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Alternative Lectionary Discussion Tonight

Alternative Lectionary Discussion Tonight

words of woe bannerTonight on the Energion Publications Hangout on Air (via Google Hangouts on Air) I’ll just be the technical guy. The actual event will be Dr. Bob LaRochelle, author of Crossing the Street interviewing Dr. Bob Cornwall regarding his forthcoming book From Words of Woe to Unbelievable News, which provide sermons/meditations on alternative lectionary texts.

When I say “forthcoming,” regarding Words of Woe, I mean coming right away. It will be to the printer no later than Thursday morning. Between now and next Tuesday you can get these on pre-order for just $3.49 each. Shipping is $2.00, or if you order three of them, shipping will be free as it is for all orders of $9.99 or more.

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

Many people regard the idea of trajectories in scripture as largely a method of avoiding “what the Bible clearly teaches.” I believe that there are clear trajectories in the teaching of scripture, and that in those cases one must be careful that one applies the correct principle to modern times.

One such trajectory deals with priesthood and access to the sacred. I was taught that the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were symbols of God’s presence. And in a sense they were. But they were also filled with symbolism of humanity’s separation from God. Notice how you progress from “outside the camp” to “the camp” to the place where the Levites were encamped closer to the tabernacle itself, then to the courtyard, then the outer room (often called just “the holy place”) and finally to the inner room (“the most holy place”) where we find the Ark of the Covenant and there, between the cherubim, we have the symbol of God’s presence. It’s not filled with an idol, as it might have been in other near eastern temples. God cannot be represented. But there is a sense of separation.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my reading took me to Numbers 18 and 19. If you read both, I think you’ll see the sense of separation. Even the Levites were not permitted to approach certain sacred objects. Those were reserved for the priests alone. In Numbers 19, with the ritual of the red heifer, you have references to “outside the camp.”

Now this is not a New Testament vs. Old Testament trajectory. Exodus 19:6 makes the goal clear: a priestly kingdom. 1 Peter 2:9 makes the application to Christians: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (NRSV, from Bible Gateway).

So why all the separation between? The answer lies in Exodus 20, I think. It is there that the people respond to God’s voice.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (NRSV, again via Bible Gateway).

Now our tendency as Christians is to see this as a failing of Israel, corrected in the church. But I think it is a mistake to read it that way. One of my principles of application (not necessarily of exegesis) is to point the text at yourself first. Whether we admit it or not, we behave this way every day. Let the pastor pray, study, listen to God, and proclaim. Let us sit passively on Sunday morning and hear what God has told the pastor. I visited a United Church of Christ recently. They have a motto, “God is still speaking.” It’s a good one, I think. But the real question is this: Are we still listening? All of us?

Our tendency is to say in good southern style, “God is still speaking. Isn’t that special?” The point being that we want to distance ourselves from anything that gets us too close to the edge, too likely to make people question our sanity. We want God to say comfortable things. It’s easier to only hear comfortable things if you let the pastor do all the listening, and get them properly filtered and shaped into a good sermon.

This week’s Lectionary Psalm is Psalm 99:

YHWH reigns
let peoples shudder
he sits on the cherubim
let the earth be displaced. (Translation from Seeing the Psalter, p. 312)

We don’t admit the fear of hearing from God. We like the idea that God might still speak. What we don’t want is for God to displace the earth. We don’t want him to say anything that would make us shudder. We live in Exodus 20, standing at a distance, appointing our pastors and church staff members as “Moses.”

We’re supposed to be living in John 4, worshiping in spirit and truth, or in 2 Corinthians 6:16, as the “temple of the living God.”

I learned about this in studying Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s 2200 page, 3 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. He maintains (summarizing from a sweep of many passages in his book) that the call to distinguish sacred from profane was part of training, a teaching function of the ritual system, and that the call to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) points to the sacred overcoming the profane. More, not less, comes to belong to the sacred sphere. I really should write a post on this subject in particular at some point and bring some material from that commentary to bear, but that will take more time. Condensing 2200 pages, none of them wasted in my view, is not easy!

But what I saw in Numbers 18 & 19 was that separation them, the one that comes after Exodus 20. It’s not God pulling back from humanity, but rather God accommodating our fear, our unwillingness to get too close to the sacred. To paraphrase another expression, not everyone who says they’re happy to hear from God actually is.

And I do think there is a role for pastors and for priests in the modern church and world, though that role is primarily in terms of outreach. The church should be carrying out a priestly role to the world, mediating the sacred to those around, being Jesus in living, physical, present form. That is the priesthood of all believers, individually and collectively. We do not require a priest to get to God. Prayers by the pastor are not better than prayers by individual members. We should all at various times be receivers and conveyors or God’s Word.

I want to note, in addition, that I’m not speaking solely of those who believe that people in the congregation receive prophetic words. I’m speaking of those who hear God speak through scripture as well as those who hear in their minds, see visions, or catch God’s voice coming through the natural world.

A royal priesthood. Do we really want it? Can we stand it? Will we give up our individual superiority (and inferiority!) so it can happen?

PS: As I was writing this, notice came in of a post by Bob Cornwall, author of Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, dealing with ordination (book extract). Note his conclusion:

Although our churches may use a variety of structural forms, it’s important to recognize that the church isn’t a democracy, ruled by majority vote. It’s also not a clerical autocracy where elite groups of clergy hold sway. In a gift based ecclesiology, there’s the assumption the Spirit rules, and we are tasked with discerning where the Spirit is leading. This is true no matter what structure we happen to be a part of.

“Discerning where the Spirit is leading” is not easy!

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!


On Hebrews 5:1-10 and Prayer

On Hebrews 5:1-10 and Prayer

I’m going to do something I almost never do on any of my blogs—re-post. But first a few comments.

Hebrews 5:1-10 is the epistle lesson from this week’s lectionary. Hebrews has always held a special place in my heart (my study guide on it), because it is such beautiful prose bringing a very deep message. In addition, passages such as Hebrews 1:1-4 and 4:12-14 helped shape my views of scripture and my christology at the same time, and Hebrews 6 became a key passage at a pivotal point in my own experience. (This isn’t “book advertising” week, but I discuss that experience in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.)

But one of the most critical passages for me has been this one, which has helped in developing my understanding of prayer and its value and purpose in the life of a Christian disciple.

Since our son James died, Jody and I have found that the one thing most people want to hear about when we speak or teach is just how one lives through such a thing. How do you deal with the grief? How do you deal with the questions? Why would God let your child die while you were busy teaching about prayer?

On this especially I must let Jody answer for herself. Each person’s walk with God in such a situation is individual. In many ways my answer is much like that in another of this week’s lectionary passages, Job 38. I don’t know why, but I know God. But then I also realize that I don’t even know God all that well, but I can still strive to know what surpasses knowledge and in that active relationship, I can withstand even the whirlwind.

So herewith the re-posted post from May 3, 2007:

7Who, in the days of his flesh, offered entreaties and petitions to the one who was able to save him from death with loud cries and tears, and he was heard because of his piety. 8Even though he was a son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered, 9and being made whole he became a means of eternal salvation to all those who obey him, 10since he was designated by God as a priest according to the priestly order of Melchizedek. — Hebrews 5:7-10

I’m writing this on the national day of prayer. A “national” day of prayer makes me wonder just what we’re praying for and how. But it reminded me of a question I hear frequently: “Why should anyone pray if they’re not going to get what they pray for?” That question starts with a false premise. It assumes that you won’t. But since I believe that quite often you will not get what you pray for, I should give it consideration.

In Hebrews 5:7-10, we have the statement that Jesus prayed. He prayed to “the one who was able to save him from death.” I presume such a prayer might have, and did, occur many times during his ministry, but likely this reference is primarily to his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He also placed that prayer under subjection to God’s will. Now if the text stopped in the middle of verse seven, we might imagine that the prayer of Jesus was not heard because he didn’t get what he was asking for.

But the text explicitly says that Jesus was heard. And there is what’s hard for us to get hold of. Praying is not about getting stuff. Praying is about our communion with God. That’s why all these scientific tests about prayer and healing largely miss the mark. They’re interesting, but the can’t test prayer because prayer is not a means of getting things.

What if the prayer of Jesus was counted in a scientific test? It would certainly go into the “failed” column. He didn’t get what he asked for. And yet he was heard, and what actually happened was better–in the end–than what he had requested. It happens that way because there’s a lot more knowledge on God’s end of the prayer than on mine.

So a national day of prayer invites me to commune with God, and that is the only purpose I have to have. If I have communed with God, my prayer worked. The amazing thing is that I often would rather have God do it my way. I’m in touch with infinite power and infinite knowledge, but what I ask is that God use his infinite power to make things work the way I–oh so incredibly finite–want them to.

One of the most blessed characteristics of this universe is that God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way that we would prefer.

Jesus was the great example of this. One thing was refused him–escape from the cross. Through that one refusal, a refusal he invited by saying “not my will but yours,” our salvation was secured.

Aren’t you thankful that God doesn’t do things your way?

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.


Lent 1A – Theme

Lent 1A – Theme

Well, I’m back again on one of my irregular forays into lectionary blogging. I hope visitors in the meantime have found value in the links to other people’s lectionary blogging found in my sidebar.

It’s not hard to find a theme in this week’s lectionary texts, nor to imagine why those are the texts for today. I think the Romans passage ties the theme together nicely, and if I were to teach this myself, I’d probably start from that point.

Paul tells us that one sin made everyone into sinners, and thus one obedient man, or one act of obedience (carried throughout his life) could make us right with God again. Our texts simply point to the pieces of the puzzle. In Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, we have the original temptation and fall. Here the first couple are placed in the Garden of Eden, but directed away from the tree. Yet they eat in any case.

In Matthew 4:1-11, we have the opposite effect. Note that in Matthew 4:1, it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted. Even more so than Adam and Eve were directed away, Jesus was directed into the test so that he could pass and show that he would reject divinity, improperly offered.  Adam and Eve were human and wanted to be gods. Jesus was God and accepted humanity (Phil. 2:5-11).

The final element of this puzzle is Psalm 32 which, in my view, connects us to the other two. It describes guilt, repentance and forgiveness. It is repentance, a turning to God and away from evil, that allows us to be incorporated into the family that Christ represented in his act(s) of obedience. Lent is not just about the fall and redemption. It is about us becoming part of that new family of faith, incorporated into God’s family, established by the obedience of Jesus Christ.

Profitable Scriptures

Profitable Scriptures

It’s been about six weeks since my last post, and unfortunately that’s actually a fairly short gap for the way I’ve kept this blog up.  But the two Old Testament passages this week (Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 19 or Psalm 119:94-107) as well as the epistle caught my attention.

In the modern church we read these scriptures frequently and think about the Bible as we have it.  In fact, we often use the phrase “word of God” as a synonym for “Bible.”  Now I don’t want to detract from the nature and value of the Bible as God’s word, but that is not all of God’s word.  More importantly, when these passages were written, there wasn’t a Bible, and much of what we have in our Bibles was not even written yet (depending, of course, on the dating of 2 Timothy).

Even if one dates 2 Timothy quite late, it would doubtless be dated before most of the New Testament was regarded as scripture, and thus it would refer to the Old Testament scriptures as know at the time.  Psalm 19 and 119, of course, were written substantially earlier yet, and may have been referring primarily to the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible.

So why do I think this is important?  Do I think what these passages say of scripture is not applicable to the Bible as we have it?  Actually I definitely do think these passages should apply to the Bible as we have it.  But they should also apply to the Bible as it was at those earlier times.

You see, too often we think we can skip some of those very Old Testament passages that are praised by these writers.  “Profitable” or “more to be desired than gold.”  Yet when I ask Christians if they have read the entire Bible, they’ll often ask if it counts even if they haven’t read Leviticus, or Numbers, or a variety of other passages.

Besides the value of the passages in their own context, I don’t think you can really understand the book of Hebrews without really understanding the tabernacle service as it’s described in Exodus – Numbers.  You will misunderstand much of the New Testament if you don’t ground your study in the Old.  And again, that’s ignoring the value of the passages in themselves.

Let’s look for the value, the “profit” in all of scripture!

Appealing to Grace

Appealing to Grace

While there is much violence in the Old Testament (and a certain amount in the New), the basic ideas of grace are still expressed regularly.  Nowhere is this clearer, in my opinion, than in the appeal to salvation history in passages of judgment and of exhortation.

The Old Testament passage and the Psalm for Proper 17C both demonstrate this theme.  In Jeremiah 2:4-13, this starts in verse 5 with God asking just what problem the ancestors might have found with him.  This is to emphasize that God acted faithfully and brought them to his land.  The exhortation to right action comes as a response to (and I think enabled by, though this passage doesn’t focus on that) the grace that God has poured out.

Wrong actions are actually shown to be more heinous when committed in the face of such grace.  That is also a New Testament concept, as in Hebrews 2:3 and 10:29-31.

The same theme occurs in Psalm 81, where in verse 10 (English verse numbering) we get the appeal to God’s grace in the past and his willingness to extend grace in the present.

I would submit that this “graceful” pattern is true of both testaments.

I discussed this more in an earlier post on my Threads blog, which also has some links to other writing on the same topic.