Particularity

The Mystery and Scandal of Particularity: A sermon or the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Scriptures for the Fourth Sunday of Advent:

King David, once a shepherd boy, the youngest of his brothers, now he has secured his position as king of Israel and the territorial integrity of Israel. With a fine palace to show for it, while the god of Israel has a tent and not a palace. The ark of the covenant is still in the tabernacle. David want’s something more impressive for the creator of all things and the god of Israel. David wants ot do what other Kings do for their god’s build God a proper temple and solidify the relationship between the God of Israel and the King of Israel.

God, Adonai, doesn’t see it that way and opposes this idea. God is content with the tent and the ark on the move among the people. God reminds David that not long ago God chose David when he was just the youngest son of Jesse, a shepherd boy. David should not imagine that he could be like other kings of the nation’s equating himself with his God, as he solidifies his power. After all it is God who chose David and established David and rather than build God a house God says he will establish David’s house. God prefers to be among God’s people, God has done and will do just fine with the tent. The tabernacle suits the creator of all that is just fine.

The history of Israel contradicts God’s promise to David in part because the Kings of Israel and Judah never escaped this idea that the gods legitimate the power of kings and their princes. God of Israel wouldn’t be so used, and through the prophets consistently declared that God wasn’t on the side of kings and princes and the rich and powerful even if they were technically god’s anointed. The God of Israel and all that is, was concerned for the poor the oppressed and the needy and sided with them not with the powerful and wealthy who oppressed.

God doesn’t need David’s power and prestige, and God isn’t going to let David think he can establish the relationship between him and God. God is free, God acts, David and we respond to God’s action in the world. David wants to connect his success and his sovereignty as King to God, by establishing a temple and cult for God (and Solomon will do this). God refuses the equation, and reprimands David for the idea telling David that on this God has been clear; While God has given David his position as King in Israel, he wasn’t the first “shepherd” of Israel and God has never desired a central location, God chose Israel as God chose David, as God chose the other leaders of Israel, but it isn’t to make the equation between David and God, God and David. The God of all creation is the God of Israel, this is a difference, Adonai isn’t a tribal God, though God cares for and desires good for Israel and Israel’s King, David.

The confusion of David and even the prophet Nathan, is a confusion that one can trace through much of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a mistaken conclusion based the God of Creation, interacting with the created order in its minutia to achieve global ends. This is what some have called the scandal of particularity. As God renews a relationship with humanity, God does so through particular persons and times. The temptation is to believe that choice means that time or person or place is on its own terms special, rather than point out God’s way of doing things. We may have some understanding of God through the universal character of God as creator, but we come to know god personally through God’s choices, first of Abraham and Sarah.  The God of Israel is always the God who meets us through others of God’s choosing.

St. Gabriel, Archangel – 7 1/4″ x 5 1/2″

When God sends the messenger Gabriel, to announce to Mary God’s intention that she is chosen, this is in line with God’s actions throughout time. Abraham and Sarah were no one of significance to the emerging States and the powerful of their time. We are told that Mary is a descendent of David. The promise to David is kept, but that promise was always for God’s purposes, as God renews a relationship with each of us and all creation. Mary a descendent of David, a member of the people of God, young just beginning her journey of life, see’s something that her Ancestor David failed to see, though God tried to remind David of this, tried to get him to see that God isn’t about power in the way kings and the powerful among humanity understand power. Mary see’s that God is set against those who try to dominate. God’s deeds of power lift those we who look for prestige and power ignore. God moves among the people not among the halls of power.

We remember Mary and her ancestor David, and Sarah and Abraham. Mary is and isn’t special. She is among the long list of those whom God has chosen in specific times and places to participate in God’s plan to restore a relationship with God. God choose particular persons, like Mary, and a particular nation, Israel, to relate to each of us personally.

This confounds us, this is the mystery that was hidden but is now revealed in Jesus Christ, that the God creator universe, of the vast expanse of Galaxies upon galaxies, cares for the minutia of the universe. God doesn’t think like a human managing some vast realm or corporation, letting others attend to the minor workers, the janitors, the easily forgettable workers. God isn’t limited like us, able only to care so much, God relates to all creation in all its particularity and minutia, not in distant only in its global and universal aspects.

Each of us through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, are like these ancestors of our faith, Mary and David and Sarah. Through them we know that God doesn’t reside in the halls of power neither in Washington, in congress or the Whitehouse, nor internationally in New York at the U.N. God moves among us whom the rich and powerful care little about, and give little thought except when they need us to vote, or buy something, or work for them. God isn’t like the powerful.

Through Mary God is one of us in her child Jesus. God was and is and will always be God with us, joined to our human flesh and God’s creation through this descendant of David, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, a Jewish Palestinian peasant who lived far from the powerful and the rich who except for God, would have long been forgotten by the world and the rich and powerful.

This is what we are called to embrace that God cares for us in our seeming insignificance and powerlessness, that the rich and powerful seek to hide from. God doesn’t deal with us as an anonymous collective of being to be controlled but comes to us and deals with us in our particularity, and did so by forever becoming one of us, Jesus of Nazareth. And so we remember Mary and honor her, and consider her blessed, because it is through her that we know God and it is through her particularity that God comes to us and meets each of us in our own personhood. This is what we are about to celebrate, this astounding love of the creator of all that is.

Christians Embrace Death and the Particularity and Physicality Of the Gospel

We Christians are anxious about the state of our institutions.  We at the same time want to believe someone has the fix.  So, we make pronouncements.  A number of people including Tony Jones and Brian McLaren have suggested that we are seeing possible end of denominations, others are talking about the decline of particular denominations (such as the Episcopal Church) or groups of denominations (the Mainline), or maybe even the whole kit and caboodle Christianity itself, or even more astounding the Church, is dead or dying.

The reasons given for this  demise are myriad, but they do coalesce around an anxiety that we aren’t or haven’t allowed the Spirit to move and that we are trapped in the institutional and the historical/material manifestations of our faith.  This it seems to me wishing to blame our having bodies, that is those real, actual, physical, architectural manifestations, that aren’t the s{S}pirit.  In a sense what I hear in our anxieties and the various remedies for our demise is the claim that we  are not our bodies.   Which is strange to me.

In college I read Souls and Bodies, a novel about the loss and retention of faith.  As I read it the novels contention was that it was precisely the “spiritual” obsession that denied our bodies that was the reason for the flight from religion.  The characters in the novel longed for cathedral and body to agree in spirituality.    Architecture, institution, body all are spiritual, the crack in our systems of faith and theology is when we dismember ourselves, when our cosmos no longer is imbued with the spiritual.    Religion and faith that can’t bring together body soul and spirit, leave us with corpses and pointless souls wandering in an amorphous and dreary world.  That is at least my impression of the novel 20 years on.  Whether or not it was the author’s intent it is what I took from it, and it spurred me to seek a faith that had form, architecture, institution, and body.

I wonder if our problem is that we are still seeking some essence, some inner spirit that can be decanted into any container.  If this is so then i say we are shrinking from the particularity of God and the church.   It is my conclusion that with all our love for “incarnational” theology we find the actual incarnation of God, in a Jew 2000 years ago, to be a little embarrassing, and possibly just a bit out of date.  We don’t want our future our “destiny” to be tied to that Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know so little about.  We’d rather create a Jesus in our own image, rather than be confined by a Jew who gathered 12 other Jews around him and sent them out into the world to proclaim the reign of God established by a violent and embarrassing death.

We embrace with difficulty that God is now forever human because, God is forever a 1st century Palestinian Jew who was raised from the dead and is seated on the right hand of God.  We also embrace with difficulty that from the moment of the incarnation God has been gathering together a new humanity through union with this one person jesus of Nazareth, through baptism and eating and drinking bread and wine.

American Christianity (liberal or conservative) tends to  prefer a more generic and American triumphalist universalism.   Actually following a crucified Jewish peasant from the first century Palestine is a bit of lunacy.   Doing so isn’t the way to win friends and influence people, its not guaranteed to gain you access the halls of power to influence the power brokers and leaders of the (free) world.  In fact that Jewish peasant tells us we aren’t suppose to seek power and influence and access, but God’s justice and righteousness first.  The problem for both liberal and conservative Christians is that we believe that justice and transformation of society can only come from in the very least having access to and influence over the power brokers.

Should we be surprised that people may find this all a little too incredible.  Should we be surprised that since Christianity has had access to the power centers for so long and yet used that access not to be open to God’s kingdom but to replace God’s kingdom with our vision of freedom and democracy (liberal or conservative), that people will walk away.  Who needs Christianity if it is simply a version of secular ideologies.  Our universalism our reductions of Christianity to principles, or morals or to social justice, leave no need for a Palestinian 1st century Jew.  Or to make this Jew relevant we ask people to believe something even more incredible, that said Jesus of Nazareth was simply an 21st century populist democrat, or  we ask people to believe in a being that died just so you could accept him into your heart and go on your merry way without a care for the world.

We need to embrace it all.  The messiness, the imperfect way Christians are the body of Christ, and the Jewishness of our God.  The particularity of our material existence is the universal spirituality of Christian faith.  We need architecture, we need art, we need what Christ instituted both sacraments and the historical continuity of  the temple that God is building us into.

We will come to know what reflects this holistic particular universal faith not by reductions and seeking the essential nature of the Spirit, but by seeing that the God who became a Jew a little over 2000 years ago is the God of all, who embraces all, and instituted the Church and is building a temple, which is the new humanity.  Such a vision perhaps simply isn’t compatible with the vision of our age.  In part though that is our fault for we have been proclaiming something else, we have lost who we are, we have sought release from our bodies, so that we could have universal spirit that could appeal to everyone.  This is our demise, this is our death. We are the dry bones and we are finding if we are honest that there is no life outside our body.  Mortal can these bones live?  Lord only you know.   May we prophesy that the spirit return to our dried out wasted away bodies.  May God return to us the flesh we have abandoned.  Our bones can witness to the life of God, but we must prophesy to the breath, and accept our particularity, our mortality.