How to choose?

Most weeks, the lesson of choice for preaching is fairly obvious.  It is my preference to preach from the Gospel on most occasions, but by the time we reach the 7th Sunday of Easter, it can become challenging to tie the lesson in with the season.  We’ve long since run out of resurrection encounters, especially when they hold fast to this “1 Synoptic + John” mindset in the three-year lectionary cycle.  We’ve been back in Holy Week, at the Last Supper, no less, for three weeks now.  It is post-Ascension in the calendar, so we could tell one of those stories, but I guess that’s not as interesting to the RCL Cartel as a run-on sentence from John 17.

As I look at the other options for this Sunday, there’s the really interesting story from Acts (a staple in Eastertide) of Paul’s temper-tantrum putting him in jail and God providing a way out.  From Revelation, we have a smattering on selected verses from the book’s final chapter.  If one had been doing a series on John’s great vision, I suppose that could be a helpful bookend.  On a short preaching week, with an Ascension Day Eucharist and wedding sermon staring at me as well, I find myself really struggling with which lesson to dive into for preaching this week.

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In one of my preaching courses, Dr. Brosend taught us to ask the homiletical question, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”  When the preaching process is easy.  When the Gospel lesson is narrative.  When the application is obvious.  This question is fairly easy to answer, but on weeks like Easter 7C, when the lectionary seems to be conspiring against the preacher, the process takes a lot more time.  I can’t just pull resources from my trusted sites on textweek.com and begin the percolating process.  Instead, this week, amidst of the busyness of the many other demands that come with a stipend and full-time employment in the priestly vocation, I’ll be listening more carefully for what the Spirit wants the people of God to hear.

Dear reader, how do you choose?  When the text isn’t obvious and the message isn’t clear, how do you discern what to preach?  I’ll be praying for you as you do your homework.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

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The Challenge of Trinity Sunday

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According to Wikipedia, that great source of all church history and theology, the First Sunday after Pentecost has been known as Trinity Sunday since the Pontificate of John the 22nd in the early 14th century, but its roots go all the way back to the Arian Controversy at the turn of the 4th.  You would think that in the course of more than 1600 years, someone might have found some better lessons than those assigned for Trinity Sunday in Year C.  I mean, the day is already rife with difficulty, as anything created in opposition to something else would be, but as a preacher committed to the text and the author of a “blog about the Bible,” the Scriptural basis for Trinity Sunday seems to be woefully lacking.

I’ve not gone back to look at the Propers for Trinity in years A and B, but it is clear that the focus in year C is on the Third Person of the Trinity.  On the back of Pentecost, we’re invited to ponder the Holy Spirit from three distinct angles.  First, the lesson from Proverbs that borders on the Macedonian heresy, invites the preacher to deal with the co-eternal nature of the Trinity that gets priority billing in the Proper Preface for Trinity Sunday.  If the preacher is hesitant to dive headlong into a systematic theology of the Trinity, then perhaps the Gospel lesson, our fifth straight from the Farewell Discourse in John, will prove more fruitful.

Here, in the 16th chapter of John, Jesus is explaining the work of the Holy Spirit to his disciples, all the while realizing that the events of the next 24 hours are going to make most of what he has told them seem moot.  “I have much more to say to you, but right now it would be more than you can understand,” might just the be best word a preacher could say to her congregation on Trinity Sunday.  Embracing the mystery of the Trinity is part and parcel of a faith that is built on mystery: of the Incarnation, of sanctification, and of the real presence in the Eucharist, just to name a few.

If mystery isn’t for you, then you might consider the lesson from Romans 5, which is the most explicitly Trinitarian lesson of the three, but only because it names all three Persons (assuming by God, Paul means the Father), not that their natures or relationship are explained in much depth at all.  Avoiding Modalism will be the challenge here, as the preacher tries to highlight the distinctions of the three Persons, while steering clear of bad analogies like the three phases of water or Saint Patrick’s classic three leaf clover.  No matter what you choose to preach this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, especially in Year C, presents many challenges, but your hard work will be worth it, dear reader, I promise.  My prayers are with you, and I welcome yours with me.

King of kings

Depending on when you purchased your 1979 Book of Common Prayer, you might be surprised to realize that the commonly used name for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (or the Sunday next before Advent), Christ the King, does not actually appear in your book.  If you bought your BCP prior to 2009, there is no reference to Christ the King Day, though since the Collect for Proper 29 was stolen from the Roman Catholic Missal, it does carry strong King of kings language (Hatchett, 195).

The move to call the day Christ the King Sunday comes with General Convention’s adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, and while some are opposed to the idea of the day taking a name that is otherwise foreign to the Book of Common Prayer, and despite my strong reservations about the ongoing Roman Catholic creep in The Episcopal Church, I am beyond fine with appropriating this particular name because I think it invites us to ponder some of the language that gets used around the person of Jesus.  Words like kingdom, reign, Lord, and of course, King.

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For more than 800 years, the Pope, after his election, was crowned with a triple tiara, symbolizing, among other things, his status as the Vicar of Christ, who is seated as King of heaven, earth, and hell.  Despite the less than stellar Photoshop job above, Benedict never wore the triple tiara, as it fell out of use after the Second Vatican Council.  Still, like Christ the King Sunday, the triple tiara serves a symbol that we might want to consider as we talk about Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and King.

Like Pilate in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we are stuck with the political understandings of this world.  Unlike Pilate, as Americans 239 years removed for a Monarch, we can barely begin to imagine what it means to make Jesus King of the Jews, let alone King of our Lives.  How do we handle the bold claims that we make in the Collect for the day?  What do we mean when, almost every week, we claim that Jesus lives and reigns in hypostatic union with the Trinity for ever and ever?  Kingship is tough for us to handle, it is highly counter-cultural, which is all the more reason to call this Sunday, Christ the King and honestly engage what that means for us and for our lives.

Get Behind Me!

I feel like shouting “Get behind me” to the Revised Common Lectionary divining rod that decided we need to hear the whole “Who do people say that I am?” story on a regular basis.  Honestly, it feels like we hear this lesson at least twice a year, which makes it so hard to preach.  I’m fully aware that most people can’t remember what the sermon was about before Sunday brunch is over, but that doesn’t ease my soul.  I want to offer something fresh every Sunday, but how many different ways can you spin this story?

Over the years, I’ve preached this sermon in various different ways.  One year, I spent some time unpacking what it meant that this story takes place in Caesarea Philippi.  Mark is notoriously sparse on details so when he tells us that this encounter between Jesus and his disciples takes place in Philip’s Caesartown it is worth noting.  There are strong political ramifications that come along with Jesus first being called the Messiah in a city built on a whim by a Roman Tetrarch to honor his boss who happened to carry the title, Son of God.

If political intrigue isn’t your cup of tea, then perhaps you might want to preach a sermon on the second paragraph in which Jesus first predicts his impending arrest, crucifixion, and the promise of resurrection that doesn’t get heard.  You might want to preach a sermon about evangelism, following the model of Jesus who said these things “quite openly.”  Maybe you’d rather look at the exchange between Peter and Jesus and dig into what it means to set our minds on divine things rather than human things.  There’s plenty of material to tackle grace, faith, sin and redemption through the lens of Peter, if you were so inclined.

Or, you could read still further, and unpack the famous third paragraph.  What does Jesus really mean when he says we should deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him?  How do we lose our lives while we are still very much alive?  Better yet, in a world where politics have overrun religion, how do we discern what God’s will is for our lives while the left and the right are trying to draw and quarter Christianity for their own purposes?  The bravest of preachers might even tackle the last sentence, and what Jesus means when he uses the word “ashamed.”

There is lost of material to pull from in Sunday’s Gospel, and even though most of it feels pretty stale, I’m certain there is something to be gleaned from it.  Even in a short preaching week, with prayer and study, the Gospel can come alive again with a fresh word for God’s people seeking to live the life of faith.  Send your Spirit, Lord, and open the minds, hearts, and lips of your servants as they seek to speak your word.  Amen.

How’d we get here?

“By what authority are you doing these things?”  That’s the question the chief priests and elders have for Jesus as he enters the Temple on Monday morning.  We’ll have to deal with that question tomorrow as there is obviously more to this story than meets the eye.  Here is another one of those times where the lectionary doesn’t help us much by taking a story completely out of context.  We’ve jumped from the Parable of the Generous Landowner in Proper 20 to Monday in Holy Week in Proper 21.  Here’s a glimpse of what happened in between.

Western European Jesus in picture 2 will be offset by a Palm Sunday in Africa image here.

Rabbi Jesus came to town, riding on a donkey.  Stuck a palm branch in his hair, and they called him “Son of David.”  He then proceeded to enter the Temple, flip over the money changers’ tables, chase them all out with whips (in John’s account at least), and then he heals the blind the lame who come to him.  As the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the chief priests and scribes became incensed and asked him, “Do you hear what they are saying?”  Sunday ended with Jesus leaving them Temple Court in ruins as the religious powers-that-be scratched their heads and plotted against him.

Our Gospel lesson opens the next morning as Jesus and his disciples return to the Temple and once again encounter the chief priests and scribes.  The Temple Council had probably been up all night trying to figure out what to do with Jesus, all the while assuming that they’d probably never see him again.  They plotted and schemed and planned and when, to their surprise, he does show up, they’re ready with a question to trap him in blasphemy.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  As the ruling voice of religion in Israel, they know that they didn’t give Jesus the authority, and so just about any answer he gives will lead them right into their trap.

What they didn’t expect was that Jesus would answer with a question of his own.

let’s talk about Ecclesiasticus for a minute

This week, the Revised Common Lectionary offers preachers a choice in Old Testament lessons.  Well, that’s not entirely true, actually the RCL offers us a choice between a lesson from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) and the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus).  Every time Ecclesiasticus comes up in the Lectionary, I have to Google it because my HarperCollins Study Bible lists it by the title Sirach in the Table of Contents.

Whatever you call it, the book is assumed to have been written by a teacher called Ben Sira, which I think means son of Sirach and is where the alternative title for this book comes from.  It was written somewhere between 200 and 180 AD as a set of instructions (a book of Wisdom) for the people of Israel to hold onto as Judea was the battle ground between the Seleucids from Antioch and the Ptolemies in Egypt.  The book carried enough importance that it was included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and therefore held a place in the Christian canon very early on.  As time has gone by and as Jewish leaders have argued over the validity of Sirach in their own canon, it has come to be included in various ways across denominations, with more reformed traditions excising it entirely. (Thanks HarperCollins Study Bible and wikipedia for dropping this knowledge on us)

What really gets me about the optional text from Ecclesiasticus for Sunday is just how non-Christian it is.  Or, should I say, just how non-post-reformation Christian it is.  This section from chapter 15 makes the book of James sound soft on works righteousness.  Just read the opening sentence, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”  Hey now!  Couple this with Jesus’ difficult teaching on the Law and you could find yourself deep in down the road of Pelagianism, a fourth century heresy that is gaining in popularity these days.


It is a tricky passage, and I’m guessing most preachers will choose Deuteronomy instead, but it at least deserves some thought.

What Should We Do?

If I were in the smokey room, sipping a glass of 25 year old MacAllan, and debating the pericopes that would eventually make up the Revised Common Lectionary, I think I would have suggested a change to the Pentecost lesson.  The RCL is quite fond of “Selected Verses,” that is, they are really good at cherry picking the Scriptures to try to make 1) a coherent narrative or 2) force a theme upon the preacher.  I find it odd, then, that in their attempt to not deal with Peter’s exegesis of the Joel and the Gospel, they didn’t jump back into Acts 2 at verse 37.

“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’  Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you n the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord God calls to him.'” (Acts 2:37-39, emphasis mine)

While pinning down an Apostolic tradition is like nailing Jell-o to a wall, my reading ahead of this summer’s “Mapping Ritual Structures” class has led me to believe that the most ancient of baptismal traditions is Pentecost Day baptisms.  Baptism is, according to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, “Full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ Body the Church.” (298)  That sentiment is stated more fully in the prayer over the neophytes immediately after they’ve been washed with water (and optionally (this action is required, but can happen before or after the prayer), “confirmed” by the laying on of hands and marked with the sign of the cross (with the additional of option of sealing with chrism)).

“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.  Sustain them, O Lord, in  your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere  a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.” (308)

As I read Acts 2 and subsequent Church history, the ancient ideal appears to be that when the Gospel message “cuts to the quick” one is immediately baptized, receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is fed at the Lord’s table (an addition that comes not too far after Acts 2).  While the tradition would grow to make certain days (i.e. Pentecost and The Easter Vigil) better suited for baptism than others, the reality is that what is happening in the Sacrament is always the Church catching up with what the Spirit is already doing.  The 3,000 who were added to the fold on Pentecost Day were asking “What must we do” because the Spirit was already at work, leading them by way of Peter’s sermon, to life in the Kingdom of God.  The ritual actions of baptism and the laying on of hands are the outward and visible sign of the power of the Spirit already at work.

Even in our very modern liturgy, we don’t presume that the Spirit arrives on the scene in the waters or the chrism, but instead we pray that the neophytes might by “sustained” in the Spirit: that the Spirit might continue the work already begun.  So, as the Saint Paul’s family gathers on the shores of Week’s Bay this Sunday to take our place in 2,000 years of historical precedent and baptize an infant and at least one adult, we do so, fully realizing that God is already at work, that grace has already been poured out, and that the Spirit’s power is working in and through the Church and her members all the time.

What should we do?  Give thanks.  Splash water.  Live in the Spirit.