Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Things Your Pastor Would Totally Avoid Preaching About Were It Not For The Lectionary," Part III: The Letters of Paul

Our Lectionary Readings this week are Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Romans 7:13-25a, and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. The readings as always are found here, but it would really be helpful with these somewhat complex passages to read the entirety of each chapter (Genesis 24, Romans 7, and Matthew 11) rather than just the brief segments chosen by the lectionary.

In case you have not picked up on this pattern by now, each week the Revised Common Lectionary of suggested scripture readings that we follow lists four texts for the church's consideration: an Old Testament text, a Psalm, an Epistle reading (i.e. a New Testament reading other than from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John), and a Gospel reading. In my year at Broadneck, I have preached on a good number of Old Testament texts and a large number of suggested Gospel readings; I have even preached the Psalms a few times; and I have occasionally brought in Epistles. I have not, however, preached a sermon solely focused on one of the books that makes up a third of the New Testament canon: the letters attributed to the apostle Paul. In spite of Paul's frequent appearance in the lectionary, I tend to avoid him whenever possible.

Why, you ask?

I ask myself this question, too. There are a few reasons I can think of: an obvious excuse would be that it is some texts attributed to Paul that have been used to argue things that have been damaging to so many people--including passages that have been used to justify the exclusion of women from ordained ministry. Yet heaven knows that there are offensive things in the Old Testament, too, and occasionally in the this isn't enough.

I guess another reason is that I love stories--I love the rich characters and encounters that emerge in Gospel and Old Testament texts, and the dense theological statements of Paul are sometimes harder to convey. But...Paul's letters were also written to specific communities, each with their own stories to be this isn't enough either.

I suppose, if I am honest, Paul is just hard. He seems to contradict himself at points, and so much of his complex language could be construed in so many different ways. When I was in college, the girls' small group I was part of my first year decided to spend a semester reading the book of Romans, and we only made it to chapter 2 before we had gotten into so many arguments over Paul that we had to call it quits. Theologians and biblical scholars have exhausted bottle upon bottle of ink, roll after roll of parchment and paper, and countless Microsoft Word files over the past two millenium going at it about what Paul means not just overall, but in a single word here and there---for instance, today's text has raised exponential scholarly debate over the identity of the "I" (is it Paul? is it a rhetorical device representing all humanity? Is it Jews who have not believed the message of Christ? Is it pagans? Is it Christians continuing to struggle?), and each of these interpretations would cause you to preach the passage in a different way. With so many opinions, how can you ever know that your interpretation of Paul is "right," that you are not becoming another in a long line of preachers and Bible readers who have misconstrued his letters?

Still, in spite of all these misgivings, we cannot ignore Paul-- such a large portion of our canon is attributed to him, and he has perhaps done more than any other theologian to shape the theology of the Church--some have argued his teachings had more of an impact on the direction of the church than those of Jesus himself! So this week, if I don't wimp out, Paul will be present with us in will we read his words in Romans 7 together? Hopefully with a lot of openness and grace, wrestling with Paul as so many have before us in hopes that the wisdom of God's Spirit will prevail even amidst the confusion.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Things Your Pastor Would Totally Avoid Preaching About Were It Not For The Lectionary," Part II: The Binding of Isaac

"Abraham and Isaac", by John August Swanson

Our lectionary texts this week are Genesis 22:1-14 (though the whole chapter is worth reading) and Matthew 10:40-42 (though it is better put in context if you start a few verses earlier--at least at verse 37). I would also recommend Psalm 13, though I am not sure if we will deal with it directly on Sunday--it is one of the absolute most powerful prayers out there, in my humble opinion. You can read all of these texts here.


So, most preachers have commentators they lean on to help them navigate the muddy and difficult waters of scripture interpretation on a weekly basis--"experts" who bring a fabulous combination of thoughtfulness, scholarship, and pastoral sensitivity to the biblical text. This week, however, there was a problem: as I began my study work, I found that many commentators whose insight I appreciate did not write about the first suggested lectionary reading from Genesis 22. Most commentators turned to the alternate suggested reading from Jeremiah (one of the RARE occasions that Jeremiah could be seen as the "soft" text), or else stayed close to the Gospel text on hospitality.

Why, you ask?

Because this Genesis text is scary.


We like stories and texts that give us answers. This one, however, seems to call everything into question and raise more emotional and ethical and spiritual questions than we can possibly answer...perhaps even more than we can ask. The starkness of the story both makes it almost painful to read and invites us into that dangerous place of trying to fill in an infinite number of gaps in the story.

Why did God ask for this?

Why didn't Abraham fight back and argue with God?

What if Abraham had said no?

Did Isaac realize what was going on?

What was Abraham thinking, feeling?

What kind of God asks you to sacrifice your child?

Was God just toying with Abraham?

This isn't the God we know in Jesus, is it?

This was just a one time thing--God would never ask something like this of us, right?

Like I said, scary. Every time I've read this text this week, the tightness in my chest has grown read of this sort of encounter between God and someone God has chosen and (we presume) loves and cares's like looking a nightmare in the face. And even if it has a "happy" ending, there's nothing feel-good about it whatsoever as far as I can see.

So why not go for Jeremiah, or the Matthew text? Something easier...which would be, essentially, any other text?

Well...because this story is here for a reason. No matter how much we've tried to explain it away, to dismiss it as child abuse, to relegate it to the land of the's a core narrative of Judeo-Christian faith and therefore must tell us something crucial about this "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" that we still claim to worship. History has not swept this ugly incident under the rug, and neither can we. There's something key we need to encounter here about the character of our God...and about ourselves as made in that God's image. I don't know what it is yet--and come Sunday, may honestly still not know. It may be many things. But this isn't a story we can shove away, but must wrestle with continually...sit with in the darkness...let speak, even if it speaks words we don't want to hear.

So have courage, as on Sunday we go where few dare to go. I have no idea what we'll find, but I am glad that as the children of God at Broadneck, we'll be making the journey together.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Things Your Pastor Would Totally Avoid Preaching About Were It Not For The Lectionary," Part I: The Trinity

Our scripture readings for this first Sunday in the season of Pentecost (also called Ordinary Time) are Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, and Matthew 28:16-20. The very brief epistle reading from 2 Corinthians is also worth your time. You may read them all here.

For some reason, the liturgical calendar which we follow in our year together as a church and which shapes the lectionary of scripture readings we follow designates the Sunday after Pentecost each year as "Trinity Sunday." It's the one and only day that celebrates not a particular person or scriptural event, but a doctrine of the church--for, though the three-fold phrase of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" does show up occasionally in scripture (our New Testament readings for today being the case in point), the actual word "Trinity" never does--it's a term that did not come into mainstream Christian use until late in the 4th century. It emerged from a series of arguments among early theologians as to how we can understand God the Father/Creator/Almighty, Jesus, and now the Holy Spirit given to the church at Pentecost as all being the same God. The answer, which was given to me in seminary in the form of this nifty diagram, is this:

Well...that clears is all up, now doesn't it?

Any time I try to explain or, in this case, diagram the Trinity, my head wants to explode. My greatest fear, when I met with my ordination council that was going to examine me to see if I was ready to be an ordained minister, was that they would ask me something like, "How would you explain the Trinity to children?" I spent the whole day before my ordination council pouring over my notes from my Church History and Theology classes in case this question came up, trying to come up with a simple answer, with some insight into this mystifying diagram which somehow left me cold, and came to only one conclusion: I can't explain the Trinity to myself, let alone to others.

And maybe that's the point. Maybe this Trinity Sunday is here not to take us back to fourth century controversies, but to help us encounter the present-day God as expansive, multifaceted, and utterly unexplainable. To encounter God as One (or Three-in-One) who is always shifting, always moving, yet always present.

A diagram--well, depiction--of the Trinity that I've come to like a lot more than the one I was given in seminary is this one, painted by Jan Richardson, which will also grace our bulletin cover on Sunday:

I love this image--one of touching, of movement, of wholeness, of invitation, of equality yet distinctiveness. It's an image of the Trinity that comes from the Celtic tradition, and Richardson speaks of it this way: "In the Celtic triple spiral, there is a space where the three spirals connect. It is both a place of meeting and of sheer mystery. Its vast, vibrant emptiness reminds me that, in this life, we will never know all the names of God. Even as the Trinity evokes, it conceals. We will never exhaust the images we use to describe the One who holds us and sends us, who enfolds us and impels us in our eternal turning."

The Trinity may be something I don't particularly want to attempt preaching on; and who knows, the word Trinity may not actually show up a lot in my sermon on Sunday. But I hope that, not just on this Sunday but on every Sunday, this sort of Trinitarian God will, indeed, be present to us: a God of evoking, concealing, inexhaustible mystery, a God who "holds us and sends us, who enfolds us and impels us." Join me as we place ourselves amidst this spiraling sweep of our God this Sunday.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Fill in the Blank

On this Pentecost Sunday--the day when we welcome the gift of the Holy Spirit to all people as Christ's enduring presence in this world--our scripture lessons are Numbers 11:24-30, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, and Acts 2:1-21. An alternate story of the gift of the Spirit can be found in John 20:19-23. You may read all these passages here.

I am not usually a fill-in-the-blank sort of theologian; this may be part of the reason why I never made it through the Experiencing God study back when it was so popular a year ago, nor have I ever made it through a Beth Moore workbook. Today, however, I am going beyond my usual tendencies and offering a fill-in-the-blank question as food for thought. Ready? Complete the following sentence:

The Holy Spirit is _____________________.

Here's my theory about this blank: If we had begun the sentence "God is" or "Jesus is", though we would have gotten a diversity of answers, there would have been some standards that popped up consistently: "Good", "Our Creator", "Our Father", "Our Savior", "Lord," "The Son of God," "Love." An answer of some sort would likely have come to mind pretty quickly. It is my prediction, though, that it's entirely possible that each of us completed the sentence above differently, and that an answer was probably not immediate. This is because, for some reason, our knowledge of and ability to describe the Holy Spirit seems chronically more ambiguous; this was true even for the writers of the early church creeds that many traditions still recite as their confession of faith each week. The Apostles Creed has several clear things to say about God: "The Father, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth." It has even more to say about Jesus: he is/was God's Son, our Lord, born to Mary, suffered, crucified, died, was buried, rose, and ascended, just to name a few. But all it says about the Holy Spirit (other than it was how Jesus was conceived) is this: "I believe in the Holy Spirit." Boom. That's it. No fleshing out, no filling in the blanks.

I think it's okay that we continue to be a bit confounded by the Holy Spirit, because it was confounding on the first day it made its full appearance as well. The crowds listening to the disciples could understand the different languages the Holy Spirit was leading the disciples to speak; they could not, however, reach a consensus on what was happening. "What does this mean?" is the poignant question many asked. "They are drunk" was the somewhat comical explanation others offered. Others scoffed. Others were amazed. Only one thing was for sure: according to The Message's wonderful translation of this text, "They couldn't for the life of them figure out what was going on."

"What does this mean?" This is Pentecost's enduring question to us. It's part of the reason why, though the day of Pentecost is one single Sunday, the Season of Pentecost in our worship lasts a full five to six months every year--we need that much time to even begin to approach that blank, to even begin to find a way to articulate this new and powerful presence of God among us and within us.

Be with us on Sunday as we welcome this Spirit again in all of its mysterious fullness, and be sure to wear red for the occasion (I have so much respect for whoever created that video).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Happy Ascension Day!

The readings for this Sunday are the end of Luke's first volume--Luke 24:44-52--and the beginning of Luke's second volume--Acts 1:1-11--with a little Ephesians (1:15-23) thrown in for good measure. You can read them here.

Happy Ascension Day!

Yep...that's right, if you didn't know it, today is a major day in the life of the post-Easter church! 40 days after Easter Sunday, and 10 days before Pentecost Sunday, comes Ascension Day. This day is ripe with theological and missional significance--it is the day Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father, taking his place of rightful authority over all creation (see Philippians 2:6-11 for a wonderful theological interpretation of this!). It is also the day Jesus commissioned and blessed his followers for the work they would carry on in his bodily absence. It was a day of looking back at what God had done, and of looking forward at what God was yet to do; a day of looking up to heaven and out to the ends of the earth. Falling where it does in the church calendar, however, often means that it falls right off of our radars, being as it always lands on a Thursday. Hold these realities together and, as Sean White put it in Feasting on the Word, we might find that "no other festival in the Christian year is more important and less emphasized than the ascension of the Lord."

So the question I pose today is, what meaning does the ascension hold for modern Christians? Is it a day worth emphasizing more than we do? What does it teach us about our God, our Christ, the Spirit we wait for, ourselves? How do we need to be reminded of Jesus' lordship and our callings on this holy day? What does ascension teach us not just about the world beyond this world--whatever world that was that Jesus' body ascended into--but, I think much more significantly, about this world we are in and its connection to something so much bigger than ourselves?

As you reflect on these texts and these questions and the many others that your celebration and contemplation of this day will undoubtedly bring about, I leave you with a prayer that our Wednesday night meditation group spent some time with last night which opened up my thinking about the ascension in some new ways. We talked about whether this is actually a prayer (written by Walter Brueggeman in his book Prayers for a Privileged People) or more of a theological reflection, but I would encourage you to take its words and try praying them as a prayer of confession. Even though we, as Baptists, do not offer the creed each week, we are familiar with this language of ascension, most likely, but only vaguely so--not personally. I think this has the power to be a prayer that might open us up to the power of this holy day we have long neglected as we gather around these texts on Sunday. Blessings upon us as we do so.

"Candidates for Newness"
by Walter Brueggeman

We live in the long stretch between
Easter and Pentecost, scarcely noticing.
We hear mention of the odd claim of ascension.
We easily recite the creed
"He ascended into heaven."
We bow before such quaint language and move on,
immune to ascent,
indifferent to enthronement,
unresponsive to new governance.

It is reported that behind the ascending son was
the majestic Father riding the clouds;
But we do not look up much;
we stay close to the ground, to business and
to busyness,
to management and control.

Our world of well-being has a very low
ceiling, but we do not mind the closeness
or notice the restrictiveness.
It will take at least a Pentecost wind to
break open our vision enough to imagine a new governance...

Until then, we stay jaded,
but for all that,
no less candidates for newness.