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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Immanuel – God with Us

Thank God for 1980s Amy Grant.  I can’t read the lessons appointed for Advent 4, Year A without immediately hearing those great synthesize riffs.  See, in Year A, Advent 4 is all about the name of Jesus.  Not Yeshua, as his name would be in Aramaic, but the name promised by the Father through Isaiah as the sign for Ahaz of his impending military success.

Some seven hundred years later, Matthew took this yet unfulfilled prophecy and attached it to the birth of Jesus, which followed the model of the original.  Like the prophecy, which told of a child born to a young woman, almah, likely unmarried but of marriage age, Jesus was born to Mary, a young girl, engaged to Joseph but not yet known by him (Biblical euphemism that means they had not yet engaged in intercourse).  Ahaz had failed to live up to God’s intention for him or his kingdom and was, of course, duly punished.  In the intervening years, there had been no fulfillment of the promise, no child born to an almah who would come close to being Immanuel – God with us.

Until that fateful day when Mary and her betrothed saddled up their donkey to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a taxation census.  Then, according to Matthew’s interpretation, the promise was finally fulfilled, God was born on earth.  God was here.  Or as Eugene Peterson has famously translated John 1, God moved into the neighborhood.

What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years later than it was intended to take place, is that God never left.  Immanuel, more commonly spelled with an E these days, never again went away.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of an almah and to live and die as one of us.  As the days continue to get shorter ahead of the winter solstice, this lesson seems vitally important.  The darkness of the season is often matched by the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Depression is common, suicides increase, disappointment seems to be around every corner.  There is much in this season that can make us wonder if God really is still here, but the promise of Isaiah, reinvigorated by Matthew, assures us that in Jesus, God’s Emmanuel, God is here.

No More Questions

As October draws to a close, so too does our brief stop over in conflict land.  The ongoing and ever heightening debate between Jesus and the various religious powers-that-be in the Temple has had us dealing with difficult parables, theological nuance, and socio-political background.  At every turn, Jesus has silenced his interrogators with wisdom and conviction.  Finally, in the Gospel lesson for Proper 25A, he brings the conversation to an end.  The problem is, I can’t tell if it ends with a bang or with a whimper.

By now Jesus has silenced the Chief Priests, the Elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees: just about everybody who was anybody in First Century Israel. Not to be undone, and most likely because they were stuck in Matthew’s craw, the Pharisees come back for one more tête-à-tête.  Their final question, regarding the greatest commandment, we’ll deal with later in the week.  Suffice it to say for now that they seem to have given up on tricking Jesus by now.

In response, Jesus asks them one, final question.  “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  Everybody knows the answer to that question.  Clearly the Messiah is the Son of David.  Jesus then quotes from Psalm 110:1 and finishes with these words, “If David thus calls him Lord, how can be be his son?”  Boom!?!  Fizz!?! Pflmpt…

Did Jesus do a Mic Drop?

Matthew tells us that no one was able to answer his question and that from then on, no one dared ask him anything else.  Why?  Were they as confused as I am about the whole interaction?  Were they amazed like they had been after the whole paying taxes encounter?  Did they finally realize there was no beating Jesus at his own game?  I honestly don’t know the answer here, so if any of my wise readers wants to weigh in, I’m glad to hear your thoughts.

Eschatology and Parables – Oh My!

As I tried to make clear last week, I love parables because they aren’t easy to understand.  This presumes that I enjoy working at difficult theology, which I do, but everyone has their limit.  So it is when the lectionary invites us to handle the Parable of Wheat and Tares.  For the second straight week, we are given a juicy parable by Jesus.  This one even starts with a variant of my favorite opening line, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

If all we had was the parable itself, this would be an interesting enough exercise.  What does it mean that in his description of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus includes a) the enemy and b) the enemy’s fruit?  How does Jesus’ acknowledgement of the presence of evil help us to understand the world around us better?  How does it open up our imaginations around the Kingdom of God?  What does it say that the farmer allows the tares (weeds) to grow alongside the good wheat throughout the growing season?  These are just a few of the several difficult questions that are brought up in this week’s parable.

But the lesson doesn’t end there.  For the second straight week, we are also given an allegorical interpretation from the lips of Jesus himself.  As I said in my sermon yesterday, I don’t particularly like allegories because I think they make the parables too easy to understand.  This is not the case this week, however.  This week, Jesus raises the bar by including in his allegory “the harvest is the end the age.”  So not only do we have the depth of the parable to deal with, but we also have eschatology or in more common parlance, the End Times.  Matthew’s Gospel has a strong eschatological bend to it.  He spends most of chapters 24 and 25 expanding on Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  Given the first century context and the notion that Jesus was coming back “before some in this generation fell asleep,” it makes sense that the Gospel writers would deal with the end of the age, but now 2,000 years later, when eschatology is mostly the purview of a few quack authors who enjoy clothesline theology, the average Mainline preacher will be well advised and probably hard pressed to carefully handle the eschatology in Jesus’ interpretation of the Parable of Wheat and Tares.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel equipped to deal with the eschatology in this parable adequately.  I’m not preaching this week, so I probably won’t take the time to do the research, but I will pray for those who are preaching this Sunday.  It is a daunting task.  If you are preaching this week, I’d love to hear how you handle to deal with this parable and its inherent eschatology.  And if you have a go to resource, be sure to link to in in the comments.

The Problem with Biblical Literalism

Every three years, preachers get the chance to chuckle at poor Matthew’s interpretation of the prophet Zechariah.  We laugh because we’ve all been there before.  In attempting to interpret and understand texts written by people who lived long ago in vastly different cultures and contexts than our own, we are bound to make mistakes every once in a while.  Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday is our cautionary tale.

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me…’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”

Tradition tells us that Matthew was a tax collector.  Hebrew by birth, his education and working environment were distinctly Roman and his preferred language was probably Greek.  Whether or not you actually believe that Matthew the Apostle was also Matthew the Evangelist, the attribution of Matthew to this Gospel tells us somethings about the community in which it was used.  It was most likely a Greek speaking, Gentile church.  Their understanding of the Hebrew scriptures would have been limited and certainly come from the Septuagint.  Like many Christians today, they would have had little ability to understand the nuances of Hebrew prophetic poetry.

So when “Matthew” took Mark’s version of Palm Sunday and tried to spell out for his community why these details were important, he misunderstood Zechariah’s parallelism and read the prophecy literally, which meant that in order to fulfill this prophecy, Jesus had to enter Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal.

A rare photograph, taken by Matthew, of Jesus’ triumphal entry

In order for an evangelist to make sense of the Biblical narrative for his/her hearer, it is imperative that (s)he work hard to understand the original context.  It opens the text and allows it to come alive for modern hearers.  By seeing how our particular context differs from that of the original biblical story, we can begin to see how these stories can continue to speak to our lives even thousands of years later.  Of course, it takes time and energy to do that research, and preachers tend to have very little of both by the time Lent 5 rolls around.  I’m praying for my preaching readers especially this week, that they might have the time to look deep into the text and make the story of Jesus alive for their congregations this week.

*This post isn’t possible without the work of Carl Gregg on Patheos.

Call Stories

The more I read and think about Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the more I think that it shouldn’t be preached by a member of the clergy.  Here’s why.  The ordination process is riddled with opportunities to tell one’s faith story.  I mean, ad nauseum.  Whether you were born and raised in The Episcopal Church or picked up out the gutter by a Bishop on her way to a visitation, the details of how you ended up felling called to ordained ministry are read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by Rectors, Vestries, Discernment Committees, Bishop’s Commissions on Ministry, Standing Committees, Seminary Admissions Officers, Classmates, family, friends, and at some point, even the family pet.  As a result of the at process (that can last upwards of 5 years or more), clergy are programmed to hear the phrase “call story” and immediately think, “ordination.”

Which is, of course, a load of crap.

The truth of the matter is that each of us has been called to be a disciple in our own unique way.  In Matthew’s Gospel, while speaking to fishermen-come-apostles, Jesus calls them to be “fishers of men” (sorry for the gender specificity, it just sounds better in this case).  In speaking to lawyers-come-disciples, Jesus calls them to be lawyers for the Kingdom.  The same is true for doctors, teachers, candlestick makers, home economists, letter carriers, engineers, entertainers, small business owners, retirees, students – you name it.  Which is why, I think that this lesson shouldn’t be preached by clergy.  It should be preached by lay leaders who have figured out how their call to be a disciple impacts their everyday lives: at home, work, school, or play.

At the very least, I hope that the ordained preachers out there can figure out a way to open this story up to the widest possible interpretation, rather than taking the chance to, once again, rehearse their own call story on yet another set of ears.