TODAY!

Sometimes, I wish I could preach like Jesus. Of course, he had that whole divinity thing going for him, and he is the Word that God spoke in creation, but still, I wish I had his depth of insight.  I wish I could so easily make the points that I hope to make.  His ability to spin a parable is much to be envied, but more to the point for this post is his brevity.  With just a few words, a single sentence, Jesus could turn the whole world on it head.

Take this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, for example.  Having been handed the scroll from Isaiah, Jesus reads, according to Luke, a conflation of Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2, both part of Third Isaiah’s Servant Song.  He rolls the scroll back up, hands it to the attendant, and begins to preach.  Except the beginning of his sermon is also his three points, poem, and conclusion; all wrapped up in one tidy package.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Today.

Before the healing of Peter’s Mother-in-Law.  Before his confrontations with the Sadducees, Scribes, and Pharisees.  Before he raises Lazarus from the dead.  Before his Triumphal Entry.  Before his Last Supper.  Before his death.  Before his resurrection.  Before… well, just about everything Jesus does in his three years of ministry.  Before it all,

TODAY

The Good News is fulfilled.

It may seem like I harp on this subject here on this blog and in my sermons, but I’m once again struck by the realization that the Kingdom of God is ALREADY here.  We need not wait for death and our entrance through the pearly gates.  We need not wait for Jesus’ Second Coming.  No, we need not wait for anything because the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in the Word made Flesh who dwelt among us.  If we truly believe this sermon from Jesus, then it profoundly impacts the ways in which we live as disciples.  We live not for tomorrow or the great beyond, but instead take seriously the challenge “to bring good news to the poor…  to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So What?

One of the questions that David Lose raised in the link I posted yesterday has been haunting me for 24 hours now.  It is a question that haunts most preachers these days, one that will hopefully be raised again and again at this weekend’s Emergence Christianity Conference in Memphis, and it is the title of this post.

So What?

For all the crummy things the RCL editors have been accused of doing to the lessons for this week by me and many others, they have worked hard, I believe to force the preacher into asking and answering this very pointed question.

So What that Jesus was baptized?  What difference does it make?

In my tradition, The Episcopal Church, the RCL gets some help from both the order in which lessons are read and from the Collect that starts the whole things off.  First, we hear these words prayed on behalf of the whole congregation:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Then, we hear from the prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Followed by the Psalmist:

The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; * the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.

And the cautionary tale from Acts 8:

The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).

Finally, then, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism from Luke:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In his Baptism, Jesus hears the voice of the LORD, the powerful voice full of splendor.  In his Baptism, Jesus receives the Holy Spirit who descends upon him like a dove.  In his Baptism, Jesus is called by the name “Beloved Son.”  In his Baptism, Jesus is given the power and authority that will carry him through the temptation in the wilderness, through his near death experience in Nazareth, through his three years as an itinerant Rabbi and miracle worker, and most importantly, through his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and resurrection.  In his Baptism, Jesus is given everything he needs to carry out the work he is called to do.

In our Baptism, we too are given everything we will need to do the work God has given us to do.  Even those of us baptized as infants, having been welcomed into the household of God, are blessed to be “beloved children” and “heirs of Christ.”  By the power of the Spirit (who, BTW, does the baptizing in Luke’s version of this story) each of us is given the gift and responsibility of being named by the powerful voice of God.  This is the “so what?” of Baptism.  We are proclaimed as beloved children, and expected to live as such.  What a blessing.  What a challenge.

Free to do what?

On Sunday, we’ll get to do something post-1979 Episcopalians rarely do anymore: read/sing a canticle.  Some of my readers have probably never heard the word.  I hadn’t until I arrived at Virginia Seminary.  A canticle is a non-metrical song, usually based on the Bible (other than the Psalms).  They have been a part of the Daily Office for ever, I think, but since we moved the Eucharist back to the center of our liturgical life and since very few people actually attend a Daily Office service, let alone pray it on their own, canticles have gone out of favor with Episcopalians.  And its a shame, really.  Two whole generations of Christians don’t know the joy that is Calvin Hampton’s setting of Canticle 18, A Song to the Lamb, from the Hymnal 1982.

As I said, this Sunday, we’ll have the chance to read/sing a Canticle, number 16, the song of Zechariah.  My friend, Evan, is blogging about it all week, you should read his stuff.  Anyway, I was struck by a part of Canticle 16 as I read through the lessons for Advent 2 this morning.  It come about halfway through Zechariah’s song, as he is extolling the virtues of God’s covenant with Abraham.

“This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *to set us free from the hands of our enemies, /Free to worship him without fear, *holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”

I was probably more struck by it today than other days because of another blog I had read today by a fellow General Convention Deputy and Acts 8 Devotee, Megan Castellan, about her encounter with Zach, a 10 year old boy who is learning to knit.  Go read the whole post, but in the meantime, here’s the pertinent excerpt:

“[Zach asked,] ‘Why, if God gave us free will, did God insist that we worship him, and “not just let us sit on a beach in Miami all the time?”’ (That made me laugh out loud.)

To the last, I admitted that it remained a deep mystery, but for me, personally, I worshipped God because I actually like God.  Chances are, if I didn’t love God so much, I would ignore God a lot more.  But, moreover, I show God my affection by trying to live the way Jesus lived, and by trying to love the people around me as much as God did.  Zach pondered this concept for a while, knitting industriously.”
In Christ, we have been set free.  As Martin Luther said, we may “sin boldly,” but that freedom, Zechariah reminds us, should propel us not into dissipation, drunkenness, or debauchery (to paraphrase last week’s Gospel), but instead, our freedom in Christ is freedom to worship and freedom to act like Christ acted (or like Christ would have us act).  It is a powerful word from Zechariah, one for which I am thankful that the blog stars aligned so that I might see it.
Be set free.  Free to worship and obey.

Strong hearts?

Scripture is filled with interesting turns-of-phrase.  Part of it has to do with the idioms of ancient Hebrew and Greek.  Quite frankly, we just don’t get them.  Part of it has to do with the desire to keep Holy Writ contained within polite society.  The hard truths, the blatant sarcasm, the awkward twists – we just don’t like them.  Part of it has to do with the reverence with which we approach Scripture.  It is, as if, that which is holy cannot also be in the vernacular (an opinion widely held for centuries in the Church).  No matter the reasons, there is no doubt that when one sits down to read the Bible, an interesting turn-of-phrase isn’t far behind.

This week, as I’ve prepared for Sunday’s sermon, I’ve run across several odd turns-of-phrase, or as C&C Music Factory called them – Things that Make you Go HMMMMM:

  • In Jeremiah, the name, presumably, of the righteous Branch is “The LORD is our righteousness.” – HMMMM
  • The Psalmist asks that the LORD might, “Remember [His] compassion and love…” – HMMMMM
  • The Luke lesson, being apocalyptic in nature, is full of them, not least of which Jesus’ promise that “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” – HMMMM
  • And finally, Paul’s prayer for the Church in Thessalonica, that God might “strengthen your hearts in holiness” – HMMMM

I’ve been most struck this week by that last turn-of-phrase: “strengthen your hearts in holiness.”  I wonder what that means.  I wonder what it looks like when God is at work “strengthening my heart.”  I wonder how strong my heart has to be, in holiness, so that I can live into the calling to “stand blameless before God at the second coming of his Son.”

As is the case with many of the interesting turns-of-phrase in Scripture, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what it actually means.  The Greek reads:

into  the  to establish y’all’s  the heart  blameless  in holiness

Which has been translated in various ways:

  • As a result, Christ will make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy … (NLT)
  • To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness… (KJV)
  • And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless … (NRSV)

Which reminds me of one other reason why turns-of-phrase can be awkward in Scripture, sometimes the translation is just silly, which seems to be the case here in the NRSV.  Strong hearts, sure they are helpful for the task of building the Kingdom, but if I’m going to pray that you might be set apart for God’s service, I’m going to go with the NLT or even the KJV and ask that God might make you holy and blameless, ready for Christ’ appearing.

 

Be on Guard

Like I said yesterday, the context of Luke 21 is similar to what we read and heard two weeks ago from Mark 13.  Jesus and his disciples have left the Temple, having witnessed the widow’s offering, and are returning to Bethphage and Bethany, up the Mount of Olives, to rest for the night.  Some of the disciples make mention of the splendor of the Temple, which Jesus uses as a springboard into a teaching on the end of the age.

Two weeks ago, we heard only the beginning of Mark 13.  This week, we catch only the end of Luke 21.  It is obvious that Luke borrowed heavily from Mark for this section: persecutions, wars, famines, and false teachers, but there are some subtle differences.  In Mark, Jesus teaches an object lesson about the fig tree, while in Luke it is a parable.  In Mark, the warning to be prepared is in the form of a parable, while Luke offers some specifics for his community which finds itself on the journey some 20 years after Mark and well after the destruction of the Temple.

In both cases, Jesus warns his disciples to “be on guard,” to “be alert,” to “be careful.”  In Luke, he goes on to offer them specific counsel on what to watch out for.  “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…”  I found this to be an interesting list; even more so when I looked up the word that gets translated “dissipation,” a word that I’m betting 99% of us have never heard outside of Luke 21.  I’ll let Robertson’s Word Pictures tell the tale:
Luk 21:34 – Lest haply your hearts be overcharged (mê pote barêthôsin hai kardiai humôn). First aorist passive subjunctive of bareô, an old verb to weigh down, depress, with mê pote. With surfeiting [dissipation] (en krepalêi). A rather late word, common in medical writers for the nausea that follows a debauch. Latin crapula, the giddiness caused by too much wine. Here only in the N.T. Drunkenness (methêi). From methu (wine). Old word but in the N.T. only here and Ro 13:13; Ga 5:21. Cares of this life (merimnais biôtikais). Anxieties of life. The adjective biôtikos is late and in the N.T. only here and 1Co 6:3f. Come on you (epistêi). Second aorist active subjunctive of ephistêmi, ingressive aorist. Construed also with mê pote. Suddenly (ephnidios). Adjective in predicate agreeing with hêmera (day). As a snare (hôs pagis). Old word from pêgnumi, to make fast a net or trap. Paul uses it several times of the devil’s snares for preachers (1Ti 3:7; 2Ti 2:26). *

Luke’s admonition to be prepared is based on the fact that Master could return at any moment.  He could return at daybreak, when dissipation (or what we call a hangover) could keep you from seeing clearly.  He could return at night, when drunkenness could mean missing out.  He could return during the day, when the cares of this world, when heaviness of heart, might keep you so self-focused, you miss him entirely.

I find Luke’s frank practicality to be refreshing.  There is not a time of day when the self-centered heart is not seeking after something other than Jesus.  The true disciple, on the other hand, keeps watch – morning, noon and night.

*A T Robertson Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament, 1934, published by the Broadman Press, Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.

 

Holiness

Holiness is a quality that we usually associate with the saints.  Realistically, it is a requirement of sainthood, holiness, and yet I wonder how much thought we actually give to it.  We use the word often: Holy Spirit, Holy Water, Holy Ground, holier than thou, holy crap!  Like so many words we use so often, do we really know what we are saying?  Or has its use become so commonplace that we just assume everybody knows what we mean?  Ultimately, that leads to meaningless words.

What does it mean to be holy?

Merriam-Webster.com defines it this way:

  • exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
  • divine <for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9 (Authorized Version)>
  • devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity <a holy temple> <holy prophets>
  • having a divine quality <holy love>
  • venerated as or as if sacred <holy scripture> <a holy relic>
  • used as an intensive <this is a holy mess> <he was a holy terror when he drank — Thomas Wolfe> ; often used in combination as a mild oath <holy smoke>

But the meaning goes far beyond that.  The Hebrew and Greek words, most often translated as “holy” are

qadash         hagiazo

Which mean something more akin to “set apart” (a concept understood by Wikipedia, which redirects “holy” and “sanctify” to “sacred“).  This, I think, is often what we think of when we think of saints: those who are set apart as “better” Christians than the rest of us, but truth be told, that’s not how the Bible uses the term.  Saint Paul uses the word “saint” (a vairant of hagiazo, meaning “holy ones”) 44 times in his letters.  The term appears 62 times in the New Testament as a whole. And it is most often associated not with the Apostles, not with great people who had died, but with the Church and its members going about the day to day business of following Jesus.

The earth is the LORD’S and all that is in it, *
the world and all who dwell therein. (Ps 24.1)

I can pretty much guarantee that no one will hear a sermon preached on Psalm 24 on Sunday, but I think that the opening verse proves helpful as we try to wrap our minds around sainthood not as one set apart for the rest of us ordinary Christians, but instead one who takes their rightful place in the midst of God’s good creation.  We were all made to be saints, all made to dwell in the Kingdom of God, all made to be devoted fully to the Lord God Almighty.  Each of us, as human beings made in the image of God, carries within us holiness.  The challenge this All Saints’ Day, is to live into it.

 

Preaching Heaven

The lessons for All Saints, Year B, are just begging the preacher to preach on heaven.  Sales of Don Piper’s, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and that Heaven is for Real, book will probably sky-rocket this week as Mainline preachers scramble to have something to say about the New Jerusalem when they realize that all of their notes on Revelation 21 and Isaiah 25 are from funeral sermons.

While most people think of heaven as something like this:

the truth is, none of knows what heaven will be like.  Heck, none of us can really even know for sure the answer to the whole paradise, rest, heaven debate.  More on that some other day.

I don’t know what heaven will be like, but I sure do hope that Isaiah had it right and the banquet table is full of well-aged wines and rich food.  In fact, if pushed, I’d probably say that the heavenly banquet looks something like this:

It isn’t much of a start to a week of preaching, but it sure has me excited about what Sunday will bring.

Humility as an approach to God

As I mentioned on Sunday, people ask God for all sorts of crazy things.  James and John went so far as to ask Jesus to grant them anything they wanted.  People pray for positions of honor in clubs, promotions at work, national championships for their favorite teams, and on and on.  All of this seems silly to me.  I God is all knowing and all powerful, then what role does your prayer have in changing God’s mind on anything?  God is gonna do what God is gonna do.  Perhaps that’s why, when Jesus was asked to teach on prayer, he quickly came to “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I’m not sure how new it really is, but there seems to be a growing trend among Christians to approach the Lord with a laundry list of wants and needs.  Be they genuine, say for healing or peace, or ridiculous, like those, a while back, who were less-than-subtly praying for our President to die, our prayers that seek after our own will all assume some level of arrogance in approaching the throne of grace.  Even our liturgies have made that move over time (see, for example, the differences between Rite I, Prayer I, and EOW, Prayer 2)

Personally, as one who struggles with humility every day, I find it a whole lot easier to let God deal with what he’s in control of, and instead focus on how my heart needs to be changed to be more like Christ.  The example of Bartimaeus isn’t a perfect one, but it is pretty darn close.

1) He approaches the Lord with humility – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

2) He is persistent – “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

3) He is obedient – “Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

4) He listens – “Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

5) He responds in faith – “The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”

Did he get healed?  Yes, he did.  Would Jesus have healed him had the encounter not gone this way?  We can’t know, but we can guess, probably not.  Did prayer change the course of human history?  Yes, it did.  But what I note, despite all my misgivings up above, is that Bartimaeus’ first posture was that of humility.  I use the Jesus Prayer because it forces me to not make prayer about me.  Does intercessory prayer flow from it?  Sometimes, but sometimes, it is just the chance to encounter the Risen Lord, and that, at least for me, is enough.

Mark’s Central Understanding

Whenever Mark 10:35-45 comes up in the Lectionary, I feel compelled to pull out my old notes from Dr. Yieh’s New Testament 1 course.  Engrained in my brain is the notion that Mark 10:45 is key to understanding Mark’s main theme.

“For the Son of Man (also) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Most of the commentaries I’ve read this week are focused on the ransom bit.  It seems that as Evangelical Christianity has grown to define the cultural norm of American Christianity, the notion of Christ’s substitutionary atonement has also gained steam. Folks much smarter than me have dealt with this topic, and for a primer, I recommend Tony Jones’ A Better Atonementbut for now, suffice it to say, there are other, even better, ways of understanding how Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection restored humanity’s relationship with God.

I’d prefer not to spend time on atonement theory, and instead to look at the first half of 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” for I am convinced that this is Mark’s Central Understanding of who Jesus is.  Sure, Mark is big on the Messianic Secret, but that secret only makes sense if Jesus is the servant of all.

The model of the Son of Man, as one who came not to be served but to serve, is also Mark’s Central Understanding of discipleship.  Throughout the past few weeks, as Jesus has three times predicted his arrest, death, and resurrection, the disciples haven’t been able to hear a word he’s said.  Peter rebuked him.  The 12 argued over who was the greatest.  James and John ask for the best seats at the banquet.  Jesus teaches suffering service, and the disciples are looking for power and honor.

How often we miss the central understanding of discipleship.  How often we seek the ticket to heaven.  How often we prefer to write a simple check rather than get our hands dirty in the messiness of life.  How often we go after positions of honor rather than meeting people in the midst of their suffering.  How often we seek to be served, rather than to serve.

For the past 13 days, since his Feast Day, I’ve been stuck on the Prayer Attributed to Saint Francis.  In light of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I’m left wondering how often I seek my own desires over and above those of God and of others.  When it comes right down to it, the Son of Man is my model exemplar, and his way is “not to be served, but to serve.”

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.

anxiety

The Collect for Sunday begins by asking that the Lord might grant us “not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly…”  I find that to be an interesting request unto Almighty God.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 28.8% of Americans will experience some type of Anxiety Disorder in their lifetime.  That’s something like 89 million people.  That’s a lot of people.

Of course every human being, at one time or another, will experience anxiety.  Again from the NIMH, “Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial in some situations.”  Yet, here we are, praying to not be anxious about earthly things.  As I pondered that prayer, I began to think of all the things church people get anxious about, and as I looked over my list, it was full of “earthly things:”

  • Noisy kids
  • Service times
  • Somebody sitting in my pew
  • Electrical bills
  • Music that isn’t being played on the organ
  • Just to name a few

I started to understand why maybe we should pray for a lack of anxiety.  Maybe we should turn our attention from the trappings of religion toward the love of things heavenly.  Maybe we should take this prayer a little more seriously this Sunday.  Then again, part of my vocation is helping people through those moments of anxiety, and if they don’t get anxious then I lose some job security.  Oh no, now I’ve gone and made myself anxious.

Grant us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things… Amen.