Thursday, September 27, 2012

September 30, Proper 21: Melons, Maggots, Garlic, and Hell

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Dina was a member of my second congregation, in Ontario. She was in her 70s and she had immigrated from the Netherlands, from the island of Overflakkee, and she had that Flakkee personality: cool, dry, and laconic. She had gotten sick, and then her leg got gangrene, and they had to amputate. She told me that the next day she was lying in her hospital bed, and she could see out the window the hospital’s smokestack, and suddenly she saw it release a puff of smoke, and she said out loud, "Dere goes my lek."

Our lesson from the Gospel of Mark is a string of seeming non sequiturs and a cacophony of metaphors. Amputation, maggots, fire, and salt. The string is cleansing versus corruption, purification versus putrefaction. You sacrifice your limb to save your life. Salt stings, salt smarts, but it seasons and preserves. Fire is painful and deadly, fire consumes, but it refines and purifies.

The very first garbage dump I ever saw was up in the Catskills, in the woods, when I was a child. My dad was the chaplain at a summer camp, and at the end of a trail behind our cabin was the dump. It had that rotten smell, and bugs on it, and vapor rising from the decomposition. It wasn’t big, and it had no smoldering fire in it, but I was a city kid and it fascinated me.

The garbage dump of Jerusalem was a valley called Gehenna. It had fires that smoldered endlessly. Gehenna was symbolic for the prophets, who wrote that after the battle to liberate Jerusalem, the bodies of their enemies would be cast into Gehenna, instead of buried, which meant great shame, and so would the bodies of the unrighteous Jews. They would not be buried in good kosher graveyards, their bones would ever be unkosher and unclean, and that would exclude them from the final resurrection of the Jewish nation, and exclude them from Kingdom of God and from the life of the world to come. Their exclusion would be their non-existence.

But not an eternity in hell. It’s unfortunate our Bibles routinely use the word "hell" to translate the word "Gehenna". The fires of Gehenna were not for unending torture but for burning up, for consumption, for destruction unto non-existence. As I argue in my recent book, the conventional view of hell today is a blend of mythology and post-Biblical theology which gets read back into the Bible. But it’s certainly not what Jesus is talking about here.

Let me restate the string of metaphors prosaically. The kingdom of God includes the justice of God. Right. The justice of God requires the judgment of God. Right. The judgments of God are good, but if we are guilty, those judgments smart and sting like salt. Alright. The judgments of God also season society to improve it, and they preserve society from our tendency towards corruption and going bad. God’s judgments are strong and salty, so they do smart and sting.

And you should be salty in yourselves. You can cheerfully internalize the judgments of God, you can learn to judge yourself, and practice self-awareness and cultivate a lively conscience, not in a morbid condemnation of yourself, but in a healthy and joyful humility, with the attitude of exercise and self-discipline, practicing self-examination as a habit and a way of life. You can be salty in yourself, not waiting for others to force it or for God to have to do it. Your motivation is that you are the salt of the earth, you are salty for the greater good of the world.

The metaphor suggests that what’s unclean in us might have been good to begin with. When you say you "have to wash the dirty dishes," what you’re calling "dirt" was just a few minutes earlier healthy gourmet food. So what’s bad in your soul is the corruption of what was good. Did you hang on to it too long, did you desire it too much, has it begun to foul and fester? Keep salt then in yourselves. Be disciplined in your self-cleansing.

But if you do not maintain your own self-cleansing, if God has to do it for you, you’re in for a purging more drastic. Like amputation. Like burning up a leg. If God has to do it on you, it will feel more like fire than like salt. It won’t just sting, it will burn. And it won’t preserve you, it will rather refine you, which means burning away what is unclean. It might expose you as it cleanses you. You might lose your reputation. Some people might not forgive you and you will lose their love and that will be a penalty. You can get through it, but as through fire. Such can be the fiery judgment of our God, but you can comprehend that purest of Loves might be like this.

Notice that we are to be salty in ourselves but not fiery in ourselves. The fire is reserved for God. We are the salt of the earth but not the fire of the earth. The strongest of the judgments are not ours to exercise. It is not for us to judge the deeds of those who are not with us. Yes, we will have enemies, but we are not competent to judge them or condemn them. We are to love them, and give them water when they thirst, and be at peace with one another.

One of the reasons you love your enemies is because of what they offer you. It’s they who often do the most for you. Their opposing you can help you learn about yourself. Your enemies are the scouring pads of your soul, the ammonia, the sandpaper. In moral terms, you can learn more from your enemies than from your friends. Consider what your enemy has against you, and confess that too, which can be liberating from defensive self-righteousness. Use the opposition of your enemy to relax yourself before the judgments of God.

The alternative is delusion. Not neutral ignorance, but actual self-delusion. The example is in our first lesson, from the Book of Numbers, where the Children of Israel, in their discontent with God, began to delude themselves about their prior condition as slaves in Egypt. "The melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic." (I can understand the garlic.) Well, what about the cruelty, the misery, the beatings and the whippings. We delude ourselves with the pleasures of our bondage as against the responsibilities of our freedom. The escape from delusion is in the searching word of the judgments of God within our lives.

The judgments of God are challenging but not impossible. They are not cloaked in mysteries or communicated by disasters; they are publically set out in the scriptures for all of us to see, and the community of Jesus is given the capacity to read, mark, learn and understand them. In the community is how we understand them. We can satisfy the desire of Moses that we all of us are prophets, when together in community we understand what God desires and what God wants. The kind of community conversations that get us to that understanding are described in our epistle, the kind of talk that is clean and the interactions that are redemptive. When we are suffering — not blaming or complaining, but praying together. When we’re cheerful, we make music together. When we’re sick, we minister to each other and touch each other with oil and balm. We confess our sins to one another, in ways which are safe and healthy and not manipulative; we forgive each other, we pray for one another, we heal each other. We counsel each other and bring each other back. This sort of conversation is cleansing, this kind of interaction is healing. It takes discipline, it takes self-correction, but it demonstrates the loving judgments of the Lord.

God be in our eyes, and in our hands, and in our feet, lest we pluck them out or cut them off. God direct our seeing and our handling and our walking. God direct our looking and desiring and what we think about. God direct our touching and our doing and our contribution to the world. God direct our going out and our coming in, God direct our lifelong journey and our pilgrimage, some of us leaping but most of us limping, God bring us safe into the life of the world to come, into that last full measure of your love for us.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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