Laughter and Lament

David Balch—September 27, 2006
16th Sunday After Pentecost

Jeremiah 11:18 - 20
Psalm 54
James 3:13 - 4:3
Mark 9:30 - 37

First, please let me take a moment to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart who was involved in calling me to PLTS, the students who participated in the interview, faculty, Board members, especially our President and Dean, with whom I enjoy working.

Let me address first year students: hasn’t PLTS done a great job of welcoming us? And fourth year students returning from Internships, whom Phyllis and Herb Anderson hosted recently along with professors: I sense that many of you are very glad to be back, even though many of you had had a great year. We do eagerly take advantage of Herb’s cooking, hard not to do! When I visited Berkeley in past summers, Bob Smith and Donna Duensing, famous for their hospitality, welcomed me. Whether Herb or Donna is a better cook, I do not know! PLTS is good at welcoming folks!

Having been born and raised and having lived the past two decades on the virtually treeless Texas plains, can you imagine, well, some of you from the northern plains of the Midwest can imagine, the newness of living among these eucalyptus, pine, even redwood trees? It is not an exaggeration that I have felt ecstatic for the first three months living and working at PLTS!

But life has different seasons; in Mark too, readers perceive a radical difference between the first Galilean section, and the next one, as we read on into the passion narrative. I’m new at PLTS, but still older than many of you, and looking back, I associate radically different seasons of my life with geographical moves. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ time in the north, in Galilee, differs radically from his journey to the south.

Let me describe another contrast. The spring issue (2006) of Word and World, as many of you will know, focuses on Lutheran worship, preparing us for the new ELCA hymnal that we will receive next month. The fourth article describes the context that produced the Green hymnal that we have used now for four decades, a context set or at least encouraged by a Lutheran theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg. This German theologian gave a lecture at Yale that excited many of those who heard it. He described two different pieties, one that produces guilt consciousness, that is, he argued, Protestant piety that stems from the Reformation. A second, which he named “Eucharistic piety,” produces joy. After myself experiencing joy, even ecstasy the past three months after having moved to Berkeley, I would certainly vote in favor of joy!

Pannenberg interprets the Eucharist as Thanksgiving for Baptism, encouraging us to rejoice in worship, which meant deemphasizing confession of sin and absolution. You have given me the opportunity to follow Prof. Bob Smith, to teach at PLTS, to live in Berkeley, and I feel like Pannenberg is right! Let’s celebrate!

But you know, the gospel of Mark has a first part, and a second part, first narrating stories of Jesus’ healing, solving people’s problems, then a narrative that culminates in the cross. It is a lie that all of life or all of worship is rejoicing, that we should constantly have a smile on our faces. Or maybe that is too harshly phrased; it is at least one-sided to emphasize joy, to want to speak only about resurrection, not the cross. Our experience as Christians takes in all of human life, all the seasons.

Reading David Rhodes’ translation of Mark (Mark as Story) without chapter or verse numbers, simply as a story, a first-time reader would encounter the first passion prediction as a surprise, a rude shock. When our lives, simply as believers or as pastors serving congregations, move from happiness into trauma and crisis, it is often a shock for us. Even though this is the sixteenth week after Pentecost, the sixteenth week of ordinary time, these readings are passion readings, and the three Markan passion predictions introduce the passion story.

Jeremiah’s laments, complaints, or euphemistically, confessions, in chapters 11-20, present seven of his laments, typically with two parts, the prophet’s complaint and God’s response. Scholars once studied Jeremiah’s psychology, understanding him as a great religious genius, whose personal, inner, and spiritual religion we are allowed to glimpse. That Jeremiah is popular in our individualistic, spiritual age. But Erhard Gerstenberger (JBL 82 [1963]) observed that Jeremiah’s laments are similar to lament Psalms. Compare, for example, today’s OT lesson, Jer 11:19 (“but I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter”) with Ps 44.11 (“You have made us like sheep for slaughter…”). These are communal complaints, cries of anguish, not simply Jeremiah’s private afflictions. Jeremiah learned the language of lament while worshipping, while praying in the Temple chanting psalms with hundreds of others.

Let me tell two parallel stories, one of males, another of females. The sort of betrayal that Jeremiah experienced from family and friends in his hometown of Anathoth (11.21) occurs among both genders, among rich and poor, among those of different orientations and races.

When on sabbatical, I love to go to Rome, where I have a friend in one of the orders. He has a degree in Classics and knows everything I want to know about both Roman and early Christian archaeological sites. One day an acquaintance asked me, Do you know what happened to his books? No, I replied; don’t ask! I was told. When my friend next donated some of his time to me, organizing an excursion to Hadrian’s palace, I gently asked if he wanted to talk about his books. He had been teaching in the USA before he was sent to Rome, but he left behind his books, which he had spent years collecting. My friend is brilliant and intuitive, but as is typical of this personality type, neglectful of details. His former colleagues kept asking him what he was going to do with his books, but my friend delayed, and they threw them all away! Years later, my friend still laments.

A second story: a young third-world woman came to do a PhD at a school where I was. She did so well that she accompanied one of her professors to a professional meeting in her home country, where she gave a paper that was a real success. Professors in her home country wanted to publish it, and as a proud author she started revising. But there is tension between Third World scholars and First World scholars. Those who have been colonized criticize those of us from Europe and the USA who colonized them; for example, this semester at PLTS I chose a textbook by Musa Dube, a Christian woman from Botswana, and she fiercely criticizes both male and female Biblical scholars from the West. This young student from the Third World was the daughter of a mother who was a maid for Western white women, and the daughter had some criticism of white Western women scholars. One of the American scholars with whom she had studied called her into her office and said: “You publish that criticism of white Western feminists, and I will ruin your career!” And the young doctoral student did not publish her article. A number of scholars at that institution still lament the way she was abused—by her teacher.

Bishop Ronald Warren of the SE Synod has filed charges against the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, presently serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta, GA. On the other hand, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in Chicago has voted overwhelmingly to call Erik Christensen, whom the Extraordinary Candidacy Project approved for ordination, to be their Pastor. Whatever your opinion about these two events, there is cause for rejoicing in one case, for lament and crisis in the other. One final recollection: at the PLTS convocation earlier this month, the editor of vol. 16 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works (2006), Mark Brocker, reminded us that 80% of pastors in the Confessing Church in Germany eventually agreed to an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Bonhoeffer lamented, as we do still.

Jesus has now begun the journey south; it began northeast of Galilee (Mk 8.27), but continues. The imperfect tenses and the fact that this is the second of three such passion predictions indicate that this was a theme of Jesus’ preaching. But for the first time we read that “he will be delivered / handed over into the hands of human beings.” This verb, paradidomi, had already been used of the fate of John the Baptist (1.14) and to sum up the role of Judas Iscariot (3.19). The author will use it again frequently in relation to Judas’ role (14.10-11, 18, 21).

After the first pronouncement (8.31), we all remember Peter’s shocked response (8.32), but the disciples are still ignorant (agnoeo), or the verb may rather indicate that they found Jesus’ teaching incomprehensible, a reaction not unknown to us when we get into a crisis. This is not supposed to be happening! The disciples are afraid (9.32) when they hear this theology of the cross. God’s reign comes about through defeat and death.

Then on this journey they arrive in Capernaum (9.33), surprising after vs. 30. They go “into a house,” moving away from the public square into a domestic setting, into a “house church” where early church communities typically gathered after Jesus crucifixion. Is this not parallel to seminary students withdrawing for several years to listen to Jesus, to study what Jesus’ disciples have left us in their books, before taking up our particular call, hopefully to spend a long time in the north (metaphorically speaking) laughing, but certainly also to spend some time in the south, to experience both joy and grief, success and loss?

As is well known, Jesus’ disciples began arguing about “who is the greatest?” just as we compete with each other for attention, for pulpits, and for professors’ chairs; it is in our blood, in our educational training. Jesus takes a child into his arms to embrace (9.36-37). In Roman houses in the first century CE, artists often painted little children on the walls, cherubs whom artists visually represented working at various crafts. It was new that artists represented lower class working people at all, but they did so often using delightful cherubs, male and female, as workers. Jesus verbally uses such an example of a child like the small working class craftspeople that they (the readers) might have been seeing on their walls, insisting that disciples “receive” folks of different classes into their fancy houses, even into their dining rooms, that is, into church assemblies and eucharists. Some of these folk will be happy, and some will have laments to chant, as did Jeremiah, and as Jesus foretold of himself. In our worship assemblies, worshipping the Christ, who was crucified but then raised from the dead by God, we can listen to both. As followers of Christ, can we not heartily sing hymns to God in both moods?