grasp clearly... This is why they grieved.”

- Having been told that Jesus was going to die (several times) but not yet understanding about the resurrection, the disciples spent the rest of their walk to Capernaum arguing about “who was the greatest.” It is as if they have intimated that their master’s burgeoning movement will soon have a vacancy in the leadership position, and they are already jockeying for position: Who will be the new leader after Jesus is gone?

- Their silence implies that they realize that this was not a suitable argument for them to be having.

- What does it mean to be “the greatest,” in the world’s terms? It means being influential, important, being “right”, getting one’s way, commanding others. Such “greatness” is social, but negatively so: It is not about being “good” but “better than,” and so it needs others to be compared (favorably) to. It seems to derive satisfaction not in its own good, but in its superiority to others’ good.

- Jesus challenges such conceptions of greatness, even deconstructs them.

- “The shocking element in this episode cannot be appreciated by modern readers. Our social conventions have exalted childhood as a privileged time of innocence, this romantic view is usually imported into these passages. However, the child in antiquity was a non-person. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around with the teacher and his students. ...The example treats a child, who is socially invisible, as a stand-in for Jesus.”

- Also, those who are socially invisible or least influential may seem not only *irrelevant* in our arguments over which of us are the greatest, but also as *interruptions.* We have more important things to be thinking about than children, or anyone else who is not

On LOWLINESS in general

-Two nifty quotes from the “Ancient Christian Commentary” volume on Mark:

Gregory of Nyssa, from ON THE CHRISTIAN MODE OF LIFE:
“Let vanity be unknown among you. Let simplicity and harmony and a guileless attitude weld the community together. Let each remind himself that he is subordinate not only to the brother at his side, but to all. If he knows this, he will truly be a disciple of Christ.”

Augustine, from SERMON 38 ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN:
“Observe a tree, how it first tends downwards, that it may then shoot forth upwards. It fastens its roots low in the ground that it may send forth its top toward heaven. Is it not from humility that it endeavors to rise? But without humility it will not attain to higher things. You are wanting to grow up into the air without a root. Such is not growth, but a collapse.”

on “CRAVINGS” in general

- Our culture is at odds with the counsel of James’ letter.

- Advertising informs us that it is our God-given right as an American to have what we want. Far from James warning of the “cravings that are at war within you,” advertising seems to imply that I am entitled to the object of my craving the moment I want it. Every whim, every passing craving, can be had. Go ahead, it tells me. You deserve it. You’ve earned it. “Have you had your break today?”

- Burger King announces the “good news” of instant gratification: “Have it your way, right away.” (In an intensification of this message, Burger King’s paper bags, cups, and fry boxes now include a host of little messages expounding this gospel of self-satisfaction, with a post-modern half-ironic flipness that acknowledges its own shallowness without condemning it.)

- From an entire aisle of toothpastes, and I can select the exact flavor I want. Ditto sodas, snacks, or any other product. Do I really need this much choice? Perhaps not, but God help the store that doesn’t have what I want – I am quite ready, as James warns, to enter into “disputes and conflicts” when I feel that I don’t get what “I’m entitled to,” what I crave.

on “GREATNESS” in general

- While arguing about “who is the greatest,” we only attend to those who we also perceive as being relatively great—that is, our potential competition. If we are concerned to show that we are the greatest, why should we pay attention to those who are *obviously* not the greatest? Concerned with being the most important, the most influential, the greatest, we concentrate all of our energies upon those who are also

- To show we are the biggest fish, we have to fight the other big fish in our particular pond. This sort of dynamic means that, if we wish to be perceived as important, we generally pay the *most* attention to those who are the loudest, who make the most fuss. We ignore those who are congenial, graceful, merciful, willing to yield, peaceable.


- Jesus, in calling us to welcome those like the child in his name. That is, Jesus calls us to pay close and hospitable attention for those who do not necessarily “make a fuss” over themselves; who do not argue with us; who do not compete to be the most important or influential; with those who may not be peripheral to the decision-making process or unimportant in worldly terms.

- This description includes children, who, although they are not as socially invisible as they were in the ancient world, are still not really considered “powerful,” “wise,” or “influential.” However, who else does this description fit? The poor, for one. Also, those who visit our parish—they are, after all, not “important” in our internal politics, not influential, not engaged in our in-house arguments or power struggles.

- It is these to whom we should pay loving, caring attention, to make feel welcome.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bishop Paul Jones

Seriously, the gospel reading set for the Feast of Bishop Paul Jones is the shortest thing you've ever seen. Wow.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Proper 16 Year Two, Thursday

[Psalm 18, Part One]


Whose huge hand is this which struck the face
of the waters like the surface of a drum,
which hammers the sea like a meteoric fist
and pulls the earth's supports from under it
like some rage-blinded Samson in his chains?

It's not just that so many people drowned
when the firmament was shattered like a glass
and the swells below leapt up to meet the rains;
It's that those few who found themselves at the last
possible moment

snatched from their roofs and fields and from the flood
as by some awful, arbitrary hand:
What could they do? To see their neighbors gone
with all their brothels and convenience stores,
and find themselves safe in that fiery grasp?

Well, what could they do? What else but hold
on to the One who thundered from the clouds
as if to the wings of life itself, to grip
the back of the flaming lion by its mane
and pray it doesn't roar.

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