Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Sermon on the Mount

Our lectionary readings this week are Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12. You can read them here.

Over the next few weeks, our Gospel readings all come from the inaugural sermon of Jesus' ministry according to Matthew's Gospel: The Sermon on the Mount, that rich block of teaching that makes up chapters 5-7. We will be experiencing all of chapter 5 and a chunk of chapter 6 over the next few weeks, giving us a rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in this sermon over a period of time, to hear how Jesus' words are still words that hold power for us.

I have a couple of good clergy friends who are preaching the next few weeks under a sermon series title that's something like "The Greatest Sermon Ever." I can hardly dispute this--the Sermon on the Mount is amazing. But I didn't want to use this title to frame our next few weeks, because I don't think what Jesus was trying to do here was preach a great sermon (though it was) that would be forever immortalized (though it has been) and make him famous and beloved (which it did...though, as is true for most who preach prophetically, that beloved thing didn't really last and didn't fully sink in til after he was long gone from this earth and was no longer ruffling the people's feathers on a weekly basis). I think Jesus' intention here was in shaping a community. He gives this sermon just after calling the disciples and going out among the people healing for the first time; these people are now following him around, and Jesus sees that they are ripe for the harvest (to swipe a metaphor he will use elsewhere). Speaking to them, having their total focus on the mountain as they are isolated away from everyday life, is a prime opportunity for Jesus to begin to reshape their imaginations and worldviews and perspectives and priorities--to begin to paint a picture for them of what their new Life Together in community might look like.

This week, we get only the opening lines of Jesus' sermon--those oft-quoted lines of the Beatitudes (a title that comes from the Latin word for "blessed" which shows up so many times in this passage). Jesus begins not with a clear to-do (or not-to-do) list like the 10 commandments, as God did when God began to shape the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. Jesus begins with words that read more like a poem, or a riddle--setting an early precendent for the way he will teach mostly not with clear cut mandates, but with parables that invite the people to engage themselves in the interpretation.
What is the significance of Jesus' choice to begin by speaking about blessedness?
What does it mean to be blessed?
How can we use this poetic introduction as a lens through which to encounter and interpret the rest of Jesus' sermon? We often read and study the beatitudes in isolation from the rest of Matthew 5-7...but they are very clearly linked to this larger text. How can making the connection help us live into them?
As we prepare for these weeks of spending time with Jesus' sermon and figuring out what it might mean for our Life Together as the people of God and as Broadneck Baptist Church, this week I would encourage you to take 20 or 30 minutes and read Matthew 5-7 straight through without stopping, to get the feel of the sermon from start to finish. What kind of impact does it make on you? And how would the sermon have felt different if it had begun, say, with verse 13 rather than with this declaration of blessing?
Food for thought, as usual, as we begin this most interesting journey together. May we allow ourselves and our life together to be shaped anew by Jesus' words to us in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"I'll Take Old Testament Geography for $800, Alex..."

Our lectionary readings this week are Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, and Matthew 4:12-24--give them a read through here, paying special attention to the Isaiah reading and the first part of the Matthew reading, which will be the focus of our comments below!

Have you ever been in a situation where things are referenced from the past that everybody around you seems to know about, but that don't ring a bell for you? Maybe you were the youngster in a group reminiscing about a sitcom from 30 years ago or a certain 8-track recording that was all the rage...maybe you are from an older generation and have found yourself unable to decipher the text message slang and pop culture references batted about by a group of teens...maybe you have been in a church where past members are referenced as if they are still present, but you have no idea who they are and no frame of reference for what dropping their name might mean.

In reading today's passage from Isaiah, and its subsequent quotation by Matthew, it would be easy for us to glaze over at some of Isaiah's references like someone in a group where everyone else is clued in about something that's foreign to you. "In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations...the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian." Naphtali? Zebulun? Midian? Where on earth are these places? What was Isaiah referencing? And what did the beginning of Jesus' ministry have to do with these ancient allusions hundreds of years later? To spend any time on these hard-to-pronounce ancient names may seem like a waste of our time...but if we travel back in Israel's history to look at the meaning of each of these locations, I think we may find some incredible parallels in them to our own time and place.

First, to Naphtali and Zebulun--the names of two of Jacob's lesser known sons, and two of the lesser known regions of ancient Israel. The tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun were given acreage in the northern region of the Promised Land--not prime real estate. They may have had some nice waterfront along the Sea of Galilee, but borders were also in perilously close proximity to basically every superpower that would beat up on Israel. They would become the first part of the land to be overrun by Assyria, plunging its residents into the darkness of exile and force servitude to a foreign king long before residents of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah. These lands were isolated and vulnerable, and hence most subject to abuse and oppression of any of Israel's peoples.

Isaiah proclaims that it is these run-down regions will be raised up "as on the day of Midian." Anyone out there who can tell me the meaning of Midian? Anyone? Well, in case you have not memorized Judges 6, God once told Gideon to go take on the Midianites, an invading army that was threatening Israel with troops more numerous than locusts and too many camels to be counted. Gideon, reluctantly, raises an army of thousands; but then God makes him cut his numbers, cut cut cut until only three hundred fighters remain, so that all will know that the victory was won by God and not by human force. Not only does Gideon take a tiny army to battle, the only weapons he is allowed to take are trumpets and torches--yet God gives Gideon and his ragtag band the victory over the mighty Midian.

SO...why is this strange passage, referencing these long-ago places and events from Israel's history, the one Matthew chooses to reference as Jesus begins his public ministry? Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— fulfilling what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light." Jesus, it seems, has chosen intentionally to set up his initial camp and call out his community not from the power center of Jerusalem, or from among a more prestigious neighborhood in Judah, but from among these fishing communities located along the sea. The band of followers that Jesus would gather together out of this region would not look powerful or formidable: like Gideon's crew that took on Midian, they would be small in number and not act in traditional ways...but they would pull something off that could only be done by God's power as they dropped their fishing nets to go follow Jesus in his incredible mission. Jesus chose to gather his disciples in a neighborhood that was off the beaten path, full of working people, vulnerable--and to gather not hundreds of them, but a dozen who would grow in knowledge, faithfulness, and eventually number to transform the world. maybe this is a stretch. But I couldn't help but notice...Cape St. Claire is a bit of a seaside community, isn't it? Broadneck is located in community much like Naphtali and Zebulun in many ways...a coastal, water-centered community of people working hard, located somewhat outside of the city center and Annapolis' center of power, an assortment of ordinary people trying to get by. It's a community that may look idyllic on the outside but that has also known the darknesses of prejudice, mental illness, economic hardship, and violence in its day. In the midst of this community, here we have intentionally planted ourselves, just as Jesus did--not to be a mega church, but to be a Gideon-like community of committed people living in non-traditional ways, seeking to let God work through us against all odds. I wonder what kind of power Jesus' choice for where to begin his ministry--in the traditions of Naphtali, Zebulun, and Midian--could have for how we continue to define ours?

Like I said, it may been too much of a stretch. But when we get to know our Old Testament Geography, it sure can give us interesting food for thought as we consider our own geography in this time and place.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Are We Answering to the Wrong Name?

Our Lectionary Readings this week are Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, and John 1:29-42. You can read this week's passages here.

I'm starting to wonder if we've gotten it all wrong. I mean...has anyone noticed that this will be the fourth Sunday out of our past seven that we've had to deal with John the Baptist? He keeps showing up, as one commentator put it, "like the cat who refused to take the hint when I've thrown him off my lap for the twentieth time."

We've gotten a lot of different pictures of John over the past few weeks: one preaching in the wilderness of the one who is to come; one who wonders if it is legit for him to baptize Jesus when Jesus is so much greater than him; but perhaps it is this week's picture of John that brings all the pictures together. If you were to Google pictures of John the Baptist, in almost every picture he is pointing away from himself, towards something else: whether it's a photograph reenactment, a Sunday School picture, or an icon of John, his index finger, nine times out of ten, is pointed away from himself. One person suggested that if John had a Facebook page, his Profile Picture would be a long finger, pointing away from himself, and every response to a Wall Post from his friends would be something like, "Go on over to the Lamb's page." This is because if John was certain of anything, it was his place: "I am not the One," John kept saying. "Don't look at me; look at him." Or, as he will say elsewhere in John's gospel, "He must increase, as I decrease." This, perhaps, is why this is pretty much the last time we'll meet John in our lectionary year after his prominence at the beginning.

John knew his place: He was not Jesus. He was a messenger, a witness, one sent to testify that others may see and follow Jesus. In this way...I wonder if John is a better model for our calling than Jesus is? After all, what John does is what we are to do: use our lives to point towards Christ, being willing to give up our own prominence that Jesus' true place may be honored, doing the work of baptism not for our own sakes or glory but as a way to testify about this One who baptizes with the Spirit? Maybe we've taken the wrong model for our life of faith...maybe, instead of calling ourselves Christians, we should call ourselves Baptists.

Oh, wait. We already do that. Johnians? Well, you get my point, hopefully: John models for us what following Jesus should look like in terms of how it shapes our lives.

Except for one thing: one really, really, really major detail. John, as best as we can tell, never follows Jesus...not physically, at least. He doesn't follow Jesus out of the desert and into the cities like his disciples do; he is not found with him on the Mount for the Sermon, he is not sent out with the 72 into all the towns to share the good news, he is not around to receive Jesus' post-resurrection commission nor the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit. As best as we can tell, John never actually follows the pointing of his own finger: he sees who Jesus is and declares this, but never changes the pattern and path of his life to actually follow him.

So I take it back. I have nothing but respect for John's witness in the desert; but why did he never take his witness beyond this? Why did he not lay down his title and follow Jesus, too? Why was he never transformed from John the Baptist into John the Christian?

All of this, I think, can raise questions for our discipleship. How are our fingers pointing to Jesus? This is a part of John's witness that we want to imitate--we want to invite people to behold Jesus. But we want to follow the wisdom of John's disciples, too...being aware enough to go where that finger points, to go on the hard journey of following Jesus out of the wilderness and into the world, even when we do not know where Jesus is leading. How can the movement of our lives point to Jesus as well, making us truly Christians as we walk in his dusty footsteps?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What's In a Voice?

Our readings for this week are Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, and Matthew 3:13-17. You can read them here.

What's in a voice? I found an amazing answer to that question this week as I perused my favorite news source, There, amidst stories about the NFL playoffs and Baseball Hall of Fame elections, was the story of one of the countless homeless men who roams the streets of Columbus, Ohio. This man, however, had something that set him apart: before falling into addiction, Ted Williams had been a radio announcer, and he still possessed a silky deep voice that literally had the power to stop traffic as he stood beside the road asking for help. As he demonstrated his voice off of an interstate exit ramp, a local news videographer stopped and shot some footage of Williams that took the internet by storm, much as the voice of Susan Boyle did when she unexpectedly blew away the panel of "Britain's Got Talent" with sounds that seemed to belong more to an angel than a plain middle aged woman. Williams' voice appears to be landing him a second chance: the Cleveland Cavaliers, upon seeing the video and hearing his amazing golden tone, have offered him a job in announcing work with their NBA team--a job that could very well help him get off the streets and turn his life around. (You can read the whole article here).

This story resonated with me this week in particular because of the powerful ways voice is at the center of our lectionary readings. Isaiah speaks of a servant whose voice stands in contrast to so many of the ostentatious voices of his world: this voice will not break the wounded, but will bring about justice. God's voice is heard in this passage as well: it is calling God's people in righteousness and declaring God's good intention to do a new thing, to turn things around.

Voices take center stage in the Matthew reading as well: the voice of John the Baptist no longer confidently crying out in the wilderness, but confusedly wondering why Jesus is coming to him to be baptized. In response, we hear Jesus' voice for the first time in the New Testament, a voice of absolute trust and obedience even in this act that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense: "let it be so," Jesus says. A voice that rips open the sky confirms that Jesus has done the right thing in acquiescing to God's strange leadings: God's voice affirming Jesus as God's Son and the one with whom God is well pleased likely became a memory that sustained Jesus during some of the darkest times of his ministry, and that gave him an impetus for the difficult actions that lay before him.

Acts brings us the voice of Peter, seeking to interpret for his audience all of the unusual things that God was bringing to pass around them. Speaking with bold confidence, Peter tells them the great story of what was begun when Jesus came out of Galilee to be baptized: a ministry of healing and help that ended in death, but was made whole in resurrection--a ministry that now belongs also to those who enter the baptismal waters after Christ.

As we move further into this new year and consider the meaning of Jesus' baptism this week and of our own call to baptism as well, it seems like a good time to pay attention to voices--to the voice of God and its call in our life; to the voices God has given us and the ways we are called to exercise those voices in this world; to the voices of those around us questioning and crying out for mercy. That God spoke at Jesus' baptism is a detail all of the Gospels agree upon...what is God speaking over us as we begin this new year as disciples, and what is God calling us to use the gift of our voices to do?