Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Traveling Through Samaria

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?  
Traveling Through Samaria

“When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him…”    Luke 9:51-53a
If in his time on earth Jesus had ever filled out an IRS Form 1040, what occupation might he have listed, right behind his signature, on the bottom of page 2?   “Son of God?”  “Long-Expected Messiah?” “Savior of the World?”   

Any of those responses would have been accurate, of course.   But, they’d never have “registered” with the Roman empire’s tax authorities.   I think something more on the order of “itinerant preacher” or “traveling healer” might have made the most sense.   Whoever Jesus was, whatever Jesus did, he was always on the move.

Traveling Man

Although there’s a hint in Mark 2:1 that Jesus had a home in Capernaum, his ministry seems to have been  described best by his stark contention that “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).   Jesus was, in short, a traveling man.

And that was true from the very beginning of his time on earth.   Jesus was born while Mary and Joseph were away from their home (Nazareth), having traveled under orders to their ancestral village, Bethlehem.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that because of the treachery of King Herod, his parents had to flee to Egypt when Jesus was merely an infant (Matthew 2:14-15).   The lone scriptural story we have of Jesus’ childhood occurs in the context of his family’s annual pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem, for the Passover (Luke 2:41-51).

From the very beginning, to the very end of Jesus’ earthly story, as related to us via the four gospels, he was on the move.    Jesus’ life was not a settled existence of comfort and ease.   Jesus had places to go, people to see, his Father’s will to accomplish, God’s rescue mission to pursue.   Jesus didn’t wait for life to come to him; he was forever going out to meet whatever or whoever was on his path.

So the story of Jesus’ life, as the gospels tell it, has a breathless, constantly changing quality to it.   The pace of Mark’s gospel (which we’re focusing on this year in our lectionary) is especially relentless and fast-moving.  “Immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite vocabulary words!

Jesus travels to the Jordan for his baptismal “inauguration” in ministry, then treks into the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days and nights, then begins three years of perambulating ministry—never staying any one place for long, always feeling the tug of the Cross, eager for the dramatic final leg of the journey.   Along the way Jesus gathers followers who—literally (but also metaphorically) follow him---trace his steps, travel where Jesus travels, on the move with their traveling Master.

The Gospels as Travel Narratives

This gives a “travel narrative” quality to the four gospels.   The evangelists (writers/editors of the gospels) even use this on-the-move character of Jesus’ life and ministry as a principle of organizing and interpreting Jesus’ teaching, preaching healing, saving activities.   As this happens, implications are constantly drawn out for the continuing faithful lives of all Christ’s followers, in every time and place.

In his book, Tell It Slant (2008, Eerdmans)[1] Eugene Peterson points out that the center of Luke’s gospel is an extended travel narrative (Luke 9:51-19:44) in which Jesus and his followers leave the familiarity of Galilee (in the north) in order to spend significant time moving through the unfamiliar territory of Samaria (in the middle) before the final chapter of Jesus’ story unfolds in Jerusalem (in the south).

Peterson finds significance in the fact that so many of Jesus’ greatest parables and teachings on prayer are “located” in this Samaritan portion of the journey.  “It is while traveling through Samaria…that Jesus takes the time to tell stories that prepare his followers to bring the ordinariness of their lives into conscious awareness and participation in this kingdom life.”  (pp. 15-16).    Peterson finds two things especially intriguing in this Travel Narrative:

“First, it deals with what takes place ‘in between’ the focused areas of Jesus’ life and ministry, Galilee and Jerusalem.   Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the unfamiliar and uncongenial country of Samaria…(which) is not home ground to Jesus and his companions….They don’t know these people and have little in common with them….[Jesus and company] are outsiders to this country and this people”  (p. 17).

Implications for Our Traveling

Peterson perceives an analogy here between the Samaritan part of Jesus’ journey and the portion of our faith-journeys that happens “between Sundays,” i.e. in between our weekly “set-aside, protected time[s] and place[s] for prayer and prayerful listening among men and women who are ‘on our side.’”   In fact, most of our lives of discipleship play out during the other six days of each week, away from the church building, sort of like traveling through Samaria.   The gathered church that we experience on Sundays lives out most of its days as the scattered church in the world during the remainder of each week.   “We spend most of our time with people who are not following Jesus as we have been, who do not share our assumptions and beliefs and convictions regarding God and his kingdom.”  (p. 17)

The second thing that intrigues Peterson about Luke’s long Travel Narrative “is how frequently Jesus tells stories, the mini-stories we name parables.”   Why is this significant?   It’s because the parable, “is a way of saying something that requires the imaginative participation of the listener….a parable involves the hearer.”   Moreover, Jesus’ parables in the Travel Narrative are not overtly religious in their language or focus.   “They are stories about farmers and judges and victims, about coins and sheep and prodigal sons, about wedding banquets, building barns and towers and going to war, a friend who wakes you in the middle of the night to ask for a loaf of bread, the courtesies of hospitality, crooks and beggars, fig trees and manure” (p. 19)

Peterson perceives a mission strategy in Jesus’ preference for story-telling while traveling through Samaria.   “Samaritans, then and now, have centuries of well-developed indifference, if not outright aversion, to God-language—at least the kind used by synagogue and church people….So, as Jesus goes through Samaria he is very restrained in his use of explicit God-language….Jesus circles around his listeners’ defenses.  He tells parables.  A parable keeps the message at a distance, slows down comprehension, blocks automatic prejudicial reactions, dismantles stereotypes.  A parable comes up on the listener obliquely, on the ‘slant’” (p. 20).[2]

There are profound implications here as we live out our own Travel Narratives as disciples of Jesus.   As we achingly seek out ways of sharing Christ with those (“Samaritans”) around us, might we not discover that engaging stories will usually be more winsome than compelling arguments?   (Please tell me:  How likely is it that we will argue anyone into the Kingdom of God?)  In our own Monday through Saturday journeying—in which we can’t always presume a shared God-story with the “Samaritans” around us—how might we cultivate Jesus’ art of spinning yarns (parables) that crack open the Good News in fresh ways?

A Church That’s Going Mobile

This month’s Bible study, as you may have noticed, reiterates themes from last month’s Bible study (“Toward a Church That’s All About ‘Going’”).   One of the biggest challenges before us, it seems to me, is this:   “How do we jack up the church and put wheels under it?”    How is God un-settling us in order to equip us for “going mobile” with the Good News of Jesus Christ?

If the church is the only Body the Risen One still has in this world—ought we not pay closer attention to how Jesus himself lived in this world?   As we do so, we will notice, time and again, how Jesus was always on the move.   He did not wait for people to come to him; he was always heading out and meeting someone new, wading into the muck and mud of life, walking right up to hard questions and prickly controversies.   This Traveling Man still calls us to be a traveling church, does he not?

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:
1.      What strikes you about the notion that Jesus was primarily a “traveling man?”
2.      How is it for you, “traveling through Samaria” each week?   What is it like for you, living alongside folks who may not share your commitment to following Jesus?
3.      Why might stories (parables) be more effective than arguments, in sharing Christ with others?
4.      What are some of the reasons why it’s so challenging to “jack up the church and put wheels under it?”

This is the fifth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Tell it Slant:  A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Eerdmans, 2008.
[2] This explains the title of Peterson’s book, Tell it Slant.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Still My Favorite Easter Quote

If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.   

Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006)  Quoted in the Yale Department of History Newsletter, Spring (2007), 3.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

No Way to Run a Resurrection

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Moorhead
Easter Sunday—April 16, 2006
Mark 16:1-8

Are you as annoyed as I am with movies that have strange, jarring endings?

When I buy my ticket and popcorn and get all settled down in my comfy theater seat, I want whatever movie I’m watching to “end well.”  

I want there to be a sunset, with birds singing and the orchestra swelling.  I want the boy to get the girl, the woman to win her man.  I want all the bad guys to get what they’ve got coming, all conflicts to be resolved, all tensions released.  I want closure.  I want all the loose ends tied up.  I want “happily ever after” endings to my movies.

It drives me nuts when a movie director thinks he needs to throw me a curve ball at the last minute--concluding a film with a straight-out-of-leftfield “zinger.”

M. Night Shyamalan is an Indian-born movie director whose films often feature these kinds of disturbing endings.  He directed movies like Signs, The Village, Unbreakable and (perhaps most memorably) The Sixth Sense.    

Even if you never saw The Sixth Sense back in 1999, you probably remember the TV advertisements for it, featuring a terrified little boy whispering:  “I see dead people.”   That movie—The Sixth Sense—has a classic unpredictable, “twist” ending to it.  The first time I saw it—I was blown away.

In our gospel lesson from Mark 16 we meet three women who are terrified—not because “they see dead people”—but because they DON’T see dead people, one dead person in particular.

At dawn, with the sun just peeking over the eastern horizon, they make their way to a cemetery to the fresh grave of a friend, to use spices and ointments to stave off the stench of death—but the corpse they come for is gone.  

How unsettling.   Dead people usually do others the courtesy of staying put—but not this Dead Person named Jesus.

He’s missing—and in his place a young man dressed in white—a complete stranger--stands there, delivering a wild message that shakes these women to the core of their being:  ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’

That’s it.  That’s all they get, these three women.   There’s no earthquake here, no angel descending from heaven and splitting the stone in two, no Roman guards shuddering and playing dead.   These women don’t actually encounter the risen Jesus.   They don’t even poke around inside the tomb a bit to check things out for themselves.

No.  None of that.   These women just hear what the man-in-white has to say, then turn tail and run.

And here’s the sentence with which Mark the evangelist concludes his gospel:  So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

That’s it.  That’s all Mark wrote—sort of a “THUD” of an ending—a DUD of an ending--if you ask me.   The last word of Mark’s gospel is “afraid.”   No gentle sunset, no birds singing, no orchestra swelling, no closure achieved, no “happily ever after.”   None of that—Mark’s final word is “afraid.”

This is no way to run a resurrection—no way for a gospel to end.   There has to be something missing here, wouldn’t you agree?

Apparently, in the first few years after Mark’s gospel began to circulate in the mid-first-century, others thought they needed to tidy things up a bit--take another run at it.

And so, in no time, several alternative endings were suggested for Mark’s gospel.   Look for a moment at page 55 in the NT portion of your pew Bible, and you’ll see a shorter ending, a longer ending and all sorts of footnotes. 

The guys who copied and transmitted Mark’s gospel practically went nuts trying to give this gospel a better ending—trying to do what Mark for some reason didn’t do.

But I’m afraid it was a lost cause.  None of those “alternative endings” has ever caught on.  None of them have rung true with the authentic voice of Mark himself.   They all fall into the “close, but no cigar” range of acceptability.

For my money, the ending we seem stuck with is the ending Mark intended.   Like M. Night Shyamalan, Mark wants us to squirm a bit—wants us to feel—to feel just a bit the way those women probably felt.

I think that’s one reason why Mark ends his gospel in this fashion.   As Pastor Nancy said so well in her Easter letter to the congregation, “If I were one of those women who had come to the tomb on  Sunday morning expecting to embalm my loved one, and met a young man who told me he was alive, I would be so scared I would run away.  And I wouldn’t tell a soul, at least not for a while.  My heart would be pounding so hard I would not have the breath to speak.”

Yesiree, despite how unsettling it is, Mark’s ending gets some things exactly right.  If God has raised up Jesus from the grave—well then everything is up for grabs.  Life and death, heaven and hell, the past—present—and-future,  everything has turned.   How could the first witnesses to such a revolutionary moment in human history be anything but terrified, struck dumb, beside themselves with fear?

So might we, appropriately, shudder on this Easter morning.  I’ve always been glad that all four verses of  that old spiritual Were You There? make reference to trembling—including the last verse, the Easter verse.   We tremble—and not just in the face of Jesus crucified, dead and buried.   “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?…   Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

We tremble, because nothing is the same for us, for you and me, either.

There is Someone who has loved us to death—his death—and come back from death to love us forever.  He’s loose in the world.   He’s on the move—in fact, as the man-in-white tells the women:  he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

Where is the risen Jesus in Mark’s last chapter?  He’s nowhere to be seen—not because he’s playing peek-a-boo with us, but because he’s out ahead of us.

This brings us to the other reason Mark may have had in mind by penning such a disturbing conclusion to his gospel.

Sometimes, when a movie director ends a film with a “twist,” it’s a clue that the studio’s marketing department has gotten into the act.  They’re preparing the crowd for a sequel!

What if that’s happening, too, at the end of Mark’s gospel?   That last sentence about the women fleeing in fear—doesn’t it just scream out for a “sequel?”

But Mark never got around to writing a sequel to his gospel (unlike Luke, another gospel-writer who went on to write the Acts of the Apostles).   Did Mark just run out of time or ideas or material?

Or did Mark think that somebody else should write his sequel?   Did Mark want his readers to know that they would be writing the sequel to his little book, by what they did with the Good News of Jesus Christ—crucified, dead, buried, and risen?

Dear friends, I believe our elder brother in faith, St. Mark the Evangelist has given each of us a little “writing assignment.”   He ends his gospel in this jarring, unsettling way, because he wants each of us to draft our own conclusion—based on how we come to hear, believe in and follow this risen Lord Jesus Christ.

And where will we find this Risen Lord?   He’s always out ahead of us, “in Galilee,” that is:  in the mission field, in the place of service, wherever the Word gets shared, wherever the Risen Lord lives through you and me, his Easter People.

In the name of Jesus.