Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Purification of the Virgin

In between my first and second years of seminary, I spent most of a summer working in the north of England in an urban parish, where I stayed in the parish vicarage with Fr. David and his family. Although I did learn a great deal about the ins and outs of ministry—the rhythm of the Daily Office and “daily mass,” the upkeep of a building, the administration of a parish, the balance of priestly and familial life—I learned even more about the sacramental relationship between people and their church. Over and over, people who hadn’t darkened the door of the church in decades would knock on the vicarage door (right next to the church) to ask in a superstitious way that their babies be “christened.” “Oh, I don’t want the Devil getting my baby!” they would say in a thick northern accent.

Another curious phenomenon in that community was the importance of a service which has remnants that still exist in our prayer book but that I have never taken part in: the churching of women. Women—usually mothers or mothers-in-law—would come to the vicarage and ask about having their daughters or daughters-in-law “churched.” In that part of England, tradition and culture and moral expectations all declared that new mothers would be “churched” before they could receive visitors other than their close family. Bizarre? Maybe.

In the 1979 BCP, it’s called “Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child,” but, in every earlier prayer book I can find, it focuses on the mother in a purification-sort-of way. In the 1928 BCP it was “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth.” In the 1892 and earlier BsCP it was “The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth; commonly called, The Churching of Women.” What does it mean for a woman to be “churched?” Well, ask Mary and Joseph, who do just that in Sunday’s gospel lesson.

As the passage begins, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses…” In this case, the “law of Moses” is Leviticus 12. It’s a short little chapter from the Torah, and it focuses on the uncleanness of a mother after childbirth. For a male child, the woman is totally unclean for 7 days and then ritually unclean for another 33—40 days in all. That’s why the “Purification of the Virgin…” Oh, wait, we’ve changed the name of this feast to the “Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.” Anyway, whatever you call it, that’s why it happens on February 2, which is 40 days from December 25. For a female child, of course, the curse of Eve is more pronounced, and the total uncleanness lasts for 14 days and then ritually uncleanness for another 66, which makes 80 days in all. It was time, you see, for Mary to come and be ritually purified in the temple.

But that’s not what Luke says.

Seth Olson pointed out in staff meeting the other day that Luke lumps Joseph in with Mary: their purification. Why is that? Is he trying to send a message here? Maybe it’s a comment on Mary’s perpetual virginity—the virgin birth not just the virgin conception—but I doubt it. That wasn’t an “important” doctrine (and still only important only to some) until much later. Maybe Luke is making an egalitarian declaration about the shared roles of parents, which is later underscored by the inclusion of Anna the prophetess as an important presence alongside Simeon. Still, though, that’s a bit of a reach, but it allows preachers to ask the question of egalitarian, genderless society. But I’m not sure how far that will preach. My heart (no surprise) is drawn to the considerable tension between the expectations of the old dispensation and the revelation that is made through the new dispensation of Jesus Christ.

This is a silly way to start a gospel—with a thoroughly Old Testament ritual. But it’s also the perfect way. The prophecy that unfolds begins with the story of Israel and all the temple-focus that it entails. Jesus and his parents come to the temple. And it’s in the temple during this ceremonial offering that Simeon discovers something new. Our faith—our freedom from the old and embrace of the new—begins here. Simeon did not wait for the Christ to show up in a town square or in a synagogue or in a palace. He waited in the temple. Sure, the churching of women seems more than a bit old-fashioned. Yes, it’s ridiculous to suggest that my wife is unclean until the priest presides over a service that makes her pure in the eyes of God and the community. In fact, that’s appalling. But that’s a starting point. The transaction of purity that is undergone by Jesus’ parents is held in distinct contrast to the declarations of Simeon and Anna. Where is salvation to be seen? Where lies the “redemption of Jerusalem?” They see it—and we see it, too—because of where this story starts and where it ultimately ends up. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cafeteria Christianity

This post first appeared as an article in St. John's parish newsletter. The rest of the newsletter can be read here.

The barber shop in my home town was a center of male public life. As in days gone by, older fellows with hardly enough hair to cut would come in every day of the week just to sit and talk. Saturdays were busy, of course, and boys and their parents would occupy many of the chairs in the small shop. Every day after school, teenagers would stop by to see if either of the barbers needed anything, knowing that a generous tip would be given to the one who returned with a cup of hot coffee. Pithy signs covered the walls, imparting anecdotal wisdom to anyone willing to read them. One of those signs is still emblazoned on my memory—partly because it seemed a little strange in a barber shop. It read, “This is not Burger King. You do not get it your way. You either take it my way, or you don’t get the darn thing.”

Expletive notwithstanding, perhaps that sign should be tacked to the front door of every church. This is the Christian community. This is not Morrison’s Cafeteria. You do not get to pick and choose which parts of our life together you will place on your own tray and which parts you will leave for someone else. We are in this together—all the way. We are God’s family. We are the Body of Christ. We cannot allow our membership (think “body part”) in the church to be more about taking than giving. The church does not exist for your pleasure. We, the church, exist for the pleasure of God.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages hisreaders to stick together, writing, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). The “one spirit” he refers to is the Holy Spirit—the one, unifying, animating presence of God within each of us and at the heart of our community. Being of “one mind” is a reflection of the Holy Spirit’s work, and it means more than simple agreement. The “mind” Paul writes about is the ψυχή or “pschye” that his readers would have understood as the very breath of life—the animating spirit or soul—that is found within every person. In other words, Paul is exhorting the Philippians to make their gospel-unity manifest at the deepest possible level. And he asks us to do the same.

Increasingly, ours is a world of choices. The five channels of broadcast television became the hundreds of channels available through cable or satellite, which are now being replaced by the on-demand streaming of shows and movies. The variety of apples in the produce aisle was once limited to red, green, and yellow, but now there are types to suit even the most discriminating palate. My children will never know what it means to think Neapolitan ice cream is “fancy” because it comes with all three flavors. Choice itself is not a bad thing, and I am chief among those who celebrate the inclusion of even the most eccentric options on a menu. But the gospel calls us to set aside all our differences in order that we might be united as those who belong to Christ. When the church forgets that our deeply held unity must transcend the pick-and-choose culture of our day, we begin to preach a gospel that conforms to our own whimsy rather than the gospel that shapes us into God’s unified people.

What does your experience of the Christian community look like? Are you perusing the offerings and selecting only those that suit your appetite? Are you fitting church into your busy schedule only when it works for you and complaining that the church should do more to accommodate the busy lives of contemporary families? Try letting go of the “what-has-the-church-done-for-me-lately” attitude and embrace a “what-have-I-given-to-my-Christian-community” approach to living out your faith. If you are holding back or hanging out on the sidelines because the church is not exactly what you think it should be, jump in more fully. The church is its members—its body parts—and you are one of them. Give yourself totally to Christ by giving every ounce of your being to the community of the faithful. Quit waiting for the church to conform to your individualized preferences, and instead let your participation in the life of the church shape you into the Christian God is calling you to be.

Which Version of Simeon's Song?

The Nunc Dimittis. The Song of Simeon. Luke 2:29-32. Whatever you call it, it’s beautiful. It’s a powerful statement of faith that reminds us how those who wait faithfully on God’s salvation will have their hopes fulfilled.

My friend Steve Pankey posted on Monday about the NRSV language of the gospel lesson for Sunday. Most of us will hear, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…” I agree with Steve: it doesn’t quite convey the poetic beauty of the text like one of the canticles. He gives us the Prayer Book translation that shows up in the service of Compline, but I want to go back one further and look at the Rite I version of the song, which is taken from the Books of Common Prayer before it—all the way back to Cranmer’s 1549 version:

            Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, *
according to thy word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, *
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Maybe the real question is, “How do you hear Simeon’s song?”

Some of us hear this as if it were being sung by our youth groups at the end of the EYC program. For many that is the touchstone of their teenage years in the church: peers gathering together to say the familiar words of Compline and chant the Nunc Dimittis. Some of us hear it as if it were being sung by a cathedral choir at Evensong, perhaps even using the 1662 Prayer Book. Both are powerful expressions of faith, and neither is better than the other.

There is power, however, in Simeon’s words—not just in the singing of them. And I’m curious whether the first line says something to us that gets lost—both in the NRSV and in the Rite II canticle. Here are some comparisons:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word” – NRSV
“Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised” – BCP, Rite II
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word” – ESV
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word” – BCP, Rite I

I think the NRSV and Rite II versions convey the “release” or “dismissal” of the “slave” or “servant” implied in the original text. The other two—by using the word combination of “letting/lettest” and “depart”—might not convey that to a contemporary reader who isn’t thinking about Simeon’s servanthood/slavery to God in this capacity.

But more importantly to me, I think the ESV and the Rite I versions give us something powerful in the “letting/lettest” that conveys a greater sense of waiting-expectation that is central to the passage, and I think that is echoed in the “according to your/thy word” that is also picked up by the NRSV. This is about more than just promise. It’s about prophecy. It’s about God giving his word not just as a pledge but also as a prediction. It’s about Simeon waiting a lifetime for this morning, and now finally being allowed by God to “depart in peace” because his service is finished as the prophecy has been fulfilled.

Preachers have a hard job this week—as they do every time one of scripture’s songs appears in Sunday’s lessons. How do you convey the multifaceted, poetic beauty of a text that is more than that just a reading? Prayers for all of you.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Faith--How Much is Enough?

Faith is a tricky thing. It comes and it goes. Sometimes just thinking we believe is all we can muster. And sometimes that is enough.

In today’s gospel lesson from the Daily Office (John 4:43-54), Jesus heals the son of a royal official from Capernaum. The son stayed at home, presumably because of his ailment, and the father approached Jesus and begged him to heal his son. What was Jesus’ response? “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Although he’s right, of course, Jesus’ words don’t seem to reflect the situation. These are the words of a man who never had any children. Have you ever met a parent whose child was near the point of death? Have you ever tried to have a conversation with him or her? Is that the right time to talk about signs and wonders? About belief or not?

After hearing Jesus’ statement, which must have sounded terribly off-point, the father returned to the issue that has dominated his every waking moment (and probably some of his sleeping moments, too): “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” There was no explicit engagement of faith. There was no acknowledgment of Jesus’ “see-before-you-believe” pedagogy. He just said, “Come quickly before my son dies.” And Jesus replied, “Go; your son will live.”

So the man left. And, on his way home, he is met by his servants who come to tell him that his son’s fever had broken. And, when the man asked when that happened and they replied that it had been at 1pm, they man realized that Jesus had done it—even from far away—and he believed.

Yes, signs and wonders. Yes, belief. But when? Did the man turn and walk away from Jesus confident that his son would be healed? Or did he leave because he knew that he would get nowhere with the less-than-helpful Jesus? I don’t know many parents in that situation who would have abandoned what seems to have been the only hope without getting it, so maybe his departure was one of confidence. But the fact that John records for us that the man believed after hearing from his servants suggests that his coming-to-faith wasn’t complete until he’d seen the healing of his son. And that means that Jesus wasn’t rewarding his faith. He was helping it along.

Sometimes we just know. But often we’re not sure. Sometimes we have faith enough to move mountains. And sometimes we just hope to get through the day. Faith isn’t a light switch—either on or off, either you have it or you don’t. Sure, we need more of it. But what we have isn’t unsubstantial. Maybe if we ask—even if we’re not sure what comes of asking—the act of asking is enough to make it. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Powerful Call

Continuing with the theme of “what the heck are the authorsof the lectionary trying to pull,” I want to look at Sunday’s gospel lesson as a completely different approach to conversion and discipleship. This past Sunday, I stood in the pulpit and proclaimed that “words were not enough” and that “you have to experience Jesus in order to understand what salvation really is.” This coming Sunday’s gospel lesson seems to throw that out the window. (Or does it?)

Jesus was walking along when he saw Simon Peter and Andrew in their boat. Matthew tells us that these two were fishermen and that Jesus called out to them and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, they left their boat and followed Jesus. Similarly, when he passed by James and John, who were working as tradesmen who mended fishing nets, Jesus called out to them, and they left their trade and followed him. These are examples of instantaneous call-and-response. Jesus called, and the would-be disciples answered. Never mind that they were leaving their careers behind. Never mind that they had families to take care of. Never mind that they had just met Jesus. They dropped everything to follow him. The implication is that we should do likewise.

But what about prayerful evaluation, study, and discernment? How many of us would or could drop everything if Jesus called us? Sure, we’d like to say that we would or could do that, but I don’t know how realistic that is. Can we get up, leave everything behind, and follow Jesus in an instant?

It is worth noting, as Davies and Allison write in their ICC commentary, that unlike most rabbi-disciple relationships, Jesus chose his followers rather than the other way around. The same is true today. Usually, students come up to teachers/masters and say, “May I follow you?” Think about Forrest Gump running across the country and gaining a following. People just started following him. He never invited anyone to run behind him. Not so with Jesus. Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “Come on, guys. Follow me!” There’s something charismatic, compelling, and transformative about Jesus.

Had Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard about Jesus before he actually called them? Possibly—maybe even probably. Did it matter? Not really. When Jesus called, they answered. Did they have a conversion experience? Well, it took the disciples a long time (maybe not even until after the resurrection) to piece together exactly who he was. But still they had a moment where they got up and gave their lives to him. But who was it who called? Jesus himself. It’s portrayed for us as a momentary call, and that might be exactly how it happened. But it’s still Jesus who does the calling. He’s the one who looks at them and says, “I have a plan for you. I will make you fishers for people. Come and follow me.” That alone, it seems, is enough.

I wonder how many of us have “decided” to follow Jesus and how many of us were called by him. Could this be an opportunity for the “I” in the five-points of Calvinism often referred to as TULIP—the “I” being irresistible grace? Maybe. It might come up. Regardless of whether it does, the power of Jesus’ call will be front and center in Sunday’s sermon.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Lectionary Stupidity or Genius?

You know those moments when you say something or do something that directly contradicts something you previously said or did? For example, I once said, "I will never have a Facebook account," but, of course, I now have one. (Even this Luddite can accept the realities of ministry in the 21st century.) Usually, when those moments happen (and for all of us they happen quite a lot), we are the only one who notices. That's because contexts change. Congregations are different. Rarely are the people who heard me say, "Of course I believe that!" back when I was in the eighth grade the same people who hear me say, "I'd never believe that!" as an adult. Even if they were a part of my 13-year-old social circle, who remembers that far back? And who cares?

Sometimes, though, we flip-flop. It happens. And people call us out on it. Three weeks ago I seemed so sure about something, but now I've changed my mind. It helps if I put a little distance or change the audience before I reverse my position, but that can't always happen.

So why in the heck did the authors of the lectionary follow John 1:29-42 with Matthew 4:12-23?

Yesterday, I got up in the pulpit and declared that John the Baptist saw Jesus walking by and proclaimed, "Behold the Lamb of God!" in order that Andrew might follow him and then bring his brother Simon to see Jesus for himself. This week (and, yes, I'm preaching this Sunday, too), I am going to get up and say, "Remember what I said about John the Baptist and Jesus and Andrew and Simon? Well, never mind. It turns out that's not how it happened."

This Sunday's gospel lesson has John already locked up before Jesus takes up his "Repent-the-kingdom-is-at-hand" message. John was in prison before Jesus found Andrew and Simon. And Jesus wasn't the one who renamed Simon. It seems that he was always called "Peter."

What were the authors of the lectionary thinking? Did they want preachers to look foolish? Did they want congregations to scratch their heads and wonder what happened? Did they want curates and rectors to get into pulpits on successive Sundays and offer contradictory sermons?

I don't know what was behind their decision, but I choose to embrace it. This is an opportunity to talk about the complexity of scripture by embracing the differences between John and Matthew's account of the same "story." I'm not saying we should pass out copies of both texts and get congregations to circle all the differences, but I do think preachers have an opportunity to talk about the word of God as something more than just "the greatest story ever told." It's a bunch of stories that serve lots of purposes. The bible isn't simple. It doesn't come with easy instructions. As a vehicle through which God reveals himself to the world, scripture requires our best effort. And, on this Sunday, that's especially true.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Sermon: When Words Aren't Enough

January 19, 2014 – The 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.

You know the call and response. We don’t say it or sing it all that often, but we know it, and we know where in our worship service those words belong. We say them when we gather at the Lord’s Table to eat the Lord’s Supper and to remember the sacrifice that he made for us so that our sins might be forgiven. We eat the bread—a round loaf with its gentle scent of toasted grain and honey and marked with the cross, thus drawing us into Christ’s offering of himself for us. We drink the wine—fruit of the vine with its sweet bouquet and flavor and its dark red color, which brings us back to the blood that was shed for the sins of the world. As followers of Jesus Christ—as Christians—we recognize who he was and who he is. When we proclaim him as the Lamb of God, we know what we are talking about. We may not know the exact derivation of that title—the nuances and symbolic resonances that it evokes from the Hebrew tradition—but we say those words as a confession of faith. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But how do we get there? How do those words become real to us? When we say “Lamb of God,” what is it that takes our mind not to a petting zoo, where a fluffy white lamb comes up to eat out of our hand, but to Calvary, where two-thousand years ago a man was executed on a Roman cross?

But, before we talk about that, I’d like you to think of a sunset. Now think of how a tomato tastes when it’s picked from your own garden in the middle of summer. Think about one of Claude Monet’s 250 paintings of water lilies. Think about the smell of bacon or coffee or cinnamon rolls first thing in the morning. Now, I want you to think about my mother’s macaroni and cheese. What does it look like? What does it smell like? How does it taste? I can tell you that it’s creamy but firm, cheesy but not too much so, buttery and rich, crispy on the edges but soft in the middle, orange on top but white underneath. I’ll tell you that it’s the best macaroni and cheese on the planet. And I’ll tell you that your mother has nothing on my mom when it comes to making that yummy, delicious, always-from-scratch goodness. But, even though you’d be wrong, I wouldn’t expect you to agree with me because you haven’t tried it for yourself…yet.

Some things need to be experienced to be understood. Without seeing them or smelling them or tasting them or feeling them, some things just aren’t real to us—no matter what words we use to describe them.

That’s the message in today’s gospel lesson. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples were standing with him when Jesus walked by. John looked at Jesus and exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples were intrigued by what their master had said, so they turned to go with Jesus. When he saw them following him, he looked at them and asked, “What do you seek?” It seems that they were startled by his question, so, a little unsure of themselves and what they were in for, they asked, “Teacher, where are you staying?” And he said, “Come and see.” So they went and spent the day with him. And they saw what John was talking about. And, after that, nothing would ever be the same.

One of those two disciples was named Andrew, and, after seeing for himself what John the Baptist had seen, he quickly went and found his brother, Simon, and said to him, “Get up! Come and see! We have found the Messiah!” And so the process repeated itself. Simon, unsure what to make of his brother’s words, followed him to Jesus and had an experience that changed his life—so much so that Jesus gave him a new name: Cephas or Peter.

John the Baptist stands on the side of the road, watching and waiting. And, as soon as he sees Jesus approaching, he cries out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” He’s crying out to anyone who will listen. He wants them to know what he knows—to understand what he understands—that this Jesus is indeed God’s anointed, the one sent by the Father to redeem the people of Israel. But, no matter how loudly or boldly or confidently he cries, all he can do is tell people what he thinks. And, when they hear what he has to say, they might be intrigued enough to take a look for themselves, but words alone are not enough—not John the Baptist’s and certainly not mine. There isn’t a preacher or evangelist in the world whose words are powerful enough to save someone…because preachers don’t save anyone. They can’t. Only God can do that. And, in order to know salvation the way that John the Baptist or George Whitefield or John Stott or Billy Graham did, to feel it the way it was expressed in their preaching, you’ve got to experience Jesus for yourself.

Over the years, you’ve probably heard a lot of different people talk about Jesus. Some of them might have been standing on a street corner yelling at anyone who passed by. And some of them were probably standing in a pulpit (like this one) in a big fancy church (like this one). You might have spent your whole life listening to people like me talk about how Jesus died for your sins and how those who believe in him get to go to heaven. But how often have you heard a preacher say that his words don’t count for squat? Well, they don’t. My words can’t bring you to Jesus. You have to get up and go see him. No matter how eloquently or powerfully I talk about him, the only way you’ll ever know who Jesus really is is if you experience him for yourself.

Words aren’t enough, so don’t settle for them. Go out and experience God’s love for yourself. Find out where Jesus is, and go see him. Go down to the CCC and serve lunch to those who can’t afford to buy food for themselves. Walk across the street and give a child at Banks-Caddell the kind of after-school attention his mother can’t always give because she works two jobs just to get by. Drive over to a local nursing home and hold the hand of an elderly man whose nearest relative lives five hours away. If you want to know who Jesus is, you’ve got to experience him for yourself. And that means you have to experience what it means to be loved for no reason other than the fact that you are. Where is that kind of love to be found? How will you experience Jesus for yourself? Amen.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Conversion Encounter

One of the truly rewarding things about ministry in the "digital age" (aren't we past that yet?) is that I can have a back-and-forth conversation with a colleague who lives 350 miles away about a biblical text that was written 1930 years ago. Seriously, Steve Pankey is helping me figure out how to preach with authority this Sunday, and I'm grateful for it.

His post yesterday lays out the real issue (problem) for preachers:
The standard reading of Sunday’s gospel text is: John points out Jesus, Andrew and unnamed disciple approach Jesus, Jesus invites them to come and see, they spend the day with Jesus, Andrew runs off to find Peter.  According to Evan’s reading the pattern is: John points out Jesus, Andrew and unnamed disciple approach Jesus, Jesus invites them to come and see, Andrew runs off to find Peter, they all spend the day with Jesus.  It seems like a silly point to ponder, but it really does make a difference.  Was Andrew convinced of Jesus’ messiahship by the word of John the Baptist?  Or, as I suggested yesterday and as millions of sermons will say on Sunday, was Andrew’s conviction based on his experience of Jesus?
Actually, I'm one of the "millions" of preachers who is counting on Andrew having spent the day with Jesus before he went to find his brother Simon. The alternative reading, which isn't actually mine, only came to my mind when I started wondering whether I could proclaim "Andrew experienced Jesus before he called him 'Messiah'" from the pulpit on Sunday. The problem, as Steve and I have been discussing, is that little word "first" or "before" (depending on how you translate it).
They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). (John 1:39b-41 NRSV)
I use the NRSV since that's what most of us will be preaching from this Sunday. Even though it doesn't clear it up, I will say, however, that I still like the ESV, which offers multiple, free, copyright-liberal access to a very good translation of the bible. It's also worth noting that the CEV only exacerbates the problem. Perhaps both should have been approved at General Convention, but I digress...

Even in the NRSV, I struggle with the word "first." Does the "first" go with "followed" or does the "first" go with "remained?" In an attempt to resolve this very question, Barrett cites four different forms of the word for "first" (yes, it is getting that technical) that all give different meanings. Ultimately, he thinks the best variant leads us to believe that "the text means no more than that Andrew found Simon before he did anything else." (The Gospel according to St. John. SPCK: London. 1965.) I guess that helps...sort of. It means that before he did anything else [that isn't mentioned here], Andrew went to find his brother. Still, I have my doubts.

Ultimately, I'm going to preach experience before conversion. But I am wary of doing that. Why? Because I am a slave to the Word. Why is this conversation helpful? Because preachers don't get to make the text say what they want it to say. We are shaped by the Word. We don't shape it. Even if the text ends up saying what we want it to say, we must be open to letting it shape us. In other words, we must experience the Word before we can be converted by it. It isn't a simply as a surface reading. Preachers (and all Christians) must sit with it long enough to be shaped by it before its real power can be known. Sounds a little like what I want to preach on Sunday.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

When Did Andrew Get Simon?

Here's a bonus post for the day, which focuses on the gospel lesson for Sunday. (Coincidentally, it's also the gospel lesson for today's Daily Office, so I'm considering this a two-fer.)

When did Andrew go get his brother Simon? Here's the NRSV translation of John 1:39b-41:
They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed).
 To me, the word "first" makes it unclear when Andrew went and found Simon. Was it before he spent the day/night with Jesus? Or is the author trying to tell us that Andrew spent the day/night with Jesus and then went to get his brother Simon first...before he decided to follow Jesus. Anyone have an idea?

Here are some other translations of the same:
It was already about four o’clock in the afternoon when they went with him and saw where he lived. So they stayed on for the rest of the day. One of the two men who had heard John and had gone with Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother and tell him, “We have found the Messiah!” The Hebrew word “Messiah” means the same as the Greek word “Christ.” (Contemporary English Version)
 So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). (New International Version)
They came, saw where he was living, and ended up staying with him for the day. It was late afternoon when this happened. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard John’s witness and followed Jesus. The first thing he did after finding where Jesus lived was find his own brother, Simon, telling him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, “Christ”). He immediately led him to Jesus. (The Message)
Of those, the only one that supplies the clarifying interpretation is The Message, but, of course, that version (a paraphrase) incorporates lots and lots of interpretation--supplying missing words or phrases when helpful.

The Greek (yes, Steve Pankey, I went to the Greek) uses the word πρωτος, which means "before." And I take that to mean before following. The other problem, which becomes evident in a comparison of the CEV and NIV, is what the "before" is before. The Greek word in the preceding verse is ακολουθησανθων, which is an aorist active genitive plural, that basically means "of-following." I think that's what the "before" is before--the following--but the CEV seems to disagree by supplying "had gone with Jesus" instead of the "who had followed him." Maybe there's an intentional double-meaning of the word "following," but I think the "before" came after the visit with Jesus and before they chose to follow him (as disciples).

Why is this important? Because it changes the timing of the conversion experience. Did Andrew go and find his brother Peter and say, "We've found the Messiah!" before he had even spent any time with him? Was his belief in Jesus' messiahship purely based on John the Baptist's testimony? Or did Andrew have the experience of spending some time with Jesus before going to his brother in convicted excitement?

Things to think about before Sunday's sermon. Any other thoughts would be much appreciated.


Sin is Lurking at the Door

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.


Elizabeth and I were away last weekend, and we left the children at home with her parents. (Big thank you to them!) In the three and a half days that we were gone, our four-year-old seems to have grown by an inch and our almost-two-year-old has learned some new words. He’s been saying “No!” for a while now, but it has started showing up with new vigor and an accompanying hand-waiving. It’s pretty funny. But the really new word—one I had never heard him say until I walked in the door from our trip—is “Why?”

Why? If you’ve spent any time with two-year-olds, you know what I’m talking about. Why? Why? Why? Dad: I need to get dressed. Child: Why? D: So I can go to work. C: Why? D: Because I have a job. C: Why? D: Because the Holy Spirit spoke to me one night and told me I was supposed to be a priest. C: Why? After a few minutes, it really does get that funny—a father offering increasingly ridiculous and impenetrable answers to his son’s never-changing question.

I think the story of Cain and Abel is a story of “Why?” Why did the Lord regard Abel’s offering but not Cain’s? We can speculate: because God likes meat more than veggies or because Abel offered the choice firstlings of his flock while Cain offered only left-over vegetables or because God was in a bad mood that day. We can guess, but we don’t know. And that’s the point. We don’t know. But for some reason, the Lord had regard for Abel’s offering and not for Cain’s. And that made Cain furious. And what was the Lord’s response? “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Have you ever had a boss who demanded that something to be done a different way but not explain to you why? During college, I worked in the Mayor’s Office in Birmingham. I was a lowly intern, which really meant I helped out in the Office of Public Information. What we were supposed to do was draft letters of invitation to organizations who were thinking about holding their conferences in the city or write proclamations declaring this day or that day in celebration of a woman’s 100th birthday or a church’s 100th anniversary. I wrote a lot of those proclamations, and I added a bit of my own flair to them. My boss—not the mayor—repeatedly sent them back to me and asked me to change them back to the plain, ordinary, preapproved format I had been given to work with. Why? I’m pretty sure it was because we disagreed about the rules of grammar, but he never told me why. He just said, “Do it my way.” You probably can guess how that made me feel. I never rose up against him and killed him when we were in the field, but I didn’t like him very much.

Why? It’s a question as old as humanity. Why does God do it this way? Why does God want it that way? He’s not a capricious boss who refuses to disclose his wishes to humanity. In fact, quite the opposite. He’s made himself known in the giving of the law, in the word spoken through the prophets, and in the incarnation of his son. But sometimes things happen that we don’t understand or appreciate or even agree with. Sometimes our best efforts fall flat. Sometimes our good intentions miss the mark. And that’s where sin is lying, waiting to suck us in.

That’s what sin is, really. It’s not merely a misdeed or a wrong act. It’s what happens when there is an unreconciled disconnect between our efforts and God’s will. Sometimes we know exactly what’s wrong, but other times we can’t figure it out, or it doesn’t make sense, or it makes us angry. Then what will we do? How will we handle the not-knowing? How will we respond to the impenetrable “Why?” Cain’s example is extreme, but the mistake is trying to explain it too simply. We’re not supposed to point our finger at him and say, “You should have made a better offering.” We’re supposed to sympathize with him and recognize that our own lives are full of similar moments. We are called to “master” sin—to work on living with that disconnect and responding by searching for a renewed relationship with God.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Questions or Answers?

As they try to teach us something, some people give us answers, and other people ask us questions. Both are good ways of getting an audience to think about something. Either can be effective. Sometimes we need to come right out and say it, and other times we can afford the luxury of dancing around a truth until everyone apprehends it at his or her own pace. When it’s a complicated fact that comes with a lot of necessary background explanation, it might be best for the teacher to lay out a series of propositions for the learner to grasp. When it’s a nuanced belief that requires assent not only of mind but also of heart and soul, perhaps the teacher would be better to invite the inquirer to navigate his or her own way toward understanding.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 1:29-42), I feel a stark contrast between the teaching styles of John the Baptist and Jesus. In my mind, John is standing by the side of the road, yelling at everyone around him: “This is the one of whom I spoke!” He’s overcome with excitement and can’t keep it to himself. Bouncing around like an electrically charged pinball, he zings from person to person, exclaiming one Christological truth after another: “Behold the Lamb of God!” and “This man ranks ahead of me because he was before me!” Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t say much of anything. When Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptist come up to him, he asks, “What are you looking for?” They respond with a question: “Where are you staying?” And Jesus replies, “Come and see.” And that’s it.

Jesus invites them in but doesn’t give them much to go on. It’s up to them to do the following on their own. The invitation is offered, but the truth must be grasped by the one seeking it. Given that John the gospel-writer (and, along with him, the early Christian movement) seek to distinguish between Jesus the Messiah and John the Preparer of the Way, the pedagogical difference seems intentional to me. John is the one who shouts out the answers, and Jesus is the one who asks the probing questions.

Preachers like me could learn something from this passage. When I’m teaching a class, I often ask more questions than I answer. The classroom (even the Sunday school classroom) is a “safe place” for me to question the inherited doctrines of the faith: “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” and “Does it matter whether Mary was a virgin?” But, from the pulpit, those questions don’t seem right. Maybe it’s because there is an implied (if not enforced) univocal engagement. No one else gets to speak but me! Or maybe it’s because speaking from the pulpit seems to carry with it the authority of the Church rather than just the authority of the preacher. Whatever the reason, without meaning to, I’ve made the classroom podium a place for dialectical engagement and the pulpit and place for people to just sit and listen. As someone whose job it is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, that doesn’t seem like a very good pedagogical approach.

How can I bring more questions into the pulpit? Perhaps it’s by letting Jesus ask the questions himself. He doesn’t pull punches. In the accounts given to us, Jesus never seems to avoid confrontation. Maybe he’s the one who should engage the congregation. What would Jesus ask? How might his words stand for themselves? How might the preacher bring Jesus’ pedagogical technique into the pulpit? It’s not up to me to interpret what Jesus says as a mother robin might pre-digest a worm before regurgitating it for her young. Let the full-on power of Jesus’ words hit all of us. Let us engage them together. Let us hear what Jesus says and then digest it together. We are in the preaching process as colleagues—not as expert and students.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Back in the Saddle

This post is also our parish newsletter article this week. You can read the rest of the newsletter here.

This morning, when I opened my web browser and navigated to the website I use for the scripture readings and prayers of the Daily Office, I noticed something. The banner near the top of the page that identifies the liturgical season and the day’s commemoration was green. The last time the church was green was back in November before we changed the hangings to white for the Last Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Day and then to purple for the four weeks of Advent. In recent weeks, we have been white for Christmas, and this Sunday we will be white again for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, but today—and for most of the days in the next two months—we are green.

As a child, I was taught that green is the color of growth and that the “ordinary time,” which we observe during the weeks between Epiphany and Lent and between Pentecost and Advent, is an opportunity for the church and its members to grow. The other seasons come with a specific focus—Advent and Lent are for preparation while Easter and Christmas are for celebration—but ordinary time is for doing what Christians do most of the time. This is the time for getting back to the basics. It is when we return to a regular pattern of weekly bible studies and Sunday school.

Around here, things are beginning to get busy again. Sunday school for all ages resumes this week and, along with it, delicious cooked breakfasts. Most of our bible studies are up and running again. The Yogettes, who never took much of a break, continue with their quiet, meditative practice. It is no accident that I have been walking around the office humming “Back in the saddle again…” Now that the holiday sprint is over, we can all settle back into our formative routines.

Since we are green again, I found it appropriate that two ofthe readings for this morning tell of the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness. First, in Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses says to the people, “[The Lord] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Moses reminds them (and us) that God himself is what sustains them and that only by remaining attentive to that relationship will they flourish.

Likewise, in John 6, Jesus says to the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The soul hungers for Christ just as the body hungers for bread, and we can only be satisfied and forever sustained if we partake of that which God has given us.

This is a time of growth. It is a time to take on the spiritual disciplines that sustain us and deepen our faith. God is feeding us with himself—his word and his incarnate presence. We nourish our relationship with him as we encounter him in study and worship. As we enter this period of ordinary time, search for the routines that are extraordinary. Come to church every Sunday. Read the bible every day. Decide to make a weekly bible study or reunion group a part of your own spiritual formation. Search for the food that feeds the soul, and feast on God himself.

Monday, January 6, 2014

God Shows Up Where?

Who doesn't like the magi? They're "wise men." They come from the east. They come bringing strange and precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We love the three kings. They endear themselves to us. The only Christmas character more lovable than they is St. Nicholas himself.

Think about those kings. They travel from far, far away. The come across the desert, possibly riding camels, navigating by use of ancient maps and star charts. Finally, they arrive in Jerusalem and approach King Herod and ask to meet the "King of the Jews," whose star they saw rise in the heavens. That's astrology. There's nothing biblical about it. It's pure, straight-up, unadulterated astrology. It's Gemini meets Libra in the House of Ares. Seriously, there's nothing Jewish about these guys. And that's the point.

The come from where? No where we've heard of. They get there how? By an ancient art we're not accustomed to. These are ultimate outsiders--men who appeal to a higher power that isn't the God we're accustomed to. These are the hippies who never came back from the coast. And that's the point. God--our God--brings foreigners who aren't familiar with the story of Israel to behold the one who came to save the world. And all of this happens in Matthew's gospel account!

As I read the gospel lesson for Epiphany this morning, what struck me is how even Herod himself begins to think like these eastern kings. After hearing from them that the birth of his own people's king had been revealed in the heavens, Herod does what? He secretly calls the magi to himself and asks them, "Psst! Hey guys! So, um, when was it, exactly, when this king's star appeared in the heavens? You know, I, um, want to go and worship him myself." Herod the supposed king of the Jews needs the astrologers to tell him when the real King of the Jews was born. In case you hadn't noticed, that's stunning irony.

The point of Epiphany is that God shows up where no one could have expected it. The entire story of Israel's history had been filled with examples of how God revealed himself to his own chosen people so that they might show the rest of the world who he really is. And now that all gets reversed. God's own son comes into the world, and his own people knew him not. The wise men saw his star and came to pay him homage. I can't think of a better passage for twenty-first century Christianity.

If you're waiting for God to show up where everyone expects him to, you'll be waiting a long time. If you really want to see where God is showing up, go where he's not supposed to be. Maybe that's under the overpass bridge. Maybe it's at the neighborhood watering hole. Maybe it's at the Baptist church. Maybe it's at the Native-American-run casino. I don't know where it is. If I did, I'd be there. But I doubt anyone else knows either. And that's the point. That's where God shows up.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Just Your Average Holy Name

I stayed up too late the other night watching The Big Lebowski. It’s a movie I’ve seen several times—usually only parts at a time. This time, however, it was late enough for most everyone else to be asleep, which meant I got to watch the whole thing. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is one in which a minor character approaches The Dude and his companions to confront them about an upcoming bowling league match. There’s a pretty pointed exchange about “flashing [one’s] piece in the lane,” which leaves The Dude and the audience stunned. As an expression of astonishment, The Dude says, “Jesus!” to which the other bowler replies, “You said it, man. Nobody f***s with the Jesus.” That bowler, played by John Turturro, is named Jesus Quintana, but, in that moment, when referring to himself as “the Jesus” with whom nobody f***s, Turturro uses the Anglicized pronunciation for the name, so it sounds like he might also be referring to our Lord and Savior.

I’ve always liked thinking of Jesus as someone with whom nobody f***s. It’s a funny aphorism that rubs up against our notion of Jesus as both King of Kings and Suffering Servant. And that moment in The Big Lebowski also touches on another curiosity about cultural differences: if you’re going to name your baby “Jesus,” you’d better be of Latin descent.

Who else would name a kid “Jesus?” Earlier this summer, a couple in Tennessee named their baby “Messiah,” which attracted the ire of a local judge, who forced them to change the baby’s name before having that judgment overturned. You can read about that story here. Sure, I’m a clergyperson, which means my kids come under unusual scrutiny, but, ordained or not, I can’t imagine naming a child after Jesus. Yet in Latin culture that’s normal. Why? Because the name Jesus isn’t really all that special.

Not long ago, I noticed my maternal grandmother’s diploma from William and Mary. The whole thing is in Latin, and the translation of the name “William” into the ancient language caught me by surprise: “Gulielmus.” That doesn’t look anything like William, but it’s the same name. Similarly, “Jesus” in English usually refers to one person. But, in most other languages, it’s as common as Jesse or Joshua. In fact, that’s pretty much what “Jesus” means. Our Lord and Savior didn’t have a peculiar name. Surely he was one of hundreds of boys from Nazareth whose head would have turned around when a mother’s voice called out, “Yehoshuah!” So what’s the big deal with Jesus’ name?

Well, his mother and father named him Jesus, as the angel had told them. We read that in the gospel lesson for today, the Feast of theHoly Name. (He was also circumcised, which is a-whole-nother blog post.) But he was also given the name that is above every other name—God’s name. Traditionally, people wouldn’t have written it or said it because of how precious it is, but God’s name is now understood to be Yahweh (sometimes written YHWH). That’s how important God’s name was—so much so that we aren’t even 100% sure what it was because no one said it or wrote it. And we now understand that Jesus, simple though his name was in its day, was also God among us and thus given that holy designation.

Today’s feast reminds me that we worship the God-man, the Word-become-flesh, the incarnate Son of the Father. Each of those designations captures his commonality and his transcendence. He’s just like us but different, too. It’s still Christmas, and it’s worth lingering in that incarnational place at least just a little bit longer. Jesus may not be that common a name in our culture, but it’s not unheard of, yet no one other than him is given God’s own name.