Subtle Drama Lost

File Aug 09, 1 33 19 PM

Shortly after 6am this morning, I sat down in a rocking chair on my front porch to sip my first cup of coffee of the day.  It is the first day of school here in Bowling Green, so everything had to be moved ahead of the slower paced summer schedule.  I noticed, if only for its lacking, that the sun was not yet over the trees.  What had been an overwhelming brightness over the past several weeks was replaced by the redness of the newly risen sun, just barely peeking through the trees.  It was cool, the street was quiet, and I thought to myself, “this is the calm before the storm.”

By the Roman time keeping standard of the 1st century, 6am is the end of the fourth watch, the time stamp given for this week’s Gospel lesson in the Greek version (and honestly most others outside of the NRSV).  After a night spent in prayer, Jesus set out to meet up with the wind battered disciples on a boat somewhere near the middle of the Sea of Galilee by walking across the water.

I note the time of day as the fourth watch because I think it helps add in the subtle drama of the story.  We don’t know what time of year it was, so we can’t be for sure when the sun rise would have occurred on that particular morning, but the sky most definitely starts to gain light toward the waning hours of the fourth watch.  Unlike Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus seems to teleport from one location to another, Matthew tells us that somewhere during the period between 3am and 6am, Jesus walked to meet his disciples.  It would have taken him some time to traverse the roughly four mile hike from the south-western shore to mid-lake.  As he walked, the sky began to wake.  First light came, and as the sun approached the horizon, the twilight grew until the figure on the water began to come into focus for the disciples.

It isn’t so much that the time of day really matters for preaching, except that it kind of does.  When we miss these details, the story loses some of its power because we are no longer able to put ourselves within it.  With the return to a fourth watch translation (and the requisite teaching required to help people know what that means), we can begin to imagine ourselves within the story.  Many have experienced the twilight of the morning.  We know what it is like as what was once darkness gives way to light and more and more things come into view.  Sometimes, all it takes is one small detail of subtle drama to allow us to experience more fully what the disciples were feeling, to understand the story more fully, and find our place in an ancient encounter with the Savior of the World.

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Knit Together

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I am not a knitter.  I don’t crochet.  I did a macrame piece in art class once, but I’m not sure I even remember what that means anymore.  Still, the leading image of the Collect for All Saints’ Day is not lost on me, even if I don’t know how to knit.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Being an Episcopalian, even though I don’t knit, I’ve been around a lot of knitters.  In seminary, folks would knit through class.  I chose to take notes, but who’s to say who’s right or wrong.  I’ve watched folks knit through meetings, through Bible Studies, and even in prayer.  I’ve seen knitters work meticulously on a pattern, only to have to rip out a whole row for lack of a single purl.

I’ve witnessed, first hand, how difficult it can be to hold a pattern together, which I think is why I love the Collect for All Saints’ Day so much.  Because the church is full of people, life in the church is not easy.  It requires care and attention to hold all the competing forces together.  Occasionally, it might require backing up a few steps because of a knit too many or, more often, a purl too few.  In the long run, however, the hard and painstaking work of knitting together the beautiful afghan that is the church is so very much worth it.

On the Feast of All Saints, we celebrate the work that God has done throughout the generations to ensure that the Good News of Jesus Christ continues to be lived out.  We remember fondly, sometimes, but not always, the saints who have devoted their lives to the witness of the Gospel.  We recall the giants, Saints with a capital S, but also those who died as though they never existed (more on that tomorrow).  We remember the clergy whose sermons inspired us; the Sunday School teachers whose felt board skills enthralled us; the kitchen helpers whose baked good energized us; and the servants of God of all ages and varieties who have worked behind the scenes to make the Good News of Jesus Christ known.

Like knitting, the church doesn’t just happen.  It requires care, love, and a whole lot of passion to make it happen, and as we celebrate All Saints’ Day this week, I give thanks for the opportunity to be a stitch in the larger tapestry of the Kingdom of God.

The imagery of Gergesa

One of the classes that I’m taking here in my last summer as a DMin student at the University of the South, is taught by the Rev. Martin Smith called “Implanting the Word: Skills for Helping People Internalize Scripture’s Transformative Symbols”  The core thesis of the class is that through imaginative engagement with the symbolic world of the Scriptures, religious leaders can help their people make the transformative work of God in their lives more of a living and active thing.  With my fears that the class would be nothing be spiritualist navel gazing suitably dispensed with, I’ve found this class to by actually quite a lot of fun.  We’ve made deep cuts into developmental psychology, symbology, and hermeneutics.  As we now turn our attention to the role of symbol in the sermon, today we spent time brainstorming the symbol of exorcism in Mark’s version of the story of demoniac from Gergesa.

What struck me in the work of my small group was a) how much I miss my long-lost lectionary study group, and b) how my engagement with a symbol from my particular context can inform and be informed by the engagement of another from his/her particular context.  As we bounced ideas around, we alighted on all sorts of profound images and symbols in Mark’s story, many of which make their way into Luke’s version which will be heard this Sunday.  I would encourage you to read this lesson aloud a few times and to let the various symbols sink in through mediation.  (I know what you’re thinking, can Steve Pankey possibly be writing this?  To paraphrase Paul, “I type with my own hands).

Of particular interest to me is the image of binding and loosing.  Maybe because it took me back to the first few days of my seminary experience and Tony Lewis’ brilliant teaching of Greek for dummies, but this idea of being loosed, one that has very little standing in contemporary American idioms, is a powerful one.  To what am I being bound by outside forces?  More importantly, to what do I bind myself?  What his holding me back from a full relationship of love to God and neighbor?  And, in light of the story, what is Jesus doing to loose me from those bonds?  What does it feel like to be set free?  I’m once again finding myself drawn to music, and specifically to Chris Tomlin’s work on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” for a recent film on William Wilberforce, a man who worked to set people free even as he struggled to be loosed from the confines of his position in English Parliament.  The preacher might engage those thoughts imaginatively in sermon prep this week. For me, even thought I’m not preaching, that work has already been fruitful.