Spiritual Work

As many of you know, I am part of a group of disciples who are working to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church.  Our mission, as articulated in the founding blog posts of the movement, finds is roots in the eighth chapter of Acts.  This is a turning point in the life of the fledgling Church.  Stephen has just been martyred, while Saul looked on approvingly, and the first significant persecution is underway.  Because of the faithfulness of those early Christians, who fled Jerusalem but not their faith in Christ, the Christian faith is still around today.  It is a story of hope, of evangelism, and of perseverance.  It is a story that has motivated the Acts 8 Movement to continue to call Episcopalians to share the good news of God in Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

As one who has spent a lot of time immersed in Acts 8, it is always exciting to me when it rolls around in the lectionary cycle.  This is especially true on Easter 5B, as we hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  I could probably write a book on this passage, but blogs are supposed to be short form, so I’ll spare you the long diatribe and jump right in to the word that leaped off the screen at me this morning.  Philip, having been brought to the wilderness road by the Holy Spirit, overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah.  In a manner that is quite forward, Philip approaches the Eunuch and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

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This word, “guide,” caught my attention this morning.  Digging into it a bit, I found that the Greek word, hodegeo, is used only four other places in the New Testament.  Twice, in Luke and Matthew, it is used in variations of the idiom “the blind leading the blind.”  In Revelation, it is used to describe what the lamb at the center of throne will do for the rest of us sheep, “guiding us to the springs of the water of life.”  Of most interest, however, is how it gets used by John in the Gospel.  Late in Jesus’ ministry, as part of his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples another advocate, the Spirit, who will guide (hodegeo) them into all truth.

Of further interest, is the etymology of hodegeo, which, according to Robertson, comes from hodos meaning way and hegeomai meaning to lead.  Beyond simply guiding, what the Spirit is sent to do, and what the Spirit does through Philip for the Eunuch, is to lead him in the Way.  The Spiritual work, then, for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, is to lead others in the Way of Jesus.  This assumes that we will, ourselves, be disciples, having been lead in the Way by others.  It assumes that we will all be growing in our faith and in our understanding of the Gospel and of God, in order to teach others.  It assumes, more than anything else, that we will be in tune with the Spirit, who will guide us, as was the case for Philip, into all truth and into opportunities to guide others.

All Things

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My brain is currently engaged in a seminary cliche.  I am “living in tension” between the scriptures and the realities of life.  This past weekend, I was with the Bishop and Trustees and Council of the Diocese of Kentucky on a retreat.  That word was used in the corporate sense of getting away from everyday life in order to accomplish work, rather than the religious sense of quiet and contemplation.  As such, we did all the things one would expect on a working retreat.  We watched a video, we had small group discussions, and we gave large group feedback.  We ate snacks.  I consumed large amounts of mediocre camp coffee.  Like all good Episcopalians, the group drank plenty of LaCroix.

During one of our breakout sessions, we were discussing the image of the church as hired hand in the Parable of the Sower.  As we talked about what stones needed to be removed from the garden, and how we might offer shade to tender plants threatened by the heat, someone said, “We can’t be all things to all people, even though we have been called to serve all people.”  My ears perked up at that comment.  My gut reaction was to hearken to Paul, who, told the Church in Corinth that, in fact, he had tried to be all things to all people, so that, by all means, he might save some.  “No, I thought to myself, we are called to be all things to all people.”  Then, my brain responded with one of my usual sayings, “We can’t out Baptist the Baptists.”

Like so many working retreats, I didn’t really expect to spend much time thinking about these things once I had reentered real life.  These are, so often, just thought exercises that are not intended to produce any fruit beyond being an excuse to spend more time away from home.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the lessons for Sunday, and read those very words from Paul to the Christians in Corinth.

It is easy to read Paul’s words as hyperbole.  We know, from his other writings, that he did waffle a bit on eating meat, on food sacrificed to idols, and on circumcision.  He did attempt to make room in the reign of Christ for as many people as possible, but even Paul had his limits.  He could never really be all things for all people.  He could, and did, cast a wide net.  One of the gifts that the Episcopal Church has to offer is an ongoing understanding of casting a wide net.  We are willing to allow people the time and the space to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, but even here, there are limits.  Or, at least, there should be.  As has been said, God will accept you right where you are, but loves you to much to let you stay there.

We’ll never be able to, as the meme says, “do all the things,” but we can work to make the Kingdom of God as accessible as possible so that by all means we might save some.  In the end, that’s the goal, isn’t it?  To share the Gospel, to make disciples, and to send out Apostle?  In the interim, the details are only a part of the process of formation.

Fame

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“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

Motive, Means, and Opportunity

Like many of you, I have watched my fair share of cop shows, which has made me something of an expert on the topic of criminal investigations.  With my keen eye for detail, I never fail to have no clue who committed the crime du jour.  My wife, on the other hand, seems to know what’s what before the first commercial break.  Anyway, despite my inability to actually piece the clues together, I have learned a lot from these made-for-tv dramas that help me in everyday life.  Or, at least, I tell myself that to convince myself that Law and Order reruns aren’t a total waste of time.

One thing I have learned is that in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect actually committed the crime in question, the police must show motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is the reason the crime was committed.  As Lieutenant Provenza of the LAPD’s Major Crimes division would say, “It’s always the husband,” because spouses always have the most motivation.

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It’s always the spouse.

A crime always has a reason, even if that reason is random violence.  So finding the motivation for the crime will help determine the suspect.  Next, the police must show that the suspect had the means or the ability to commit the crime.  This means that the 98 pound teenager maybe didn’t strangle his 250 pound neighbor or the woman with no hands couldn’t have shot the sheriff.  Finally, they must determine the opportunity to commit the crime.  Here’s where everyone’s favorite cop show word, alibi, comes into play.  If the suspect can’t be placed at the scene of the crime while it was being committed, they police have failed to answer the challenge of reasonable doubt.

What does this have to do with the Lectionary readings for Sunday?  I’m glad you asked.  For the second week in a row, we have texts that are dealing with evangelism.  Our Collect asks God to give us the grace necessary to answer the call and proclaim the Good News to all people.  If we take this prayer seriously, then means and opportunity are both covered right there.  That is, if we believe in the power of prayer, by praying for this grace, God has already bestowed it upon us.  Those to whom we are to go and the words we are to us are already available to us.  What is missing, in my experience, is the motive.

Paul recognized this very early on, exhorting the Church in Corinth to live as if Christ was coming back tomorrow.  Two thousand years later, it can be hard to muster up the motivation to share the Good News.  If Jesus hasn’t come back yet, what’s the rush?  If I’m not going to die tomorrow, why risk it?  If those to whom I am called to share the Gospel seem long for this world, why hurry?  When it comes to evangelism, what really seems to be lacking is motive, and yet, what better motivation is there than having the Good News of God’s saving love to share?  Why hold back when there are people who are living without the knowledge of that love?  Why tarry when you can invite another to come into the joy of God’s grace?

The Episcopal Church’s Budget is a Dim Bulb

There was a movement afoot in the Episcopal Church.  For the first time in my recollection, people were genuinely excited about the E word: Evangelism.  We had a Presiding Bishop who was comfortable talking about Jesus.  A groundswell of support saw a $2.8 million budget amendment to fund evangelism, especially in the growing and heretofore under-served Latino population.  There were revivals planned.  A new Canon for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation was hired.  One of the best church planting minds in the church came on board to serve as the Staff Officer for Church Planting Infrastructure.  It was looking like we might finally be living into the prayer we pray every Second Sunday after Epiphany, and taking our responsibility, having been “illumined by Word and Sacrament” to “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”

Things were looking good, until the Executive Council met from October 18-21, 2017, and all the hope and good will came crashing to the ground.  The working budget for the next triennium (2019-2021) shows a 41% cut in evangelism spending.  This cut includes a full 1/3 cut in spending for new congregations from $3 million to $2 million and a cut in total Latino/Hispanic ministry spending of more than 45% from $1,219,400 to $558,000.  Meanwhile, as has been noted by several very learned practitioners, including church planter, Susan Snook, mission re-developer, Everett Lees, and Forward Movement Executive Director and discipleship guru, Scott Gunn, investment in the administrative side of things, has increased by close to $4 million in the Presiding Bishop’s office (a roughly 47% increase) and $5.25 million in Governance (nearly 38%).  All that, and there is still $40 million set aside to pay for operations, finance, and legal fees!

In the support document for the budget, the Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Finances for Mission (FFM) indicated that this budget has been built to reflect the Presiding Bishop’s vision for The Jesus Movement.  They explicitly state that evangelism, racial reconciliation & justice, and environmental stewardship are the priorities of this movement, and yet, these priority areas make up only 10.1% of the overall budget.  The only real priority in this budget is the governance, finance, legal, and operations of the Episcopal Church.  Of course, we should have known this, since these four items make up the cornerstone of the Episcopal Church’s strategy.

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This Sunday’s Collect and Gospel lesson are centered on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We pray that we might have the grace to go forth and shine the light of Jesus Christ in all the world, and we hear the story of Jesus calling Philip to follow him.  In turn, we hear about Philip finding Nathaniel and inviting him to come and see.  Unfortunately, the current 2019-2021 budget of the Episcopal Church would have us turn inward and hide our light under a bushel basket.  The Episcopal Church’s draft budget is, at best, a dim bulb.  As with all things in Christ, there is hope!  There is still time to make a difference.  Prior to January 10th, you can make your feelings known to FFM and the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget, and Finance (PB&F) by way of their survey.  Let them know that evangelism is important.  Make sure they hear that ministry to our Latino/Hispanic sisters and brothers is a vital part of our ministry. Help them to see that calling something a ministry priority means funding it extravagantly.  Ask the question, “What is our chief cornerstone: our administrative structures or Christ Jesus our Lord?”  As we saw on the floor of the 78th General Convention, the people can make a difference.  You can make a difference.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The importance of proclamation

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I wish there was a YouTube video I could share with you, but as of yet, there is not.  You’ll have to just trust me that the Betty Carr Pulkingham setting of the Mary’s Magnificat is legit and that if your congregation isn’t singing Mary’s Song this week, your worship will be sorely lacking.  If you have a hymnal handy, you should pull it out and open it to S247.  If you do, you’ll not that Pulkingham uses the opening verse of Mary’s famous hymn of joyful hope as an antiphon, which is just a fancy church word for a refrain.  It is set as a canon in two parts.  The way the setting is written, there is a certain highlight on the opening words of Mary in the ICET translation of the original Greek text.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

The focus of Pulkingham’s antiphon is on Mary’s proclamation, which is interesting, given that the title Magnificat is Latin for the Greek word that Luke’s gives Mary’s Song, that is better translated at “magnify.”  I haven’t been able to locate the ICET’s working documents on the Magnificat translation, so I cannot be sure why they made the switch from magnify to proclaim, but I’m certain they didn’t do it without careful consideration.

While I take great delight in the old version, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” there seems to be something important about this newer version’s attention to proclamation.  Mary’s intent, it seems, isn’t simply to shine a light on the greatness of God so that she and Elizabeth can experience it, but rather, her ministry as the God bearer is to show forth the greatness of God for all the world to see.  By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother and that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down: casting down the mighty, scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things; Mary is shouting from the rooftops the Good News that will come to completion in the life, death, and resurrection of her Son.

As we read and/or sing the Song of Mary this Sunday, mere hours before we light the Christ candle and rejoice in the birth of our Lord and King, it might be worthwhile to spend a few moments pondering the importance of proclamation, both in Mary’s Magnificat and in our own lives as disciples of the soon-to-be newborn King.

The Good News – a sermon

People were desperate for some good news.  It was somewhere around the year 540 BC and the people of Israel were exhausted with grief.  For more than forty years they had been in exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon lay in ruins.  Their home country had been destroyed, and foreigners had been brought in to settle their land.  In Babylon, they served a king who demanded that they worship false gods, and they worked as slaves.  They were hopeless, unable even to lift their instruments to sing the songs of their faith.  They were desperate for some good news when God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and said, “Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  What follows is the good news of Israel’s impending restoration.  Soon, they will be allowed to return to the land promised by God to Abraham and begin rebuilding their lives.

Something happened not long after their return to Israel, however.  For 400 years, the voice of God went silent.  The prophets who had been so prevalent before and during the exile went mute.  The long-awaited restoration was short-lived as outside kingdom after outside kingdom ruled over them.  The people were starving for the Word of God when a man began to preach out in the wilderness.  They were reminded of those words of hope from Isaiah: a promise of restoration that brought with it word of one who was to come, a voice that would come from the wilderness and say, “prepare the way of the Lord!”  A voice that would declare the power of God in the midst of life’s uncertainty.  A voice that would call upon the people to forsake their sins and turn toward God’s will for God’s creation.

After four hundred years of silence, God called John the Baptist into the wilderness to proclaim freedom from bondage and fear.  John’s dress was like that of Elijah, the prophet who was to return ahead of the Messiah, and he called on the people to change their ways.  For the Hebrew people, their occupation by the Romans was a sign of God’s punishment.  In John the Baptist, for the first time in 400 years, the people heard a message of hope for God’s reign to return to their land.  So, they came in droves.  By the hundreds and thousands, they came from Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside to see the long-awaited prophet who was baptizing them for the forgiveness of their sins and inviting them to prepare their hearts for the one who was to come.  It is there, Mark tells us, that the Good News of Jesus Christ begins.  In the hope-filled promise of God to a people in exile, bondage, and sadness the Gospel of God gets its start.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, so I won’t say that I am desperate for good news, but I honestly wouldn’t mind hearing some. It’s been a rough few weeks here at Christ Church.  While the rest of the world is rejoicing in the Christmas season, I have been deep in the throes of Advent.  Blue vestments may be a symbol of hope, but blue is also the color of mourning.  Purple candles may remind us of Christ’s royalty, but they also shine bright with a call to repentance.  Twice this week, we lit the Christmas candle all by itself as a replacement for the paschal candle, trying to remember to celebrate resurrection while mourning dear friends who have gone to larger life in God.  It’s been a tough few weeks, and so I’m thankful for the Good News that Mark brings, and I’m especially thankful for the strange way it starts.

I think Mark must have known that people have always and will always need to hear good news, and so he begins his gospel with a very peculiar opening.  It certainly doesn’t start at the beginning.  Luke starts at the beginning, with the Annunciation to Mary that she will bear a child, her Visitation to Elizabeth, and the beautiful birth narrative filled with shepherds watching their flocks by night, angels bringing good news of great joy, and babe, born in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.  Luke is great at beginnings, and so we read from Luke every Christmas.  Likewise, John’s Gospel starts at THE the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John takes us to before the beginning where all that existed was God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to tell the grand story of God’s plan of salvation.  Matthew lands somewhere in the middle.  By giving us Jesus’ genealogy, he places the story within the larger framework of God’s salvation history, while also giving us the familiar stories of Joseph’s dream and the visiting wise men.  Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t start at the beginning.  Mark starts somewhere in the middle.  Mark starts some five hundred years after the Good News of Isaiah, in the wilderness, with a wild preacher named John crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

I think Mark starts the way it does so that every person can find their place in the story of God.   I think that maybe we are invited to jump into this story with our whole selves, and the only way to really do that is to be thoroughly discombobulated.  In our confusion, we have to spend some time getting our bearings.  Who are these characters?  What is the Isaiah quote telling us?  How does John’s appearance affect the story?  What about this one who is to come?  There won’t be much time to get settled, however.  Mark’s favorite word is immediately.  On forty-two separate occasions, Mark will use it to speed the story along.  This Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God is too important to spend time lollygagging, it must be told with haste because there is not a soul in the world that does not urgently need to hear the Good News.

Mark frames his story as Good News, euangelion in Greek. The Greek u looks a lot like a v, which makes the jump to evangelism an easy one.  In a world desperate for good news, those of us who have been blessed to find it in our time of need, have no choice but to share it.  There may not be time to start all the way at the beginning.  Like Mark, our version of the Gospel of God may need to begin right were we are.  It may need to root itself somewhere in the middle of God’s ongoing story of redemption and restoration.  It may include strange characters doing strange things.  It might even take a little while to get to Jesus.  The key to evangelism is not getting caught up in how the Good News needs to be told, but rather to whom we should tell it.

People are desperate for some good news.  The world is badly in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As our nation slides deeper and deeper into fear.  As those on the margins feel the edges of society slipping from their grasp.  As members of our community deal with grief, illness, and tough questions.  As we wait for God to come and set us free from our bondage to stress, anxiety, and fear.  We who have heard the Good News of God are expected to share it.  Mark’s strange beginning offers us an entry into the story of God’s salvation.  We are a part of the Good News of God.  We carry the story out into the world, showing God’s love in good deeds and telling God’s love by sharing the cause of our hope.  In every place where people need the Good News, God is there in the person of a disciple of Jesus who carries the Good News in their hearts and on their lips. Anytime the hope-filled promise of God is shared to a people in exile, bondage, or sadness, the Gospel of God gets its start.  As we await the second Advent of Jesus, we are called to be the beginning of the Good News of God’s salvation for someone who needs to hear it.  To whom will you tell your story?  Amen.

Outdoing one another in showing honor in light of the #NashvilleStatement

Like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, I have read with sadness the recently published Nashville Statement signed by more than 150 leaders in the Evangelical tradition.  As I read these words, I wondered aloud, again like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, “Why now?  What purpose does this serve in a world where White Supremacists march the streets with impunity, where the threat of nuclear was is more real than ever in my lifetime, and where a hurricane has cost $23 billion of property damage and dozens of lives?”  I’ve struggled for the right words to say; how I might respond, not that the world needs to know my thoughts on the matter, but I do write a blog and bloggers always think people care about their opinions.

Of particular note, at least in my opinion, are Articles 7 and 10 of the Nashville Statement.  Article 7 is of interest because it seems to suggest that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that is made.  Here is where our ability to have a conversation on this topic breaks down.  Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, that which would become Evangelicalism in the United States made a conscious decision to hold science at arms length and to trust in the inerrancy of Scripture.  This is why we have things like the Creation Museum, which seeks to discredit the scientific suggestion that world was not created in seven, twenty-four hour periods because one of the two Biblical accounts of creation says so.  Fast forward to 2017, and with no clear scientific study that says where homosexual attraction comes from, it is a no-brainer for the anti-scientific bias in evangelicalism to say, without hesitation, that homosexuality can be and “adopted self-conception.”  Without room for scientific exploration on the subject, there is no way sexual orientation will ever be seen as something other than a choice, and a sinful one at that.  There is no room in this mindset for conversation on the topic, even if the rest of the world still sees it as an open question.

Which leads me to Article 10, the much more destructive of the two.  I commend to you Carol Howard Merritt’s reflection for the Christian Century on this topic.  Because of the inherent danger in it, I will publish Article 10 in its entirety.

Article 10
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

Those of you who read this blog with regularity will know that my favorite word in the Church is “adiaphora,” which means “things indifferent.”  The idea of adiaphora within Christianity came into focus during the Protestant Reformation as debates between Roman Catholics and early Reformers tended to be based on fundamental disagreements over that which was a core doctrine of the faith.  By adopting Article 10, these Evangelical leaders have drawn a clear line in the sand.  Human sexuality and gender identity are, for them, matters of core doctrine, and one’s beliefs on these matters are a part of what it means to be redeemed in Christ.  It is Article 10 that brings me the most sadness because a friend of mine from high school whom I deeply respect for his faith, even if our theologies on topics like this don’t match up, is one of the original signatories of the Nashville Statement.  Article 10 seems to say that he does not see my faith as valid, and that the only clear path for me as a Christian who affirms God’s love for all God’s children, including the LGBT community, is the road to hell.  I have reached out to my friend and let him know that while I disagree with him on this issue, I will continue to pray for his ministry as I hope he will mine.

This, finally, leads me to the Bible, the topic which this blog purports to be about.  Sunday’s lesson from Romans 12 is a quick-hitting list of admonitions from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  As we hear them, they can make us feel good, but in such rapid succession, it might be hard to note how difficult these Godly admonitions are to live by. This is especially true at the end of verse 10 where he writes, “Outdo one another in showing honor.”  Another way to translate that might be “lead the way in showing respect.”  This is affirmed in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church in which we vow, with God’s help, to respect the dignity of every human being.  We affirm that it can only be done “with God’s help” because, quite frankly, human beings can be hard to love.  Our ability to show respect at all times, is flawed, but it is by God’s grace that we are able to lead the way in showing respect.  With Paul’s words in mind and in light of current events, from Charlottesville to Pyongyang and from Washington DC to Nashville, I pray that I might have the grace and courage to lead the way in showing respect to everyone, even as I pray the same for you, dear reader.

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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.

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.”