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Category: Lectionary

Better Have Something to Share

Better Have Something to Share

The following quote struck me in Bruce Epperly’s Adventurous Lectionary for the week:

When we say, at our congregations, “come and see” to seekers, we better have something to share that will change lives, our own and others.  Jesus’ words call us to examine our ministries.  People are looking for meaning; they are looking for a sense of vocation and something to which to their lives.  Do we offer them the bread of life or business as usual?  What unique transformative gift do we have to offer?

That and this too:

Isaiah does not give us a pattern of vocational success.  Indeed, we must not abandon the statement that it is more important that we be faithful than successful.(emphasis mine)

PS: I currently have the privilege of working on layout for Bruce’s next book, Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James, and editing the one after that, which is on Process Theology, introducing it in about 40 pages!

 

Psalm 122: On Praying for Both Israelis and Palestinians

Psalm 122: On Praying for Both Israelis and Palestinians

Bruce Epperly, in his comments on the scriptures for the first Sunday in Advent at Process & Faith, has a note about praying for Jerusalem. The call for this is made in the Psalm for this first Sunday in Advent, 122.

Bruce notes:

“I was glad when they said unto me let us go unto the house of the Lord,” rejoices the Psalmist. The Jerusalem temple becomes a focal point for the nations through its vision of peace. Without peace in Jerusalem, there is no peace on Earth, the Psalmist asserts. The Psalmist commands, “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” This is a strong admonition for progressives who often side with the Palestinians over the State of Israel. We must pray for Israel as well as Palestine; we must insure a just peace that protects Israel as well as liberates Palestine. We must go beyond polarization in the Middle East, recognizing the universality of threat, violence, and self-interest, along with the possibility of personal, national, and regional transformation. God loves the whole world, without exceptions; and God’s love embraces the diversity of nations and ethnicities, inviting them toward peace, goodness, and beauty.

As Christians, it is our duty to love and care for all people, not just particular people. It’s very easy in promoting a particular political agenda to ignore the needs of those who are out of our focus. But the agenda of the Christian should be to build the kingdom of God.

There are many responses to Psalm 122 amongst Christians. There are those for whom the command is a simple command to us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Some would respond that this command was given to the people of Israel, and not in general to the people of the world. And it is truly “decreed for Israel.” At the same time, the language of this Psalm is such that it’s hard not to get an eschatological sense from it, or perhaps to read one into it if it’s not already there. Others might see its application in praying for our own nations and their leaders. My point is not to deal with all possible issues of interpretation, nor to answer policy questions regarding the middle east. Rather it’s to look at our prayers, starting at home, but extending to all people.

Bob MacDonald, in Seeing the Psalter,  notes that the reference to the house of David (verse 5) falls between opening and closing references to the house of the LORD (verses 1 & 9). This explains to some extent why the passage is an advent passage. That eschatological sense comes through. God’s presence is, according to the Psalmist, manifested in Jerusalem in the house of the LORD. God’s presence will be manifested. Eschatology always has a sense of the future in the present.

I must mine another one of my Energion authors, Edward W. H. Vick, quoting from Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide:

Christian theology is essentially eschatology. ‘From the beginning, eschatology is not primarily an apocalyptic conception, but an understanding of being in faith.’ The question then is, Which eschatology? Is it a theology of the future? Or, may it be better understood as a theology of the present? Are there other alternatives, relating present and future? (p. 51)

If the tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ in the New Testament and in the Christian message is maintained, there is no antagonism between ‘salvation-history’ and Christian existentialism. Indeed the two positions are complementary. To raise the essential question of continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith is to press beyond the position of Bultmann. The question is whether a sequence of events can be an object of faith as well as of assent. Cullmann answers with an emphatic affirmative. In faith the believer is overwhelmed by that in which he did not participate (p. 115). The events of salvation are pro nobis, but first they are extra nos. (p. 63)

Now there’s quite a bit of theological terminology in that quotation, especially without the 12 pages that come between the two paragraphs I quoted. But I want to bring out two points. First, Christian theology is essentially eschatology, that is, it has to do with the age to come, last day events, or something similar. What we often miss, however, is that God coming near is also now, not just something to await in the future. Second, when we participate in Advent we are celebrating events “in which [we] did not participate” and in that celebration we certainly hope they “overwhelm” us, i.e. bring us into themselves.

It’s in that “overwhelming” that “to the Jew first, but also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16) becomes also “there is no longer Jew nor Greek” without contradiction. At the same time, it is only in that way that we can both pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and for justice for Palestinians without contradiction.

 

 

A Non-Pluralistic Text in a Pluralistic Age

A Non-Pluralistic Text in a Pluralistic Age

The Old Testament lectionary text for today was 1 Kings 18:20-39. This text again presents a case in which those who compile the lectionary avoid difficult texts in the way they cut the reading. Verse 39 ends with “the LORD, he is God,” while verse 40 (not read) tells us that Elijah killed all the prophets of Baal.

There are several issues that the text brings out, including the violence. It’s not an easy text to preach to a modern or post-modern audience. In looking at the text I had thought of the issue of a prophet killing hundreds of his religious opponents. That’s not the sort of thing people think of prophets doing, though they should. Elijah is hardly the only prophet to engage in violent activity. (One of the best books I know on the topic of violence in the Old Testament was written by my Old Testament professor Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? I publish it, so I may be biased, but I picked it up as a second edition, and it’s now in it’s fifth, so I may not be far off in my bias!)

My pastor at First UMC Pensacola, Scott Grantland, chose to take the bull by the horns (couldn’t resist the cliché considering Baal imagery) and included verse 40 in the reading, for which I congratulate him. He did discuss the violence of the passage in connection with the times and also the nature of prophets. Here he addressed a common problem, that people really have a sanitized view of the character and mission of prophets. Frankly, few of us would have liked them, and if they appeared now, we’d likely be working right along with the folks who wanted them killed. They just weren’t a comforting sort of people.

But the key question was one that didn’t really occur to me. The question was simply how does one preach this text in a pluralistic age. None of what I say here should be read as a criticism of Scott. It is, however, a criticism of the age. Various of my teachers told me there were no bad questions. I disagree. I think that getting good questions is often the most important step in getting to good answers.

Now Scott’s solution is actually quite good, in my view. I think we should always first try to point the message of scripture, especially difficult scripture, at ourselves. He suggested we should take the text as challenging our own tendency to worship idols in this day and age. That is a good personal message to get from the passage. But I don’t think that fully addresses the question.

The simple fact is that no matter how you dress it up, this passage is not a pluralistic passage. It says one claimed deity is God and another is not. And if we follow the trajectory of scripture, I don’t see it tending any other way. I can find texts that guide me toward less violent solutions to problems than the one used by Elijah, and I can think of God’s revelation “in many and various ways,” revelation suited to our ability to hear. I don’t want to suggest that the Old Testament people were less able to hear God than we are. They simply had different things standing in their way.

Further, the context in the world at large is not that much different. Pluralism was quite acceptable in the ancient world. The exclusive claims of the worship of Israel went against the grain probably as much as they do the modern world.

In other words, I would suggest the text doesn’t allow one to wiggle out that much. Now a pastor needs to address such questions, because that is what people are thinking. But I don’t think the text allows a completely comfortable answer to the question.

There are, in my view, three major options with regard to religious exclusivity: Exclusion, Inclusion, and Pluralism. The third of these is fairly common these days. The first is the norm in conservative Christianity. I take a middle path, or rather, one that tends to gobble up parts of the others. I believe there is one God and that Jesus is unique. It is because of God’s reaching out that we can be saved and the gap between us and an infinite God can be bridged. Jesus tells us that God is a gap crossing God.

But there is only one of him. It is possible we may err about our description of God and yet be worshiping the one true God. It is possible that we might be accepted without our own knowledge. Those are major debates. I think the best answer is that God takes care of those things and that I trust that however God takes care of them will be just. Because I believe there is real evil in the world I am not a universalist. But I am hopeful. I can be hopeful because of Jesus Christ.

However positively stated, that is not a pluralistic position. It’s inclusive. I think there will be many in the kingdom of heaven who will say, “When did we do anything for you?” But they will be there because our God is the God who sent his Son to bridge the gap.

How does one preach a text that is not pluralistic in a pluralistic age? It has to remain not pluralistic. It has to challenge the age. But the challenge can be filled with grace, grace that gets beyond our works and our knowledge.

 

A Four Year Lectionary

A Four Year Lectionary

Will Humes has drawn up a four year lectionary, which he believes offers the chance to give the gospel of John its own place in worship, and also covers some passages we never see in our three year version. He’s looking for comment.

My immediate comment is that I really like the basic idea. I’m going to spend some more time looking at the specific passages before I make further comment. One of the great blessings I see to lectionary preaching, besides covering the various seasons, is that it prevents a preacher from getting stuck on a small set of favorite passages. The inclusion of additional wisdom readings, as well as a year for the reading of John, should help with that problem.

Head on over and comment. This is a project worth thinking about.

 

A Sense of the Spiritual

A Sense of the Spiritual

I once met a woman who claimed that Jesus had come to her in her kitchen and spoken to her. The reaction of friends, neighbors, and even family to this story was fairly negative. She was regarded as a bit odd, and finally quit talking about it. It was only with some hesitation that she told the group of which I was a part.

Now I see no particular reason to doubt that she saw precisely what she saw. It was, I believe, a visionary experience, and she would have no objection to its being described as such. But the general reaction to such an experience varies between tolerance and avoidance.

That story came to mind as I was reading the lectionary text from Genesis 28:10-19, which tells the story of Jacob’s dream of the ladder at Bethel. Jacob has a dream. Note that like the lady I met, he doesn’t try to claim some sort of physical presence. Yet his reaction (v. 17) is that “this is none other than God’s house, and this is heaven’s gate.” For him the presence of God was a profound reality, even though it was manifested in something as simple as a dream.

If someone said they saw Jesus in a dream, we would have a more positive reaction than people did to the visionary experience. We expect dreams. But we wouldn’t generally respond as Jacob did, considering the experience a profound spiritual event.

One of the things I suggest in trying to understand stories in the Bible is that we come as close as we can to understanding the way in which the characters in Bible times would have reacted. Otherwise we will fail to get the full impact of the story.

Spiritual things were very near, and God’s presence, even in a dream, was deeply sacred.

 

Christ the King Sunday

Christ the King Sunday

I sometimes complain about the way lectionary passages are cut off before difficult passages, so I thought it might be nice to mention the truly wonderful selection of the gospel for Christ the King Sunday today. The gospel passage is Luke 23:33-43. At our “Lectionary at Lunch” gathering, led by Geoffrey Lentz, a number of folks were questioning this passage choice.

The key, of course is in verse 38, with the inscription placed above Jesus’ head: This is the king of the Jews. It’s placed as an insult, but is wonderfully and ironically completely true! This follows the record of how the crowd is mocking Jesus, and then it’s followed by the conversation with the two malefactors crucified on either side. Then Jesus behaves as a king–a king in the style of his kingdom.

It’s such a good example of the difference between God’s kingdom and our various kingdoms. We encounter the king on a cross. It reminds me of Revelation 5:1-6. There nobody is found worthy to open the scroll. The angel tells John to stop weeping, because the lion of the tribe of Judah is worthy. But when he turns to look, there’s a lamb that looks like it has been slain.

God just doesn’t do things our way!

Sacrificing for Joy

Sacrificing for Joy

The Old Testament Lectionary passage for the first Sunday in Lent, cycle C is Deuteronomy 26:1-11.  It’s kind of an odd text for this season.  You might almost use it as a text for Fat Tuesday.

I’m going to comment more on the lectionary texts this week, if for no other reason than because I’ve been asked to teach the weekly Lectionary at Lunch group at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola for my friend Rev. Geoffrey Lentz.  I plan to provide another set of comparisons between various study Bibles and what they contribute to the study.  But first I want to note two things from this passage.

First, Christians often assume that grace is our contribution to religion and that the Israelite religion was one of works and rituals.  But in the confession of faith in this passage, Israel’s faith and worship is clearly rooted in God’s gracious acts to Israel.  God reaches out first and people respond.

Second, the people bring a sacrifice of first fruits, and it’s not just given in thanks, it’s given for the purpose of having a celebration together.

It’s easy for us to look down on rituals and ceremonies or on good works in general.  Often this reflects a lack of such works on our own part.  But the real issue is not whether one worships in high or low liturgy, or whether one engages in good works.  Rather, it’s where those acts of worship and good deeds are rooted.  When we are expressing God’s grace through our deeds, and responding to God’s grace in worship, our worship will tend to be filled with God’s presence, and truly be good.

Without being rooted in God’s grace, we will engage in empty rituals and deeds done for the purpose of earning God’s favor.  Such acts are dead and do not lead to joy.

Note that the confession comes before the party, just as God’s salvation comes prior to the response.  That is a pattern that is repeated in both the Old Testament and the New.

Lent with Lectionary and the Mosaic Bible

Lent with Lectionary and the Mosaic Bible

It’s been some time since I posted on the Mosaic Bible in connection with lectionary reading, but we’re entering an excellent season for using these tools together.  (For what it’s worth, I use The Text this Week for the lectionary passages.)

While the passages don’t match for the first week of Lent, the Mosaic Bible reading does include Psalm 51 which is one of the Ash Wednesday passages.  But this isn’t the most important issue.  The readings are valuable and will provide an additional resource, including the scriptures (Gen. 2:15-17 3:1-7, Psalm 51, 1 Peter 3:13-22, and Matthew 4:1-11, which parallels Luke 4:1-13 from Lectionary year C).  There is a good reading from John Charles Ryle, a discussion of sacrifice and how it runs counter to our culture by Eileen Button, along with a couple of meditations that could be useful in your worship service.

Again, I find the Mosaic Bible an exceptional devotional resource and frequently an aid to study following the lectionary as well.