Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Literal v. Metaphorical: Finding a Third Way When Reading Scripture

"Jesus said to the twelve disciples, 'A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.'"
--Matthew 10: 24-39

Hoo-boy!  This is a doozy of a Gospel, isnt it?  Slaves are not greater than masters..  Whoever denies me I will deny before my Father.  You are of more value than many sparrows.  Do not think I have come to bring peace, Ive come to bring a sword. Wow, Jesus.  Youre not making it easy on us this week, are you?

Such a tough Gospel reading, though, serves as a reminder that the ways we read Scripture are really, really important, and for the most part there are two ways that people approach it:  either the words written on the page are literal and have the same meaning then, now, and forever, or the words are metaphorical and are only applicable to their time and place and dont have anything to teach today because they probably aren't real anyway.  This dualistic approach isnt helpful either way.  The former leaves out room for interpretation and modern application, assuming that the world works the same way now as it did then, while the latter throws out the baby with the bathwater (so to speak) and restricts us from hearing the Holy Spirit speaking through the ages.  So, then, whats a helpful solution, especially with a text as complicated as this one? Well, there is a third way, which is more like a process.  That process begins with asking questions.

The first thing we need to ask is:  what is the context?  Whats going on in this passage?  Jesus isnt giving a sermon to a large group of people, rather he is continuing his instructions to the 12 apostles as he sends them, picking up where last weeks reading left off.  So we know that the instructions in this passage are intended not for a large group of people but for the 12.  It's important for us to keep in mind who the audience is, as a saying meant for a small group of people with a very specific mission won't necessarily be applicable to a larger crowd.

Now that we know whats happening with the passage lets ask:  whats going on with the community that produced it?  Matthews Gospel was composed around the year 85 AD, 15 years after the destruction of the Jewish Temple. There is a theme that undercuts all of Matthew and it is the eschaton, the end of the world as we know it.  Matthew uses the term 'Son of Man' a lot because theories on the eschaton said the Son of Man must come first and that terrible thingslike the Temple destructionmust happen. Matthews community was steeped in this way of being, so when they heard Jesus speaking to the apostles in this story, talking about terrible things happening like family members at war with each other, they understood such sayings through the context of their own sufferings, and figured that the eschaton was right around the corner.  What they were experiencing shaped how Matthew's community constructed and understood the gospel.

So we know the context for the passage and what was going on in Matthews community when the text was written.  Now the big question that stirs :  what does the text mean for us today?  This is the part we sometimes get tripped up on; after all, we dont live in first century Palestine in a time when Christians were forced to worship in hiding, and I'd be willing to bet that most of y'all don't believe the eschaton is right around the corner, either.  So we cant really say that every word of Scripture has the same meaning for us now as it did back then.  When Christians approach Scripture that way, we make mistakes:  slave owners routinely quoted the beginning of this passage to their slaves as a reminder of their eternal place in the order of things; preachers have long used Jesus’ words to the apostles about denying those who deny him as evidence that God has condemned everyone who isn’t a Christian; folks have even used Jesus' line to the apostles that they are of more value than sparrows as an excuse to deny environmental justice; and from the days of the Crusades to these days after 9/11 Christians have used Jesus’ words about brining a sword to justify holy wars.  If we read the text with a literalist approach we see meanings like these, which I would suggest are not proper or helpful for our time.  Yet if we use the other approach and just read the text within its own context and ignore it then we can’t find any meaning at all.  What do we do?  How do we find the meaning for ourselves?

It's tricky.  We cannot ignore Scripture just because passages like these are hard.  But we also cannot just accept everything at face-value and say that this is how the world still works.  There's a third way, though to fully understanding Scripture—that is, putting it in the context of its own time while searching for modern application and meaning—takes time.  It may seem like I  just wing it when I preach or write these blogs, but I have to pour over the Scriptures before I speak because Scripture deserves that kind of respect.  It deserves to be studied and wrestled with, not just by me and other preacher types, but by all y’all.  Everybody has a Bible—and if you don’t, I’ll get ya one.  Take that Bible, go online and find the readings for a given Sunday, and pour over them.  Get you a commentary, I have plenty I can recommend.  Find out what the church fathers and mothers said about a text.  See what the original text was saying—and I don’t mean the King James Version, I mean the Greek!  Biblical scholarship isn’t easy, but if you want to know how I do what I do and want to do it yourselves, that’s how. Everyone can do it!   It takes time and it’s tough, and in some ways I envy the folks who either outright dismiss Scripture or take it all at face value because those methods are easier.  But trust me, if you apply yourself to this third way, if you ask questions, read commentaries, and pour over the Scriptures you will find the deeper meanings not only for their time but for yours as well.  Maybe if you apply yourself to the Scriptures we can have a conversation in light of one of these blog posts, and then the Scriptures will truly come alive!  

I never answered the question though, did I?  What does this rather problematic text have to teach us today?  Well, during my study of the text, and my own questions about what was happening then and what is happening in our world now, what I kept coming back to was the fact that Jesus was right about division.  He may not have personally brought a sword, but his coming into the world sure did.  It brought disagreements, splintering of homes, wars,  and every kind of oppression, all in his name.  Yet the Good News that I found is in the last line:  'whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.'  I interpret that, as Matthew’s community did, that if my hope and trust is in Jesus, I will find my true life, even as the world around me falls apart.  That’s what I think this text has to teach us today.

But I didn't come to that conclusion overnight.  It took time and effort, but it was worth it.  Biblical scholarship is not just for folks with fancy titles and fancy dresses, it’s for all of us.  I hope this text, hard though it may be, will inspire y’all to ask the questions, check out commentaries, and go deeper with the Scriptures.  You may find them opened up to you in ways you never imagined!  

Monday, June 19, 2017

Journeying With the Spirit

"The Israelites had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in 
the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the 
Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, 'Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and 
tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ 
wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, 
you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 
but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall 
speak to the Israelites.'”
--Exodus 19: 2-6

"Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through 
whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing 
the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering 
produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope 
does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit 
that has been given to us."
--Romans 5: 1-5

“Jesus said to the twelve apostles, 'See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; 
so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils 
and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, 
as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are 
to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you 
who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and 
a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated 
by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you 
in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel 
before the Son of Man comes.'"
--Matthew 9: 9-23

On the day after Christmas, 2007, I picked up a little black dog on the road near my childhood home in Virginia. As we drove up to the house she sat upright in that seat, and looked at me, as if to say with excitement, ‘We’re going on a journey!”  And she was right.  From the mountains of Virginia to the streets of New York City and down to the bluegrass of Kentucky and now to North Carolina, where the sky is always God’s shade of blue—that’s Tar Heel blue—this little girl and I have been on a journey. 

This dog!

 A classmate once said of Casey and me as we walked along the sidewalk of the seminary, “There goes that man and the Holy Spirit!”  I think he was right!  Casey’s presence on this journey has reminded me of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Sometimes walking ahead of me, sometimes beside me, and sometimes not coming along fast enough because she’s stopped to smell something!  But as Casey has been a companion for the better part of a decade now, she reminds me that the Spirit has been my constant companion for 33 years now, journeying with me through the highest peaks and lowest valleys. 

In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul reminds his audience—Christians who were going through some pretty low valleys—that the Spirit has been the agent that has poured God’s love into their hearts.  This means God’s love, through the power of the Spirit, will never leave them, no matter how low those valleys get.  He says:  “suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”  Paul knew that the longest journeys—the ones with the most suffering and disappointment and setbacks—always lead to the promised lands.  This is because of the hope that has been given to folks through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

This theme of journeying is there in our Old Testament and Gospel readings, as well.  We find the children of Israel in the middle of the Exodus, heading into the Sinai wilderness, and God speaks to Moses to remind them that they shall be a treasured possession out of all the peoples, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  This is the hope God gives to the Israelites in the midst of their excruciatingly long journey, which saw many sufferings—it does not take 40 years to walk from Egypt to Canaan, by the way!  Meanwhile, in the Gospel from Matthew, we hear Jesus call the 12 apostles and send them out—an apostle is one who is sent, which is different from a disciples, which is one who follows.  He tells them what they can expect on their long journeys:  they will be like sheep in the midst of wolves, some will die, and nearly all will suffer in some kind of way.  Yet even in the midst of all of it, Jesus says, the Spirit will give them the words to say and will never leave them, and in the end they will be saved.  The hope of which Jesus speaks--the hope that the apostles can endure their sufferings--is the same hope that God gave the Israelites in the desert, the same hope Paul will later write about to the church in Rome.

But make no mistake we’re not talking about a hope that is some kind of shallow optimism.  Paul writes this, his final letter, only a few days before his own execution.  The Israelites tried holding onto hope but fell back time and again over the course of 40 years—which is the length of time for the entire generation of people who knew Egypt and wanted to go back there to die.  As for those 12 apostles that Jesus sent, history tells us that all but one died as martyrs of the faith, and that one—St. John—lived out his days imprisoned alone on an island.  So that hope that we speak of is not about just saying “everything will be ok” and ignoring the hard stuff.  It’s a hope that we can endure the hard stuff, and face the suffering, for suffering has no meaning anymore thanks to Jesus’ own suffering, for if he can endure the cross and grave and live again, then by God—literally—we can endure whatever suffering faces us.  God never left him, after all, and God does not leave us, for the Spirit that pours out God’s love in our hearts is on this journey with us.  Paul says we are justified by faith.  Well, our faith is not about shallow optimism, but it is about knowing that our God, the living God, walks with us always. That’s the Christian hope, the kind that is born out of a long, and often times difficult, journey, the kind that does not disappoint us.

Those of you who remember the days when we read Morning Prayer regularly on Sundays will remember the line:  in you, O Lord, is our hope; and we shall never hope in vain.  It is the Holy Spirit, our advocate, guide, and comforter, who generates that hope in us through our journey, no matter how long and difficult that journey is.  We are all on a journey.  Mine and Casey’s is still on-going, and I’m in the midst of starting a new one with my fiancee Kristen.  Some of your journeys are  troublesome right now, scary, and uncertain.  And at times, all of our journeys will bring us sufferings to some degree.  Yet each of you has the Spirit walking beside, before, and behind you.  And like a faithful dog, or a loving partner, she will give you hope in something, in someone, so much greater than yourself.  So wherever you are on your journey, know that you do not travel alone.  Whether we’re talking about the Israelites in the desert, the 12 heading into the midst of wolves, Paul sitting in a cell in Rome, or someone in North Carolina trying to hang tough during a hard time, the children of God are never, ever alone.  That is the faith by which we are all justified!

The Strong Name of the Trinity

"Jesus came and said, 'All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember that I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'"
--Matthew 28:  18-20

Right here.  In the Gospel passage above, which we call the Great Commission, is the only reference to the Trinity in the entirety of our Christian Scriptures. Yes, we can read Scripture and see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working at various times, but this passage is the only time in the whole of the Bible that those three words appear together! Jesus gives this command to the disciples to go and baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but do they even know what that means?  Do we even know what that means?  It seems kinda crazy that we would build our faith upon such a doctrine as the Holy Trinity, when that doctrine is only mentioned in this very brief moment at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. 

The Trinity as doctrine can be traced back to the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople (not Istanbul) in 381.  The bishops and other theologians gathered at Nicea sought to answer the question of who Jesus was.  Easy, right?  They declared that God was one substance in three persons, which they called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But the original version of the Nicene Creed ended with “we believe in the Holy Spirit,” so another council was held in Constantinople, where the Holy Spirit’s role was shored up and it was declared that all three persons of the Trinity were God, yet there was only one God, that the Father was equal to the Son and the Son to the Spirit, and that the Father was Lord, the Son was Lord, and the Spirit was Lord, but that there was only one Lord….you know what, forget it, just go read the Athanasian Creed here. !

Saint Athanasius, whose creed, which attempted to unpack the Holy Trinity, eventually won out at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.  

As you can imagine this led a bunch of different people coming up with different interpretations of who and what the Trinity really was.  Many of these were branded as heretics, not so much because they were theologically inaccurate but because their view was different from the views of the folks who won, the ones that we today call orthodox, which means “right belief.”  Even today I bet I could ask each of you to describe the Trinity to me and you’ll all give me a different answer.  So which one is the right one, or the “orthodox” one?

Even that is tricky.  While the Church throughout the world has held the same belief of God in Trinity, there was one little piece of the Creed that caused the whole structure of the Church to be split.  Here’s your ecclesiastical history lesson for the day:

In the original version of our Creed, which was completed in 381 at Constantinople (not Istanbul) the line about the Holy Spirit said, “who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.”  If that sounds like something’s missing it’s because the western churches, whose bishop was in Rome, didn’t like that language and decided to hold their own councils in Toledo (Spain, not Ohio).  At the Third Council of Toledo in 589 the western churches added three words to that sentence about the Spirit.  They added “and the Son,” so the sentence read “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  This tiny edit is called the filioque, and if you can believe it, this little change shook the whole establishment of the Church in both Rome and Constantinople.  Fights broke out over whether the Son was subservient to the Father, whether the Spirit came from Jesus as well as from God the Father, and eventually in 1054 the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople officially excommunicated each other in what became known as the Great Schism, resulting in a Latin western Church (or Roman Catholic) and a Greek eastern Church (or Eastern Orthodox).  That split still remains and is still a bone of contention of folks to this day.

This pretty much sums it up.  

Why is this important to us Episcopalians in 2017?  For starters, as an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church and a Church that traces its lineage back to these very bishops who threw their temper tantrums and excommunicated each other, this is part of our story too.  It also helps remind us that there is no “right” view of the Holy Trinity.  If you asked a western Christian they will give you one answer, and if you ask an eastern Christian they’ll give you another (and they’ll probably point out who the other is wrong).  Ultimately, nobody is right.  But in a way, nobody is wrong, either. 

The point of the Trinity is not a matter of doctrine, but rather relationship.  At the Council of Constantinople, a guy named Gregory from Nazianzus described the Trinity as a dance between the three persons.  A dance is a kind of relationship.  You trust each other.  You move in and out of each other.  Last year Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell wrote an excellent book called The Divine Dance, and in it they explore how the Trinity can change our lives.  In short, they echo Gregory’s description of the Trinity as a dance, only they call it a flow—like a river.  We, they say, are part of that dance, part of that flow.  We are in relationship with God, just as God is in relationship with Godself.  If you look at that picture from the cover of 'The Divine Dance', you see the three persons of the Trinity having a meal, but you’ll also notice a fourth seat at the table and each of the figures motioning to it.  That’s our seat!  We are part of the divine dance, part of the flow, and when we forget this we end up hurting one another and hurting God.  Those bishops and theologians long ago may not have been able to agree on certain details of the Trinity, but they did agree on one thing:  God exists in relationship, and we exist to be in relationship with God and with one another.  And that is something we can all understand!  Imagine what the world would look like if we danced with each other and were in relationship with each other the way God is with Godself?!

 Gregory of Nazianzus (right) coined the term perichoresis to describe the Trinity.  Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell used this as the basis for their book The Divine Dance, which you can order by clicking here . 

The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is not about making sure we follow the exact teaching of the Trinity—because there isn’t one—or making sure we don’t commit a heresy—we probably have, I’ve probably committed five already.  Instead it’s about marveling in the mystery of God’s ability to be in relationship with Godself, and the extraordinary gift God has given us to be able to be in relationship with God ourselves.  This is what it means for us to bind unto ourselves the strong name of the Trinity