Thursday, January 27, 2011

Taking Hebrew Texts Seriously in their Context

(A sermon using the lectionary readings for January 23rd at All Saints' Littleton)

This morning’s Gospel story is one of beginning: Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven has come near. N.T. Wright is correct in asserting that this is not about “our escape from this world into another one, but God’s sovereign rule coming on earth as it is in heaven.” (in Surprised by Hope, quoted by Greg Garrett in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. Bartlett & Brown Taylor, p. 285) This is hope for the here and now, not for the afterlife. Jesus then calls his first disciples: follow me, and they immediately do.

While this message certainly holds opportunity for preaching, I wish to instead illustrate a drawback to our practice of four readings each week: Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament letter, Gospel.

Now that you have had me here for some time, you may have noticed that I seldom weave much connection between the Hebrew Scripture readings of the day (the 1st lesson and the Psalm) and the Gospel. (I’m ignoring the New Testament letter today, mostly because it has a different role, written after Jesus’ life).

It might seem like a wasted opportunity to not use the Hebrew Scriptures each week: after all, they are almost always chosen specifically to get to the Gospel story. To illustrate this with a North Country metaphor, the Hebrew Scripture is often seen as the winding trail, with plenty of potential missteps and wrong turns that eventually leads to the Gospel destination: the mountain top, if you will.

Looking back on the Isaiah reading and the Psalm, it’s easy to show them as a path to Jesus. The Isaiah passage says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shine.” (Isaiah 9:2)

The Psalm’s first two verses (the Book of Common Prayer version of Psalm 27) are an even easier path to following Jesus:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

A perfect clear path to the top of the mountain, following Jesus "all the days of my life."

I could simply pull these parts out, and ta-da: instantly I have connected all of the readings.

However, there are a few problems doing this...

Looking closely at our Psalm numbers, you can see that we have left some verses out this morning.

After the question “of whom then shall I be afraid?”, the Psalm reads:

When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell.

Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid;

And though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.

Why are these lines left out? Well, most likely because they muddy the picture. They complicate the easy lines to draw to the Gospel lesson.

By doing so, we’ve lost the crucial context of the Psalm. Overwhelming fear permeates this text: the present situation is daunting at best. Fear and worry over the situation is likely to either paralyze the person, or cause him to resort to violence.

What the Psalm-writer asks, though, is not the destruction of his enemies, nor strength in battle to win the day, but to dwell in God’s presence. The Psalm-writer realizes that while oppression seems certain, and death a possibility, that it is only God’s presence that one really needs. Maryann McKibben Dana writes, “When the threat of violence and defeat looming, the psalmist asks only for God.” (FOW again, p. 276)

There are a lot of questions and themes to then explore in the Psalm...all of which could richly enlighten the other readings. The sad reality is that there isn’t enough time in the confines of a church service to properly explore all four readings.

Just setting the Isaiah reading into it’s proper context would take many hours...we’re talking about 66 connected chapters.

Trying to neatly tie all of the readings into one path to the Gospel isn’t possible, or in anyone’s best interests.

Christians certainly hold the Gospels in special light. It is after all through Jesus that we find our path to God. It is no wonder that our primary time together in the worship service is focused on Jesus’ ministry and its connection to our lives. That’s how it should be.

However, it’s easy for us to forget that Jesus was formed within the foundation of Hebrew Scripture, which provided the backbone for his life’s work.

It’s also worth pointing out that the way we use Hebrew Scripture in church is nothing like the way Jesus did. Jesus didn’t pull two little excerpts from scripture each morning and then spend his day expanding on them, or bettering them, proving them old and outdated. Instead, he seems to have ingested the meaning to be found within scripture...the example provided and the truth it pointed to...and then brought the teachings into the framework of his life and ministry.

This morning, I wish to be an advocate for taking our Hebrew texts seriously, in their own context.

As Christians, we are right to talk of Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture, but what we need to remember that what we are really pointing to is that Jesus fully embodied the scripture. So if we are to gleam real understanding from the scriptures that enriched Jesus, we must do so by seeing that they contain the truth of what our relationship between God and each other could and should be. They are not simply old material to be thrown together to create a singular path to the Gospel story. Instead, they are formative trails in their own right: each leading to a viewpoint of God’s beautiful world...and a destination worthy of deepening our understanding of God’s relationship with us all.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Amidst Tragedy and Heartbreak, Opening our Eyes to see the Dream

(A sermon given on January 16th 2011 at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Littleton NH)

In this morning’s gospel (John 1:29-42), we get another version of Jesus’ baptism.

I love talking about Baptism, but I’m not going to talk about it today, in part because I talked about it two weeks ago when we baptized Lila at the 10AM service. Also, Paul talked about it in beautiful detail last Sunday in his sermon.

The truth of the matter, however, is that Baptism hasn’t been on my mind this week at all. I know, from talking with many of you, baptism hasn’t been on your minds either.

Our vestry meeting ended Tuesday night with talk about the Arizona shootings. The Men’s Breakfast, the next morning, began with a similar conversation. At The White Mountain School on Thursday, Paul’s morning reading was on it as well.

When tragedy strikes, we are compelled to ask the question “why”, even though some part of us knows the answer will always be incomplete.

“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath...what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”

I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear scripture quoted from the pulpit. But perhaps you may not be aware that I also just quoted the President of the United States.

The primary qualification in becoming President of the United States is gaining the support and, ultimately, the nomination of one of our two major political parties. This event usually shadows everything a President does in office. The other night in Tucson Arizona, at the Memorial event, President Obama did something rare: he transcended this qualification.

Wednesday night, he was not speaking for one side. His words were not set out to score points against the opposition. Instead, he was speaking to, and on behalf, of all of us: (video) (transcript)

I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow.

There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: The hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours...

President Obama was more preacher than politician that night. He lifted our hopes by sharing glimpses of those who died: how in their ordinary lives they were extraordinary people.

He also shared how people standing by overcame their fears and acted in the moment: the 20 year old intern who used his hands to control the Congresswoman’s bleeding, those who tackled the gunmen, and the woman who grabbed the extra bullet clip before the gunmen could use it.

After lifting our hopes with the goodness in the midst of destruction, he refused to blame anyone or jump to quick answers. That’s been well publicized. But what is also clear from the speech is that the President also gave us all something to do:

Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future....As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose somebody in our family -– especially if the loss is unexpected. We’re shaken out of our routines. We’re forced to look inward. We reflect on the past: Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices that they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in a while but every single day?

So sudden loss causes us to look backward -– but it also forces us to look forward; to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.”

If you cannot tell by now, I was really taken in by his speech. And I wasn’t the only one. Of course, you expect the usual supportive voices, but the positive reactions to the President’s speech has come from all sides. For example, John McCain wrote an op-ed for this morning’s Washington’s Post, saying:

“President Obama gave a terrific speech Wednesday night. He movingly mourned and honored the victims of Saturday's senseless atrocity outside Tucson, comforted and inspired the country, and encouraged those of us who have the privilege of serving America. He encouraged every American who participates in our political debates - whether we are on the left or right or in the media - to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves.”

Theologians have also reacted to the President’s speech as well. Diana Butler Bass focused on what she called “Four simple words. Four very spiritual words: ‘Gabby opened her eyes."

It was a great moment in Congresswoman Giffords’ recovery, that happened moments after President Obama left her room, and the news was first shared in the President’s speech. Butler Bass, however, points out the spiritual meaning:

“Giffords was shot at the beginning of the Christian season called Epiphany. The word, epiphany, means "manifestation," "revelation," or "unveiling." As it follows Christmas, it is the time of the year in which Christians consider how God has appeared to us, where God is seen, and how God is made manifest in the world. Epiphany, its primary symbol the star, is about seeing the light.”

Bass reminds us that the roots of Epiphany comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, fittingly since Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish.

“Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and many of the prophets experienced "epiphanies," where God appeared to them. Indeed, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah is an epiphany celebration--the light of God is seen here on earth. Early Christians borrowed the word epiphaneia from the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures where it referred to the visible presence of God in the world....Indeed, the Christian season of Epiphany celebrates God made manifest to the whole world, that God was no longer a distant God or only the God of the ancient Israelites--but that God is, indeed, visible to all who open their eyes.”

This is the perfect time to share with you news that did not get much press. The President also issued a proclamation this week, declaring today, Sunday, January 16th, “Religious Freedom Day”, “...commemorating Virginia's 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom, in which Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion." The proclamation goes on to say “Though our Nation has sometimes fallen short of the weighty task of ensuring freedom of religious expression and practice, we have remained a Nation in which people of different faiths coexist with mutual respect and equality under the law. America's unshakable commitment to religious freedom binds us together as a people, and the strength of our values underpins a country that is tolerant, just, and strong.”

This fits perfectly into Butler Bass’s point. She writes:

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs: we are all searchers following stars, looking for the presence of God in the world. Opening our eyes is a sign of life, one of the first things tiny babies do when after they make their way into the world. But opening our eyes also symbolizes of our common humanity--the search for love, meeting the healing looks of family and friends, God's presence in others, the light that shines throughout the world, and finding goodness in all the places we find ourselves along the way.

When we open our eyes, we will see light and beauty. We will see the caring faces of loved ones. But opening our eyes, we will also see suffering and pain and violence. We see the steady gaze of a loving spouse; we also see the sinister glare of a deranged shooter. Open eyes see both. And in all that we see, God's presence is somehow there. Comforting, healing: yes. But often seeing God is a call as well. A call to transform our world into God's vision for humankind. God made manifest in the world; we must manifest God in the world.”

How fittingly that all of this sets up as a vision for humanity: a dream if you will...a dream we are to especially remember tomorrow, and beyond.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

(Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.)


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Arizona shootings and reaction

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

God is working right now...

The tradition of Christmas biblically comes from combining material from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

They both suggest that the incarnation, God’s coming into the world through Jesus, happened not at his baptism like Mark seems to suggest, but in his first moments of life in this world. They both then tell a story of the birth of Jesus, where God is preparing to bring this new light into the world. While the stories differ in details, we can see the shared meaning to be found. Both have Jesus of humble and yet miraculous beginnings. Both have angel announcements (which is God’s intervention), and both have righteous and faithful people who say yes to God. In both stories, Jesus’ birth goes unnoticed by the people who should know: rulers, religious leaders, and others in power. Instead, it is small groups of outsiders who see, hear and rejoice: the foreign magi of Matthew and the lowly shepherds in Luke. Those on the fringe are the ones who notice, and once again, God surprises the conventional wisdom of the world.

Christmas is sacred to us because it tells the true story: it insists that God, so long ago, was active in saving the world at a time of little hope, and that it is through ordinary people, like you and me, that God works.

Even today, God continues to work in this way:

Episcopal priest Ed Bacon tells a story (in Via Media) about traveling in the Holy Land, and how he was really despairing over the reality of the brokenness found there.

Ed then continued on to South Africa, and met a man who had been the mayor of Cape Town. He asked Ed where he had been on his trip, and Ed said he had just come from the Holy Land.

“What did you find there?” he asked.

Ed said, “An awful lot of despair.”

The man said, “There’s never any reason for despair.”

Ed said, “What???!!!”

The man said, “I was the mayor of South Africa during its bleakest days. And, I didn’t know, and we weren’t aware, that God was working with a man in a jail cell...(his name was Nelson Mandela)...and that, one day, he would be released and he would be the breath of hope for our country. God is working with someone right now to help bring light and rejoicing to the Holy Land. There’s never any reason for despair.”

In the tradition of the Christmas story, God is working with people throughout the world right now...readying them to make their offering of hope to the world. Perhaps, God might even be working through you.

At the very least, God is calling you to hope for and witness to what God is doing. When you see the Spirit at work, say something. When you hear the love of God proclaimed, rejoice in it. When you see Jesus’ love for neighbors lived out, give thanks to those doing so.

Seek out the surprising way that God is working in the world, and then share what you hear and see with others.