A 21st Century Jeremiad

After many, many, many months of procrastination, I have finally started the research phase of my DMin Thesis, “William Reed Huntington Meets Brian McLaren and The Episcopal Moment.”  One of the reasons I was so slow to begin was that the first book staring me in the face wasn’t one I wanted to read.  The American Jeremiad was recommended by a member of the Sewanee Thesis Committee who suggested that perhaps the narrative of a changing world was nothing more than an old wive’s tale, based on the founding narrative of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the theory posited by Sacvan Bercovitch, author of The American Jeremiad.  I’m 25% through the book now, and I just don’t buy it.

What I have found interesting is the word in the title that I had never heard before, Jeremiad.  According to Google, a jeremiad is a long, mournful complain or lamentation.  Bercovitch expands that definition to include not only lamentation, but the promise of restoration of God’s chosen people.  His argument is that America, or at least the Massachusetts Bay Colony portion of it, was founded on a belief that America was God’s new Promised Land, that the early settlers were chosen by God to bring about the End Times, and that any suffering they encountered was simply God preparing them for their future glory, and he bases it on a series of sermons, preached over the course of three generations on the Old Testament lesson appointed for Lent 5B, Jeremiah 31:31-34 (hence the name Jeremiad).

Like I said, despite what I said yesterday about Rabbi Friedman’s theory of foundation story, the American colonies were too diverse for me to believe that to this day, all of American society is built on some sermons by early preachers/civic leaders on Massachusetts Bay. (And I don’t think this opinion is merely the result of my overwhelming dislike of all things New England).  The fact that Jeremiah 31 is scheduled to be read this Sunday does have me thinking about what a 21st Century Jeremiad might look like.

Most American preachers have long since given up the idea that American prosperity will bring about the return of Jesus, but we are very accustomed to the idea of the New Covenant, written upon our hearts.  When we look at the world around us, we realize, very quickly, that it is not the way God intended it to be, and yet we know that in Christ, we find the fullness of the Kingdom of God living and active not only in 1st century Palestine, but through his Church, empowered by the Spirit, to this very day.  Not only in America, but around the globe.  The 21st century Jeremiad, the promise of restoration even in the midst of pain and hardship, thanks to the power of the internet is an international promise as well as an international call to repentance.

The world is once again flat.  Overindulgence in America creates climate woe in Africa.  Political hardship in the Middle East creates an immigration crisis in Eastern Europe.  The ubiquitousness of Social Media creates violent reactions in non- or anti-globalization cultures.  The Jeremiad of the 21st Century is a call to read the law written upon our own hearts and to live it, to set an example of justice and peace for the people around us, and to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world at large.  It is not less idealistic that it was when Jeremiah spoke his now famous words, but it is likewise no less the call of God to his faithful people.

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Grace. Love. Communion.

As I suggested in yesterday’s post, the Lectionary texts for Trinity Sunday aren’t exactly rich and/or full.  I’m a fan of the Genesis text for the reasons I explained, but it must also be noted that the Epistle and Gospel lesson are really, really short.  Thankfully, I’m taking a class here at Sewanee in which the professors are suggesting that the texts take a back seat on feast days like Trinity Sunday, and that the preacher should instead focus on a (notice that this means one) theological theme that the feast day raises and then see how the Biblical texts might inform that conversation.

For example, on Trinity Sunday, a theme might be: “How Christians engage with the Trinity.”  Plenty of examples of parachoresis exist, and I’ll let someone else do the liturgical dance number for that.  Instead, I’d jump to the lesson from 2nd Corinthians and explore how Paul’s closing words to the conflict-ridden Church in Corinth help us understand the role of the Trinity in community.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

Through the Second Person of the Trinity, we receive the unmerited favor of God.  By grace, we are restored into full communion with the Trinity and invited to take our place in the work of restoring creation to the fullness of God’s dream for it.  Through the First Person of the Trinity, we learn about love: perfect and unconditional love that gives of itself fully for the other; love that is so overwhelming that it flows forth and creates new things to love.  Through the Third Person of the Trinity, we receive admittance into the Communion of Saints, we take our place in the Church throughout all ages, and seek unity with the faithful in every generation.

Obviously, this is a work in progress, but hopefully you get the idea.  This Trinity Sunday, perhaps we should ask our people, “How do you engage the Trinity?”  I’m guessing we’ll be surprised by their answers.

What Exactly is Faith?

“Increase our faith!”

As our Gospel lesson for Sunday opens, we find the disciples imploring Jesus for more faith, but that leads me to wonder, “what exactly is faith?”  My wondering has been exacerbated by a question from a friend and regular commenter here at DT, WEV, who is in his fourth year of Sewanee’s Education for Ministry program.  The early part of this year’s program is dealing with faith, including reading a book by a guy with the best theologian name ever, Diogenese Allen, called Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.  His question came from the text provided by Sewanee, and I took as snapshot of it to remind myself of what was going on (you’ll have to pardon any inherent copyright violations, and if you get bored with academic wrangling over language, jump down to the *).

2013-10-01 18.02.08

The first thing that comes to my mind is, “why is Sewanee quoting a book copyrighted in 1979 that isn’t the Book of Common Prayer, and don’t say ‘because Urban Holmes was once the Dean of the School of Theology,’ because my brain will explode.”  The second thought was, “And why are we looking at the Latin forms?”  It is always best to go back to the original language in matters of Biblical study, so why this extensive block quote of a tertiary source evaluating a primary source based on a secondary one?

So, I dug deeper.  That one time that “belief” appears in the Authorized Version, it comes from 2 Thess 2.13, “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.”  The argument of Holmes and Westerhoff is that this is somehow different than the 233 times that “faith” is used.  Except, when you look at the Vulgate, the Latin word isn’t “opinor,” but rather “fide,” which Holmes and Westerhoff already translated as faith.  Digging deeper, assuming we’re using different Latin versions (I don’t have an LXX handy), the Greek root is “pistos,” which is the same word used for faith all throughout the Greek New Testament.

As the New Testament made its way from Greek to Latin, translators attempted to put nuance to the Greek word “pistos” and chose to translate either as “fide”, as in fidelity or “credo”, as in creed. (Side note: my ability to search the Vulgate brings no mention of “opinor”).  In English, translators have attempted to do the same thing by using variants (something Holmes and Westerhoff ignore in their text) of “faith” and “belief,” but even in that most famous line from John 14.1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God.  Believe also in me.”  Both times the Latin word is “credo” and the Greek “pistos.”

Marcus Borg, a man much smarter than me, has written a whole chapter on this subject in his book The Heart of Christianity, and I suggest you check out chapter two, “Faith: the way of the heart”, in which he expands on “fide” and “credo”.  Suffice it to end this digression by saying that there seems to be some real difficulty in getting into the mind of the Greek authors as we try to nuance their language for ourselves.

* Which brings me back to my original question, “what exactly is faith?”  The disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith” (Gk “pistos” and VUL “fide”), so what are they asking for?  Do they want a stronger conviction that Jesus is who he says he is?  Do they want to be more loyal to him?  Do they seek a deeper relationship with him?  I’m pretty sure they are asking for all of the above, but most importantly, they want to know that they’ve got the chops to be his disciples.  To borrow from Marcus Borg a bit, they’ve given their heart over to Jesus, they have trusted him this far, but as Jerusalem looms, they’re pretty sure they’re going to need a double portion of faith.

Who of us can’t relate to that feeling?  Which of us hasn’t said, at one time or another, “God, I need you a little bit more today”?  As Saint Paul famously wrote, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is what carries us through when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Faith is giving our heart (And everything else) to God: credo, fide, pistos, or otherwise.  Faith is a relationship with the Lord.