Text Study for John 12:1-11 (Part Five)

The first thing that happens in our text is that Mary is seen. She steps forward and becomes visible. This is a primary threat to any domination system. Domination systems thrive on the invisibility of the oppressed. “I am invisible, understand,” Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man, “simply because people refuse to see me” (quoted in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations, page 29).

Invisibility is the product of social segregation and control of public space. Patriarchal systems tend to keep men and women separate, especially in public communal settings. And patriarchal systems give the power of public speech to men while limiting women, for the most part, to private communication behind the scenes. The result is that men do all the talking and acting in public. And men only see and hear men talking and acting in public. Thus, men only have to deal with the talking and acting of other men.

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Mary steps forward and makes herself visible and important. I imagine that’s one of the things that pisses off Judas (at least in the report of the Johannine author). Notice that he doesn’t even acknowledge Mary’s presence as a person. He addresses the perfume rather than the person. It is Jesus who refers to Mary as a person – with three pronouns in two sentences. Jesus sees Mary. He does not collude in the continuing system to render her invisible.

“The inhabitants of White Christian America don’t understand why African Americans were so angrily protesting in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore,” Robert P. Jones writes in The End of White Christian America, “because their communities and experiences are insulated from many of the problems facing black Americans.” We White Americans have small sympathy for our Black neighbors primarily because they are not our Black neighbors. I am a personal case study in the point Jones makes – at least in terms of my personal and social core networks.

“White Americans’ notions of race and fairness are shaped by their everyday experiences (already very different from those of African Americans),” Jones continues, “which are then reinforced by interactions with neighbors and friends. And these core social networks,” Jones observes, “the space where meaning is welded on to experience – tend to be extremely segregated” (page 160).

How does this social segregation function? It serves to keep the lives of Black people invisible to White people. It serves to sustain the White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort that are essential to the White experience of social reality. As long as we cannot see the lives of Black people, we White people can go about our daily business with not a thought about those lives or the system in place that privileges us with power, position, and property — at the expense of those we choose not to see.

Where are the primary places that invisibility can be dismantled, and White core social networks can be made part of the real world where color is the majority? One of those places is the public schools. “One of the important purposes of public schools, beyond their educational mission,” Jones writes, “is to bring together American children – and, more indirectly, their parents – across race and class lines” (page 161).

If the function of separation is to sustain the invisibility of the oppressed, it is no wonder that public schools have been and continue to be some of the frontlines in the battles regarding race. The history of public education before and after Brown v. Board of Education is clear and well-documented. With the advent of court-ordered desegregation, a boom began in the founding and support of private schools.

These schools were and are primarily for White, relatively affluent, children. And these schools were, and are, primarily owned and managed in the United States by Christian congregations and institutions. Battles are fought over school “choice” these days, regarding funding and vouchers. The real function of these battles is to sustain the Black and Brown and Indigenous invisibility necessary to sustain White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort.

It’s clear in our text that Judas would have been more comfortable had Mary remained silent and in the shadows. The cocoon of male privilege would have remained intact. And thoughts about his own pilfering the common purse might not have been so much at the front of the Johannine author’s mind. Mary may have soothed Jesus’ feet with the expensive ointment, but she made Judas twitchy and irritable, to say the least.

One of the functions of the invisibility of the oppressed is to sustain the blissful ignorance and blithe comfort of the privileged. This is, of course, the social function of state laws that would prohibit the teaching of history that risks making White people uncomfortable. As Robin DiAngelo reminds us, White discomfort is not trauma. It is discomfort. Bringing the truth to light – whether it is Judas’ thievery or White oppression – should be uncomfortable. The discomfort means that the truth is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

As I’ve noted before, this anointing story appears in various forms in all four canonical gospels. Scholars debate the relationships between those four accounts, and we may get to some of that debate before the end of the week. Regardless of how these texts are related, seeing the woman is a feature in each and all of them. In the Lukan version (Luke 7:36-50), the meal takes place in the home of Simon, the Pharisee. I am always arrested by one sentence from Jesus – “Are you seeing this woman?” (Luke 7:44b, my translation).

It’s clear that Simon is not seeing that woman. Judas is not seeing Mary. The function of the not seeing is to sustain the existing power structure. The function of the not seeing is to keep the theft and oppression hidden along with the woman. Jesus is not having it.

Perhaps, the community of Jesus is the place to be seen and to see. Just as Jesus sees Mary – her gratitude and gift, her hurt and her heart – so we proclaim that Jesus sees us. Not only does Jesus see us as we are and love us nonetheless, but Jesus also sees us as the fully flourishing human beings God has created and imaged us to be. What a joy and privilege it is to see ourselves as Jesus sees us! I wonder if that is the real gift he gives Mary at that dinner table?

The community of Jesus is also the place to see – to see others as Jesus sees others. We cannot do that, however, if we insist that others remain invisible. “From the very beginning,” Kwon and Thompson write, “American culture was rooted in and dependent on an inviolable form of racial distance between White Europeans and the Africans they enslaved. Over time,” they continue, “as Americans chose to become more dependent on slave labor, this division was formalized into highly choreographed rituals of intimacy and distance that characterized the system of slavery that persisted in American from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century” (pages 35-36).

That system of intimacy and distance was reformatted into Jim Crow segregation. That legal and institutional separation continues to persist in the de facto segregation of American life even as the de jure segregation no longer exists. My life is White. My core social network is White. My neighborhood is (mostly) White. My social media feed is White. My church is White – locally, regionally, and denominationally. I continue to collude in the system of invisibility designed for my supremacy, innocence, and comfort.

The most direct action I can take is to seek out settings where White is not the definition of right or might. I know that is the action required of me. It goes against all of the comfort I treasure and hoard to myself. Putting myself in places where I will be uncomfortable, where I will rightly be regarded with initial suspicion, where I will make mistakes and be foolish – that’s not the whole answer to the problems of racism in the world around me. But it’s one thing I can do.

And I wonder to what degree I can help and be helped by the congregation of which I am a member. I’m part of a denomination that has lots of good anti-racism statements and policies. And those statements and policies are clearly breaking down repeatedly in application and practice. Just as voting rights and fair housing legislation have not changed the behavior of millions of White Americans, so denominational pronouncements have not changed the behavior of thousands of Lutherans

But I’m part of a congregation where we do work to make the hidden visible in many ways. I’m hopeful that my church can be a resource in opening doors to new relationships and networks. But I dare not wait for that to happen and then just go along for the ride.

Perhaps the hardest part of this conversation is that I must admit and grapple with the fact that I am seen by others every day – just as I am. No matter how I deceive and delude myself about my own awareness of oppression, I have to come to terms with the reality that others will see me as I am, in my failings and brokenness, my privilege and posturing, my unwillingness to take risks and get it all wrong. Lord, I hate to be seen for who I am under the best of circumstances. But that’s nothing compared to what needs to happen for me to grow further.

I don’t know if any of this will preach on Sunday. But it certainly reaches out of our text and grabs me by the throat today.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Reconsidering Mary of Bethany.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2012): 281-297.

Blanke, Jonathan A. “” Salvation by Gathering” in the Gospel according to John: A New Look at John 12: 1-7.” Bulletin of the Japan Lutheran College and Theological Seminary: Theologia-Diakonia 42 (2009): 45-62.

Coakley, J. F. “The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 107, no. 2 (1988): 241–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267698.

Dawn, Marva J. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World.  Kindle Edition.

Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Kwon, Duke L., and Thompson, Gregory. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2021.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/28/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-in-lent-year-c-april-3-2022-john-121-8/.

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Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Five)

“But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice, because this one, your brother, was dead and lives, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32, my translation). Perhaps a good sermon title might be “Some Celebration Required.” N. T. Wright suggests, “The point of the parables is then clear. This is why there’s a party going on: all heaven is having a party, the angels are joining in, and if we don’t have one as well, we’ll be out of tune with God’s reality” (page 184).

I wonder, however, what is the point of the party? In the first two parables, the joy seems to be over the one sinner who repents. We take that, in our individualistic cultural mindset, to be the end of the story. “I once was lost but now and found,” we sing, often with a tear in our eye and a catch in our throat. Popular American Christianity is captivated by the Evangelical assumption that it’s all about the individual sinner who is saved. But I don’t think that’s faithful to the text or helpful to our theology.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Perhaps we can allow the end of this series of parables to inform the beginning. The lost son is found. He was dead and is now alive. There’s a wild party going on to celebrate the event. But there is still a son outside. There is still a son unreconciled. One son has perhaps returned, but the family is still not whole. The story cannot come to a happy ending as long as the community remains fractured.

Of course, there is rejoicing over the one found lamb, the one found coin, and the one found son. But what has really happened is that the coin collection is once again complete. The flock is full. Will the family be whole? Or will we on the inside settle for being found ourselves and giving little thought to those who still are lost? That’s a good reason for the third parable to be inconclusive and unsettled. The question is still in the air. The family is still on shaky ground.

I wish the NRSV had not over-determined the translation of Luke 15:32. The Greek text is much less specific than the translation. “But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice…” Necessary for whom? The text doesn’t say. It was necessary, perhaps, for the family to be whole again, but that can’t happen until the older brother is once again able to claim his connection to the younger brother. It was necessary because “this one – your brother – was dead and lives and was lost and is found.”

Celebration wasn’t required because the younger son had come to his senses and repented. Celebration was required because now the broken family could be made whole once again – if the older brother was willing to be part of the celebration. There was no question about the older son’s place in the household. “Son,” the father reminds him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). Of course, now part of the father’s “all” is the younger son.

God will not settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed at home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced. If we are thinking practically, we know that the younger son made his own bed and should be required to lie on it.

But we meet a God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. God wants all of us, and God wants us all.

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, then neither will we Jesus followers be satisfied while lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children are still “out there.” I’m not suggesting that we should retain a colonial mindset, where we Christians have something to offer that everyone else should want. No, I think our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we blithely settle for flocks made up of people like us.

I was part of a congregation that wrestled long and hard with what it means to be a “welcoming” community. The congregation reflected honestly on this question. When we say, “all are welcome,” is it really a question: “Are all welcome?” Framing the issue in this way sparked some deep introspection and honest confession. We welcomed those who looked and sounded like us, who brought something that we wanted, who came and stayed on our terms and didn’t kick up a fuss.

We weren’t looking for people who might make our community more whole and our lives fuller through their unique gifts and perspectives. Instead, we were like the Borg in the Star Trek franchises. As a long-time Trekkie, I remember the moment when I made the connection. “We are the Borg,” the mechanical voice from the Borg cube threatens. “Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

We were happy to welcome people who were willing to be assimilated to our congregational culture, habits, assumptions, preferences, practices, and traditions. Until we could engage in a welcome that moved beyond assimilation, we would continue to be content with incompleteness. I’m happy to report that the congregation made some real progress in moving from assimilation to open engagement. But it was not an easy process.

Would the older brother be open to new possibilities, to a change in the family system? Or was his condition for reconciliation really assimilation – the application of punitive power to the younger son to make sure the system was not threatened like this again? We don’t know how it went for the older son. Do we know how that goes for us?

The parable makes me wonder to what degree we are happy with a limited, familiar, comfortable community that leaves us as the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. Jesus’ critics advocated that the tax collectors and sinners should be segregated away from decent people. Those who crossed these boundaries were in danger of being contaminated by the outsiders and thus becoming one of them.

American cities remain just as segregated, if not more so, as before the days of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. “Segregation is a costly self-imposed error,” writes Heather Abraham. “It is not a natural phenomenon. It is government-subsidized and government-reinforced,” she continues. “Some of the documented ways segregation infiltrates our society include how it drives the racial wealth gap, undermines metropolitan GDP, drastically diminishes life opportunities like quality education and healthcare, and ultimately results in highly unequal health outcomes like shorter life expectancy and higher homicide rates for communities of color” (page 2).

We who live well because of White Supremacy and systemic racism can easily document those costs to communities of color and the individuals in those communities. But how often do we think about the cost to those of us who not only benefit from but continue to impose such segregating systems on other human beings? As part of the perpetrating system, we make ourselves less than fully human.

More than that, we have persuaded ourselves that we are complete by ourselves. We who live completely White lives state by our way of living that people of color and their communities have nothing we want or need. We have made Whiteness the be all and end all of existence and notice no deficit created by limiting ourselves to one skin tone and one cultural reality. If there are things from other communities and cultures that we desire, we do a Borg assimilation and simply appropriate them and make them ours.

If I apply a Christian biblical lens to this reality, I see that our White life does not reflect the character of God. God, as Jesus portrays God in these parables, is not content with a part of the flock or the piggy bank or the family. A part won’t do. God wants us all and wants all of us – and wants us all together.

I think this takes us once again to both the first and second lessons for this Sunday. It’s not often that all of the texts work together in such an effective way, so let’s be sure to take advantage of the intersection. We think about community as insiders vs. outsiders. That’s not how God thinks about or sees things. We are the ones who need to change our vision (that’s repentance, by the way).

Reconciliation doesn’t come immediately after repentance. It takes repair of the relationships and the community impacted by the brokenness. White Christians have always wanted to go straight to reconciliation and to skip the repentance and repair stages. Even if we make some efforts at confession and repentance, we’re still not willing to do the hard work of making reparations. Until we do that work, reconciliation is really just a word to make White people feel better about themselves.

We don’t get beyond some initial repenting in the third parable. Perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs had to be made in that family system before real reconciliation could happen. And perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs we need to make in order for all of us to act like God’s family.

In the meantime, whenever sinners are welcomed, some celebration is required. I look forward to celebrating a bit once again this week, even as I wrestle with who does not yet have a seat at the table.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

We’re All Temporary

The Third Sunday in Advent, 2020 — Isaiah 61; 1 Thessalonians 5

One of my favorite parishioners was a great teaser. She could always give as good as she got. When her husband dished out a particularly spicy zinger, we could always count on her stock reply. “You can be replaced, you know,” she’d say with a grin. It was a marvelous retort, in part, because we all knew her absolute and unending devotion to her spouse. But it also always had the function of putting him a little bit back in his place.

You can be replaced, you know. Of course, that’s true. We’re all temporary. Forbes Magazine reminds us that we’re all temporary workers, no matter what we pretend. At our house, we’ve moved enough times to know that at least some of our improvements and repairs will benefit the next owners more than they benefit us. Life has an expiration date, someone else reminds us. That great American philosopher, Hank Williams, puts it best when he sings, “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out this world alive.”

Photo by judit agusti aranda on Pexels.com

We’re all temporary. But we spend most our time and energy pretending to be permanent. We act as if our jobs, our homes, our cars, our relationships, our institutions, our traditions, and practices will all continue without end. It’s a way to deny the reality of decline, decay, and death. But it really is just all play-acting. The Covid crisis makes that abundantly clear.

I can be replaced, you know. And I will be, sooner or later.

In this season of Advent, we’re reminded that we’re all temporary. Last week, the prophet bemoaned the inconstancy of life in this world. “All people are grass,” a voice cried in Isaiah 40, “their constancy is like the flower of the field.” Those summer flowers are in the yard waste bag and the compost pile – here and gone in the blink of an eye. And we are just like them.

It’s good, of course, that some things aren’t permanent. That brings us to the first reading for the third Sunday in Advent. It’s good that oppression, broken-heartedness, captivity, and incarceration are temporary. It’s good that mourning, destruction, and ruin come to an end. It’s good that tyrants and abusers and bullies can be replaced. The prophet proclaims an end to all those who traffic in deceit, domination, and death.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” the prophet announces, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the Year of Jubilee, first described in Leviticus 25. The Year of Jubilee – when all debts are wiped out, when all ancestral lands go back to their original owners, when wealth is redistributed, and when economic power is rebalanced. Sounds like a damned socialist conspiracy if you ask me! The whole idea seems just un-American.

Well, yes – that’s right. What’s your point? We’re all temporary, and so are all our schemes and systems. Even the “invisible hand of the market” is a human construction.

The purpose of the Jubilee Year was to ensure that there would be no permanent underclass in Israel. “The commission to ‘proclaim liberty’,” writes Elna Solvang in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “is language from the instructions for observing the Jubilee Year. During the Jubilee property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged (Leviticus 25:10). The use of the Leviticus language in Isaiah 61 is a clear indication,” she proposes, “that the liberty proclaimed is intended to be made permanent in new social and economic relationships within the community.”

But the real world of the prophet looks nothing like the vision. Reality was a disappointing parade of just one damned thing after another. It seemed that nothing had changed.

Disappointment with reality on the ground – the first reading once again seems to connect so deeply with events around us in the present moment. We expected The Pandemic (by now I think it deserves capital letters) to be long over by now. We expected, perhaps, that something, please God – anything, would have been concluded on the day after the presidential election – either the pandemic or structural racism or snarky tweets or political ads or pleas for money. In fact, the day has come and gone, and the ruins still surround us. If anything, the mourning deepens as the death tolls mount. The reality of life for many of us is nothing like we had hoped.

But we’re all temporary, and so is our disappointment. Paul knows this when he writes to the Thessalonian Christians, “Rejoice at all times.” Food insecurity grows by the minute. Unemployment payments will cease momentarily. Businesses board up, some never to re-open. Racist, xenophobic, and psychopathic policies still unfold. Climate havoc and disaster continue apace, hardly noticed amid the churn of all the other troubles. Rejoicing in the midst of this seems frivolous at best and criminally cruel at worst.

It would be cruel indeed if we believed that nothing could change. But I can be replaced, you know. So can all the systems and structures that loot and pillage the oppressed, including a president and his cronies who just don’t seem to know how to leave. John points to the first coming of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We live after that first coming and point to the second coming in how we live our lives.

Whenever Christ returns, we have time between now and then. So, we are called in positive terms to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks. This is what is best for us in Christ Jesus. And we are called to resist the forces that would threaten us – to not turn down the living presence of Divine Holiness in our hearts, to not disdain new words from the Lord (when subject to appropriate testing), to not be dragged into the multifarious evils on offer from the world.

The Spirit of the Lord Jesus is upon us to proclaim and to live in the year of the Lord’s favor. We may all be temporary, but the Lord’s favor is everlasting. All that sin, death and the devil could dish out was concentrated in the cross of Christ and defeated in his death and resurrection. So, we rejoice in the temporary nature of the world’s brokenness and live into the light of the Lord.

We live in the Year of Jubilee. And we can take our cues from the prophet. After all, Jesus quotes this passage in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth. What does this look like?

The Year of Jubilee sounds to me like abolishing the death penalty and reforming our criminal punishment system (read yesterday’s post for more on that: https://wordpress.com/post/lowellhennigs.com/546).

The Year of Jubilee in our context sounds to me like restoration of land to Native communities. Every Christian congregation should know whose land their buildings occupy and should make concrete efforts to begin to make that theft right.

The Year of Jubilee in our context sounds to me like racial reparations. We don’t know if the Hebrew Jubilee Year actually happened, but it was at least the ideal. And in some cases, it did happen in part. We white Christians think reparations at just too hard for us. But we haven’t really tried. In fact, our history is littered with times when we simply turned down the chance to begin the process. Not trying is quite different from failing.

The Year of Jubilee sounds to me like continuing work to remedy our housing and education segregation. Dominant culture people benefit every day from one hundred fifty years of systematic and legally enforced segregation. We don’t even have to work at it now because it is so intertwined with realities on the ground. We can start by understanding how it happened. And we can begin to disentangle ourselves from a system that continues to build on the ten-fold wealth gap between white and black households in America.

Remember, you can be replaced. I take that seriously. White churches in America are complicit in forming and sustaining systems and structures of organized and ongoing injustice, violence, and hatred. If we are unwilling to replace those systems, then I fear that we will be ones replaced by folks who take the Year of Jubilee seriously.

Fortunately, it’s not up to us by ourselves. We can trust that God will keep us sound, without blemish, and at peace in the midst of this good work. If the good news were simply up to us, something we worked to put together, rejoicing would be foolish and cruel. But the good news comes to us from God as a gift in the midst of the grieving, as light in the midst of the darkness. That gift will keep us whole in the end.

May we be worthy of our calling until our time is done. Remember, we’re all temporary. But God’s Word endures forever. Amen.