Monday, December 22, 2014
The train door opened, and a grizzled looking old man, postcard of Ireland perfect, came through the doorway, heading for the diner car just behind us. The guy looked like he was itching for a Guinness and some conversation about the latest football match and his scowl said do not stray him from his task. As he passed the young couple, he stopped in his tracks, and a slight smile creased his wrinkled face. With a long bony finger, he tickled the baby’s chin and the baby gurgled with glee.
The old man said, “Long life to thee. May ye walk the earth many years.” With that, off he went.
In the midst of the hubbub of life, in the struggles and challenges of the Holy Family, along comes this elder named Simeon. He spotted them across the courtyard, made his way to them, and as he beheld the infant Jesus; he could not help but burst into song.
Simeon is described as an elderly man who lived his long, long life “awaiting God to comfort Israel”. He has kept a deep and abiding sense of hope that God would provide for his people. The Greek word for “comfort” is “paraklesis”, which is to say that one has “a sense of an aid or help [that] one [can] lean on”. In another Gospel, Jesus tells his faithful that after He has returned to God, Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to be with them, calling the Spirit the “Paraclete”. Simeon has spent his life not worrying about how things are going, or when things will come crashing down. Simeon has learned to wait upon God.
The Gospel of Luke keeps tossing that word paraklesis here and there into the narrative, particularly as it relates to what people ought to be looking for. Jesus claims the rich, the select few “elite”, have to find their comfort. To Jesus, the poor comprised most of his audience, inner circle, and nearly anyone else around. He claims the poor have another sort of gold standard: the kingdom of God, a vision of the world that Jesus’ disciples have continued to seek, live out, and await for two millennia.
Simeon sees the world with its rough edges, undoubtedly the scars to prove it, just like you and me. He knows that Rome likes to keep control by peace-veiled fear, he knows the Temple itself has become less than what it was intended to be. He knows that this baby will be the great hope he is awaiting as well as one who will suffer mightily in bringing things about. Yet, Simeon knows that in the moment, as well as the beginning and the end, God has the last and abiding word.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
Such euphoria might be hard to take to heart, with Luke’s nativity seeming too idealistic to be true. In the midst of these songs and prayers of praise, we are also a people journeying through the end of a calendar year, trying to get last minute details done for work or holiday gatherings. The frantic pace of the holidays looms large, and we still find ourselves behind, trying to get the house together, ensuring our kids stay healthy, and most of all, staying somehow ahead as the days ‘til Christmas or New Year’s Eve count down. A prayer more likely said this week is, “Dear Lord, send me some little elves to finish the shopping for me, or at least to clean the house so that I can finish the shopping. And, Lord, if you can throw in sending somebody to work in my place this week at all my jobs, even better. AMEN.”
Somehow each year as we harbor the suspicion (fear?) that the holidays just get more hectic each year, Advent shows up to be the voice of reason among Christian believers, a voice that says, “Slow down”. At worship, there is a weekly invitation awaiting us that somehow through the hymns, prayers and Scriptures, we might find time to recharge our drained energies, rekindle our faith and look beyond the hustle and bustle to get at the heart of faith.
If we let this season enter into our lives, we might find the stress, the ever growing list of “things to do” and even the grief that some carry through this season from loss recent or lingering, Advent might just help us get ourselves refocused for the wonder and awe that the celebration of Christmas is about: welcoming the Christ child and the fullness of what the Christian story holds for us, our households and our world.
I imagine Mary being in the midst of laundry when the angel of the Lord shows up. She has put in a full day’s work and it is only midday. Lunch needs to be sorted out, yet somehow her thoughts about what to fix has evaporated as she sees the angel in her kitchen. In an otherwise ordinary day, Mary finds God’s messenger standing there, trying not to knock over the jars on the table with his wings and Mary too frightened to say anything other than a stammering hello. In the moment of the normal and the “out of left field” colliding together, the angel says what Luke will have said a number of times: “Fear not.”
Mary is asked to bear a child who shall be the Son of God, the one through whom God will bring great good to the world. It is a grand promise, made even more so by the angel delivering it. While some would remain in fright or ask questions, Mary responds with a very confident affirmation. She opens herself to the possibilities of saying ‘yes’ to God, taking a remarkable word to heart and daring to see what happens next. Hence in the Catholic tradition, it is said Mary is the first disciple of Jesus or a model for the type of faith Jesus calls us to keep. Indeed, throughout Luke’s gospel, we will encounter characters galore who dare to do the same. Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus will say such people like his mother are “those who hear God’s word and do it” (Luke 8:21).
Such faith is not without its challenges. The Baptist New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper reminds us to read the story of Mary with due caution. There is a scandal inherent in Jesus’ origins: conceived by means that defy expectations, born into humble means and no great claim to status. The Son of God appears in the world in a corn crib, not a royal palace. Culpepper suggests Mary raises this child with a completely different take on being “blessed”: a life lived in fidelity to God, not needing the measure of greatness found among those of great means or power. Together with Joseph, Mary raises the child as many mothers around the world raise daughters and sons: with great dedication, determination and sacrifice.
In responding to God, Mary’s “yes” becomes a long-term commitment, one shaping the way her life plays out. She hears God’s word and cannot do anything other. The “yes” to God just keeps going on and on. The laundry kept piling up, meals still had to be prepared, yet in the routine and the hustle and bustle of the world just spinning around from week to week, year to year, Mary, the mother of Jesus, kept her faithful promise.
In saying “yes” to God, we begin finding a story to tell and a song to sing. When God calls us to keep the faith, we can choose to think “it’s all over” or “it won’t happen” when it comes to seeing the world grow closer to God’s goodness rather than the indifferent or drifting world as we tend to experience it. Just as Mary will sing of God’s mighty works, so the faith Jesus taught his disciples to live out has a healthy sense of vision, even when it is out of step with conventional wisdom.
Again, Mary models a type of discipleship to embrace. She sings of what God is doing in the world, even if it is difficult to see the fullness of her song or the teachings of Jesus becoming the “good news” to all persons. Mary sings, and we have the choice of whether or not to listen. Can we embrace her song as one we want to learn to sing and live out? Are we willing to wrestle with this sort of worldview where the ways things are is turned upside down? Are we willing to welcome the gospel into our lives in ways that make Mary’s song resound within us and through us?
Thursday, December 11, 2014
John the Baptist appears frequently during Advent gospel selections. He's a cranky and contrary sort, drawn from later on in the Gospel narrative when Jesus is entering into adulthood. In Luke's gospel, John is part of the Nativity narrative, the cousin of Jesus by Elizabeth, Mary's sister. Nonetheless, the older, crankier John is often the sour note to our ears filled with shopping mall muzak arrangements of O Holy Night.
The modern hymn writer Brian Wren offers a good word about John the Baptist through a prayer Wren wrote for Advent. Wren prays:
“Spirit of God, give us the wisdom of John the Baptizer,
that in knowing who we are not,
we may find out who we are and be glad”
(Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008, 62).
A witness does not worry about whether or not he or she will be found credible or popular. In speaking the truth and knowing that this is who we are called to be, we find our reason for being. A witness is one who may have to speak a word that is deemed unpopular, yet in so speaking, the witness becomes one who upholds the truth of the message that has them so convinced. The witness of John the Baptist is difficult to live out, yet he is content to be the person bringing this word. As John's gospel will remind, The Light shall shine, and John cannot help but testify to its truth.
One year at my previous congregation, the Christian Education Director Alycia and I got out the costumes from the storage closet and sorted out the animal outfits from the Magi’s crowns, Mary’s robes from angel’s wings, we put each costume on the floor to ensure we had found all that was needed. When we finished our work, I looked around and saw the Nativity story taking shape, though obviously one important element was missing: the young actors who would don these outfits and make the story come to life. These costumes would make little sense without the children to wear them, stepping into the roles that help tell the story.
In a sense, that’s what Advent and Christmas observances are asking of those who follow Jesus. You may find yourself over familiar with the story and the rituals and traditions we have around the Nativity of Jesus, yet do not discount the importance of offering prayers or singing the Advent hymns or Christmas carols. Take time to read the stories of Nativity (Matthew, Luke and even John!). We are in rehearsal right now to take on the role of witness, spending our lives telling others about this Light that the world desperately needs (and sometimes does not recognize or accept).
All of this is a refresher course for those who would dare follow Jesus and take up the part of witness, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Monday, December 1, 2014
The Song of Mary presses us to sing a different tune during the holidays. Mary’s words imagine a world more in the style of a 1960s protest song than a quaint 19th-century English carol. Her words are raucous: the powerful are brought low, the greedy get sent away with nothing, and the Lord, not the rulers of the day, having the last word about what is just. Indeed, when we begin taking the Song of Mary to heart, one has to ponder carefully the question, “What song shall we sing?”
In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Mary’s canticle praises God for the kind of salvation that involves concrete transformations.” Johnson challenges centuries of historic and hagiographic interpretations of Mary by drawing us closer to Mary in her historical context: a peasant woman living in the margins of society in whom God entrusts bearing the very Hope of the world. Mary’s song becomes the voice of the otherwise voiceless, proclaiming God’s just blessing for all while declaiming the “powers that be” that perpetuate an unjust world. Johnson claims,
People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded—all who are subjected to social contempt are encompassed in the hope that Mary proclaims. (Truly Our Sister, p. 269)
Mary’s song becomes a challenge. What song does the Church sing? In my upbringing, the Baptist tradition sings of sin, salvation, and the sweet bye-and-bye. The music was in the key of atonement, singing of being washed in the blood, or marching to Zion. Of course, the church of my upbringing would say that it was your Christian duty to take care of your neighbor, yet talk of justice and peace was a distant third or fourth place to saving souls and keeping up with attendance records. Social justice, or at least talk of justice as a religious value, was not as commonly heard a theme of scripture.
This is not to trivialize the Church and the call to evangelism and mission, values highly impressed upon me early on. As one raised to read the Bible faithfully and reverence the Word, I must say that little was said about this part of the Bible, whether in Sunday school (which I attended faithfully: bible study on Wednesday evenings, and both services on Sunday, morning and evening alike). I lament that it was not until college and seminary studies that I encountered the Song of Mary and heard its haunting refrain as a call to follow Christ. I note that other Christians would find this reflection surprising, given the use of this text in other traditions, however, while speaking as a Baptist to other Baptists, I suspicion to most of us Baptists this Song of Mary is a lesser known text.
As part of the Bible, the Song of Mary harmonizes with the prophetic cry for a just world, the yearning for equitable ways of living embodied in the epistles, the calls to discipleship in the gospels, the radical witness of Christian community as practiced and recounted by the early Church in the book of Acts. The words of Mary resound through Luke’s gospel, sort of a prelude to the great symphony about to unfold as the adult Jesus lives into the vision Mary proclaims.
In her song, Mary uses verbs in a curious way. Mary speaks as if these things already have come about. Already, the proud have been scattered, already are the powerful brought down, and the lowly lifted. Already the hungry are full and the exploitative left. That sounds so promising, yet so lofty. Mary’s words seem to sing a song with optimistic yet unfulfilled vision.
In 1907, a respected but somewhat unknown Northern Baptist seminary professor published a significant book calling for the Church to transform the world through social engagement. In 2007, Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis was released again in celebration of the book’s centennial. When it first appeared in 1907, Rauschenbusch’s book was a surprise bestseller. Christianity and the Social Crisis dealt with the need for the Church to become engaged in the social issues and problems of the day. The centennial edition celebrates the legacy of Rauschenbusch’s challenges to the church; its book jacket claiming this is “the classic that woke up the Church”). Inside the new edition, Rauschenbusch’s original text is presented alongside essays by contemporary scholars, pastors, and activists who offer comment on what this book still teaches us, even if a few of the concepts are outmoded a century later.
The centennial edition features an introduction by Paul Rauschenbush, the great-grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, a chaplain at Princeton. The great-grandson notes,
The 21st-century is a time of unprecedented capability and possibility, yet we too live in a time of social crisis and are in need of the power of God and the vision of Jesus….We are called to dedicate ourselves to the task of doing the work that Jesus set us here to do: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves in concrete and practical ways. (xiii)
Reading the 1907 text, I find myself stirred by the words of a century ago. I can appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation at mid-20th century that his own reading of the original book “left an indelible imprint on [his] thinking”. (xii) In this book, I see a strand of Baptist spiritual DNA emphasizing social justice as part of one’s Christian discipleship. Rauschenbusch’s book embodies what I cherish most about being a Christian and being a Baptist: speaking up for the minority, defending the freedoms of conscience and belief, and letting the witness of scripture, which includes salvation and social justice alike, be known and lived out to the ends of the earth.
It is appropriate to note that the social gospel movement started by Rauschenbusch and others did not come up all roses. Missed opportunities and ill-conceived notions abound just as in any other movement in history. Another of Rauschenbusch’s descendants writes a modern day commentary for the 2007 centennial edition: the philosopher and secular humanist Richard Rorty, Rauschenbusch’s grandson.
Rorty’s essay draws its focus from the last lines of the original 1907 book, which ends with this optimistic, almost heady, note that soon the Church will be bringing great things to flower. Watching fruit trees bud and bloom as he wrote the conclusion to his book in 1907, Rauschenbusch claims that something is on the cusp of blossoming with the Church and its social witness. He writes, “Perhaps these nineteen centuries of Christian influence have been a preliminary stage of growth, and now the flower and fruit are almost here”.
One hundred years later, Richard Rorty writes of “buds that never opened”. Rorty criticizes the expression of Christianity in the intervening decades as ill equipped and inattentive to bring about the change Rauschenbusch envisioned. Rorty writes, “By 1907, centuries of preaching had created a climate of opinion in which it was reasonable to anticipate flowers and fruit. Rauschenbusch and his contemporaries could not have foreseen the fierce, blighting storms that were to come” (p. 350).
As I read these words, I nodded in agreement with “grandpa” Rauschenbusch and the spiritually disinclined grandson alike. The giddy joy at the outset of an era hailed “the Christian Century” sounds off-key in what is surely a “post-Christendom” era. There have been buds that never opened, opportunities for a radical witness to the Gospel missed as parts of the Church failed to address racial issues, economic disparities, religious persecution, genocides, and two world wars. In the century separating both editions of Christianity and the Social Crisis, we have experienced perhaps the most violent and bloody era in human history. In 1907 and today, we are still dealing with the same sin-fractured world and a Church still unsure of its true Kingdom priorities.
Despite my respect of Rorty’s criticism, I do take issue with Rorty’s dismissive word that Christianity has missed all of its opportunities and is no longer of any intrinsic relevance. It is painful to admit that those pews will not be at capacity Christmas Eve. It is necessary to admit that the era of the Church at the center of U.S. civic life has evaporated, that golden era when white, middleclass mainline Protestants felt like they had all the power and relevance they could ask for. Despite the evidence around me, I still hear a song that says God will bring otherwise to pass, and indeed, already has done so.
If we listen to the Song of Mary and follow the Gospel that unfolds thereafter, the Song of Mary is sang not with overconfidence, but abiding hope. The vision of Mary, pregnant with the Christ child, already foresees what shall be God’s promised end. It is not a case of “will it happen?”, it is the sense that God will never fail, nor should we give over to inaction. As Clarence Jordan, another cranky Baptist now departed, was known for saying, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
The Advent season this year has two challenges. One is the way that the US holds its Thanksgiving observances on the last Thursday, and more often than not, the average Advent season dates fall with the first Sunday sort of lost in the haze of family travel, vacation leave from work, and sales galore for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.
The other is the heartache of many after the grand jury results in Ferguson. A community long divided around issues of race and racism, economic disparity and a deep distrust of unjust situations being met with mercy, peace or justice. My FB feed these past few days have been laden with lament, anger and despair, questioning the process of the justice system. Locally, a Ferguson protest was held in the downtown area as well as in other communities where solidarity was expressed with persons in the greater St. Louis area.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine wrote of the grand jury decision and the unrest accompanying this long season of legal proceedings and community unease:
It is time to right the unacceptable wrong of black lives being worth less than white lives in our criminal justice system. The broken relationships between law enforcement officials and their communities are deeply felt and very real. How law enforcement interacts with communities of color raises fundamental, legitimate issues that must be addressed by the whole nation if we are to move forward. The changes we need in both policies and practices must now be taken up in detail. Our neglect has led to anger and hopelessness in a new generation, but their activism will also help lead us to new places. It is indeed time to turn Ferguson from a moment to a movement, and Michael Brown’s life and death must not be allowed to be in vain.
Rev. Roy Medley, the ABCUSA General Secretary and currently President of the governing board of the National Council of Churches, was in St. Louis in the days preceding the grand jury result. He writes in this "Letter from Missouri" available via: http://www.abc-usa.org/2014/11/20/a-letter-from-missouri/
Earlier this fall, two American Baptist pastors shared their thoughts on the community ministry needs of Ferguson as the grand jury convened. You can listen to this 20 minute podcast via the American Baptist Home Mission Societies via: http://www.abhms.org/front_center_FergusonPodcast_2014.cfm The ABHMS titles this podcast link: "Where in the world is the church?" Indeed, these are pressing questions for churches and church leaders near and well beyond Ferguson to address the lingering, systemic issues raised by this most recent incident of race, violence and the justice system stressing a fragile, if not evaporated trust.
Two years ago, I reviewed a book by black liberation theologian and eminent scholar Dr. James H. Cone. The review itself was published in the "Sharing the Practice" journal published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy. In my review of The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2012), I note the longer history of race, belief, Christianity and the brokenness of the American dream surveyed by Cone, whose writings and theological project are confirmed yet again in national discourse. For a video related to this book, Cone speaks of his theological work while this book being written with PBS commentator (and fellow Baptist) Bill Moyers in 2007: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11232007/watch.html
From my review of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a few excerpts:
Throughout his career, Union Theological Seminary professor James H. Cone has been a leading voice in black theology, connecting Christian doctrine with the ongoing history of African Americans. Along the way, Cone’s thought has challenged the dominant narrative of American Christianity, particularly historic and contemporary myopias among mainline and evangelical U.S. Christians alike.
In this book, Cone recalls the horrific period when African American women, men and children were beaten, tortured and lynched, so often with passive bystanders watching the spectacle. In one of many chilling examples cited by Cone, a 1915 lynching in Fayette County, Tennessee, is turned into a public event with school children encouraged to come and view the spectacle. Remembering this history of suffering is “a challenge we must face,” Cone writes. “What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society” (p. 1-2).
Cone compares the specter of the lynching tree with the cross at the center of Christian belief. For some, the cross is a symbol of great hope, of a redemptive word to those who suffer as a crucified people. To others, the cross is a symbol of religious belief that nonetheless is subconsciously tamed down into pietistic or philosophical frameworks. Such efforts, even among those who would claim to mean well, create theologies and praxis that stay removed from the tragic irony of the world where the sufferings of the crucifixion resound in the marginalized peoples going unnoticed in the pulpits and academic realms of those too ensconced in dominant culture’s privilege.
The book serves as a guide to theological method, demonstrating the various ways the history and experience of the lynching era was understood. He guides the reader through the spirituals, the blues, and black prose and poetry, all potent sources/outlets for the pain of a people under oppression. Cone enters into the groves of academia, reviewing the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the Niebuhr and King chapters, you get the sense of how the mid-20th century reflected “ships passing in the night” as a prominent theological liberal like Niebuhr, without a doubt a leading voice in America at the time, was quite restrained in responding to the racial discrimination. Cone notes a sincere respect for his fellow theologian and ethicist Niebuhr, whom he followed (but did not overlap with) at Union Theological Seminary, nonetheless, Cone persuasively argues that for all Niebuhr’s gifts, insights and legacy in American theological liberalism, the late great master could write about the cross as a theological symbol yet failed to connect such thought to the concrete reality of the lynching tree.
In comparison, Cone reviews the theological development and rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wove together the “dream” of a different sort of America, though Cone has written elsewhere of King’s shortcomings, juxtaposing King with Malcolm X, two men caught somewhere between the 1960s era’s turbulent search for a more just society (cf. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or A Nightmare, Orbis, 1994).
The question of suffering and the appropriate way we speak of the Cross matters greatly. [...] Certainly, Cone gifts the reader with many resources to deal with the oft-hidden history of marginalized peoples often under the heel of those who otherwise cast themselves as part of God’s chosen nation.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
In recent years, creative initiatives have been offered to help Christians sort out the "holiday" from the "holy days" by suggesting a veritable conspiracy (Latin for "to breathe together) around Advent, emphasizing neighbor and community/global need above the impulse to buy, buy, buy! Social justice initiatives or sponsoring alternative fair trade gift bazaars are just a few of the ways churches help connect the faithful (and those seeking faith) to the gospel.
One of the ABC New York State congregations is hoping your donations (small or great) will help make a difference in the health needs of persons in Bluefields, Nicaragua. Dr. Tony Malone, a pediatrician and long-time member of Emmanuel Baptist, Albany, NY, is leading a medical mission trip in February 2015, working alongside International Ministries missionaries Vital and Ketly Pierre.
Dr. Malone writes, "The mission group will be exploring ways of helping the community to improve overall health, provide education for chronic issues such as diabetes, and hypertension, and offer a medical clinic for individuals of all ages. We will be providing needed deworming medication, vitamins and at least 3 months worth of medications for chronic illness such as high blood pressure. We will be treating anemia and malnutrition in young children, helping women with family planning, and helping people with serious health issues find ways to care for themselves.
TO DONATE: Emmanuel is asking for monetary donations for the pharmacy to provide as much medication as possible. Donations can be sent to Emmanuel Baptist Church, 275 State Street, Albany NY 12210, with an indication on the check memo line it is for the Nicaragua mission.
In addition, we are still able to take volunteers who are nurses, dietitians, physicians, nurse practitioners or physician assistants. If you are interested, please contact Dr. Anthony Malone at 518-785-0022.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
One element of the “academic religious” market is the strategy for planning out when books are released. For this unique book market, a lot of attention is paid to the mid to late Fall schedule, capitalizing on getting the most attention possible for new books at the scholarly meetings held annually by the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. Other academic societies meet in the Fall, though many publishers count on their publicity strategy when the largest number of religion scholars teaching in universities and seminaries are gathered for the big AAR and/or SBL meetings. When gathered together, it is the biggest event for academic religious publishers in North America, and the exhibit floor is a sight to behold.
Even as e-publishing and e-readers are increasing market share, I really cannot imagine a better place to spend an afternoon, surrounded by the new and notable books coming to the market for enhancing biblical, theological and pastoral conversations. My wife and I have attended a couple of AAR/SBL meetings (Denver 2001 and Boston 2009), and we hope to attend again when the meetings are back on this side of the country. Lugging home a suitcase full of books (or my stamping of feet like a small child when my far more wise wife insisted we ship acquisitions home instead) are among some of my favorite SBL/AAR memories. (And when not dealing with a foot stamping husband, my wife had great SBL/AAR memories as well....)
Looking ahead to the books likely to be on the show floor at the SBL/AAR Meetings, I note some interesting titles with links to read more or purchase the books from their publishers.
(NOTE: The commentary on each book is drawn from the given publisher's materials about the book. I have not yet reviewed any of these titles, so I cannot comment on anything other than they look like books that will be engaging to read!)
Brueggemann, Walter. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Westminster/John Knox Press. http://www.wjkbooks.com/Products/0664259715/from-whom-no-secrets-are-hid.aspx
The Psalms express the most elemental human emotions, representing situations in which people are most vulnerable, ecstatic, or driven to the extremities of life and faith. Many people may be familiar with a few Psalms, or sing them as part of worship. Here highly respected author Walter Brueggemann offers readers an additional use for the Psalms: as scripted prayers we perform to help us reveal ourselves to God.
Brueggemann explores the rich historical, literary, theological, and spiritual content of the Psalms while focusing on various themes such as praise, lament, violence, and wisdom. He skillfully describes Israel's expression of faith as sung through the Psalms, situates the Psalmic liturgical tradition in its ancient context, and encourages contemporary readers to continue to perform them as part of their own worship experiences. Brueggemann's masterful take on the Psalms as prayers will help readers to unveil their hopes and fears before God and, in turn, feel God's grace unveiled to them.
Forest, Jim. Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandments. Orbis Books. LINK: http://www.orbisbooks.com/loving-our-enemies.html
Not everything Jesus taught must be regarded as a commandment. Counsels on voluntary poverty or celibacy, for instance, have been seen as an option for a small minority of Christ's followers. The same cannot be said about the love of enemies. This is basic Christianity--the message Jesus taught through direct instruction, through parables, and by the example of his own life. And yet, as Jim Forest notes, it is undoubtedly the hardest commandment of all, on that runs counter to our natural inclination and call for prayer, discernment, and constant practice.
Drawing on scripture, the lives of the saints, modern history, and personal stories, Forest offers "nine disciplines of active love," including "praying for enemies," "turning the other cheek," "forgiveness," and "recognizing Jesus in others," that make the love of enemies, if not an easier task, then a goal worth striving toward in our daily lives.
Freeman, Curtis W. Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Baylor University Press. LINK: http://baylorpress.com/en/Book/403/Contesting_Catholicity.html
In Contesting Catholicity, Curtis W. Freeman offers an alternative Baptist identity, an “Other” kind of Baptist, one that stands between the liberal and fundamentalist options. By discerning an elegant analogy among some late modern Baptist preachers, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Baptist founders, and early patristic theologians, Freeman narrates the Baptist story as a community that grapples with the convictions of the church catholic.
Deep analogical conversation across the centuries enables Freeman to gain new leverage on all of the supposedly distinctive Baptist theological identifiers. From believer’s baptism, the sacraments, and soul competency, to the Trinity, the priesthood of every believer, and local church autonomy, Freeman’s historical reconstruction demonstrates that Baptists did and should understand themselves as a spiritual movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
A “catholic Baptist” is fully participant in the historic church and at the very same time is fully Baptist. This radical Baptist catholicity is more than a quantitative sense of historical and ecumenical communion with the wider church. This Other Baptist identity envisions a qualitative catholicity that is centered on the confession of faith in Jesus Christ and historic Trinitarian orthodoxy enacted in the worship of the church in and through word and sacrament.
Inman, Daniel. The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford (1833-1945). Fortress Press. LINK: http://store.fortresspress.com/store/product/20005/The-Making-of-Modern-English-Theology-God-and-the-Academy-at-Oxford-1833-1945?c=285731
This book explores how Oxford theology, from the beginnings of the Tractarian movement until the end of the Second World War, both influenced and responded to the reform of the university. Neither becoming unbendingly confessional nor reduced to the secular study of religion, the Oxford faculty instead emerged as an important ecumenical body, rooted in the life and practice of the English churches, whilst still being located in the heart of a globally influential research university as a department of the humanities. This is an institutional history of reaction and radicalism, animosity and imagination, and explores the complex and shifting interactions between church, nation, and academy that have defined theological life in England since the early nineteenth century.
Niebuhr, Gustav. Lincoln's Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors. HarperOne. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18498537-lincoln-s-bishop
More than a century ago, during the formative years of the American nation, Protestant churches carried powerful moral authority, giving voice to values such as mercy and compassion, while boldly standing against injustice and immorality. Gustav Niebuhr travels back to this defining period, to explore Abraham Lincoln's decision to spare the lives of 265 Sioux men sentenced to die by a military tribunal in Minnesota for warfare against white settlers—while allowing the hanging of 38 others, the largest single execution on American soil. Popular opinion favored death or expulsion. Only one state leader championed the cause of the Native Americans, Episcopal bishop, Henry Benjamin Whipple.
Though he'd never met an Indian until he was 37 years old, Whipple befriended them before the massacre and understood their plight at the hands of corrupt government officials and businessmen. After their trial, he pleaded with Lincoln to extend mercy and implement true justice. Bringing to life this little known event and this extraordinary man, Niebuhr pays tribute to the once amazing moral force of mainline Protestant churches and the practitioners who guarded America's conscience.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer publicly confronted Nazism and anti-Semitic racism in Hitler’s Germany. The Reich’s political ideology, when mixed with theology of the German Christian movement, turned Jesus into a divine representation of the ideal, racially pure Aryan and allowed race-hate to become part of Germany’s religious life. Bonhoeffer provided a Christian response to Nazi atrocities.
In this book author Reggie L. Williams follows Bonhoeffer as he defies Germany with Harlem’s black Jesus. The Christology Bonhoeffer learned in Harlem’s churches featured a black Christ who suffered with African Americans in their struggle against systemic injustice and racial violence—and then resisted. In the pews of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Bonhoeffer absorbed the Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance. This Christianity included a Jesus who stands with the oppressed rather than joins the oppressors and a theology that challenges the way God can be used to underwrite a union of race and religion.
Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus argues that the black American narrative led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the truth that obedience to Jesus requires concrete historical action. This ethic of resistance not only indicted the church of the German Volk, but also continues to shape the nature of Christian discipleship today.
Friday, November 7, 2014
This past week, the show produced an episode called "Pen Pals". The lead story recalled how a ten year old girl from northern Michigan happened to become the pen pal of the rather infamous General Manuel Noriega. The story unfolds over the course of the show, sketching out a rather politicized time in US/Panamanian relations where the Panama Canal treaty and other political issue made the headlines frequently. And in the mix was a ten year old corresponding with a deeply controversial political leader from Central America.
To open the show, host Ira Glass offered a shorter piece about pen pals, looking back at a series of correspondence between two early American settlers: John Winthrop and Roger Williams. For a general audience, it may have been a moment of recovered history, a moment brought to light in US history. Glass interviews a historian about the unique relationship between the two men, often cast as foes, yet history bears witness to a more complex relationship where friendship (even if illusive at times) crept into the tone of the correspondence.
A transcript of Glass' interview about Roger Williams appears online via: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/246/transcript
As it happens, I am working on a sermon where I recall this part of early US Baptist history. I recall a bit of personal writing, a brief verse penned by Williams in the time between his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settling down in what would become the colony of Rhode Island.
To avoid deportment to England where he was equally unwelcome, Williams set off in the dead of winter 1636 for the wilderness where he spent the cold nights sleeping in an old hollow tree. Recalling this experience, Williams writes:
God makes a Path, provides a Guide,
And feeds in Wilderness!
His glorious name while breath remaines,
O that I may confesse.
Lost many a time, I have had no Guide, No House, but Hollow Tree!
In stormy Winter night no Fire, no Food, no Company:
In him I have found a House, a Bed, A Table, a Company:
No Cup so bitter, but’s made sweet.
When God shall Sweet’ning be.
(quoted in Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, Eerdmans, 1991; current edition, Judson, 1999).
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
A world without saints forgets how to praise.
in loving, in living, they prove it is true:
The way of self-giving, Lord, leads us to you.”
--from a hymn by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000)
All Saints Day is observed on November 1, 2014. Take time on this day (and other days too!) to reflect on the persons who have lived faithfully before God and neighbor or helped form you as a person of faith to go and do likewise.
Saints of the Church may be the officially declared ones, identified through a process of discernment and declaration. Saints may be found, hidden in the layers and levels of one's faith journey, discovered only in retrospect and really the type who didn't look for the spotlight or the fuss. Nope, just plain spoken folk (or a little too cranky to sound like they fit the part) who kept the Gospel in their words and deeds alike.
However they came to "be in that number" (to quote the Dixieland gospel standard), they got there by faith, hope and love, not of the world but of that other Kingdom/Reign that Jesus taught through parables that turned the world inside-out and topsy-turvy. If you look closely at their lives, surely their stories are planted with mustard seed-size tales of "the way of self-giving" and perhaps even over-grown from the abundance that comes with such trust in God.
Thanks be to God for those who were, are, and yet to come. May we join them in the holy endeavor to follow the pilgrim way of Jesus Christ!
Thursday, October 23, 2014
The word “neighbor” had an odd meaning for me, growing up in rural Kansas, primarily because the nearest neighbors were a distance away, rarely seen, and being good practitioners of the Protestant work ethic, we rarely took time out for socializing. Fence to be mended, fields to be plowed, cattle to be pastured, grain and hay to be hauled, and on a rare occasion, a little potluck on a Saturday evening where the men talked of grain prices, the women talked of the vacations they wished they could take if it weren’t for the summer’s work, and kids played in the yard, sliding down ancient slipper slides and screaming with glee.
The word “neighbor” made a bit more sense to my young mind, thanks to watching television as a child. On one hand, you had “Mr. Bentley” from The Jeffersons. He was quite an eccentric neighbor, who showed up often at the door, complaining of back spasms that he thought George Jefferson alone could cure. “Can Mr. J walk on my back?” Bentley would say. The audience would roar as Sherman Hemsley did his little dance on the witless neighbor.
On the other, you had Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with old Fred in his cardigan, talking in that low, measured tone that never patronized children. He called us all his neighbors, and for thirty minutes every weekday, he taught his young viewers how to treat everyone with respect. All with that remarkable grace and a friendly smile.
It seems an odd place to begin this sermon with Kansas farmers toiling on the prairies, George Jefferson’s impromptu attempt at holistic home healthcare, and Fred Rogers’ desire to make the whole world all his neighbors, with cardigans, sneakers, and trolley in tow. Rather, I believe these odd memories illumine a theological observation: How we choose to live in this world matters. God made us social creatures. We are meant to relate to others, yet we humans tend to spend most of our time doing so only in part.
Instead, we spend much of our time racing around, tending to the affairs of life, and settling for repeating the mantra of “I’m too busy” than engaging in conversations and a common meal that isn’t “fast food”. A worse habit, however, happens when we look around us and see persons who we choose not to see, and we take part in practices, written and unwritten, that keep those persons acutely aware of our disinterest in making them our neighbors.
If we take it seriously, a sacred text that says, “take your neighbor as seriously as you do your devotion to God” should not seem merely an overly familiar Bible story. This text ought to press us, an ancient word critiquing all too well our modern sensibilities. It might even wind up freeing us to live in ways we have forgotten.
In Matthew’s gospel, the question posed by a learned Pharisee is a chance for confrontation. The religious establishment questions Jesus about matters of faith. Some questions are directed at Jesus’ ministry or issues of the day (“By what authority do you teach?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”), while other questions deal with matters of orthodoxy (i.e. How does one interpret the Law of Moses?). It is in this latter line of questioning that we hear, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
If you have turned off your television, wearied of the current political debates leading up to Election Day, my apologies that you came to church today and found something similar awaiting you in the gospel lesson. The lawyer put forth by the Pharisees is the last in a line of questioners, sort of religious pundits trying their hand at tripping Jesus up. Many eyes are upon Jesus and his questioners, persons wondering where this showdown was headed. On his own count, Jesus rode into Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and began verbally sparring with the religious leadership. Each time, Jesus keeps the upper hand. Pharisees, Sadducees, and even a handful of Herodians have walked away in a daze of defeat. So, the Pharisees sends out their last ditch effort: a legal expert whose credentials are impeccable, whose knowledge of the law is above reproof. If there is anyone who can go toe to toe on matters orthodox, it is this guy. And his question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
The question sounds simple enough, because we readers of the Gospels are familiar with Jesus’ response. If you have been in Sunday school at some point in your life, this story was probably recounted to you a few times over. However, to Jesus and this expert in the law, there were six hundred thirteen commandments to choose from. And just like the political debates on our minds, there are differences of opinion and strongly held convictions about which core “truth” or orthodoxy should win the day. Jesus gives an answer that sounds straightforward, however, when you dig deeper, neither has the Pharisees’ lawyer given a softball question nor has Jesus done anything other than knock one out of the park.
In artful fashion, Jesus has referenced the foundational belief of Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). However, Jesus adds a follow-up comment, citing Leviticus 19:18, adding in the good word about loving your neighbor as yourself. This response apparently satisfies the lawyer that Jesus gives a righteous and astute answer, as he disappears from the text without further comment. The question, however, is why these two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures are intertwined in Jesus’ response and therefore serve as an indication of Jesus’ reading of the law and, as he insists, the prophets.
Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to love your neighbor as yourself is part of the law, part of a chapter of Leviticus that presents a new vision of human relationships where all persons, especially those who are marginalized and vulnerable, are to be treated well. To love your neighbor as yourself is to realize “one’s own welfare is intertwined with that of the other” (Warren Carter, Matthew in the Margins, p. 445). This value is reflected in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus instructs the disciples and the crowds how to love the poor, the dispossessed, the unclean, and yes, even one’s own enemy. In Matthew, Jesus instructs the disciples to lead “a life of indiscriminate loving” (Carter, 445).
And now we see the beauty as well as the difficulty of this teaching. To love indiscriminately is a noble vision, but living it out is another thing altogether! Jesus weaves together the sum of faith (“the Lord should be loved with our own being”) with the realities of life, where we falter in loving someone completely, especially if they are indeed too much the part of being “the other”. Suddenly, we realize, as did Jesus’ detractors that the righteous way of leading life has little to do with exacting purity and ironclad authority. Only in humility and due deference to one another do we start embodying, rather than merely citing, the values of the sum of the faith we seek to keep.
Rowan Williams, the learned scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on the day we call “9/11”. In fact, he was preparing to lead a day’s teaching at a prominent church in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center, when the day’s tragic events began to unfold. In the months after, Williams began work on a small book that tried to make some sort of theological sense out of 9/11. In his book Writing in the Dust: After September 11, Williams spoke with sensitivity and candor about the difficult events of 9/11 and the varied ways that the Church and the world could respond in productive or destructive ways. Williams shared a concern that some might be tempted to close themselves off to persons toward whom they harbored distrust, anger, or some form of anxiety.
Even a few years on, we find ourselves still sorting out the events and fallout of that day. Williams’ pastoral word from late 2001 still rings true:
“We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity—a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us—to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.” (Writing in the Dust, 59-60).
We sometimes count among our neighbors those who are close at hand or those with whom we choose to interact and socialize. Our faith tells us that the neighbor is the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. Our neighbor is that person whose political lawn signs differ from our own. Our neighbor is the one who we come to realize embodies the very reason that we keep the faith: to love God fully and authentically. The wholly other becomes our way toward becoming holy.
As the Anglican bishop says, “If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.”
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
On the latter count, I remain intrigued and amazed at the stories found in the “superhero” comics. In the right hands, a story about Batman does not have to be an Adam West campy-1960s TV farce. Sometimes the way the mysterious guy in the shadows operates as an unconventional detective tells us something about the world and humanity while we read of yet another adventure as he chases after a brightly costumed villain.
A good mystery does not have to be about the mystery. Instead, the cast of characters can captivate you, seeing human nature on display as the detective pieces together “whodunit”. The settings may change, yet the plot of human vanity, avarice and hubris underlying a good mystery novel still tells a good story about humanity in all its failings and vanities.
A good story is found in that book you discovered years ago at a library sale and after reading it several times over, you would be hard pressed to donate it for a similar library sale. Instead, you keep it on that shelf where you can find it again in a year or two, ready to retrace the plotline and recall a great line, and hope that nobody calls while you’re reading.
A good story stays with you.
I remember being read to by my parents and my grandmother Hugenot who lived on the farm with us. In turn, they encouraged me to start reading back to them. I don’t remember everything I heard told to me or that I read when getting more excited with the idea of reading as something that was fun to do. Nonetheless, a few stories stay with me. Indeed, I think about stories from childhood from time to time, not as mere stories to be told to children and then put away (almost as if in adulthood they become an embarrassment). No, a good story learned early on can be a long-term investment, a story that you latch onto and treasure. Values and ways of looking at the world can be shaped by a fable told well by a loved one interested in you being more than entertained just before bedtime. That story from long ago can be still resounding within you as you navigate through the adult world where shades of grey await.
A good story stays with you.
In the gospels, we encounter a number of times when Jesus offers a story to his disciples, the crowds that gather from time to time, and even when in the midst of those at the ready to criticize and discredit him. A parable spun while at the dining table may seem innocent enough, yet from such stories (even two millennia later), readers of the gospel still puzzle and marvel (and with parables, face it, puzzle some more) what sort of faith is required if this parable is measurement of God’s expectations of the world.
The gospels have differing approaches, yet the same end overshadows the four gospels: a cross looms in the narrative, a part of the plot that cannot be omitted if you leave it out. Jesus will go to Jerusalem. A disciple will betray Jesus. Jesus will die. The story does not end there (indeed, the resurrection is a good story that is always meant to stay with you!), yet the story of Jesus’ life and resurrection does not skip his death.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commends Simon Peter’s faith and envisions the followers becoming “Church”, built upon such faith. While Jesus teaches his faithful, Simon Peter is the one who cannot handle what he is hearing. He cannot imagine the necessity of this story to unfold this way. Simon resists what he is hearing as it does not fit the story he’s imagining is “the story” of a wise teacher he has declared just moments ago to be “son of the living God”. What sort of teacher claims death by the hands of his enemies as something that must come to pass? In the minds of some, this would sound awfully weak and downright foolhardy if you knew something bad was going to happen and yet still went there—willingly!
Matthew’s gospel is quite frank. As Jesus begins to teach about what will come to pass, the narration claims, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.” The operative word here is “must”. As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, we learn the story of Jesus by way of this gospel’s particular interest in discipleship, questions of what it means to follow Jesus. Consider this interest in discipleship runs concurrently with the greater plot of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and you will understand why Jesus reacts strongly to Simon Peter’s dismissive word. If you follow me, there’s a cross for you to pick up and carry as well! Deny yourself and follow my path, no matter where it leads.
Just as in the text, we readers have to consider the challenge of this story. What happens when a story begins to work on us, asking hard questions, unsettling our conscience, disrupting our sense of “how things work” in the world? The story Jesus is telling is one of unveiling how God shall work through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and in turn, summon a body of women and men into a people gathered around a story with a cross inescapably in its telling. Do we toss the story aside for a narrative that “sells better” in the world, or do we pick up this story and follow Jesus?
A good story stays with you.
Simon Peter’s brash reaction is not that unfamiliar when we consider faith something tame. We don’t like faith sometimes to be goading our conscience, or we don’t give faith enough credit to fan to flame the hope life is otherwise missing. Does the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection provide a framework for how we live and love, how we treat one another and ourselves? Is our faith something we shelve away when it’s not “Sunday, 9:30 AM” or a seven-day-a-week essential?
In the gospels, discipleship is not following Jesus and riding his coattails to certain power and glory. (The Church has struggled with that for centuries, even in our present day.) Discipleship is about being a learner, sitting at Jesus’ feet, walking by his side, learning to love God and neighbor just like Jesus, and understanding that following Jesus means you don’t follow your own will and ways, nor that of any other.
From time to time, I return to this word of wisdom from 20th-century monastic writer Thomas Merton, who observed, “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.”
This story of Jesus calling his disciples to the fullness of faith (self-denial and cross included) is not about having it all together all the time, but remembering how your story fits into the greater story of the way of Jesus. Do you find what you read in the gospels in your day-to-day living? How does your following Jesus influence the many calls to follow a lot of other voices competing for your time and allegiance? Does the gospel influence you as you ponder what to do next when work or school or family issues make you toss and turn in the middle of the night?
Remember and take heart:
a good story stays with you.
Friday, October 10, 2014
Thursday, October 2, 2014
In the Fall, the pastor is caught in the changing of seasons. The leaves are changing outside, yet the well prepared minister knows that Fall is just as much about the ministry at hand (i.e. Trunk or Treat events, Youth Group apple picking or other uniquely Fall events) as well as the need to get ready for Advent and Christmas as well as stewardship and pledge season (and the big questions that inevitably await about preparing a 2015 budget.)
Next week's blog will share some thoughts on "Advent prep", however, in the meantime, let's talk about money and note that we may feel angst or pause for some awkward silence that usually accompanies the conversation some pastors and congregants have within themselves, let alone with each other.
And then, let these resources below help you be more at ease in talking about part of God's abundance, the ministry and mission made possible by our tithes of time, talent and yes, treasure. I wish you good reflection and then good preaching and presentations about "money and ministry" throughout this lead-up to Stewardship emphases as well as the rest of the year. We cannot escape planning ahead to be effective in ministry, yet it's great to know that we're joined by many others willing to share the journey through their offerings of the following books and resources:
Christopher, J. Clif. Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Jesus says a few more words to these fishermen but that first part needs some mulling over. The response to “Follow me!” is not a long conversation between Jesus and the fishers. Indeed, they drop everything: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him”. Why would they do this? What is the power of Jesus’ words “Follow me”?
Well, first a little Grammar 101. Back in elementary school, we learned the basics of grammar, including how to diagram a sentence by nearly contorting your body as you worked out a sentence on the chalkboard with all the little parts of dissecting a long sentence. One fellow was working hard, and then told the teacher: “Mrs. Bennett, I ran out of chalkboard!”
During Grammar 101, we learned about imperative sentences. If you speak in the imperative, you do not make an offer. You give a command. “Pass the salt” drops the “you”, but it means you do it. I recollect the teacher saying, “Remember (ironically she uses an imperative sentence to communicate the lesson!) imperatives are like “emperors”, who give orders.”
In giving imperatives (“Repent!” and “Follow me!”), Jesus presumes authority. The gospels situate Jesus just prior to calling disciples in the midst of divine affirmation (the baptism with its celebration and spectacle) and then in the midst of great temptation (the wilderness with its fierce loneliness and austere denial). He emerges from these intense moments clearly ready to begin his ministry, and he moves with divine authority, the highest power known.
Then, Matthew records: “Now when Jesus heard John the Baptist had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” You might think at first that Jesus is on the run, but really, he is going to where he believes the message can take root. The “powers that be” of Jerusalem and Herod’s court take away John the Baptist and silence the prophetic voice. The voice of Jesus, the Christ, is heard not by the elite, but the disregarded few working on the margins. These plain folks hear what Jesus means in saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” and “Follow me!”
Even before we are told that these fishermen become part of the core group of Jesus’ followers, even before we learn that their discipleship is sometimes shaped more trial and error at best, and at worst, doubt, denial, and betrayal, we learn that these fisher men accept the challenge without question. They hear a command that they are willing to take. They accept the call—even to the point of leaving everything to do so. If we read this story with due respect and sobriety, you ought to tremble! Those who read this text and taken it with the same spirit as those in the story have been known to change in a manner that the other New Testament writers might call “dying to self!”
Clarence Jordan writes, “They translate that [in most modern English translations] ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ But in the Greek it is much deeper than that. Much more vital than that. Change your whole way of thinking, for you are now confronted with the new order of God’s Spirit. A whole new way of thinking is upon you. Change your old ideas, and get in with this new movement that is coming upon you.”
Jordan translates it, “Change your whole way of thinking, for the new order of God’s Spirit is confronting you”. (Dallas Lee, editor, The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Path Sermons by Clarence Jordan, pp. 59-60)
I think it is a tough sell, all that imperative talk of “follow me!” Stand in the crossroads of life and just listen and look all around you. The world is full of competitors for your time, attention, and oh yes, money. I remember standing in New York City’s Times Square. It was the middle of the night, and yet it seemed like daytime with all of the lights, all of the noise, all of the vendors and stores. You had your choice of musicals and plays. You could buy a hotdog for a $1.50 or a $150 dinner for two, and it was 11 PM at night.
The world seemed shoved somehow into that tiny little square, literally and figuratively alike. The people trudged through the crowded streets (and sometimes even off the sidewalks and into the midst of street traffic), and the night muted by the intense glow of “Drink Coca-Cola” or “Watch ABC’s new show on Tuesday nights!” on the high-def screens towering above. Literally, that is Times Square on an average night. Figuratively, that is the world that Jesus stands in the midst of, saying, “Change your whole way of thinking. Follow me!”
It astonishes me further while reading Matthew that these disciples kept following. Family ties, livelihoods, and worldviews all got turned upside down. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The call to follow is a tough one to accept, for we know in this world, with its competing attempts to claim our life—as customers, citizens, supporters, voters, donors, adherents—as theirs to claim, not everything offering or commanding you to follow is healthy, let alone worthwhile to follow.
You read Matthew’s gospel, and you see these four fishermen keep cropping up in the narrative. Called “disciples”, they follow a teacher and the teacher’s ways and instruction. An odd assortment of folks from various walks of life, some accustomed to an honest day’s work and others who are quite simply dishonest. A tax collector named Matthew, versed in the usual graft and greed, sits in his fine clothes alongside Simon Peter, the threadbare fisherman who worked from dawn to dusk if it was a good day and made very little take home pay at that. It still astonishes, they heard “Follow me” and did so.
We might look at the fishermen’s leave taking as just “walking off the job”. There is something deeper at work here. These fishermen are stepping out of the world that they know, taking leave of the myths that have driven them so hard. These fishermen are closer to the migrant workers, persons who are taken advantage of by the system. These fishermen are expendable parts of the system, and yet here are “the little guys” being subversive. They are on the lower rungs, not even blue collar workers, but they follow Jesus, whose teachings point to a world where Caesar, Herod, and “the way it is to be” are taken leave. These fishermen learn a different script that describes a world shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the Cross.
Pondering how discipleship comes about, the “answer” to the question of “why would a person do this?” is quite simply “obedience”. At the same time, I am quite aware that this understanding can be bent around or malformed in the hands of the overzealous or those too rigid or dogmatic for their own good. Obedience can become myopic, uncritical, or off-track. I think that contemporary North American theologian Douglas John Hall offers a helpful word: “Obedience, far from being a blind adherence to prescribed commandments, entails imagination, ingenuity, and involvement”. (Confessing the Faith, 433)
Jesus called to these fishermen not to be “super apostles”. (Church tradition has sometimes taken the early disciples, especially the Twelve, and done just!) Rather, he calls them to follow using the skills they have: I will make you fishers of people. The life they have led still counts. There is no “one size fits all” type of disciple. Folks with rough edges are welcome! As Hall claims, following Christ is an opportunity for “imagination, ingenuity, and involvement”. In obedience, the disciple follows. In obedience, the disciple brings one’s life, skills, and story to the mix and enriches the journey through their own individuality and abilities. Simon Peter and the other fishermen sit alongside the other odd characters who are called Jesus’ disciples.
Even you can be in the midst of these disciples, you who hear Christ’s call to follow. Wherever you are in life, Christ invites you to follow him on a journey. In obedience, you bring yourself, because that is who Jesus called: you, the unique person who is still the same mixture of greatness and failing alike as any other who walks this earth. Whether you fish, sell, file, bake, dance, build, counsel, till, wait upon, tailor, instruct, parent, any of those things and more, you are called to follow and share that faith as obedient followers of Jesus. Will you hear Christ’s call and follow?
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
In my first congregation, a group of senior citizens gathered each Wednesday night for bible study. We selected the entire book of Ecclesiastes to work our way through. You might find it a bit morose, this book of Ecclesiastes. The narrator, called “the Preacher” or “Teacher”, wanders through the world, decrying that all is vanity. No matter the achievements, no matter the fortunes, no matter the fame, all things are found lacking. The narrator says, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking…the narrator of Ecclesiastes must be fun at parties!)
Reading Ecclesiastes with the senior citizen group, however, was a deep experience. Together with a group of folks who have lived long years and seen much along the way, I discovered Ecclesiastes as that sort of deep wisdom that only becomes clear after you have lived a bit. Life can seem a series of disasters tinged with occasional success, or closed doors suddenly open, then shut, and then open again, and Ecclesiastes moves in the midst of such realization about life. There is nothing new, no use trying to be more than human. You will fail; you will triumph. Do not get failure or success confused with divine favor or disproval. Life will be life.
In the 2005 film Little Miss Sunshine, the story of a deeply dysfunctional family unfolds as they undertake a road trip across the country. The young daughter has an opportunity to achieve something: participating in a pageant for little girls. The family struggles to get there, as much with the van (that they wind up having to push to start up each time the engine is turned off) as they do with dealing with being in close quarters with one another. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the film’s title with its characters cannot be more apt, reinforced by one of the opening shots: a close-up of the character portrayed by comedian Steve Carrell, a man who is quite miserable, suicidal, and feels as if life has lost its meaning, staring into the nothingness in the midst of a mental ward. As he stares, the title appears: Little Miss Sunshine. The man is a leading literary scholar, yet his career, love life, and will to live have been eclipsed by a run of misfortune and his own increasing gloom and bitterness.
The narrator of Ecclesiastes seems to join in: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” If you read Ecclesiastes 2, you encounter the long experiment with excess that the narrator of Ecclesiastes tries out: power, wealth, possessions. All of these things are in his grasp, yet he feels like he is empty. “All is vanity and chasing after the wind.”
At the same time, in all of its wanderings through the gloom of life, the writer of Ecclesiastes points toward something greater than this unending folly of human life. For every reference to the futility of human life, there is an affirmation of life with God. The folly is seen as seductive, and the wise path is found for those who eschew the excessiveness.
The 1999 Oscar winner for Best Picture is the film American Beauty, the story of a suburban family that is deeply dysfunctional. While having the perks of life (the picket fence, SUV-driving ideal life of white, middle-class America), the family lives out Thoreau’s observation that most of us “live lives of quiet desperation”. The family finds little consolation in all of their stuff, indeed, not even in their relationships with one another. The storylines of each family member takes him or her on a journey seeking something more fulfilling, but instead, they find themselves even further away from happiness. Thoreau notes, “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
In the midst of this abysmal story comes a beautiful yet near elusive moment of grace. A neighbor boy takes the young daughter to see his collection of home videos, including this seemingly inane footage of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. While caught up in selling and abusing drugs, the neighbor boy finds something stirring and different in the experience of filming life with his video camera. This plastic bag floating down an alley makes him see something through his camera lens. He explains as he filmed this scene,
This bag was just...dancing with me...like a kid begging me to play with it…That’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid ever…. Video is a poor excuse..but it helps me remember. I need to remember…Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it…and my heart, she’s going to cave in.” (Excerpt from script, quoted from Robert K. Johnston, Useless Beauty, p. 62-63).
This is where the parable from Luke also joins in. Jesus tells a story that I imagine will never lose its relevance. It is not a criticism of wealth. Rather, it is a criticism of the rich who are not content to be the “haves”, rather, they seek to be the “have more” type. The farmer is not content with good crops and barns to store them. Instead, he launches into building bigger barns and storing away even more. To Jesus’ audience, living in first century Palestine, where nearly everyone did not own property, any story about a wealthy landowner presumed that those who were got this way by being exploitative. Like the Grinch from Dr. Seuss, this man’s heart has grown several sizes too small.
The parable resounds in the full-length feature The Simpsons Movie. In this storyline, the entire town is experiencing a devastating power loss. As the townspeople go to Mr. Burns, the owner of the town’s nuclear power plant, for help, you cannot help but notice the irony. As most of Springfield flickers in and out of power, high up on the hill above, the Burns mansion is lit brightly, with huge neon signs blazing “Happy Holidays from Monty Burns”.
The townspeople ask Mr. Burns for help, and he shows them two buttons on his desk. One button will give the town below all the power it needs. The other button, if pushed, will release the guard dogs to chase the townsmen away if he is unconvinced by their requests for help. Mr. Burns can provide for others, yet as the scene cuts away from the pleas of the townspeople, Burns is heard telling the men which way to run out of the mansion as the dogs start baying.
The parable mirrors Ecclesiasates and the more dodgy side of human nature as the story involves the farmer-turned-hoarder being told that his life was to end that very night. The beauty of life is not found in possessions or any other insular hedonisms of your choosing. As Thoreau writes, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” Or as Jesus warns, do not store up for yourself and be not rich toward God.
The pragmatic critique of Ecclesiastes and the social criticism embedded within the world of Jesus’ parables resound in the midst of our own day. Whether we find ourselves sitting in a darkened movie theatre or lounging around the TV with the latest film from Netflix.com on screen, we find ourselves seeing a bit of our own story in popular culture. It causes us to weep, laugh, and even yearn from a place deep down inside ourselves.
And sacred text finds us as well, in wisdom sayings and parable form. The narrator of Ecclesiastes and the parable-spinner Christ beckon to us where we sit in the pews. We hear these words, and perhaps they wound or they liberate, who knows but yourself where these words count the most in your heart.
But, whether through film or scripture, we see yet again that there is a luminous grace that surrounds us, something that makes the heart feel close to bursting. The burdens of the day or along life’s long journey, the need for control fueled by our quiet desperation, it is unmasked as vanity upon vanity. And for those willing to look closely, even beyond themselves, there is wisdom that points to a life that is indeed good, and a faith that is far richer than any possession.
And the old gospel hymn comes to mind, “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of God’s glory and grace.”