Monday, March 18, 2013

The Scent of Hope

This is a sermon I preached for the Deer Creek Charge United Methodist Churches

Scripture: John 12:1-8 (NRSV)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Sermon: Mary of Bethany, Prophet of Hope
We are departing briefly from the Gospel of Luke this morning to look at the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Luke also has a story of a woman anointing Jesus' body, and in fact all four gospels do, but each story is slightly different--- John's most of all. John's story is the only story in which the woman is named, and she is named Mary--- Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, not Mary Magdalene and not labeled as a sinful woman. John's follows in the tradition of Matthew and Mark, but not Luke, placing this story within Holy Week; however, in John's account, a woman anoints Jesus before, not after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we will celebrate next week on Palm Sunday.1 John and Luke's story has the woman anointing Jesus' feet rather than just his head. All of this is to remind you of the differences between the gospels, so that you don't conflate one story with another as we explore together this morning.

John's Gospel is particularly gripping in that the story is framed to link it to the events of Jesus' death and resurrection. My friends, we are coming to the end of the season of Lent, coming to perhaps the most difficult part of our journey into the wilderness, and it is John's story of Mary anointing Jesus that is prepares us for that journey. It is a story that foreshadows how the scent of life will overwhelm the stench of death, even though in the dark places we may forget. It is a story that, like all the scripture we have read this Lent, points us to God's extravagance. And it is a story that calls forth the power of hope to hold the darkness at bay.

So let us pray together as we enter this story:
Patient Teacher, may we hold onto you this morning,
anointing you with our prayers
as Mary of Bethany anointed you with costly perfume.
May you speak to us through this story this morning,
teaching us how to better love you each and every day. Amen.

John's story begins not with what we read today, but with another smell: Lord, Martha said to Jesus, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days. Martha was speaking of her and Mary's brother Lazarus, who died and who Jesus rose from the dead after there was already a stench. So John reminds us when he introduces the house where they gave a dinner for Jesus. You can see this isn't just any dinner--- that the celebration here is overflowing with joy and gratitude, that Martha and Mary and their friends must have pulled out all the stops. Everything they do is to throw off the shadow of death that had laid over their home, and to celebrate the life that Jesus has given them.

But this is not all. Raising Lazarus to life in John's Gospel brings immediately following it a plot to kill Jesus, in which religious and ethnic leaders feared Jesus' power, feared that his actions would bring about an imperial Roman crackdown on their people and a removal of their own privileges as imperial lackeys. Fear is a powerful motivator for darkness. And so the shadow of death may have departed Lazarus, but it now seems to hang around Jesus. Everyone at the table with him that night knows this, in much the same way recent history's freedom fighters are aware of imminent danger they face.

What happens next holds the extravagant gratitude for new life in tension with this preparation for certain death. An unsettling tension, strange--- particularly given the intimacy of Mary's action.2 Many commentators I read in preparation for this sermon commented that though footwashing might be common, it probably would not have been done by the host, only servants, and it would not have included anointing. After all, it must have been a dirty job to wash the feet of guests who had traveled long distances through dust and dirt and grime in only sandals. Matthew and Mark's gospel have a woman anointing Jesus' head, proclaiming his Christ-ness, as Christ means anointed one; however, anointing feet seems to have a bit more of a dark connotation. See, Mary did not only wash the travel grime from Jesus' feet, but she anointed his feet with the tenderness and care that she would use to anoint feet that would walk no more.3

This part of the story is difficult for us to enter into as most of us have no experience with the care of dead or dying bodies, leaving the washing of our loved ones' bodies to more skilled nurses and morticians. But what Mary was doing reminds me of what I saw as a chaplain in the hospital: nurses rubbing lotion gently into the chapped skin of patients in comas, delicately administering lip balm or ice to the lips of a thirsty patient who could no longer swallow and was approaching the end. When I would see these moments, I found myself strangely uncomfortable with the intimacy of it, like I walked in on something I shouldn't see. Perhaps the disciples, especially Judas, felt a similar discomfort, like they have walked in on something they shouldn't have. But such love and extravagance is natural, the way we should respond to bodies in need. We all need physical care, extra care at the end of our lives, and, though it may be awkward because we try not to acknowledge the reality of death, such moments of care are beautiful.

Mary had anointed a body like this before when her brother Lazarus had died, had washed the dirt from the crevices of his dusty feet, had embalmed that body with myrrh, had struggled putting clothes over his uncooperative and unwieldy body. She had said goodbye to him as she retraced the lines of his body with her hands alongside her sister Martha. But that goodbye was not the end. She now sat at a table with him, alive, smiling, color coming back into his cheeks. What was lost to her, irretrievably she had thought, had been returned. And she was so grateful for Jesus for returning her brother. But more than that, the return of her brother taught her “confidence in the boundless capacity of God's love.”4 I think Mary's anointing was reminding Jesus of God's power and love that he held within him. It was reminding him that she had anointed someone for burial before, but that the grave did not hold him. It was saying that perhaps, just perhaps, the grave that the chief priests and Pharisees and Roman politicians were preparing wouldn't hold Jesus either.

Mary of Bethany is a prophet of hope, confident that the new life God had offered her in the miracle of her brother Lazarus was not the end of God's love for us. She had faith in the triumph of Divine love over human fear and hatred. But her prophecy is not just words it is actions. Scholar Gail R. O'Day writes that “Mary modeled the robust faith that makes it possible to embrace Jesus' gift of new life. In this story Mary models what it means to be a disciple...”5 In her simple act of anointing, she gave thanks for life, acknowledged the forces of death that are all around us, and she proclaimed her confidence in God's victory.

So I ask all of you to enter into Mary's faith with me this morning, to give thanks for life, to acknowledge death, and to proclaim victory anyway, through your own simple act of anointing. I have brought baby oil that we can anoint one another's palms with. I'll pass it around. Take the hand of the person beside you, flip it over, and pray for that person either out loud or to yourself, give thanks for them, pray for them in their struggles, and call on God's extravagance to shower their lives. Praying for another, sealing one another with extravagance as Mary did Jesus, prepares us for this last leg of our Holy Week journey together.

As you go throughout the day, feel the oil sinking into your skin, smell that faint baby oil smell and be reminded of this threefold nature of faith we saw in Mary's act of pure extravagance. If the smell of death has been with you, as it had been with the friends gathered around Jesus' table that day, remember as Mary did that “God's persistent love smells even stronger, and it will triumph in the defeat of Jesus' death.”6

Let us pray:
Extravagant One, we praise you for the life flowing through our veins,
for the newness you offer us out of your boundless compassion,
but we know that the forces of death are all around us, trying to pull us from you,
silver-tongued devils feeding us fear and lies.
God, as you filled that perfume scented room all those years ago,
we ask you fill this room today as we anoint one another.
May we feel your victory over death as this oil absorbs into our bodies.
In the name of the one who raises the dead, the one whom Mary anointed, we pray. Amen.

1Allen Dwight Callahan, “The Gospel of John,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. By Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007) 200.
2Matt Skinner writes, “Scholars cannot agree about whether the detail concerning Mary's hair lends an erotic air to the event, although I think it is impossible to hear the story today without raising an eyebrow. At the very least, Mary's hair imbues the act with profound intimacy, calling attention to the tactile element of the anointing. If the fragrance of her perfume fills the house, the gentle touch of her locks fills Jesus' sensations. It is an expression of deep love that those watching would hardly ignore or find ordinary.” Matt Skinner, Commentary on the Gospel John 12:1-8, Fifth Sunday in Lent, Working Preacher, 21 March 2010,
3Phyllis Williams Provost, “The Anointing at Bethany: John 12:1-8,” The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, vol. 10, John, eds. Dennis E. Smith and Michael E. Williams, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996) 116.
4Beth Sanders, “Living By the Word: Heaven Scent,” The Christian Century 24:5 (6 March 2007),
5Gail R. O'Day, “John,” Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 388.
6Sanders, “Living By the Word: Heaven Scent,”

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Avenge Our Blood": Martyrdom and Empire Building in Revelation 6:9-11

This paper was written for Dr. Moore's class on Revelation almost a year ago now. I was thinking back on it, hit by a wave of nostalgia for my academic days at the same time I have been reading up on nationalism and martyrdom again. So I decided to post it! 

"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, 'Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?' They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed."
-Revelation 6:9-111
The year is 1389, the place is Kosovo, and Prince Lazar is leading his people against the forces of the Ottoman Empire to defend the independence of his people. He is killed, delivered into the hands of the enemy by one of his own and from then on, so the story goes, Serbs become a martyred people of sorts, people we see in Revelation 6:9-11 under the altar crying out, not for independence, but for vengeance. This was not always the story in Serbia, of course, but it is one that came into being in the nineteenth century, and so even today this defeat more than six hundred years ago, it is a battle that is remembered.2 During the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, war criminal and then-president of Republika Srpska within Bosnia, Radovan Karadžić, used to appear publicly with what were essentially bards who sang, “Serb brothers, wherever you are, with the help of Almighty God / For the sake of the Cross and the Christian Faith and our imperial fatherland / I call you to join the battle of Kosovo.”3 Within this one folk song, we see both the imperial imagination of Greater Serbia and the explicit call to join this 600-year old battle in the name of the suffering of the cross. Lynda E. Boose explains, “Not many nations celebrate a defeat as the cradle of their nationhood, but by doing so Serbs seal their history within a mythic imaginary in which the Serbs are forever victims, situated for perpetuity in the place of resentment and unassuaged revenge within a story that promises to confer heroism in the present only through return, repetition, and revenge.”4 In this paper I posit that Revelation also serves within a mythic imaginary to present Christians as forever victims in such a way that God's vengeance becomes more important than freedom in the construction of Christian identity just as revenge was more important in the construction of a Serb nation than independence. “Martyrdom was--- and continues to be---” as Elizabeth A. Castelli in her work on martyrdom and collective memory asserts, “such a critical building block of Christian culture.”5

I want to stress here that the relationship between Serbia and Yugoslavia is different than the colonial power of Rome, for example. Though there is a very strong sense of the process of empire building in the Serbia-Yugoslavia relationship, there is less an understanding of Serbia as a colonizing power during the conflicts in the 1990s. Yet I was intrigued by reading Revelation next to Serb nationalism because, to add yet another layer, I think this relationship will bring into focus the way that Revelation is used, particularly in more fundamentalist contexts, to negate the hegemonic power of Christianity in the USA and claim an oppressed experience.6 As Castelli points out, “The politically right-wing Christian Coalition mastered the use of the language of religious persecution and martyrdom to deflect and defuse virtually any critique lodged by any opponents of its theocratic political project.”7 This is, of course, a paper that merely wades into a much deeper, vastly more complex discussion, but I see it as an important process of connection to use as a tool to counter cries of “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”

Revelation is written for and about martyrs; it is a textbook for martyrs.8 In Revelation 6:9-11 we see glorified slaughtered bodies and, as I have already suggested, are invited to ask for vengeance alongside these bodies. These verses are not the only ones that glorify martyrs, of course, for Jesus himself is the “Chief Martyr figure:” “The earliest description of Jesus in Revelation occurs in 1:5 when he is called 'the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth'. These titles are especially appropriate in a work concerned with martyrdom.”9 Thus, the martyrs beneath the altar are following in the footsteps of Christ, sharing in Christ's work and purpose. So too, Serb nationalists using myths like the defeat at Kosovo and the novels of Ivo Andrić (1892-1975), portrayed themselves as Christ-like. There is a conflation of Serbian ethnicity and Christianity (specifically Serbian Orthodoxy) called Christoslavism, that stresses Serb Christian suffering at the hands of Muslims/Turks. Andrić, writing just before World War II, gave Serb nationalists an incredibly gory image of martyrdom in the fictional description of a Serb peasant being impaled by Ottoman authorities in his novel The Bridge on the Drina. This description is explicitly like Christ's crucifixion scene.10 Castelli writes of early Christian martyrs what could be written of Serb nationalists: “by aligning themselves with Jesus' own victimhood, they claimed as well the immediate divine vindication that Jesus himself, according to Christian teaching, enjoyed.”11 Thus, when John is glorifying the martyrs under the altar, he is putting into sequence a chain of events that not only links but begins to conflate the suffering of the martyrs with the suffering of Christ. Their deaths become part of the divine project. So too, by placing the impalement of a Serb alongside the crucifixion of Christ, Andrić has conflated Serb suffering with Christ's suffering, making their suffering divine. 

What is interesting is that despite real experiences of martyrdom, the two images of martyrdom I mentioned above, Revelation 6:9-11 and Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina, are fictional. Castelli reminds us, “Martyrdom as a product of discourse rather than of unmediated experience.”12 Martyrdom, then, does not have to be factual, but is constructed to create identity. It, as identity is, is imagined, but this imagined quality does not have a less real effect on bodies. Benedict Anderson in his work on nation writes that a nation is a fraternity of individuals, and “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as to willingly die for such limited imaginings.”13 Anderson's phrase “limited imaginings” is in reference to the fact that a nation is inherently limited as nations are constructed in opposition to an Other; yet, limited imaginings in identity construction through martyrdom has another connotation as well, one in which identity is caught in a non-life-giving way. Martyrdom here offers not comfort in the face of or resistance to oppression but just death, an ideology of death.14 In the case of John's revelation, some of this limited imagination comes from the fact that John's paradoic mimicry of Rome has continued to such an extent that he cannot escape a vision that does not critique the structure, only replaces the Head. Stephen D. Moore explains, “Yet the difficulty of effectively exiting empire by attempting to turn imperial ideology against itself is regularly underestimated, it seems to me, by those who acclaim Revelation for decisively breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of empire. To my mind, Revelation is emblematic of the difficulty of using the emperor's tools to dismantle the emperor's palace.”15 John's mimicry is trapped within the cycle of empire, unable to imagine a new way to form identity, left only with an ideology of death.
So John's martyrs are dying for the same system that kills them, only Sovereign Lord, holy and true, is the tyrant Caesar now. In a similar way, Serb nationalism trades places with those they claim are the oppressors, Turks who impale innocent Serb peasants, by becoming génocidaires. The focus on vengeance that we see in the martyrs' cry seems to be one of the focal points of this failure in imagination, beautifully summed up in Moore's own questioning of the martyrs' lament of how long:

“But what does the cry for vengeance from under the altar, heard and heeded by the one seated on the throne, actually effect?...An eye for an eye? No, not an eye for an eye. What Revelation seems to be saying is this: If you gouge out the eye of one of God's witnesses, or even refuse to heed them, God will gouge out both of your eyes in return. And not only that but he will puncture your eardrums as well, and tear out your tongue, and sever your spine, and plunge you into a timeless torment. Or, what amounts to much the same thing, he will have you tortured for all eternity in the presence of his Son and his angels (14:9-11), the smoke of your torment ascending like incense...It's the 'forever and ever' that seems to make the punishment spectacularly incommensurate with the crime...”16

This is a cycle of a failure of imagination, a cycle of ever-more violence that can only end when all the Romans/Muslims are slaughtered. And perhaps then someone new to slaughter would be created; how else to maintain restrictive and totalitarian power? Mitchell G. Reddish uses Donald W. Riddle's work, to claim “that the functional purpose of both apocalyptic literature and martyrologies is social control of the group in a time of persecution.”17 We could lop “in a time of persecution” off of that sentence. Unfortunately, what has happened is that Revelation and the national myths of martyrdom have been used as forms of social control to accumulate more power in the hands of the oppressors rather than offer comfort the the oppressed. Returning to Castelli's critique of the Religious Right quoted at the beginning of this paper, tales of persecution and martyrdom serve to “deflect and defuse” real critique and real attempts at imagining new ways to relate together. 

Moore begins his own exploration of the “self-perpetuating cycle of empire” with a quotation from Eusebius' Life of Constantine in which “those ministers of God” supped with the Emperor in his innermost apartments, sharing with him at his own table.18 Here, the empire that John has written against becomes the empire for which he prays. Those martyrs had rested long enough, it seems, to see their blood avenged as their own took the seat of power and promptly began the Crusades, etc. as the firsts of many militarized horror fantasies to keep them in power.19 When Slobodan Milošević became president of Serbia in 1989, he announced Serbs no longer had to rest a little longer. In Kosovo on June 28, 1989, exactly six hundred years after Prince Lazar's defeat, the Patriarch of the Serb Orthodox Church lit candles to remember the martyrs and Lazar, who is often depicted as a Christ figure, was pictured in icons next to pictures of Milošević himself.20 What ensued was the vengeance the martyrs cried for; vengeance, not justice, not the pursuit of independence and freedom from dictatorships and Western Euopean-imposed boundaries, but vengeance that allowed Milošević to remain president until his arrest two genocides later in 2001. 

Of course, it gets a bit slippery to hold the threads of Serb Christoslavism with the false USAmerican fundamentalist sense of oppression with the martyrs of Revelation 6:9-11, and I do not want to give the impression that these three threads are the same, or to conflate the three. Rather, the parallels, the eerie echoes in these three diverse places, demonstrate that Revelation is a text of terror. Perhaps martyrdom is not always about the maintenance of power in the hands of the unimaginative; yet stories of martyrdom seem to be used very effectively not to counter empire but to build it. As Castelli admonishes, “One should worry about the staid, venerable, and ancient tradition that insists that death is a meaning-producing event, that truth and violence inexorably imply each other--- and that, indeed the first requires the second.”21 Again, it seems that to name Revelation as liberative is to sanitize its violence as redemptive without analyzing the horrific ways such violence has been realized historically and to subsume the cries of the oppressed beneath the so-called martyrs' cries for vengeance.
1Revelation 6:9-11, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).
2See Michael A. Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (University of California Press, 1996); and Lynda E. Boose, “Crossing the River Drina: Bosnian Rape Camps, Turkish Impalement, and Serb Cultural Memory,” Signs 28.1 (Autumn 2002): 71-96.
3Sells, The Bridge Betrayed, 50.
4Boose, “Crossing the River Drina,” 80.
5Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 4.
6I am relying on personal experience here, though there has been work done on the ways in which Christians falsely understand themselves as victims. My partner grew up at a Southern Baptist mega church in conservative, rural Harford County Maryland, and every time I have attended his church I have heard at least once throughout the service something that indicated that Christians are oppressed by the broader USAmerican culture. Most recently, this sense of victimization has centered around issues of reproductive rights and marriage equality.
7Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 199.
8Mitchell G. Reddish, “Martyr Christology in the Apocalypse,” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament no. 33 (1 June 1988): 86.
10See Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina, trans. Lovett F. Edwards (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 37-52. Cited in both Boose and Sells.
11Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 51-52.
12Ibid., 173.
13Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, revised edition (New York Verso, 1991), 7.
14As Tina Pippin writes, “The ideology of death— that death and martyrdom are valued and valuable for citizenship in the city of God— is throughout the apocalyptic vision.” “Eros and the End: Reading for Gender in the Apocalypse of John,” Semeia, no. 59 (1 January 1992): 196.
15Stephen D. Moore, “'The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah': Representing Empire in Revelation,” Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Publishing, 2006), 114.
16Stephen D. Moore, “Revolting Revelations,” God's Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 198-199.
17Reddish, “Martyr Christology in the Apocalypse,” 91.
18Moore, “'The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah',” 97.
19As Moore writes, “The Crusades, the Inquisition, and even the Holocaust itself (the smoke rising day and night from the ovens of Auschwitz and Belsen) are but some of the more notable manifestations of the militarism that animates Revelation. Indeed, anyone of these campaigns might have claimed a warrant for its genocidal fantasies in the sinister logic of this most dangerous of biblical books.” Moore, “Revolting Revelations,” 188.
20Sells, The Bridge Betrayed, 68.
21Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory, 196.

Works Cited
Andrić, Ivo. The Bridge on the Drina. Trans. Lovett F. Edwards. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Boose, Lynda E. “Crossing the River Drina: Bosnian Rape Camps, Turkish Impalement, and Serb Cultural Memory.” Signs 28.1 (Autumn 2002): 71-96.
Castelli, Elizabeth A. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Moore, Stephen D. “Revolting Revelations.” God's Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. 173-199.
---. “'The World Empire Has Become the Empire of Our Lord and His Messiah': Representing Empire in Revelation.” Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Publishing, 2006. 97-121.
Pippin, Tina. “Eros and the End: Reading for Gender in the Apocalypse of John.” Semeia, no. 59 (1 January 1992): 193-210.
Reddish, Mitchell G. “Martyr Christology in the Apocalypse.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament no. 33 (1 June 1988): 85-95.
Sells, Michael A. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. University of California Press, 1996.