Living and Active

One of the great joys that came in 2017 (and there were many – new church, new house, new town, etc.) was the opportunity to write two chapters for Acts to Action: The New Testament’s Guide to Evangelism and Mission.  Edited by two dear friends of mine, Susan Brown Snook and Adam Trambley, Acts to Action is a deep dive into the eight chapter of Acts as a blueprint for being the Church in a changing world.  I commend it to you. (Full Disclosure – I receive no personal financial gain from your purchasing this book from Forward Movement for you, your congregational leaders, family, and friends.)

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Seriously, buy this book

One of the chapters I was asked to write was about the Bible, and how we might use it to help facilitate mission and evangelism.  The central text was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, in which Philip, led by the Spirit, helped the Eunuch to understand what he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  As I wrote that chapter, what continuously came to mind is the opening line from Sunday’s lesson from Hebrews 4, “The word of God is living and active…”

There are two things I love about this phrase.  First, as I’ve discussed elsewhere (here and here), I think it cases the letter w properly as a lower case letter.  Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Word of God, capital W.  The Bible, on the other hand, is the word of God, lower case w.  I can’t remember whether it was on the television or radio, but sometime in the last week, I happened upon a preacher who was talking about the absolute truth of the bible.  He suggested, with an eye toward liberal mainline Protestants, that some churches didn’t believe the bible to be absolutely true in everything it says.  Count me among those accused, but I’d argue for a bit of nuance, which isn’t the forte of television and radio preachers.  Saying that the Bible isn’t absolutely true, to my mind, means that it isn’t 100% factually accurate.  One need not look beyond the first two chapters of Genesis to see the two very different creation stories to know that the bible cannot and does not claim factual infallibility.  The bible is, however, 100% true in that it tells the very real story of God’s love for all of creation, and God’s desire to be in right relationship with humankind.  My friend the radio/television preacher was arguing for the book he was holding in his hand to be the Word of God, but I would suggest that only Jesus gets to carry that capital letter.

I’ve digressed, as usual.  What this post was supposed to be about was the titular phrase, “living and active.”  As I said, while writing that chapter, this phrase kept coming to mind.  Those who read the scriptures with regularity often note that they have found something new in their reading.  Rather than being a dry, old book that sits on a shelf, when you engage the bible, you’ll find that the Spirit is at work in and through the words on the page, ready to teach you something new, expand your horizons, or call you to a new and deeper understanding of God.

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A haughty text

At various times in my ministry, I have described myself as a Walmart Theologian.  Though I rarely shop there anymore, my basic test for a theological point is whether or not it will stand up to the Walmart test: can I explain it to a parishioner who I might run into in the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store?  If the answer is no, then I need to work a little harder at bringing the Good News out of the ivory tower in which I have spent plenty of time, down to the grass roots, where people live.  This goal is one of the reasons why I sponsored legislation to authorize the Contemporary English Version of the Bible to be used in Episcopal worship.  It is a text that is theologically sound, translated by scholars, and is still able to be presented “in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for the understanding, both of the readers and hearers” (Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549), published in the 1979 BCP on pages 866-7).

This line of thought came to mind yesterday as we read Psalm 138, as I reflect on verse 7,
7 Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
It returned this morning as I read from the NRSV the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans,
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

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A haughty text, indeed.

Haughty, it seems to me, is no longer a word of the people.  According to Google, it is used 700% less often in literature now than it was in the early 19th century.  While we might have an basic idea of what we think haughtiness might mean, it is so rarely used as to feel like it fails the basic premise of Paul’s writing.  If we are called to not be haughty, then it seems we should maybe find a better way to say it.  The CEV puts it this way,
16 Be friendly with everyone.  Don’t be proud and feel that you are smarter than others. Make friends with ordinary people.
Still a bit stodgy in its construction for my taste, at least the CEV clears up the language a bit.

As we engage with an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture, it would be of benefit to those who we seek to engage with the Gospel if we offered them texts that were able to speak to their hearts, lives, and the way in which they speak.  Though it may never happen that Church Publishing puts out a CEV lectionary book or lectionarypage.net changes over to the CEV, I think it makes sense for parish leadership to evaluate, from time to time, the texts we use, always asking ourselves, does this meet the Walmart text?  Does it live up to Cranmer’s “easy and plain understanding” marker?  Or, is it time to seek out scholarly and sound Biblical translations that can be heard and understood by the majority of those who come through our doors.  Maybe it has just been a haughty couple of weeks, and I’m not suggesting we rush to replace the NRSV at Christ Church, but rather, just a note to myself, as much as anyone else, to take note when the words don’t resonate.  Don’t just shrug it off, but really listen to how the Scriptures speak.  If they are no longer “living and active” in our lives, that is when it is time to think of new ways to read and hear.

Noticing a Theme

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Image from Liturgy Memes on Facebook

During the interminable season after Pentecost (the big green portion on the left of the picture above), the Revised Common Lectionary allows congregations to choose between two Old Testament tracks.  The first is the so-called “semi-continuous” lesson, which pulls lessons that are a “semi-continuous” telling of an Old Testament story.  The second track is “thematic” in that the lesson has something to do with some other lesson.  The trick is often finding what theme the RCL powers-that-be had in mind.

At Saint Paul’s, we’ve been using the Track Two lessons this summer.  The choice was made, for the most part, because unless one is going to preach the OT for an extended period of time, the “semi-continuous” lessons can raise a lot of questions that never really get answered for people sitting in the pews.  This Sunday, the obvious theme between the Exodus lesson and both New Testament lessons (1 Timothy and Luke) is sinfulness.  Jesus is accused of hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.  Paul gives Timothy a saying that is true and worthy of full acceptance – Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  The Hebrews whom God has saved from bondage in Egypt have sinned egregiously by making and worshiping a golden calf.  It is a rare Episcopal priest who will preach about sin, but if there ever were a Sunday to do it, Proper 19C is it.

Not that I want to avoid preaching sin, but as I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday throughout the week, I couldn’t help but notice that there is another, more subtle connection between lessons in Exodus and Luke: humor.  These stories are two of the most ridiculous scenes in all of Scripture.  The Exodus lesson is a snark battle between God and Moses.  I hope your lectors will highlight the sarcasm.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?”

Meanwhile, Luke sets up the Lost Parables through a hyperbolic scene of his own.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable…

Picture that scene for a moment.  As I see it, Jesus is in a room having dinner with all the tax collectors and sinners in a given town, while the Pharisees stand outside, peering through the doors and windows, grumbling among themselves.  Jesus, looking up from his plate of mutton, clears his throat, and begins to tell this immense crowd these wild stories about a shepherd who puts 99% of his sheep at risk to find one that was lost and a woman who spends a huge sum of money throwing a party over finding a single lost coin.

These stories are a helpful reminder that the Bible is not a drab history book for us to study for an exam.  It is the story of God’s relationship with humanity, in all our faults and foibles.  It is full of poetry, of myth, of humor, and most importantly, it is full of love: God’s unimaginable love for everything God has created.

Moses Saw

I spent this past weekend attending the 45th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.  That’s not entirely true.  I did a whole lot more than just attend.  As Convention began, I was elected at Secretary, which meant I got to sit at the table set aside for the Scribes and Pharisees.  It was my job to, at any given moment, be thinking three or four steps ahead, ensuring that the Convention would run smoothly, that speakers would be given enough advanced warning, that canonical requirements would be fulfilled, and, perhaps most importantly, that potty breaks would be provided.  When I wasn’t sitting up on the dais, there was a line of two or three people who were trying to speak with me at any given moment.  Looking ahead can mean a well run convention, but when it comes to talking with people, answering their questions, and handling  there concerns, there is only one place to be: the present, and I’ve never been more keenly aware of the need to be present than I was this weekend.

I suppose my weekend experience is spilling over into my preaching prep for this week, as I’m finding myself fascinated with Moses and the burning bush.  In a world that is full of people doing this:

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the story of Moses actually seeing this amazing sight is something of a novelty.

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But Moses saw the burning bush, and the course of his life was changed yet again.  Moses story really begins with Pharaoh’s daughter seeing the basket made of reeds that Moses’ mother had placed him in rather than allowing him to be killed.  He was forced into a self-imposed exile after he saw a Hebrew slaving being treated harshly.  Moses saw the burning bush, God saw the suffering of the Hebrew people, and Moses saw God face-to-face on Mount Sinai.

Again and again, the story of God and Moses and the Hebrew people is marked by seeing.  By being present to what is happening in the moment, Moses became a servant of God, a prophet unlike any other.

I have a hard time being present.  I’m really good at focusing on the mistakes of the past.  I’m an expert at worrying about the needs of the future.  I’m highly skilled at getting lost on Facebook or deep down a rabbit hole of theological quagmire.  If I can learn anything from the story of Moses and the burning bush it is this: that God might use me to change the world, but in order for that to happen, I’ve got to see his hand at work, and to see God’s hand at work, I’ve got to be aware of what is happening in my present time and place.

The Shepherds Saw and Knew

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The Lectionary splits up Luke’s birth narrative so that part one can be read on Christmas Eve and, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story can be heard on Christmas morning.  The reality for most congregations is that there will be distinct audiences at each of the Christmas Eve/Day services, so it would behoove the preacher to bite the bullet and read Luke 2:1-20 every time the faithful come together between sunset on December 24th and sunrise December 26th.

If you read the whole thing on Christmas Eve, presumably where the biggest crowds are to be found, then your audience will have the opportunity to hear the story of the first ever response to Christian evangelism.  The angel of the Lord, having told them the Good News, literally – the Gospel, departs from the scene and the shepherds, still very much unsure of what just happened, look at each other and basically say, “let’s go see if any of this is true.”  After running down the hill and into the city proper, they find the babe, wrapped in swaddling cloth, and lying in a manger.  They saw it just as the angels had predicted.

I was initially drawn to the way in which they traveled to down: “with haste,” but as I dug into the Greek, what I found more interesting was the word Luke used to describe both their desire to see and what they saw.  Eido isn’t the passive sort of seeing in which a spectator might engage, but it carries the double meaning of both seeing and knowing.  The Shepherds, having just experienced something amazing in the fields, desire to see and to know the Good News for themselves.  It is only after they see, and presumably come to know the truth of the angels message, that, with awe, they share the story with Mary and Joseph.

As Christmas comes again this year, my prayer is that you might see and know the good news that God has sent for all people, that in the city of David was born for us a Savior who redeems the world and sets us free to seek after the will of the Father.  Merry Christmas!

Light in the Darkness

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One of the benefits of being a country parson is living far away from the glowing lights that disrupt seeing the beauty of the night sky.  I mean, my neighborhood is full of street lights, but it isn’t too far a drive to be in the middle of no where with only the Milky Way and the Moon shining brightly overhead.  It is a similar scene that the shepherds find themselves in.  Night after night they watch over their flocks in the darkness with only the moon and the stars to offer light in the darkness.

It is no wonder then, that they are terrified, literally fearing a mega fear, when one evening the darkness of the night turned into the brightness of the day.  Luke tells us that “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” or as the New Living Translation puts it, “the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them.”

Scriptures tells us, on more than one occasion, that one of the promises of God’s future reign is that the sun and moon will no longer be necessary.  Instead of outside sources of light, it is the glory of the Lord that will help us to see. It is through the radiance of God that we will one day be able to see the world as God intended it to be. The shepherds got a glimpse of that world, and understandably, were filled with fear. Forty days later, Simeon will hold the baby Jesus and announce, with great joy, that the light to enlighten the nations had come.

The world is, of course, still filled with darkness, but the gift of Christmas, at least one them, is that the light of the world is shining in the darkness.  Even when it seems totally dark, and lately it has sort of felt that way what with ISIS, mass shootings, and the sinking level of political discourse, there is a light shining in the darkness: a savior who is Christ the Lord.

JBap’s Holistic Discipleship

In a post of the Living Church’s blogsite, the Bishop of Springfield, the Rt. Rev. Dan Martins published a post that utilized one’s preference for or against Mel Gibson’s epic, The Passion of the Christ, as a litmus test for whether one would fall on the side of Christianity as a social justice movement or oppositely, at least a the Bishop of Springfield sees it, Christianity as a global operation to save souls.  Yesterday, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Megan Castellan, used none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer a strong critique of Bishop Martin’s dualistic worldview.  I strongly encourage you to read her post, as it is most assuredly better than this one.

What strikes me as odd in the Bishop’s article, is that I can’t find my own place in his dualistic world.  I didn’t like The Passion of the Christ, not because I don’t think that Jesus’ sacrifice is the lynch pin in salvation history, and not because it has the theological nuance of Thor’s hammer, but because the Good Lord did not bless me with the spiritual gift of a strong stomach.  Rarely do I watch a movie that includes graphic violence, not out of some moral repugnance, but a more physical one.  In fact, I planned to never see The Passion of the Christ on just those grounds, but when the Presbyterian youth pastor asks you to join his youth group’s discussion on it because “you’re an Episcopalian who has walked the Stations of the Cross and maybe can explain the extra-biblical bits,” you feel compelled to oblige.

Based on my reason for disliking The Passion of the Christ, am I supposed to all about social justice or evangelism?  Thankfully, as I re-read Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I realized that I have none other than John the Baptist to point to as an example of a holistic discipleship that allows for both.  You’ll recall that in the Gospel lesson for Advent 2, we heard JBap proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  This JBap would have loved The Passion of the Christ (if it wasn’t about the brutal death of his cousin, of course) because he is focused on the need for atonement in the lives of human beings, or what the Prayer Book calls “proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  Fast-forward to this Sunday, and we hear the crowd responding to JBap’s proclamation by asking: “What then should we do?”

Note that JBap doesn’t take the crowd down Romans’ Road in search of a conversion experience, but rather, he offers practical advice of how disciples of the Kingdom should live: “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have food to eat, share.”  In Bishop Martin’s dichotomy, this JBap wouldn’t have been impressed with The Passion of the Christ, choosing instead to focus on the politics of the Kingdom, or as the Prayer Book calls it, “striving for justice and peace” and “respecting the dignity of every human being.”

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Both are true to who John the Baptist was and what he taught because the reality is that evangelism and social justice are both at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a disciple of the Kingdom.  John is essentially proclaiming the need to be born again and then describing what the new life looks like.  Despite what Bishop Martins (from which he later retreats, albeit somewhat unconvincingly, but let’s be fair, it is a dualism held by many on the progressive side of the debates of yore as well) posits, the discipleship we learn from none other than John the Baptist calls us to believe that both the conversion of self and the conversion of the whole world are important. As followers of Jesus, we are to proclaim him as exemplar of the faith in the fullness of the Incarnation: his life, his death, and his resurrection.