A Shining Light

Last year, I had the opportunity to review and then co-teach a class based on A Resurrection Shaped Life by Jake Owensby.   As you can read in the linked review, I highly recommend this book, from cover to cover.  The way in which the author takes you from death to resurrection is powerful.  Anyway, in that book, Owensby uses an image from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway.  Lamont compares the grace of God with the Japanese art of Kintsugi.  Kintsugi artists mend broken pottery with a lacquer of gold.  This technique, which you can see in the bottom image of the collage below, is meant to draw the eye to the imperfections and to see the beauty that can result out of the broken places.

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I was reminded of Kintsugi this morning as I read the collect for Epiphany 2.  In it, we pray that God might illumine us through Word and Sacrament so that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  As I read that prayer today, my initial reaction was to think of shining Christ’s light like a mirror.  In my perfected state, I am able to reflect perfectly the love of God into the world.  Quickly, however, another Japanese art from came to mind.  Dorodango uses earth and water to create a shining sphere.  The Mythbusters once used the technique to polish a turd, and concept with which Martin Luther would have had a lot of fun.

I think our prayer for Sunday is probably less about asking God to make us perfect mirrors, but maybe more like a Jack O Lantern.  The light of Christ can only shine through the places where we are cracked open, vulnerable, and willing to let our messiness be visible for the sake of the Gospel.  This assumes that the light we have resides within us, which isn’t a bad assumption, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of both pumpkin carving and Kintsugi in our prayer.

Shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory, we are called to both reflect the grace of God by way of the glorious scarred wounds of our brokenness, even as we have to be willing to let the light of Christ shine through the cracks in our facade.  These cracks, sometimes self-inflicted by sin, sometimes brought upon us when the brokenness of the world breaks our hearts, are, as Owensby suggests so wonderfully, gifts for they make us more able to accept and extend grace to the people around us who are also cracked, scarred, and vulnerable.  Rather than trying to attain mirror status, my prayer this week is for the Holy Spirit to do some Kintsugi on my heart so that I can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  I pray the same for you as well.

The Lord Abides

The juxtaposition in literary grace between John’s prologue on the eternal Word (v. 1-14) and our introduction to the person of Jesus toward the tail end of John 1 couldn’t be more jarring if it tried.  From the loftiness of the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14) we find John the Baptist not wild-eyed, beard matted with honey and locust legs, but rather stilted, awkward almost, as he tries to explain to his disciples who this “Lamb of God” is.  “I myself” is a phrase I’m pretty sure I’ve never uttered myself 😉 and yet, John says it three times in four sentences.  It’s as if we replaced the poet of the first fourteen verses with a systematic theologian for the next twenty.  Anyway, what this really strange interaction between John and his disciples manages to do is a) introduce an adult, already baptized Jesus into the narrative, and b) pique the interest of the two disciples, Andrew and an unnamed disciple, so that they take on their Rabbi’s awkwardness and just start to follow Jesus.

Eventually, Jesus feels them on his heels, turns around, and asks a most appropriate question, “What are you looking for?”  Caught in their own weirdness (I can say this, as one of my spiritual gifts is awkwardness), one of them blurts out a random question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  Despite the overall oddity of the language in this passage, John does seem to always be doing something with the narrative.  This question, strange as it may be, begins a short riff on the Greek word, meno, which is variously translated as “staying” and “remained.”  If we were going to stay stilted, I would have preferred the translators have used the word “abide” instead.

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I have my reasons for liking the word “abide”

This image of Jesus abiding is helpful to me as I think about what it is that Jesus was called to do during his active years of ministry.  Though he was always on the move and had no place to lay his head, part of what Jesus modeled for the generations of Christian leaders to come was an abiding spirit.  Even when the narrative seems clear that Jesus intended to quickly move from one place to another, we find many examples of Jesus being present to and abiding with an interruption.  His was a ministry of presence.  He abided with those whom the world passed quickly.  He spent time with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the oppressed.  He shared precious moments with those whom the world said weren’t worth anything.

The Book of Acts tells the story of the first generation of Christian leaders also abiding.  Paul abided, sometimes for years, in places to which he had been called.  Philip abided in Samaria and later in the chariot next to the Ethiopian Eunuch, neither places that a good Jew would spend much time.  James the Just abided in Jerusalem despite growing pressure to leave.  So too, as disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are called to abide.  Whether we are clergy or lay leaders, part of what it means to follow in the model of Christ is to be present, to abide despite discomfort, and to see what God has planned next.  In John 1’s stilted language, we learn that the Lord abides, and we should too.

Jesus does more than save you

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is probably better suited for a Bible Study or academic lecture than it is a sermon.  As John is wont to do, the language that makes up this two day interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist and his disciples is careful, studied, and layered in meaning.  One could take 45 minutes to unpack the verb meno which is translated as “stay.”  A whole class could be devoted to the word Jesus uses for “looking” when he asks the two men “What are you looking for?”  But what struck me late yesterday afternoon as I perused my go-to sermon prep resources occurs much earlier in the story.

As the scene opens, it is some time after the baptism of Jesus.  We don’t actually get that story in John’s Gospel, just JBap’s interpretation of it.  We can’t be sure how long it has been since that momentous day.  It isn’t clear if this story happens before or after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but we do know that the experience left a lasting impression on John.  As he sees Jesus once again approaching the River, John says to anyone who will lesson, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Again, you could spend an entire Bible Study trying to discern what it means to call Jesus “Lamb of God” (a phrase that only occurs in John 1), but what I have found fascinating is the word that gets translated as “world,” cosmos.

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Cosmos not Cosmo

Translating cosmos as world is already a step to point out the broadness of Jesus’ salvific activity.  To say that he came to take away the sin of the world would already be contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the Judaism which thought that God’s grace was given to the Jews exclusively.  To say that God’s grace extended to the whole world means that God’s love is poured out upon Gentiles, heathens, and depending on your political persuasion, Republicans or Democrats.  <Gasp>  But here’s the thing, cosmos carries a much broarder meaning than simply “world.”  What Jesus did wasn’t simply take away the sin, that is offer salvation to, the world, Jesus came to set right the entire universe that God created.

This may not seem that important to you, and I’m not arguing for life on other planets, in case you were wondering (though I wouldn’t rule it out).  What this really means, at least in my interpretation, is that God really is in control of everything God has made.  It isn’t just that humanity messed up the earth through sin, but that through sin, everything was put out of whack.  In Christ, God sets the whole thing right again.  In Christ, the vision of Eden is restored.  In Christ, the harmony in which the Triune God made everything is restored.  Now, it may not seem like this is true.  There is still plenty that is out of whack – plenty of sin to go around – but the promise, spoken by the last Old Testament Prophet, John the Baptist, is that in Christ, all shall be set right again.

The Power of Baptism

John the Baptist, as has been well document, is a popular character in the Revised Common Lectionary.  So popular, in fact, that in Year A, we get to hear the same story about his encounter with Jesus two weeks in a row.  Last Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, gave us Matthew’s version.  This week, we get John the Evangelist’s take on the events.  Usually, I would begrudge this situation, and that will likely come as the week wears on and a sermon feels out of reach, but this morning, I’m still basking in the glow of the power of a baptism.

See, a funny thing happened on my way to my first service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  As these things happen, the Senior Warden and I negotiated a start date that allowed me some time to move and settle, while not crushing either my savings account or the church’s willingness to wait for me.  The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord seemed appropriate, given that it too marked the beginning of something new.  Immediately, I decided that we would follow the rubric on 312 of the Book of Common Prayer and substitute the Renewal of Baptismal Vows for the Nicene Creed at both services.  Ah, but wait, there was a young child whose parents were desirous of baptism, and so it was scheduled at the 8 am service.  But wait again, the godparents were unavailable on the 8th, so we would wait.

At about 7:45 on Sunday morning, a godparent arrived, gift bag in hand, certain that the baptism was happening.  Roughly 5 minutes later, mom, dad, and baby arrived.  Grandparents were there too, but none of us really thought a baptism was happening.  It had been postponed.  Then, at 7:57, as the altar party gathered for prayer, one of the chalice bearers, who was facing the family, spoke up.  “They are putting a baptismal gown on that baby,” she said.  So guess what?  We baptized a baby at 8am.  Thanks to a great team of altar guild members, an awesome deacon, and others who were willing to simply go with the flow, we pulled off baptismal prep in 3 minutes.

As we reached the point in the service when the baptism happens, I took baby Ryder into my arms, and something powerful happened.  There wasn’t a dove descending from heaven.  No voice spoke from above.  Instead, as I held that unfamiliar child in the middle of an unfamiliar space, I saw the face of Jesus.  Just like John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I realized that God shows up in unexpected places and at unexpected times.  It was, as I told friends later, glorious and hectic and maddening and all the stuff the church is supposed to be, and it was so because God arrived, in the person of a little baby, and invited us to show him hospitality.  Thanks be to God for a wonderful start, even if it was a little harried, and for the opportunity to see Christ in the face of one of his most precious children.

Which Came First?

I used to blog early in the morning.  Then FBC came along, and my blogging schedule went as haywire as her sleeping schedule.  In due time, she settled in to a pretty good routine and so did I.  Then SBC came along: 16 months later and I still consider it a success if I get a blog post written at any point in the day.  Nobody told us that two kids meant five times the work, but I digress.  One thing is sure, if you find that I’m posting on this blog after 5pm, something’s not right.  So, it was with great intrigue that I read a post that The Rev. Evan Garner published after 8pm last night.  Clearly, something was amiss.

As I read his reflection on yesterday’s Daily Office Gospel, which happens also to be Sunday’s appointed lesson, it quickly became apparent that Evan was losing control.  He’d gone to the Greek for crying out loud!  I’ll let him explain it:

“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).”

My brain broke right after “aorist active genitive plural,” but I was intrigued.  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?

For what it’s worth, and my Greek is far from good, let alone authoritative, I think Evan mistranslates πρωτος.  Instead of being “before,” I think the translation “first” is much more accurate.  I say this based on three pieces of information:

  • The Barclay-Newman Lexicon entry for πρωτος, defines it as: 1) first in time or place 1a) in any succession of things or persons 2) first in rank 2a) influence, honour 2b) chief 2c) principal 3) first, at the first
  • The Young’s Literal Translation of verses 40 and 41 reads, “Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard from John, and followed him; this one doth first find his own brother Simon, and saith to him, ‘We have found the Messiah,’ (which is, being interpreted, The Anointed,)”
  • The Robertson’s Word Picture for the verse indicates a contest between the disciples of Andrew and the disciples of John (The brother of James and son of Zebedee and presumably the unnamed disciple of JBap) over who first brought their brother to Jesus.  The rivalry between the brothers Zebedee and the rest of the disciples is well documented in scripture.  “Joh 1:41 – He findeth first (heuriskei houtos prôton). “This one finds (vivid dramatic present) first” (protôn). Protôn (adverb supported by Aleph A B fam. 13) means that Andrew sought “his own brother Simon” (ton adelphon ton idion Simôna) before he did anything else. But Aleph L W read prôtos (nominative adjective) which means that Andrew was the first who went after his brother implying that John also went after his brother James. Some old Latin manuscripts (b, e, r apparently), have mane for Greek prôi (early in the morning). Bernard thinks that this is the true reading as it allows more time for Andrew to bring Simon to Jesus. Probably prôton is correct, but even so John likely brought also his brother James after Andrew’s example.

All of that to say, that I don’t think you need to rewrite your sermons for Sunday (and who am I kidding, based on my stats, most of you won’t read this until Saturday afternoon).  I think it is safe to assume that Andrew and the unnamed other disciple of JBap spent the day with Jesus before seeking out their brothers.  Of course, I could be dreadfully wrong, but I’m not preaching this week, so you won’t see an 8pm post from me on the matter.

The Language of the People

In the real life version of Draughting Theology, we’ve spent the last four months pondering the question, “Is the Church Relevant?”  After four months of reading and debate, we decided that yes, indeed it is relevant, which leads us to our topic for the spring, “Where is the Church Headed?”  Tonight’s reading comes from Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence, (summarized in an article in Sojourner’s Magazine, if you’re interested), entitled “Rummage Sales.” In it, she posits a thought first suggested by The Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer, retired bishop of Bethlehem (PA, not the birthplace of Jesus), that every 500 years or so, the Church engages in a enormous yard sale in order to clean out the clutter and begin fresh.  Assuming that we find ourselves in such a place currently, if one were to roll back the clock 500-ish years, one would find oneself smack in the middle of The Great Reformation.  If that same one were to evaluate these yard sales, not just from the perspective of the Church, but also within the larger framework of society, one would quickly see that technology often plays a large role in this cataclysmic shifts, and that in the case of the Reformation, it was Gutenberg’s printing press and the rising tide of literacy that brought about the desire to educate the masses and bring Scripture into the language of the people.

Despite the more than a few people who were killed for daring to translate scripture out of Latin and into their native tongue, this idea was, of course, nothing new.  The scriptures came to Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, after originally being composed in Hebrew and Greek (a language Jesus didn’t speak, meaning much of the Gospels were originally shared orally in Aramaic).  The Syriac Church has long used Syrian translations and paraphrases of the Bible as well.  But if you want to get really technical about whether or not God intended us to read the Bible in a tongue other than our own, one need only read the passage from John appointed for Sunday to see that Scripture is meant to be understood by all.

Three times in fourteen verses, John helps the reader understand the Hebraic terms being used:

  • Rabbi (which translated means Teacher)
  • Messiah (which is translated Anointed)
  • Cephas (which is translated Peter)

Which brings me to my point.  God desires to be known by everyone he has created, so our ability to share the Good News has to make sense to everyone.  As I’ve said elsewhere, “Theology has to be understood in the grocery aisle at Wal*Mart.”  If it doesn’t, if it exclusively the work of the academy and a select few who are educated (and, often ordained), then the Church is failing its responsibility.  I don’t always do a good job keeping things simple here.  I often get my nerd on and run high up the ivory tower or deep down the rabbit hole, but I’m trying to remember the importance of speaking Jesus in the language of the people.

JBap Again!?!

Don’t get me wrong, I think John the Baptist is an important character in the Gospel narrative, but seriously, by the time you’ve slogged through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany 1, it seems like the average Christian should be able to understand his role in the larger story.  Do we really need to be spoon fed the whole, Jesus is the Messiah and John the Baptist tells us so motif?

Fortunately, the JBap reprise that we hear from John’s Gospel this Sunday doesn’t end with him recapitulating the baptismal scene.  Instead, we get to hear about Andrew and the unnamed second disciple of John the Baptist who actually experience what we’ve now heard time and time again.  John sees Jesus, points him out, and says, “there’s the guy, he’s the Lamb of God.”  Clearly these guys were cut from good disciple cloth because they believe what their teacher says and they run after Jesus to figure out what he’s all about; creating that classic exchange between Jesus and the two disciples.

Jesus notices them following him, turns, and asks, “What are you looking for?”
Not quite sure what they want from Jesus, Andrew and the other guy shuffle their feet and say, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
And in classic Jesus style, he simply responds, “Come and See.”

“Come and See.”  That seems to be what this story is really about.  John immediately repeats the phrase in saying, “They came and saw…”  There is perhaps no better way to explain evangelism to the modern listener then through this story.  A person, JBap, who had experienced the power of Jesus, shared with his friends what it meant to him.  They, in turn, were invited to “come and see,” that is to say, to come and experience Jesus themselves.  After spending the afternoon with him, Andrew finds his brother, Simon Peter, and tells him about Jesus, and the cycle begins again.

The key, of course, is that those who have experienced the power of Jesus in their lives are willing and able to share their story with those they care about.  As “Peter” would later write, “Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.”  Unfortunately, many of us aren’t ready or comfortable with our story of hope, but that seems to be easily remedied through practice and example.  Of course, that assumes that leaders, lay and ordained, within the Church are willing and able to share their story of Jesus, and, as my 12th grade humanities teacher told me, “we all know what happens when you spell assume backwards.”