Some People!?!

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“Some people are saying…”

These words happen everywhere.  When things are good and when times are tough, it matters not.  No matter the circumstance, they are the four words every pastor hates to hear.  “Some people are saying…”  First and foremost, this is a clear indicator that what will follow will be a complaint of indeterminate validity and seriousness.  Let’s also be clear that “some people” always includes that person telling you, and more often than not (read 75% or more of the time) it only includes the person who has brought this “issue” to your attention.  There is no winning a “some people are saying” conversation. The pseudo-anonymity creates an immediate barrier to conversation.  Unless your pastor knows who those “some people” are, their context, their history, and what is happening in their lives, she has no way of knowing where this complain is coming from.  “Some people” always means that what “they” want is right and everything else is wrong.  Whether “some people” are talking about music, preaching, Christian education, or what donuts are served at coffee hour, the fact that they hide behind a wall of uncertainty is an immediate sign that nuance and negotiation are off the table.

I bring this up because Jesus seems to invite the “some people” response in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks, and the “some people” begin to speak.  “Elijah.”  “John the Baptist.”  “Jeremiah.”  “One of the prophets.”  Like it is in the parish, these responses seem to betray what is happening in the heart of the spokesperson.  There is, to be sure, no real clarity about who Jesus is at this point.

Until.

Until Jesus changes the question by asking, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter steps out from behind the protection of anonymity and declares, right there on the doorstep of “Philip’s Caesartown” that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter strips away all pretense, all fear, and declares with full awareness of the political ramifications that Jesus is the true Anointed One, and that Caesar can’t be the son of God because Jesus is.

When we move beyond “some people” and get to taking responsibility for ourselves and our faith, God will do remarkable things and, as it was for Peter, God will open our eyes to see that which is obscured by the rood screen of mistrust, fear, and anonymity.  In truth, what “some people” say doesn’t matter, instead, what really matters is, “what do you say?”

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There’s that word again

As I mentioned several weeks ago, the word “church” rarely occurs in the Gospels.  The English word shows up five times, all in Matthew’s Gospel.  Twice (18:15 and 18:21) is is used to expand the gendered Greek word for brother to “member of the church.”  The other three occurrences (16:18 and twice in 18:17) are direct translations of the Greek word ekklesia, which generically meant an assembly or a gathering of people.  When I read this word in Matthew’s Gospel, my very faint Biblical criticism streak begins to show, and I wonder, if only for a moment, if these are really authentic words from Jesus or Matthew’s later attempt to wrap the teaching of Jesus around the institution that followed his resurrection and ascension.

My first stop down the rabbit hole of ekklesia in Matthew was Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed., which showed no textual controversy on the word in 16:18.  Next, I went to Ye Olde Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew co-authored by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann.  Albright was a polymath who was well versed in archaeology and German Biblical criticism, and began the project that has become the Anchor Bible Series, now 120 volumes strong.  Over his many years, his archaeological research led him to believe more and more of the scriptural story and rely less and less on historical critical reading of the Biblical narrative.  Knowing that, it makes sense that his volume on Matthew would argue, “It is hard to know what kind of thinking, other than confessional presupposition, justifies the tendency of some commentators to dismiss this verse as not authentic.  A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew” (1971 ed., p. 195).  In the end, Albright and Mann suggest that ekklesia may be the Greek translation of “kenishta, which in the Syriac versions is used for both ekklesia and synagogue” (p. 196).

I warned you this was a rabbit hole.

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What does all this tell us?  Well, first of all, it is a reminder that Biblical study is worth it. There are words we find in the English translations of scripture that leave us scratching our heads, wondering how and why they say what they do.  It is worth the preachers time to do some digging, in order to come to better understand the meaning behind these words.  It is also a warning to be wary of bringing a desired outcome to one’s study.  I’d have bet a whole dollar that Matthew wedged the concept of church into his Gospel, but it seems that in the time of Jesus, the idea of an ongoing community of disciples wasn’t beyond reasonable thought.  Finally, it tells us that Peter’s confession and subsequent commissioning means something.  If Jesus really did think this thing would be perpetuated by a community, which it seems he did, then he needed to make plans for the future, and it was upon Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah that the institution would be built.

For those of us who continue to be a part of that ekklesia, this is the most important bit.  It isn’t about keeping buildings built or salaries paid or denominational shields protected, but all of this exists for one reason only, the same reason Matthew had in mind when he translated Jesus’ words into Greek, to empower a community of faithful disciples to go and proclaim that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Renovation Realities

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We bought our new home in Bowling Green knowing that it would require a full kitchen renovation.  What we did not know what how much work a kitchen renovation really was.  More than just taking out cabinets and replacing them with new, we took the entire thing down to the studs and sub-floor, rewired every light, switch, and outlet, moved some plumbing, and even expanded a walkway.  Rather than putting lipstick on the pig that was our old kitchen, we worked with intention and care to turn it into one of the finest pork roasts you could ever imagine.  Straining metaphor aside, such is the work of the Christian faith, according to Paul’s often quoted twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Romans.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The word translated as “renewing” can also be rendered as “renovation” as in a “complete change for the better.”  Like it was for our kitchen, the goal of our faith journey in Christ isn’t a simple cosmetic upgrade, but rather that we take a full accounting of our sins, strip everything of our old self away, and with God’s help, work toward a new mind that is one with the will of God.  To be sure, painting cabinets and upgrading a light fixture will make things look nice, and it is a whole lot easier, but the real work of renovation comes when we are willing to dig deep and uncover the hidden mess that lay beneath the surface.

One way to do that, though one that I have found to be rarely used in the Episcopal congregations I have served (so rare, I have never had anyone ask me for it), is the sacramental rite of reconciliation of a penitent.  Found in the Prayer Book beginning on page 447, this rite invites us to name aloud “all serious sins troubling the conscience,” that is, to move beyond the surface to bring to light those things that we would rather not name.  To take on the work of what is commonly called confession, is difficult, and it can take a while to really get at what God is trying to help us let go, but it is always fruitful as it brings us closer yet to a renovated mind that is able to discern the will of God.

It is often said of confession in the Episcopal Church that “all may, none must, some should,” but I wonder if Paul would have us maybe more carefully consider if we fall in that category of some who should.

168 Hours of Worship – A Sermon

You can listen to the audio on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.

        The past couple of weeks here at Saint Paul’s have sounded like a non-denominational staff meeting as we’ve talked about praise and worship, praise and worship, praise and worship.  You might recall a couple of weeks ago, with the story of Jesus walking on the water, how what struck me wasn’t that Jesus or Peter was able to defy gravity, but that it was the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that the disciples worshipped Jesus and called him “the Son of God.”  Last week, Keith invited us to look at the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman through a new lens.  Focusing less on the interaction between the two, Keith probed into the meaning behind her words, “Lord, Son of David!”  Seeing them not as a prayer of supplication, he wondered instead if they could be words of praise to Jesus the Christ.  They were both good sermons, if I do say so myself, coming at fairly well known gospel stories from a different angle.  If you haven’t heard them yet, you really should check them out on the website under the “Reaching Up” tab.

        Where we both fell short, however, was that we didn’t really take the time to talk about what it means for us, as 21st century American Christians to do the work of praise and worship.  As I alluded to in my opening sentence, I think these words have been co-opted over the past 20 or so years to mean one particular thing: a rock band on a big stage leading songs with questionable theology that repeat their chorus no less than nine thousand times or for forty-five minutes, whichever comes first.  As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan of that particular understanding of “praise and worship,” and so, I am grateful for this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans as it opens for us a deeper and richer understanding of praise and worship.

        Even though we’ve been hearing excerpts from it all summer long, we haven’t talked much about the Epistle to the Romans.  This really is a shame because Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome is one of the highlights of the New Testament.  My favorite Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright says that Romans is

… neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages… Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.[1]

This morning, we find ourselves at the turning point in Romans.  Paul has spent eleven chapters dealing with the theological issues that are at play in the Roman Church.  Just ask our lectors about the Mobius strip like prose that Paul has used, folding word upon word, phrase upon phrase, to try to lay out a theology of the grace of God that fits the worldviews of two very different types of Christians.  The first Christians in Rome, like everywhere else, were Jewish converts.  They had been raised with the Torah, followed the sacrificial rules of the Temple, and knew their Hebrew Scriptures inside and out.  As time went on, others became interested in this new religion, and so Gentiles, non-Jews, started joining the ranks.  These Christians had been brought up in the pagan cult of Rome, worshipping a pantheon of gods.

        The Jewish Christians were highly incarnational people.  The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat and how to do the dishes; what to wear and with whom to do business; and so on.  Their religious system was designed, in part, to keep God’s chosen people alive in a world where life was extremely fragile.  There were constant threats against one’s body in the first century: infant mortality was near 25% and roughly 50% of children died before age ten.[2]  For the Jewish people, an oppressed minority for almost their entire history, life was so full of death that their religious system necessarily worked to protect them as best it could.  It makes sense, then, that these Jewish Christians focused on Jesus’ humanity as a living, breathing, first century Jew.

        The Roman Christians, on the other hand, had been raised on Plato, and saw the body as nothing more than “an embarrassing encumbrance.”[3]  They thought of the body as the tomb of the soul, which waited to finally escape the filthiness of this world for the glory of the afterlife.  Their focus would have been Jesus’ divinity and the call to give their hearts over to God rather than to focus on the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ life and ministry.  After eleven chapters of working to reconcile these two disparate worldviews, Paul turns his attention to what he sees as the only proper response to God’s grace.

        “Therefore, in light of all that I’ve said and in view of the mercy of God, I urge you brothers and sisters to present your bodies, fragile and corrupted as they might be, to God as a living, breathing sacrifice, which is your only reasonable act of worship.”  He then goes on to describe just what that living sacrifice of worship looks like: being transformed by the will of God; living in humility, serving as members of the body, and exercising the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the Kingdom of God.  You’ll note that there is nothing in there about music on Sunday morning.  The worship, to which Paul calls the Church in Rome and us, is about living from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night as disciples of Jesus Christ.  True worship is about being here on Sunday only insofar as it equips and empowers us to go forth from this place to “love and serve the Lord.”

        From there, our worship becomes about building the Kingdom of God. We worship God when our lives align with his will. We worship God when we treat others with the dignity and respect we all deserve. We worship God when we put aside our own selfish desires to seek after the greater good. We worship God when we use the gifts he has given us to build up the body.  Those who are called to be prophets worship God by calling people to abundance of life with conviction.  Those who are called to ministries of service worship God by reaching out in care and love to those in need in their communities and in the world.  Those who are called to be teachers worship God by being students of the faith who are then able to help others grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord.  Those we are called to exhortation worship God by encouraging others in their life and faith.  Those who are called to be givers worship God by giving of themselves and their resources sacrificially.  Those who are called to be leaders worship God by leading in the Church and in the world with grace and humility.  Those who are called to be merciful worship God through cheerful compassion.

        We spend an hour each week worshipping God in song, scripture reading, prayer, and communion here on Sunday morning, but more important is the 167 hours a week we spend worshipping God by exercising our gifts, showing forth God’s power among all peoples, and building his Kingdom here on earth.  That is our living sacrifice, our reasonable response to God’s grace. That is a truly spiritual act of worship.  Amen.

 

[1] Leander E. Keck and others, eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 395

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Many-Members-Alyce-McKenzie-08-18-2014.html

[3] John Stott, “The Message of Romans” The Bible Speaks Today p. 322

The Peskiness of Paul’s Body Metaphor

Alyce McKenzie, in her weekly post at Edgy Exegesis, points out that Paul must have chosen the image of the Church as a body very intentionally.  Knowing what I know about Paul based on his corpus of letters, I think he chose the body image because it would be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1.23).  Having spent 11 chapters dealing with the internal struggles of the Church in Rome, specifically spending extra time to help smooth the riff between the Jewish Christians on the one hand and Gentile Christians on the other, Paul calls them both to unity through the image of the body.

Judaism was, and is, a very incarnational religious tradition.  The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat; how to wash the dishes; what to wear; and so on.  This was necessary in those days because of the fragility of life.  There were constant threats against one’s body in first century Palestine.  Pregnancy and childbirth were the cause of many a death, as were food borne illnesses, and a myriad of other diseases we take for granted these days.  Life was so full of death, that the Jewish system of Torah was at least partially built to keep people alive.

The Romans, on the other hand, were very much anti-body.  They were so focused on the spiritual that they saw the body as “an embarrassing encumbrance” (Stott, “Romans” BST, 322).  Their goal was to find their way out of their filthy bodies and into the incorruptible spiritual realm.

And so, when Paul uses the body image to explain the make up of the Church, he forces both sides to think hard about their understandings of the flesh.  Isn’t the body simply too fragile to be a good metaphor?  Isn’t it just too earthy?  No, says Alyce McKenzie, it is the perfect image.  “It’s better than family or team.  You can take a break from being a member of a team.  You can go on vacation without your family.  But you can’t take a break from the parts of your body.”  To further that understanding of unity, I would add that it is precisely because the body can feel pain, because bones can break and skin can be gashed and bruises can form, because scars develop to remind us of past hurts, that the image of the body is the ideal image for the united Church.  It isn’t perfect.  It doesn’t always work like it should.  Sometimes parts (white blood cells) attack other parts accidentally, but we can’t run away from each other.

That’s the peskiness of the body metaphor for modern Christians who are, rather unfortunately, used to tens of thousands of different flavors of church.  A new sign on the church down the street this week tells me that we have two “Church of Christ” congregations within a block of each other.  No matter how many walls we build, the truth of the matter is that we are still united, members of the same body, called to show forth the power of God to all people.

This might be the best religious image ever.

Giftedness

It is an ancient tradition to lift up the Seven-fold Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, we claim those seven gifts at every ordination through the rubric that requires either Veni Creator Spiritus or Veni Sancte Spiritus be sung prior to the Consecration.  Both ancient hymns make reference to the Seven-fold Gifts which come not from the usual gifts lists cited from Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians, but instead from the Prophet Isaiah.  In a prophecy about the savior who will grow the Peacable Kingdom from the root of the Tree of Jesse, Isaiah lists the gifts the Anointed One will possess: “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of

  1. wisdom and
  2. understanding, the spirit of
  3. counsel
  4. and might, the spirit of
  5. knowledge
  6. and the fear of the LORD.
  7. He will delight in obeying the LORD.”

It took some digging to figure out how repeating the “Fear of the LORD” made for two separate gifts, but thanks to the theological resource to end all theological resources, Wikipedia, I figured out that the list comes form the Latin Vulgate, which is a notoriously bad translation.  In the Latin, number six reads not “fear of the Lord” as it does in Hebrew for both 6 and 7, but “pietatis,” a helpful word for a Church trying to overcome an empire built on a sacrificial system of moral corruption. This gives us a list of seven unique gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the LORD.

Which is a really long way of introducing the list that shows up in Sunday’s lesson from Romans.  Paul, continuing to call upon the Church in Rome to discipleship and unity, reminds them that the only person who possessed all of the Gifts of the Spirit is the head to which the Body is united, Jesus the Christ.  Without mentioning the Isaiah list, he certainly brings to mind, at least for the Jewish Christians in the Roman Church, the promise of giftedness that comes with Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.  Paul goes on to list some, not all, of the gifts that are needed in the Church, gifts that will ensure the health of the whole body: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.

None of us possesses all of the gifts of the Spirit, those listed here or the expanded lists elsewhere in Paul’s letters.  None of us has none of them.  But the Spirit, according that good and perfect will of God, divvies them out by grace, through baptism, so that each member of the Church might have a job to do that builds up the Kingdom and strengthens the body.  It is through the exercise of those gifts that we are able to join with God in the re-creation of earth, in fulfilling his dream, in creating the Kingdom of God.  

Do you know your gifts?  Do you have a means to exercise them?  If not, ask your local clergy person for advice, surely they can help you stretch your spiritual muscle.

On Conforming to this World

It is rare that I don’t focus this blog and my sermons on the Gospel text appointed for a Sunday, but for some reason, this week, I’m feeling a strong connection to the Romans 12 lesson.  Perhaps it is because, as I said yesterday, it contains one of the few verses of scripture that I actually memorized, chapter and verse, back in my youth.  More likely, however, is that I’m drawn to Romans 12 because it is a deep well from which to draw.  The language is rich and evocative.  The imagery is profound and the basis of much ecclesiology.  And to top it off, in very un-Pauline fashion, the message is clear.

After 11 chapters of dense theology and Mobius strip like prose, Paul begins chapter 12 with clear thesis statement,  “Therefore, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to take on the only reasonable response to what I’ve laid before you: present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable; do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing your minds in order to discern God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

The traditional reading of this passage is to see it as a call to sanctification or purity of life.  It is the Siren Call of modern evangelicalism, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world.  Don’t do all the stuff that heathens do.  Don’t drink, smoke, dance, have sex outside of marriage, be gay, or vote Democrat.”  Given Paul’s context, this isn’t actually a bad reading, though maybe the list of don’ts assumes some things about both heathens and Christians.  Writing to cosmopolitan Christians, both Gentile and Jew, Paul had his hands full on what it looked like to follow Jesus in first century Rome.  Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes, maybe don’t eat meat sacrificed to Roman gods and goddesses, and don’t feel the need to get circumcised if you aren’t already are all on his mind, but so are a lot of “do’s”.

Do believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  Do follow in his footsteps.  Do take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and the oppressed.  Do seek justice for those who are outcast.  Do share the Good News with those who haven’t heard.  Do, he’ll go on to say, utilize the gifts that God has given you to build up the Kingdom.

Sure, when faith is young, a list of things we once did without thinking that we should now maybe think about not doing, is probably helpful.  But as faith grows, as we mature, as our focus turns away from ourselves and toward God and his Kingdom, the tenor of the conversation should change, maybe even be transformed, from a list of don’ts to a vision for how to do this thing called discipleship.