Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hard Work

This morning, a very observant member of the flock pointed out some difficulty with the scriptural text. This person noticed a hard piece of the Old Testament reading from a few weeks back. It was the one about David and Bathsheba. The closing line of the text, the BCP lectionary assigns us, indicates the child of David and Bathsheba was struck ill.

My observant friend felt this was unfair. The child had absolutely nothing to do with the sin of David and Bathsheba, but pays the price for it. The child was innocent. What kind of God punishes an innocent child? It seems barbaric.

I did not deal with this part of the text, because it wasn’t part of my homiletic focus. But still, it is thrilling to know someone was paying close attention to the text, and continued to wrestle with it long after. It also tells me, the Church needs to seriously engage the Bible. We need to find a way to do some hardcore teaching about the scriptures and our ongoing dialogue with them.

I wish we could fill parish halls with people willing to walk through the scriptures, like I did in seminary. It was such a rich opportunity to take the time to study. There is just no substitute for time-intensive work.

Thinking about the text, mentioned above, there is a lot going there that cannot be packed into a sermon of reasonable length. There are so many angles to make sense of the ill child piece. How would the first hearers have heard that portion of the text? It is possible that the child, in actual history, died and the explanation is the indiscretion of the parents. The indiscretion is seen as the “cause” of death. Why did the king’s son die? The king did something wrong. This is simple human nature that could easily be at work.

Another issue is the view of children during that era. If you think about it, our sentimental idealization of children is a new phenomenon. In the early 20th century, children still worked in unsafe factories in this country. Infant mortality rates were much higher in the past. Good, caring and thoughtful people simply knew that some children would die. It seems to me, this would take some steam off the “bad God” claim. We tell stories in particular ways because we live and feel in particular circumstances.

Sin, in the minds of ancient Israel, had consequences. The ancients saw the hand of God at work all around them. If life were good, you were blessed. If the opposite were true, there must be a reason. The perspective was results oriented. So, an offense demands retribution. A price must be paid, and thank God the king lives.

A final point: the David and Bathsheba narrative and the culmination of it is not really about the death of the child. It is a detail of the story, and the first hearers of it would not have been as offended as we are. So, you have to back away, in some sense from the particulars, and try to understand the main thrust of the story. You don’t build a systematic theology out of one line of text.

As we read the Bible, we would do well to remember that we bring our socio-historical baggage to the text. The writers of the text brought theirs as well. Yet, the text is a living Word and we dismiss it or discard it at our own peril. After all, the story of David and Bathsheba is one of David repenting and returning to the Lord. David finds the Lord ready to welcome him back. I don’t want to lose that.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Every now and then, a smug Episcopalian will make a statement that gives me cold chills. They will say something like, "I love being an Episcopalian, because I can believe anything I want." This statement is a gross misunderstanding of the doctrinal flexibility built into our Church. The point is that on certain issues, like the nature of Christ's presence in Eucharist and other sacramental matters, a range of nuanced positions are possible. Unfortunately, some misapprehend the latitude offered within Anglicanism as license for disbelief.

There is an individual in Seattle claiming to be both Episcopal priest and Muslim. She is the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding. She has appeared in various publications, some even celebrating her potential as a leader in dialogue.

Now, I am a very flexible sort, after all, I am an Anglican, but this is too much for me. I am no Islam expert, but I have read some of the Koran, and I have studied the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. It seems impossible to reconcile the radical monotheism of Islam with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Reducing the Person of Jesus to a prophet and good guy, as Islam does, is antithetical to the Christian claim of the divinity of Jesus. The point: You cannot be a Christian and a Muslim.

I think Redding's assertions belittle both religions. To claim to connect the two, means you don't really take seriously the demands and faith of either. Although, as a seeker, she is certainly within her rights to search as she sees fit. However, I have a hard time reconciling her ordination vows and status to her assertions. I wish her the best, and would be happy to see her in the pews of any Episcopal parish, just not up front.

The Gospel for this Sunday is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. It seems to me to be central to the Gospel. The teaching of Jesus is accepted and followed, because we know him to be the Christ. We listen to the shepherd, because we know his voice. We hear and know the voice through grace, and are called to faith. We are called to faith in the self-authenticating, self-offering love as revealed in the God-Man. Without that, I am not sure what you have left.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Mirror

The Old Testament lesson, assigned to the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, is 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15. This passage contains the moment, the prophet Nathan helps King David see the error of his ways. It is one of the most visceral, scriptural examples of the veil being lifted, and the truth becoming clear.

David has slept with, and impregnated the wife of one of his soldiers. David tried various means to cover up his sin, but, ultimately, resorted to murdering the soldier. All goes well, until the prophet Nathan becomes involved and outs David.

Through prophetic sight, Nathan sees what David has done. Nathan goes to David, and tells him a story about a rich man with many sheep. The rich man poaches the single sheep that a poor shepherd owns. This is where it gets good. David is outraged, to the point of, demanding the death of the rich man and fourfold restoration of property. Nathan shines the light in David’s darkness. He points to David as the perpetrator of the crime of poaching.

What happens next is incredible. David stops the sham, and confesses his sin. Nathan, immediately, pronounces God’s forgiveness of David, upon hearing the confession.

This is a challenging story for us. It is shocking that the archetypal king of God’s chosen people could fall so far, and be guilty of so much. Despite his fall, he remains so significant for Israel that one accepted messianic title is, “Son of David”. This title, of course, is later applied to Jesus.

There are lots of Christians, out there, that think being religious is about being good. We like consistency. We like people living up to, what they claim to believe, but faithfulness is about more than consistency. Faithfulness is the cycle of maintaining relationship with God and one another, and when we fail, confessing it and seeking mercy.

The story of David and Nathan indicates, God is a God of mercy. The point is, God is always waiting for us. No matter how far a field we stray, when we return, we are welcomed home. This is the love of God that we seek to approximate. This love is life and transformation.

Monday, June 11, 2007

What Goes In...

Recently on another blog, a very bright seminary classmate of mine bemoaned the way many use the scriptures. A practice called “proof-texting” was one object of my friend’s ire. “Proof-texting” is, more or less, pulling a small portion of scripture out of context to support a position already held by the author or speaker.

The truth is most of us engage in the practice. We remember short, well-known bits and we quote them at convenient times. Your perspective or political predilections don’t really matter; we all like short definitive feeling sound bites. The trouble is we misapprehend the totality of the scriptures, if we favor unexamined and easily digestible.

There are many treatments for what ails us. The most obvious one is serious engagement with the Bible. The more you know and study the more aware you become of the complexity.

Just this morning, I read Morning Prayer with a smattering of the faithful. (Which, by the way, we do at St. Columba’s.) The Gospel was Luke 18:31-43. There are two distinct movements to this particular passage. The first movement is Jesus offering his disciples insight into his future in Jerusalem. The disciples don’t get it. The lesson remarks that the meaning is somehow hidden from them. They are blind to the reality of Jesus’ words.

The second movement recounts Jesus’ interaction with a blind beggar on the way to Jerusalem. The blind man asks to see, and Jesus affects new sight for him. So, Jesus is the grantor of new vision.

Separate, these vignettes seem very different. One is a passion prediction and an attempt to reveal more to the disciples, and the other is a healing story. Together, there is much more. The insider disciples are blind, and the outsider blind man sees. This all occurs “on the way,” and that highlights the active nature of discipleship. The healing occurs within the framework of anticipation of the passion. This tells us the passion itself is a source of vision. The healing of the blind man takes place as Jesus is thinking about his death. This points to the focus of God on real human need, despite the reality of suffering awaiting Jesus.

These are only a few insights gained from reading the two movements as they are written. So much would be lost, reading each story in isolation. Sound bites rob us of the richness offered us. We can’t settle for the snippets read in worship. It is of great importance that we read and study the Word. If we are only willing to put a little in, are we surprised at the little returned.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Make Room

1 Kings 17:17-24

The son of the woman, the mistress of the house at Zarephath, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again." The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”

Luke 7:11-17

Soon after healing the centurion's slave, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.


The readings above were assigned by the lectionary for services this morning. They are remarkably similar, even on a cursory examination. Beyond that, geographically, the separate restorations to life of the sons of widows occur less than a couple of miles apart!

Part of the point, of course, is that the restoration Jesus performs is intended to remind the witnesses of the prior restoration performed by Elijah. The prophet Elijah was part of some strains of messianic expectation. He was a model prophet, perhaps even the ideal prophet. Connecting Jesus to Elijah would have granted Jesus the credibility of the tradition.

However, I can’t quite shake the dead men who were raised. What became of them? How do they respond to their “second” chance at life? The scriptures don’t speak to the response of either.

I don’t think the lack of information about the widows’ sons is an oversight. Surely, it is intentional. The advantage of not knowing is the creation of imaginational space. We, as hearers, are offered room to see ourselves as those granted a new life through the action of God. We, once dead, are granted the new life God offers in the Christ.

The lack of information about the revived sons means we do not have an example, in either of the revived, to imitate. Perhaps, this is an invitation to find our own unique ways to respond with all that makes us unique. It is a kind of affirmation. We were created as individuals and we were granted freedom. God invites us to freely respond with all that we are?

What do we have that the Kingdom requires? What has God given us that God desires to harness? I will open myself to God and the Kingdom by…

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Holy Mystery

Sunday was Trinity Sunday, and this year my take was a little different. Don’t get me wrong, I did not reinvent or offer anything new in Trinitarian theology, but I started in a different place. It seemed of some use to think about the historical developments of Trinitarian thought, and why Christians ever asked questions answered by the concept of the Trinity.

The Early Church understood well that the Bible offered three experiences of God. They knew God the Father from Judaism. They had lived and worked with the Son in the person of Jesus. They also received the Spirit that Jesus promised them. It is clear that the early thinkers got this, and one such theologian, Tertullian first used the Trinitarian formula sometime around 180 C.E.

As time went on and Christianity became established as the official religion of the unified Roman Empire under Constantine, Christians had the time, and apparently, the inclination to delve more deeply into theological specifics. There were questions related to the nature of creation and the creator. Some held that an inferior god created the universe, and Jesus was a new God solution to the broken creation. The very nature of the divinity/human mixture that comprised Jesus was an important argument. The role of the Spirit was examined as well.

Camps formed around individual theologians that held various opinions on the above issues and more. These groups devolved into rival factions, and the rivalry did not escape the notice of Constantine. Eventually, he ordered the bishops and clergy to gather, and sort out these questions. The result is the Nicene Creed, which offers, a certain but not perfect, clarification of many of the divisive issues the early Christians faced.

So, here is my punch line. Around the Church, the doctrine of the Trinity has the reputation of being difficult. You often hear clergy decry the effort required to preach about it. Many just check out saying it is impossible to full grasp, and is therefore deemed irrelevant. My theory is that the difficult reputation stems from the controversy- laden origins of the development of the doctrine. We forget that once the argument was over and the Trinity was settled, so to speak, those that rejected it were invited to leave. So, the acceptance of the formal articulation related to the Nicene Creed determined whether you were in or out. I think we have a hang over from the settlement of the argument.

I purpose, we view the Trinity for what it is. It is the most complete attempt to say something about the nature of God. Ultimately, the Trinity is descriptive. Humans have experienced, and continue to experience, God in various ways. We know a Father, a Son/brother and an animating Spirit. The Three urge us forward and bind us together. We know all those experiences to be of one source, and yet each has a vitality and individuality all their own. It seems fitting that God would choose to reveal the essence of God’s reality, not as a single manifestation, but as three persons locked together in Love.

I don’t need an argument ender. I need a God that personally relates to us creatures. The Good News-that is precisely what we have in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

We Are The Past, Present And Future

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been considering the impact of history, both personal and corporate, on our experience of the present. There are many clichés about the importance of knowing history, and I will do you the favor of recounting not even one. It is enough to say that the past is, always, part and parcel of the present.

Our individual histories are the forces and factors that shape us into the people we are. We are products, individually, of our own experience. Each of us, through the maturation process, is molded by our attachments and relationships with others. Through this dynamic development, we learn everything that we know. We adopt a value system. We gain an ethical outlook. We gain, either through the acceptance or rejection of the images around us, our own vision of reality.

It seems naïve, at best, to think that we arrive as neutral human potential. We are born into larger frameworks. Even our own families are the product of generations of development where values, ethics and visions of reality have been shifting and sifting through the lives of our ancestors. We are born into a collection of related individuals, and each of the individuals, past or present, contribute to the self-discovery of our identities.

Of course, personal and family history is not all of it. As people, we live within cultures, political realities and boundaries. We also know historical movements. All of this evokes a response from the individual, and that response ripples throughout the personal and familial. In some way, the ripple makes it back into the realm of the cultural, political and historical, and the generational transmission continues.

It is probably obvious that much of the information passed through the generations of humans is emotional, rather than rational. Individuals transmit and receive information in all manner of ways. There is clear above-board communication, but there is also that sub-rational content that ripples through, and perhaps has even more impact than the overt.

The emotional is not so much separate, as it is operating on another level. Our emotional response to anything is meaning-level interpretation, and we instinctively do it. It is about acceptance and rejection, approval and disapproval. The entire process of becoming individuals is fraught with this exchange of receiving and interpreting.

Unfortunately, the receiving and interpreting phase is not foolproof, and we often misperceive and misinterpret. This could explain long-standing family disconnects that endure, yet no one seems to be able to articulate the problem. It could also explain the fact that some individuals seem to conduct themselves in unproductive ways, and seem incapable of changing despite all manner of negative feedback. The emotional dimension of generational transmission is very powerful.

Understanding emotional process and history, as passed through generational transmission, can be powerful as well. The power is in having a different perspective and a new vantage point. In my next few posts, I will be addressing various issues in the life of the Church using this lens. My hope is that a new perspective will open a new way into the future.