St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church
Diocese of New Westminster
Anglican Church of Canada
Wednesday 7:00 pm
Thursday 2:00 pm
June 4th Pentecost, 2017 John Marsh
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34,35b; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
The other day I went up the hill to Whitespot. I wanted to have a beer, a little dinner and watch the hockey game. At the bar, my usual haunt, a young woman was sitting, by which I mean a woman under the age of 40 years old. Conversation began – we conversed about the usual barroom niceties. Eventually the question was asked, the question I dread, ‘What do you do?’ I said, ‘Guess’. She said, ‘You’re a bus driver.’ I should have said, ‘yes’ but I said, ‘No I’m a priest.’ ‘Not a Christian priest?’, she asked. I replied, ‘Guilty as charged.’ Thereupon began a conversation, essentially a lecture about energies, auras, ‘holy masters of the third eye’. During a pause, I interjected that I follow the Christian way because, at its best, it pays attention to the world, to hopes and horrors, to dreams and dread, to sweat, toil and hope. She paused and said, ‘I get what you are saying. I guess everyone deserves a kindergarten teacher.’ I replied, ‘Well, honesty requires that I tell you that I failed kindergarten.’ She said, ‘I’m not surprised!’
So, consider yourselves forewarned – I’m little more than a kindergarten teacher who failed kindergarten…
Given the looming presence of ecclesial insistence, the seduction of confessional purity, the call of pastoral and communal respectability, I feel a need to back into Pentecost…
Given the power of the story, its history, its flights of fancy, I need to be circuitous in my approach as I don’t wish to be overwhelmed by this Pentecostal metanarrative nor do I wish to ignore, denigrate or dismiss the spectral promise of spirit, the possibilities of life, of changing hearts and minds (metanoia), the resilience and hope of the human spirit within and beyond religious boundaries…
Perhaps in a surprising turn, the names of god in Hebrew scripture represent our beginning, our ‘in the beginning’…
Truth be told, Elohim¹ is a particularly upbeat idealist; Elohim creates all earthly life declaring it all very good, giving the impression that in being declared good, everything is fine, that the world will do well for itself; so, relax, be happy…
But the Yahwist², ever the contrarian, points out that nothing is quite that simple. From the beginning of creation, there has been a complexity within life, yearnings, decisions good and bad, a certain instability, an indeterminacy which opens us to loss and errancy yet – thankfully - also a creaturely creativity, possibilities of an ‘unformed future.’³
The unformed quality of life suggests that life, creation is an ongoing process, that perhaps god’s creative action is not unlike god throwing dice (sorry Einstein), that there is the risk of loss which is to say that creation is not precisely in god’s image but is what god is attempting to fashion in god’s image…
Consequently, as we come to the end of Elohim’s week long creative odyssey, the seventh day, Sabbath is not so much a day of rest and contentment but a marker of unforeseeable toil, of attending to the ebb and flow of history. This is to say, when viewed from the downside of history, life is a grimy, hurtful, wounding experience, a ruin built on ruins. Yet, life is also - is it not - reverberating with possibilities, dreams, hopes of the impossible. If there is a woundedness to life, there is also a possibility, a hope for healing…
It is into the messiness of life (I have said elsewhere that I am a mystic (of sorts) meandering in the mess) that the ‘kingdom of god’ invites, luring us to ‘the ongoing task of making good on Elohim’s ‘good’, of repeating Elohim’s ‘good’ from day to day’⁴.
In other words, to risk living as if god’s reign obtained.
This is wonderfully dramatized by the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath:
Again, he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodian’s against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:1-6)
The picture of Jesus is of one who captures the imaginative excess of the Elohist as well as the realism of the Yahwist. Within the story, Jesus balances the goodness of the priestly writers, the goodness of things - Sabbath rest, good food and drink, the conviviality of relationships – while remaining keenly sensitive to the ways in which things keep going wrong...
So perhaps this story points to the seventh day being a day of attending to healing and mending, to reforming that which was first formed in creation (tikkun olam⁵) …
Sabbath is a day of rest, a day of recreation and re-creation, of constantly renewing creation, of inscribing Elohim’s ‘good’ on the bodies and minds of creation….
Jesus wants to make the Sabbath holy, holiness requires attending to the wholeness of creation, to the possibilities of living full of life. The seventh day points to a call of an unfinished task and Jesus, perhaps better, the spirit of Jesus or, if you prefer, spirit is a locus of this endless, urgent work…
Jesus, the spirit of Jesus, spirit is within those stirrings, those longings, those dreams inherent to reformation, to transformation, to conversion (metanoia), those changes of hearts and minds in which life is kept forever open, forming life, life giving institutions, from the fluidity of the deep…
Pentecost is that story, that feast which points to, hopes in, the spectral calling of the spirit, of life within life, of a hope beyond hope, of faith beyond faith…
Elohim’s ‘good’ is both promise and proclamation, Yahweh’s realism both call and inspiration…
Pentecost, living within a Pentecostal frame of mind, is to open the prose of this world to the poetry of a world to come… ⁶
Given this theopoetical call, it is up to us to respond, to bring into existence life’s insistence.
Perhaps spirit is a call to an alternative messianic presence, a presence neither renouncing Jesus nor ignoring him, a call in which (hold on), we are the messianic age, in which there is no strong leader coming, in which we are the ones the dead are counting on, the ones the future calls to, weak and uncertain though we may be⁷…
At the risk of making too fine a point too quickly, we’re all a little lost, maybe even a lot, not unlike blind folk feeling around in the dark with a stick. We are called to respond, to work without the safety net of clear knowledge, without recourse to a divine omniscience and leadership which, even if we were to make such a claim, would be to confuse our knowledge, our ways, with god’s. (Listener/reader beware such claims!)
Spirit, the spirit of Jesus, Jesus calls us to pray, to pray madly. Prayer, when it lets go of its robes, is both word and work, a language of labour; prayer, when it is authentic⁸, exposes us to an unconditional call of the future, of a hope, of a hope inscribed in human bodies, bodies both strong and harmed, perhaps most especially in bodies wounded, bound, shackled, all bodies in need of release…
Spirit, in and through those inspired, seeks to release those bound by societal and self-imposed bonds, seeks to forgive, to set aside debts, judgements⁹, the burdens of endless obligation…
Spirit, the spirit of Jesus, Jesus, in and through those inspired, seeks to be a healer of souls, a mender of bodies…¹ᴼ
Which is to say that the kingdom of god is the madness of a call in which the unfit are fit, where outsiders are in ((a discomfort still – I hope) …
It is worth noting that there is a difference of bodily viewpoints: when the Greeks, the philosophers speak of bodies, they are speaking of bodies fit, healthy, beautiful and energetic; in kingdom of god, of which Jesus speaks, to which spirit lures, bodies are fleshy, smelly, afflicted, bent with hardship, struck blind, dumb, even entombed…
But if so marred, there is, is there not, a possibility of healing, a restoration, an inclusion…
If bodies are so vulnerable, they are also mendable, healable, transformable yet is this not the call, the lure of the spirit, the fruit of our work heeding the spirit’s haunting call?
The following story is undoubtedly unconventional, perhaps even objectionable. I share it not because it is ecclesial or even religious but perhaps because it points to a religion beyond religion, reminding us that spirit is within the church yet never contained by it. My intent is not to be blind to its complexities nor to sentimentalise thereby robbing the narrative of life. It is to point to a subtlety of spirit, to suggest that even within circumstances of severe trauma, of wounds, of choices poorly made, spirit stirs still, that there is still hope no matter how faint…
Many years ago, there was a person who came to the Thursday lunch at St Mark’s. He came to the meal but I never saw him eat; he was always too inebriated. One day, I saw him walking across Alma at 4th, walking with his unique stagger, a form of poetry in motion. As he entered the crosswalk, an expensive sports car roared up to the red light. Stopping too far into the crosswalk, the car grazed our friend causing him to fall to the ground. Getting to his feet, he walked over to the car and polishing the car fender that had grazed him, said, “I hope I didn’t hurt it!”
Spirit (spirits?) stirs…
¹ Elohim (meaning god or gods) is a name of god used by the priestly writers within sacred narrative (e.g. Genesis 1).
² Yahweh (‘I am what I am’, ‘I will be what I will be’, or my playful paraphrase, ‘You don’t know me’) is the name used, for example, in the Genesis 2 account of creation and the exodus narratives.
³ See Catherine Keller, The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (London: Routledge 2003) p.29
⁴ See John Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press 2004) p.128
⁵ Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It is often used when discussing issues of social policy, insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage.
⁶ See John Caputo, The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional (Polebridge Press, 2016) p.39
⁷ An idea presented in the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). To trust in such uncertainty may be madness but let’s pray a holy yet human madness! The church when it has been dominating, sovereign, has invariably screwed it up.
⁸ As for authenticity, while I use the term unabashedly, I have no clear insight as to what is authentic or not. Truth to tell, I’m following a hunch, an elusive insight.
⁹ Judgement is not to be confused with the offering of an opinion, a point of view; non-judgement is not the absence of an opinion nor the situation in which all opinions are as valuable as another. Judgement is when an opinion acquires binding force.
¹ᴼ The great temptation, particularly on days such as Pentecost, is to forget, to overlook, to reduce the materiality of the good news, to crush the carnality of spirit’s call.