Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC - Superior
RCL – Proper 9 B – Sunday 05 July 2009
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Over last year or two I have had a growing fascination with the questions that are posed in Sacred Scriptures. Not questions about Scripture or God, but the literal questions that are peppered throughout the Bible, questions that God or Jesus direct to us, or that others direct to God or Jesus, or that people direct to each other. From the very beginning of the Bible (Gen 3: “Where are you?”) to almost its very end (Rev. 17 “Why are you amazed?”), Scripture is filled with questions.
Part of the inspiration for this interest is the famous quote from the German poet Rilke, who writes in Letters to a Young Poet:
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.I began to offer a series of retreat reflections that I called Living the Questions and focused on such biblical themes as: Where are you? What is your name? Who sent you? What do you want me to do for you? Where is your faith? Who do people say that I am? What shall I do to gain eternal life? Indeed, one can construct a rather complete systematic theology on the basis of scriptural questions alone.
I have also come to recognize some truths about the questions and about our responses.
- The questions are perennial
- Questions are not so much problems to be solved than mysteries to be entered into.
- Our responses or answers do not represent unfaithfulness, even if they are sometimes premature and always partial. Thinking and feeling our way through to an answer, however provisional, is one of the ways we have of claiming for our own, in this generation and in this time, what are eternal truths.
- Our responses or answers need always to be revisited, revised, or reappropriated. Time and life change me and thus change my relationship to the question and to the questioner and indeed to my own self. It is almost as if a spiritual Indeterminacy Principle is operative here.
Today Jesus goes home after performing some spectacular actions. He has cured the woman afflicted with hemorrhage and raised Jairus’ daughter. He has cast out demons. He has taught with authority. And now he goes home. And as is often the case, familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least suspicion. We are all familiar with this phenomenon at some level. How can the person whose quirks and idiosyncrasies we know all too well for far too long perform so surprisingly, act so nobly, or speak so eloquently? We may experience a mix of amazement and awe, envy and irritation.
In the kind of society that Jesus came from—a traditional peasant society where social roles were exacting and stratified and rigid and where family honor was everything—a performance like Jesus’ in today’s Gospel was not greeted with unalloyed joy. Such a surprising move outside the norms of his social and educational class made Jesus seem… uppity. And in his kind of culture, that’s dangerous. It can draw unwelcome attention to one’s self and to one’s family. It challenges the social structure. It represents a break with the past and the status quo. And it may mean that the power elite may be threatened or one’s equals may feel shamed or cheated. Or both.
As contemporary Western people, and especially as Americans, we are groomed to applaud personal advancement and risk taking, at least on the surface. Everyone can be famous…at least for the proverbial fifteen minutes. But even with us, it’s often a mixed bag. I remember in own childhood the endless variations on the theme, “Who do they think they are?” Whether it was Helen Harbena inviting Msgr. Timlin over for Sunday dinner or Janey Ellis going to NYU or the Svetlovic family going to an especially exotic vacation in the Poconos: Who do they think they are?
Social anthropologists have had a field day analyzing the dynamics of traditional societies, including biblical societies, where any departure from the conventional, level social roles is met with deep suspicion, envy and even violence, both physical or magical.
We see the something in today’s Gospel. Listen again to the passage from Eugene Peterson’s scripture paraphrase The Message:
Jesus left there and returned to his hometown. His disciples came along. On the Sabbath, he gave a lecture in the meeting place. He made a real hit, impressing everyone. "We had no idea he was this good!" they said. "How did he get so wise all of a sudden, get such ability?"
But in the next breath they were cutting him down: "He's just a carpenter—Mary's boy. We've known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters. Who does he think he is?" They tripped over what little they knew about him and fell, sprawling. And they never got any further.
Do you hear that movement from “Wow!” to “How dare he?”
But what fascinates me even more about this incident is that while we educated, contemporary Western Christians might not share in this dynamic of suspicion and covert control—though I think we do, in fact, at many levels—the questions that Jesus’ neighbors ask about him are right on the money. That is, they are perennial questions and they are questions that you and I continue to ask and need to ask ourselves again and again about Jesus and about what we make of him and his message.
There are five questions. Let us reflect on each of them very briefly:
Where did this man get all this?
How did Jesus come to have such presence and teaching authority and charisma? We know something of his life story. He didn’t come from the educated classes; he didn’t have training, leisure, connections, status…all the usual prerequisites of the influential. How was it possible that such a man could have gained a hearing in his world and change history? And more importantly, why does such a man still have a hearing in our world today? And why should we listen?
What is the wisdom that has been given to him?
I ask this myself. What is Jesus’ wisdom? And what is his message? It is a wisdom based not on theory but on a shrewd experiential knowledge of the world as it and at the same time, on a rock solid faith in the power of love to change that world and on the force of vision of a new Kingdom available particularly to the poor, the sinner, the odd, the outcast. What does such wisdom mean for today?
What deeds of power are being done by his hands?
That Jesus did deeds of power—miracles, surprising acts, marvels, healings, exorcisms, feedings—is beyond doubt. What are we to make of them? How are we to understand them, if we are to understand them? And are they still being done today? Are we missing something?
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
Isn’t this a human being, an ordinary man of flesh and blood, with a history, a family, and a heritage, with hopes, dreams, and desires and limitations of his own? Yes, emphatically yes, says our Christian faith. But how is God present in such concrete conditions? Indeed, how is God incarnate in them? How is God’s will worked out in his ordinary life? And in yours? And in mine?
…and are not his sisters here with us?
Is not the family of Jesus present with us still? Where and how? In the Church? In Anaheim? Here? In the poor? In the power brokers and opinion shapers? In the obscure depths of an Auschwitz or a Darfur or a homeless shelter? In the prosperity of successful believer? In lives lived well…everywhere?
The questions are, in fact, boundless. And our answers or responses are limitless. But we must go on asking these questions, of ourselves and of each other, along with Jesus’ family and neighbors. Because we are in fact Jesus’ family and Jesus’ neighbors. Nor do we hope to get a final answer. Rather, along with Rilke, we hope that by asking and dwelling in the questions we will be drawn closer and closer to the One who is both the eternal Problem and the everlasting Mystery, the original Question and the answer to all questions, who is both Source and End. We must keep asking until we come face to face with Him in eternity. Then, and only then, will our questioning cease.