Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say August 25? 11th after Pentecost

   For us, August 25 is sort of a “promotion Sunday,” with children moving on up to the next grade in Sunday School – not to mention school starting. So Jeremiah 1:4-10 begs for preaching attention; it’s time to ponder the young.

     Jeremiah is called as a “youth,” a na’ar, maybe a young teen? The preacher might help a church family to thrash through how they think about whatever youth they have. “Oh, let the youth serve a meal at the shelter,” or “How neat our youth go on a mission trip” or whatever. Then churches can be just as dismissive of youthful idealism, teenaged dreams for the church; or churches don’t bother to ask, or to listen. What if churches, instead of insuring the token youth member on the board, asked children and teenagers what sort of church they dreamed of us being – and then we made that our agenda? Jesus was pretty adamant about us all becoming like children, welcoming children, etc. I love it that Pope John Paul II, at his inauguration on October 22, 1978, chose to speak to the youth of the world, telling them “You are the future of the world, you are the hope of the Church, you are my hope.”

    But Jeremiah’s call came way before is teenage years. God called him in his mother’s womb – or earlier! A sermon could dwell profitably on how we all came to be in our mother’s womb. Hans Urs von Balthasar spoke of “the terrible accidentalness of sexual causation” – how you came to be in some weird mix of intentionality or the proverbial back seat. The act itself, described unforgettably by geneticist Adam Rutherford: “On contact, that winning sperm released a chemical that dissolved the egg’s reluctant membrane, left its whiplash tail behind, and burrowed in.”

   In the womb, where God “knit you together” (Psalm 139!), you were utterly dependent. In fact, nobody knows you’re there – except God – for some time. We speak of navel gazing – but your navel, mostly collecting dust all these years, was your lifeline. What is God’s calling from, in, even before your arrival in the womb? We think of calling as something you hear, dodge or refuse now as a grownup. But way back then, when you were a microscopic next to nothing, God was already calling you. What if parents, on learning of a pregnancy, instead of the dramatic, showy gender reveal, pondered questions like “What is God calling this new life within to be?” St. Dominic’s mother dreamed, while pregnant, that she gave birth to a dog with a torch in his mouth.

   I have a book coming out later this year on Birth. Here is a little excerpt on this call business: If God is fully present in utero, if God somehow knit us together, if God understands better than we the complex realities of life in the womb and the daunting challenges of the journey ahead, then can we make sense of God’s will, of God’s desire for this fragile, latent person in the making? Is God merely rooting for survival? If mom and dad are already harboring dreams for this child, then how much more will God already be envisioning a holy, faithful life for this disciple-to-be? We think of God’s calling coming to attentive seekers, to young adults or to those in mid-life crisis. But in utero? Isaiah 49:5 teases out the idea that the prophet had been formed in the womb by God “to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him.” Jeremiah countered God’s call by saying “I am only a youth”; but then on further reflection, he began to intuit that God had actually begun calling him from his mother’s womb (Jer. 1:4-10).

     A fetus can detect sound at twenty six weeks. Can it hear God? Does God call particular people, or all people, even in their mothers’ wombs? What is calling anyhow? Is the divine call a voice out of nowhere? Isn’t each person’s sense of divine vocation a symphony of voices that call? Messages overheard from mom and dad, attributes and skills fostered in the womb and later, chance encounters, some church chatter and personal musing mixed in there: we process it all and infer God is asking something of us. Frederick Buechner famously wrote that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

     Fascinating: the world’s deep hunger is out there, waiting for you to be born and notice; and your deep hunger is already there, festooned in your DNA, destined by the parents you happen to have and the place you’ll happen to live. What if mom and dad began, during pregnancy, to ponder that this unseen child is already being called by God? And what if you and I reminisce a bit and puzzle over what we probably missed back then, and since – that God was calling us, even in utero?

    As I puzzle out in the book, the infant, in utero, is already worshipping. I’ve handed the Eucharistic bread to many a pregnant woman and wanted to say “The Body of Christ, given for y’all.” As a teenager, Jeremiah engaged in the usual ducking and weaving, dodging God’s longstanding call. Like Moses (can’t speak), Isaiah (not holy enough), Jonah (the Assyrians are unworthy) or Mary (I’ve never slept with a man), Jeremiah is too young. He may just be chicken, as God’s call is for him to upset the status quo, questioning the politics of his day.

    God’s call is a famous “chiasm” – the crossing, a downright crucifix of language: “to pluck up, to break down, to build, to plant.” See the criss-cross? We’d rather God just build and plant without the plucking up and breaking down! Marianne Williamson memorably said that when we invite God into our lives, we expect a decorator to appear to spruce up the place a little. But instead, you look out the window, and there’s a wrecking ball about to tear it all down and start over.

    Hebrews 12:18-29 is just quite strange for me, requiring way too much research and explaining… That God is a “consuming fire” is intriguing, as, like the plucking up and breaking down in Jeremiah, we’d rather God not do the consuming fire thing.

    Luke 13:10-17 is another Sabbath miracle. Jesus is “in one of the synagogues.” I wish I knew which one! But if it’s Capernaum, or Magdala, or Chorazim, we might envision it as a smallish room paved in grey basalt (like the synagogue from Chorazin, pictured here), worshippers thronging together. The woman is sometimes misunderstood as being unwelcome due to gender, or for ritual impurity – but as Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington remind us, this is one more instance of anti-Semitic reading. Women were welcome. The crippled bore no ritual impurity.

   This woman had suffered for 18 years from – osteoporosis? severe curvature of the spine? She has a disability – and the church is finally waking up to issues of disability, which really is a social construct, not a real thing in itself. Can we welcome all people? Can we not even in welcoming disenfranchise or stigmatize the so-called physically disabled?
  I love the marvelous NPR interview with Ben Mattlin - a quadriplegic, who has blogged about the giftedness of disability. He attended a funeral of a friend where all the preaching was about his wheelchair-bound friend being able to jump and run around. Mattlin was mortified, explained why (read his views here), and concluded “Are there no wheelchairs in heaven? I’m not buying it. For me, if there is a heaven, it’s not a place where I’ll be able to walk. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter if you can’t.”

    Jesus’ issue is with the leader of the synagogue. Levine and Witherington suggest that the leader has a fair point: “Medical practitioners today can expect that on Sunday morning they would not be asked between the first hymn and the sermon to provide therapeutic aid to people with nonpainful chronic conditions.” St Augustine allegorizes: “The whole human race is like this woman, bent over and bowed down to the ground” – reminding me of the medieval analogy of the hunchback, forever bent toward the ground, never able to look up and pray, as symbolic of our fallen state. I won’t go there, though. Plenty here without resorting to such.

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