Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An Interpretive Field Day...or Obstacle Course.

Wow, wow, wow to our readings this week. SO many interpretive choices that we must wrestle with as we read them, things that can both trouble us deeply and lead us to laugh out loud (which I actually did when I learned something new about the Luke reading this week!).

Our readings this week are Psalm 32, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 and Luke 19:1-10. Read them here...though you may want to go to this site and look up Psalm 32 in its entirety (since we'll be dealing with the whole prayer in worship on Sunday) and look up 2 Thess 1:1-12 in its entirety including the verses the lectionary omits since we'll be addressing that interpretive choice below.

I'll briefly address issues around the 2 Thessalonians reading (though we likely won't be spending much time on this text on Sunday) since a curious tension in these verses was pointed out at Bible Study this past Saturday as something people would like probed a little more fully. In a classic move by those who assembled the Revised Common Lectionary that we (and churches around the world) use to outline our scripture readings each week, the middle portion of the opening greeting and thanksgiving of 2 Thessalonians is cut out of our suggested reading this week. When one looks up these verses, it is no wonder: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 includes some of the most vitriolic language in the New Testament--language that sounds much more like the Old Testament God of vengeance than the New Testament God of grace. How do we deal with this omitted text that's at the heart of our passage?

I did some reading, and it seems there are several interpretive approaches we could take to these verses. One interpretation suggests that linking Jesus to such a final and fiery judgment was a way for the writer to help establish Jesus' full divinity--linking Jesus in the Thessalonians' minds to the images they had of God as final arbiter and judge of humanity and giving Jesus full power and authority over all things. Another suggests that this is in line with an ancient letter writing technique of gaining affinity with your audience by identifying with them in their situation--by going off against those who had been the root of the Thessalonians' suffering, the author could find solidarity with them in the midst of their struggle. Another way to encounter these words is to put them in context of the wider book--a book that addressed the fact that many in Thessalonica believed that the last days were already here and were now just sitting around on their rear ends, convinced the end was at any moment. Here the writer is from the beginning setting up the fact that redemption is still to come--and hence the Thessalonians need to keep living toward that not-yet future with faithfulness and expectation. Finally, it's possible that the writer is just furious about what the Thessalonians have had to go through and is letting some of that rage run unchecked before finally reeling it back in and returning to a more "proper" voice of thanksgiving in verses 11-12.

Are those enough interpretive choices for you? Phew. And I'm sure there are tons others I have not even thought of or encountered. For those of you interested in wrestling with this more, I'd recommend reading 2 Thessalonians all the way through (it's a short book)...I think context here is really important, as always--but perhaps even moreso than usual!

There are some really interesting interpretive choices to be made in Psalm 32 and especially in the Luke passage as well...but looking at how long this blog already is, those will have to wait for Sunday or some other time. Here's a teaser, though: who would have believed that there would be something new to learn about the Zacchaeus story after a whole lifetime of doing the story in Vacation Bible School EVERY YEAR that startled me so much I laughed out loud? don't usually read the text in the Greek for Bible School, do you?
Stay tuned on Sunday as we continue this adventure of working to interpret scripture together! In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on the 2 Thessalonians passage...or any of the others, for that matter! Comment away!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Speaking Our Souls

Our scriptures for this week are Psalm 84, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, and Luke 18:9-14. Give them a read (though be sure to look up and read all of Psalm 84, not just the 7 verses here--why the lectionary refuses to include full prayers, I do not know!) here.

Psalm 84 is a beautiful prayer--melodic, hopeful, full of emotion and joy and authenticity. But as I've begun living in it and studying it this week within the broader context of the book of Psalms, an interesting tension has bubbled to the surface for me. When considered in its content, Psalm 84 sounds like it belongs with the Song of Ascents--that is, among the 15 prayers found in Psalms 120-134 that are the cries of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for festivals, travelling long distances until they finally come into view of the Temple at the top of the Mount...the place where the God and community they long for can at last be found.

Yet this is not where Psalm 84 is found contextually--rather, it is embedded among a group of prayers anticipating and dealing with the reality of exile, with impending separation from home and the Temple where God's presence can be felt most fully. The prayers on either side of it are cries of lament over gathering enemies, cries not of God's beauty but asking God to relent in God's anger.

How is our reading--and praying--of Psalm 84 enriched when we read it in a broader context? When we realize that the Psalmist was likely not actually seeing the Temple, but rather tasting the bittersweet fullness of perpetual longing and fainting spoken of in verse 2? What must it have taken for the Psalmist to keep praying his or her deepest longings even as it looked like there was little possibility of these dreams becoming reality in his or her lifetime? Why would the Psalmist persist in praying such impossible longings, persist in speaking his or her soul in such a deep way?

Before we get together on Sunday, try praying Psalm 84...pray it with the fullness of your heart, and see what happens. Which words or images reach your soul? What deep longings does it stir in you?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A REALLY Long Prayer

Our lectionary texts this week are Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and Luke 18:1-8. It's likely that none of these are super familiar be sure to read them for yourself by clicking here.

Prayer is the topic that has been on my mind this week more than usual. In part this has been brought on by watching, along with the world, the amazing rescue of the Chilean miners unfolding the past two days. As they emerged from the underground cavern where they had been trapped for the past 69 days, the first thing several of the miners did was drop to their knees in prayer. The return of the men to safety at the surface also set off a variety of religious commentaries about the power of prayer and the role it played in the rescue--a particularly interesting article reflecting on this was published here.

Prayer has also been on my mind because we are going to spend the next three weeks in worship talking about prayer together--about who we're praying to, what we're praying for, where we're praying from--asking hard questions about prayer and looking to scripture for sometimes hard guidance on this journey of being in relationship and dialogue with God. Our conversation is going to be guided by two of the most powerful resources we have for thinking about prayer--Jesus' own teaching, and the Psalms, which have long been called "the prayer book of the Bible."

Our first Psalm is a doozy--at 176 verses, Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible by a landslide. It goes on for pages. It's full of big, crazy words and ideas--the ones contained in the jumble of an image above. So you can imagine my chagrin when everything I read about the section of the Psalm we're looking at on Sunday--verses 97 to 104--said that to really get this Psalm, you need to read the whole thing. Not just that, but you need to pray the whole thing, internalizing its words as your own.

176 verses? Really?

But I did it. I read the whole thing, jotting down notes of my reactions and observations along the way. It was interesting to watch myself evolve as the prayer moved. For the first 20 verses or so, I felt annoyed at whoever penned this prayer; it is so redundant. Couldn't he have said all of this in 30 verses or so?

But as I continued to read, continued to pray, I found myself getting caught up in the surging current of this prayer, awash in its sometimes grandiose poetry. I found myself riding the ups and downs of the roller coaster the pray-er was on, soaring with unpredictable speed from begging to proclaiming to almost laughing outloud with delight to pleading to declaring with utter confidence. I found myself amazed at how this pray-er, no matter his or her emotion at the time, prayed with this utter, almost ridiculous boldness and confidence. I felt at times like I was eavesdropping on a conversation so intimate it should not be overheard even in snippets, let alone word to word by someone else.

But most of all...I found myself desperately wanting to know a God that you could talk to like this. I found myself yearning to know the psalmist's God, and to know that God in such fullness, with such depth and intimacy and realness and authenticity. I found myself wishing I could pour out 176 verses that reflected such knowledge and experience of God, that painted such a beautiful picture of who God is.

So as we prepare for Sunday...take this challenge. Read Psalm 119. The whole thing. Let its long, crazy stream of words wash over you. Pay attention to how they affect you. And think about the kind of God that they point this the God you pray to? And what would it look like for you to pray to such a God with your whole heart?

Join us on Sunday morning and we can compare notes:)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Week of Looking Back instead of Looking Forward

This week's blog is going to be a little different! Since I am going to be away this Sunday, we will be welcoming a guest preacher to the pulpit, John Roberts, Pastor Emeritus of Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore. Since John is going off lectionary this week (look forward to his sermon based on 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Matthew 4:18-22!), it seemed silly for me to blog on the lectionary instead, I wanted to offer some reflections on the powerful experience many of us at Broadneck and around the world shared in worship this past Sunday.

Since the 1930s and 1940s, World Communion Sunday has been celebrated by many Christian traditions across the globe on the first Sunday of October. It is a day when congregations of varied denominations, geographical locations, and backgrounds all agree to come to the Lord's Table as a symbol of our unity in Christ, of the one bread and one cup that we all share and that makes of us one body.

On Sunday, our usual circle of participants gathered at the front of the sanctuary to pass the bread and the cup to one another, to join hands and sing of God's Amazing Grace. But on this particular Sunday, thanks to the creativity of our Worship Ministry Group, our circle was much larger than our eyes could see. At the same moment (11:00 AM EST) that we were gathering to share the supper, a congregation in England to which some of our members have a connection and a congregation in the Czech Republic where some of our members are currently living and serving in ministry each gathered to break bread at the same time that we did, to pray prayers that members of our different churches had written, and to pray by name for those in the other churches gathered to worship.

Communion, on this day, took on a much broader scope: we were literally in communion with Christians from multiple other nations whose faces we may never see but who we are bound to as brothers and sisters in Christ. The opportunity to take the prayers that people in England and Prague had written and lay them beside prayers written here in Maryland, creating a liturgy together and knowing that each of our churches would be offering these prayers for our world and one another in unison, was one of the most humbling things I have ever done. How much bigger than all of us is the mission and love of this God that we serve!

The responses I received from the congregations in England and Prague about their experiences of this communion were so moving that I asked their permission to share them with you. Take a look at what happened in other places this Sunday:

“We loved being ‘with you’. Our main worship service is in the morning but an evening (6:30) more intimate affair does happen some weeks. This was re-scheduled for us today so we could meet at 11am EST (4pm here). Twenty of our folk gathered and during the liturgy, as a body, we read out the names of those listed from Maryland and Prague and the other places. St Cleers has many links with churches and smaller Christian communities around the world and your initiative has sparked a discussion here about their organising a ‘World Communion’ service some time. So thank you for making the first move and for thinking of us when putting together this partnership.” -Brian Pearson, Somerset, England

"Almost all our students joined us in the service. Our time of Silent Prayer was one of many voiced prayers in Russian, French, Lithuanian etc. We shared a loaf and drank tea. The students added chocolate candy. Conversation continued for over an hour. So lovely international worship. The time was precious. Our students really got into the prayer time and prayed in many languages for much longer than the three short litany prayers. They prayed for our church in particular. I know you are praying for them. Please continue." -Nancy Lively, Prague

On a week when we were reminded by Jesus that the faith we have is not so small after all, what a beautiful thing to be reminded of this larger story and community to which we are connected. May that connection--and the meal that we shared--nourish and sustain us for the work God has yet to call each of us to do!