An Accidental Midrash
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For 1 October 2017, World-wide Communion Sunday
Based on Matt 21:23-32
Shortly after Jesus, Jewish rabbis promoted a way of interpreting scripture called midrash agadah, which essentially encourages the best way to make sense of a story is to tell another story. I accidentally encountered a midrash on this morning’s scripture passage. During my vacation I read most of a trilogy of novels called The Last Policeman by Ben Winters. I heard about this from a review on public radio. It sounded like the kind of light fiction reading I would enjoy escaping into while on vacation.
The main premise is that an asteroid is about to impact the earth. There’s no way to escape. The immanent destruction of the planet leads to all sorts of social disintegration. People wander away from their jobs to fulfill their bucket lists. That means no one is caring for the electric plants, which leads to the loss of television, radio, internet, newspapers. Clean water no longer runs through pipes into homes and businesses. People hoard what resources they can, and there are mass riots hunting for food, bottled water, gasoline, bullets. People are dying from diseases, accidents, murders, and suicides.
But the main thrust of the series is not social decay: these are mystery novels. The main character, Henry Palace, is (unsurprisingly) a police detective who continues to work on missing persons cases during the last six months before the asteroid hits. There’s two recurring events in the trilogy, events that increase in frequency as the asteroid gets nearer and nearer.
The first is happens so frequently it is almost a joke: people keep asking Henry “Why are you doing this?” Society is at it’s end, people are running away for all sorts of reasons, the federal government is barely functional, local police departments no longer have authority. Why then, Detective Palace, are you concerned about finding these missing persons?
And Henry struggles with an answer for himself. He realizes he no longer has the authority of his badge, his rank, or even his department to interview witnesses and suspects. And when he does find the person he is searching for, he has no power to compel them to return to their loved ones or to atone for their misdeeds. He has to rely on his ability to persuade them without invoking any external status.
This passage from Matthew describes the chief priests and the elders being upset. People in the temple are seeking out Jesus for his teaching. Why didn’t the people come to us? Who is this Jesus guy anyway? Why are the people going to him? But the question they ask Jesus is “Who gave you the authority to teach here?” What I think they really mean is “Who gave you the power to teach?” All adult Jewish males had permission to teach, had the authority to teach. Not all teachers had the same power to persuade.
Power, authority, persuasion: these things are related, but they are not the same thing. And the chief priests are jealous, intimidated, angry that the people are giving Jesus this power. Only after rigorously pursuing credentials did they receive authority. They had to get certificates, had to pass tests, had to be approved by boards and committees. Jesus does not seem to have any of these.
In our culture, we have these kinds of contests all the time. Who can say what is right for how we treat immigrants? Who can say what is right for adults to express sexual love? Who has authority to call out injustice – and what is the correct arena for brining attention to matters of justice? For generations we have challenged athletes to accept their responsibility as role models for youth – and yet when they act in a symbolic way against injustice we accuse them of disrespect. How do we challenge those whose authority, whose popularity is different than ours – and just who is permitted to represent the moral commitment we have to God’s realm?
With these questions we have entered the more ambiguous and more threatening terrain of discussing power – because what is at stake is our ability to respond to God’s present realm. Not God’s coming kingdom, not how history will end: what is at stake is how we live as God’s people today.
I’m finding The Last Policeman to be about conviction. At the end of the world, when nothing is going to last, what is it that drives an individual to keep living? Most of society has given up. In the face of minimal resources, they initially party hard. But then they withdraw from one another, suspicious of one another’s motives, scrabbling to stay alive as long as possible with the available limited resources and yet fearful to live among others who compete for those same materials. Nevertheless, people need answers about those whom they love who have disappeared, so Henry Palace, the last policeman, persists on their behalf.
I find this character to be asking me why I persist, asking me about my convictions. In this era when our culture increasingly dismisses authority, especially intellectual authority like my academic degrees, especially moral authority like my religious title, especially authority founded in relationships of helping those who experience the injustices of this wealth-obsessed society, how do I expect my convictions to persuade others to a shared vision of living based on principles of faith? Just what are my personal convictions, the values that encourage me to persist especially on behalf of others? Why is it that I persist? Why is it that you persist?
In the social upheaval portrayed in these novels, individuals are forced to struggle alone for their survival. I find myself reflecting on my work to build stronger communities so that no one is isolated, no one is forced to struggle alone, no one is forced to do without the basic human needs of food, water, shelter, health care, respect and love. For me, these are expressions of divine care that we are called to insure for everybody. Sadly, in the world of these novels they are increasingly absent except for the efforts of the main character.
You might expect this series is depressing, especially since Henry never seems to come up with an answer to the question why he persists. But I noticed he stopped asking himself that question. He’s found one of the missing persons for whom he has been looking: they have gone off on a self-appointed crusade. The detective is posing the very same question he has been asked: “Why are you doing this?” What authority do you have for this moral persistence? The dialogue between these two characters explores the relationship between a sense of call and a sense of salvation.
It is a turning point in the series. Hereafter society is in such disarray that no common set of values is reliable. The main character is increasingly isolated, wandering alone. Predictably, his canine companion is injured and Henry struggles with continuing to travel with his dog or to leave the pet behind to be cared for by strangers.
And while the world grows more hostile, a second theme takes prominence: Henry shares more meals with strangers. And by “sharing” I mean he is invited to join them, because Henry himself has no food. His traveling companion finds a way to brew coffee, which they share daily. An isolated village includes him at their dinner table. Two drunken rednecks share their chicken dinner. A person he is pursuing leaves a backpack filled with candy stolen from a vending machine. A hoard of macaroni and cheese and spaghetti sauce. Each of these is a sacramental experience.
At each of these meals, Henry confronts his growing depression and despair. By sharing food with others, he is able to reclaim a sense of connection to humanity, a connection that reaffirms his sense of purpose, his sense of call, restore his commitment to persist on behalf of others – because it is in attending to our most basic needs that we find our common humanity and our individual purpose.
World-wide Communion Sunday could be wrapped in a soft blanket of sentimentality. Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world sat down at a large table for some bread and juice, for a wafer and wine? The reality is bringing Christians together is much more complex, because there is power and authority and battles over credentials and longstanding historic rivalries over tradition and heritage and culture. We don’t perceive God the same, so we don’t relate to God the same, and so we have different expectations of how God will work through human history and thus have different expectations of how humans should respond to God’s activity.
I’m not saying it is impossible – I’m saying it is complex. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to get together for communion: I am saying we should not be naïve and pretend these other aspects do not exist, because they are aspects of what it means to be human, what it means to be in relationship. It is recognizing all those global complexities that celebrating World-wide communion in a local congregation all that much more important – because even here, within this small group assembled today in this sanctuary are competitions of power and authority credibility. How we make peace with those issues here, how we rehearse our faith within this congregation, how we navigate dignity and pride, authority and power, prepares us for how we share our faith when we leave this building to witness to the world.