Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reconversion of Britain

A Post-Christendom model for mission:  They exist!

            While the efforts of the early Church, especially those recorded in Scripture, will always serve as the primary inspiration for all missionary efforts of the Christian church, their example has certain limits.  Most saliently, the first Christian missionaries encountered a pre-Christian world; this is a very different context than the post-Christendom world in which many American churches operate.  The people we seek to reach with the Gospel know about Christianity know at least something, good or bad, about the faith.  My hope is to identify, examine and learn from successful missionary efforts in post-Christendom contexts.  In this post I will focus on the reconversion of Britain in the early middle ages. 

Basic Historical Background:  Pagans, popes and monks

            Like much of the Roman Empire, the island of Britain was converted to Christianity in the first centuries after Christ's death and resurrection.  As the Roman Empire fell and contact with the Britain isles greatly abated during the 5th century AD, much of Britain reverted back to paganism.  Various factors caused this, but chief among them was the invasion and migration of pagan German tribes into Britain who took over the country (the name England is from the "Angles", one of these German/Anglo-Saxon tribes).  By the time Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to England in 596 to do missionary work, Augustine found an incredibly weakened to non-existent church, especially in the south and eastern parts of Britain.  Yet over the next century, Roman and Celtic missionaries would initiate the reconversion of England. 

I will focus on what we can learn today from the efforts of these missionaries.  It is especially worth considering the roles of monasteries in this reconversion effort since nearly all of the missionaries were monks.  These communities of spiritual ‘escape’ became centers of outreach.  This causes us to ask a question:  Should we be founding monasteries today?  I am not convinced of this, but I am convinced that our congregations today can learn a great deal from these monastic efforts. 

 Cultural Adaptation and Leadership

            Every missionary in ancient Britain, Celtic or Roman, was involved in the very complex struggle of confronting and employing culture in their efforts to spread the Gospel.  Two examples of this show the uneven terrain of this evangelical endeavor:

·         The Celtic monks were able to make huge strides in terms of limiting slavery.  But they themselves engaged in armed combat, supporting their local chieftain and monastery benefactor against his adversaries.

·         Anglo-Saxon kings believed themselves descendents of Woden (Odin).  A conversion to pure Christianity meant a loss of their family’s divine status; thus they sent their children to enter royal monasteries and became saints, restoring the family's divine lineage.  Often Christian scribes left Woden in the family genealogies, even years later.

These are but two small examples that show the rich dialogue between Gospel and culture during the re-Christianization years.

            What stands out in the example of Britain’s reconversion is not simply the adaptation of Gospel to culture but the leadership of the church within the culture.  The cultural artifacts and learning of the Christians, from their books to their architecture, truly impressed the pagan kings.  The Christian missionaries during this time, often monks, were on the forefront of architecture and book creation.  What Bach would be to music one millennia later, these monks were to book creation and ornamentation in their day.

            Ironically, the monastic movement away from the world provided time for learning that propelled the church to the foreground of the culture.  Is it possible for the church to use some sort of neo-monasticism for the purposes of art?  The St. John's Bible seems like a modern example of effective use of arts for evangelism.  If we are not going to re-create monasteries, a greater willingness to engage the arts, broadly defined, seems like a helpful, if not necessary strategy for missionary work.  These missionaries took risks to engage and lead the creative side of their culture; we need to as well.

 Necessity of One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

            It is striking to observe that the re-conversion of Britain was not done by the British church.  In the Eastern part of Britain, where paganism had taken root, the church was far too weak for mission work.  In the West where the church still had strength, one must wonder if a certain degree of prejudice and fear existed about mission work into the Anglo-Saxon territory in the East; after all, these were the cruel conquerors!  Regardless of the reasons, Britain on its own would not have converted back to Christianity.

Irish monasteries and the children (Aidan, Columba, to name a few) would begin to make inroads into the Britain, Scotland and Wales, especially in the West.  Furthermore, Pope Gregory the Great sent the Italian monk Augustine to England to begin the process of conversion of the Eastern part of the Island.  Moreover, the main Christian contact of Augustine in England was the King’s recently arrived wife, who was from France.  To put it simply, Britain was reconverted by people from outside of Britain.  This was also true of Ireland, as Saint Patrick was British (who grew up in the Western part of the Island where Christianity and Roman culture remained stronger).

This forces us to ask ourselves a few hard questions:

·         Will the reconversion of America require missionaries from other countries? 

·         What kind of prejudices might we have that inhibit us from trying to reconvert our neighbors, or more likely, those who are different than us?  The American church is notorious for being homogeneous within congregations.

·         Does the difficulty of cross-cultural apostolic work require a non-native who paradoxically understands something less yet more about a new culture?

The strong evidence from the British experience during this time is that, yes, foreign missionaries are necessary for the re-Christianization of a population.  Given that we cannot create foreign missionaries who will re-Christianize America (although we can pray for them), we can increase our contact with churches from around the globe.  

Economic Security

            Monasteries were founded with a spiritual purpose:  the pursuit of discipleship through rigorous and often communal living.  They ultimately ended up becoming centers of culture, learning and apostleship.  I suggest this was not simply a spiritual fruit, but a by-product of economic realities.  Monasteries afforded a huge economic benefit to the Christian church. 

Britain’s 5th century church broke down in large part because of clergy shortage.  As state support of Christianity stopped, as cities fell, the whole system of training, ordaining and funding clergy stopped working.   No rulers, no money; no cities, no cathedrals; no bishops, no priests.  The opposite proves the point:  those areas where the church continued to flourish in the British Isles were those which saw the rise of house churches, located in the villas of local aristocrats.

            Monasteries afforded the church the resources necessary for its thriving, especially in relationship to its clergy.  First, monasteries provided a way to circumvent the lack of bishops (that needed cities!) and still recruit, train and ordain clergy.  Second, absent an urban upper or middle class, the church could now fund itself and allow for the resources for the flourishing of the arts and learning (a pax monachica of sorts).  While their economic clout would only grow over time, in the first decades monasteries were already giving the church the money, time and stability it needed.  Lastly, the economics of monasteries were not only conducive to generating learning, faith and culture, but the unit proved it could be duplicated.  Missionary work was done, in large part, first by the spreading of monasteries, not churches.  Monasteries were a winning economic model in a post-Roman Empire world, where churches no longer had state support. 

            As we lose our privileges in a post-Christendom world, we need to consider ways to reconfigure ourselves for greater economic stability.  Only a church that can figure out a way to afford its buildings and clergy will be able have the resources necessary for mission.  This may come about through the cooperative models that share clergy across buildings; models that do not require buildings; or more radical changes in how clergy are trained; or even most radically, models that do not require significant, if any clergy altogether.  Regardless, we should be prepared, if we are to thrive for mission, to engage in stewardship, not just of people in the pews, but the very way we organize for ministry. 
 
To sum it all up

To conclude, Britain was reconverted in the early middle ages. This reconversion was led by monks and monasteries.  I suggest their witness challenges us to:

·         Engage, even lead, in the culture, learning and arts
·         Connect with other churches around the world
·         Find sustainable models of ministry

I should stop here, but…

A few other points, unrelated to my previous points, that I want to put out there:
      ·         Christians in the mission field did not always cooperate with each other.
·         Homebase and missionaries in the field didn’t always agree
·         The way from Paganism back to Christianity was a long and uneven road

Works Consulted

St Augustine and the Conversion of England, an anthology edited by Richard Gameson.  Great Britain: Sutton Publishing, 1999.

Augustine of Canterbury.  Deanesly, Margaret.  London:  Nelson Publishing, 1964.

How the Irish Saved Civilization. Cahill, Thomas.  New York:  Doubleday, 1995.

The world of King Arthur. Snyder, Christopher A.  New York :  Thames & Hudson, 2000.

http://www.wikipedia.org/ for Patrick, Gildas, Aiden and Columba

 

 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Isaiah 55:1-11

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 4, Advent cycle.  It also appears in the Easter Vigil and at other points in the RCL.
 
Summary:  This passage picks up with a number of great Advent themes:  Hope, repentance, waiting for God's fulfillment.  For those who still remember the days of Advent III being about joy, there is much joy in this passage, including God's delight, even pleasure, in his word being fulfilled. 

To make it really simple:  Part of the joy of Christmas, part of why it gives us such peace, joy and hope is because it is so sensory!  Light a candle and sing a song!

Key Words:

חסד (kased, "loving-kindness," Isaiah 55:3)  This word is a tough one to translate.  The idea is steadfast and undeserved love.  I think those who have been walking through the narrative lectionary may be able to communicate finally what is going on:  God is faithful through every step and every level of human disobedience.  This is not simply a God who hangs in there, but hangs in there four centuries finally only to hang himself for the sake of humanity.
נפש (nephish, "soul", Isaiah 55:2-3)  For those of us living in a world formed by Greek ideas, we hear soul and we think the wispy part of our lives that floats up to heaven. But actually, the word "soul" here in Hebrew means living being.  This is clearly identified by the context here that includes eating, drinking and listening.  The soul, even if one wants to move into Greek territory of a distinct soul from body, is not separate but intimately connected.
נתנ (nathan, "give", 55:4)  The prince is not made, but the prince is given.  I think this is an important reminder about the nature of leadership.  Leaders aren't made, they are given by God.
מצוה (mitzvah, "command", 55:4)  In this case, the leader is given with a particular purpose, to command them.  He is not a commander in the grammar here; he will command the people.  But this word command is related to God's command for the people.  This seems to harken back to Isaiah 2, then when all the nations of the Lord stream to God and learn his law.
תפצ (kephitz, "delight", 55:11)  God does not simply intend for his word to be fulfilled but to delight him.  I think this is a great way to end the passage, with God having great joy, even pleasure and delight in his word.

Key word we had two weeks back (in Jeremiah 37)
מחשבה ("makhashaba"; "thoughts, devices, or plans"; 29:11):  I am always worried about the word plan in the Bible.  It can quickly make both humans and God into a fatalistic machine.  The word translated plan here can be mean plan, but it can also mean thought or device/plot:

NRS Psalm 92:5 How great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!
NRS Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
NRS Proverbs 16:3 Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.
NRS Lamentations 3:61 You have heard their taunts, O LORD, all their plots against me.

As the TWOT indicates:  "The basic idea of the word is the employment of the mind in thinking activity. Reference is not so much to "understanding" (cf. bi^n), but to the creating of new ideas."  What further attests to this is that the LXX translates this as λογισμος, which means thought or reason.  I do not disgree that God has plans for the people.  In this case, Jeremiah has very clear prophecies about 70 years.  But the OT word for plan in many cases means something softer than "calculated plan" and more like "creative and reasoned thoughts" that have as their end peace and hope.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ezekiel 37 and a Chaism

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 4 Advent Cycle.
 
Chiastic structure of Ezekiel 37. 
This week I'd like to show how the language Ezekiel points toward a chiasm.  A chiasm is a structure, used very often in Hebrew, along the lines of this
Point A
  Point B
     MAIN Point C
  Counterpoint/echo B
Counterpoint/echo A

Repetition of words and themes points toward the middle, which reveals the author's main point.  This is a valuable tool for teaching, but I would also argue, for remembering stories as well.  It works very well in Hebrew, a language with a fairly small vocabulary.  English authors cover up these structures by translating the same word in various ways.  In Ezekiel 37, this happens most meaningfully with  (דוח) , which means Spirit, wind or breath. 

Once you start laying out the words, a strong argument for a chaism emerges, with the key verse in the middle: "You shall live and know that I am the Lord"

Point A:  The Spirit (דוח) leads Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones (עצם)
   Point B:  Even prophet (literally, son of Adam) is uncertain about fate of bones (עצם); only God knows (ידע)
     Point C:   Command to prophesy (נבא), to speak the Word of the LORD (דבד) with the promise of the Spirit  (דוח)
                       1)  Bones (עצם) will take on flesh
                       2)  Flesh will come alive (חיה) through Spirit (דוח)
        Point D:  MAIN POINT:  People will be alive (חיה) and know (ידע) that the LORD is God!
     Point C':  Ezekiel Prophesies (נבא)
                        1)  Bones (עצם) take on flesh
                        2)  Flesh comes alive  (חיה) as Spirit  (דוח) comes at Word of God. 
In fact, a whole mulitude has been resurrected
   Point B':  People said they did not know their fate, their bones (עצם) had dried up; command to prophesy (נבא) the promise of God's Spirit to the people
Point A:  Spirit (דוח) will be with everyone (not just Ezekiel); they will be in Israel, not in valley; people will be alive (חיה) and know (ידע) that the LORD is God!




Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Daniel 3:8-29 (Fiery furance)

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 4, Advent Cycle.
 
This is a great Advent 1 text.  We all feel that our culture is pulling us away from the real meaning of Christmas toward worship of countless idols.  Those who hold fast discover the power of God to overcome even the hottest fires and cruelest leaders.

A few quick points:

1)  Aramaic.  This part of Daniel is written in Aramaic.  While similar to Hebrew, I am really skeptical about doing linguistic work in this langauge.
http://danielinthebible.com/hebrew-and-aramaic/ seems an interesting website on the distinction between Aramaic and Hebrew in the OT.

2)  "son of gods."  Some translations and art will focus on Jesus in the fire.  This is not altogether abiblical, as the text literally says, "son of the gods."  The NET Bible doesn't want to translate this as son of God because they believe it is a pagan speaking.  But how could a pagan say anything remotely close to "the son of the living God, YHWH"?  I don't think its entirely unfair to conceive of Christ, in some capacity, as the one who saves them.

3)  The story has a lyrical, nearly epic quality about it.  I am not sure what this means for preaching, but there is something otherworldly and even charming about the story.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1;4-14

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 4 (Most recently Nov 2013).  A portion of it also occurs in the RCL, Year C (Proper 23).

Summary:  The Hebrew here definitely accentuates and expands the meaning of Jeremiah's words.  Maybe because it is Christ the King Sunday, I am thinking a fair amount about God's sovereign title (Lord Sabbaoth) as well as the meaning of "plans" when it comes to God.  The Hebrew reveals that God is sovereign but in some more terrifying yet amazing ways than we thought possible.

Key Words:
צבאות ("Sabbaoth"; "Armies", "Hosts"; 29.4):  The NET translates this, "God of Israel...who rules over all."  While such a title does justice to the Hebrew's designation of God as all powerful, I think taking out the clearly militaristic language at that juncture is unhelpful.  The purpose of this title here is a reminder that it is God who has sent them into exile for God is the ruler of armies.  This is a horribly uncomfortable reality for us, that somehow, through all the violence of human warfare, God reigns supreme, working not just against but even through war.  I struggle with this greatly.

הגליתי ("higlaytee"; "send into exile" in hiphel; 29:4) First point here:  Jeremiah uses the first person here in his speech for God:  God says he did this.  The second point here:  The root of this verb means to uncover.  In a strange way, to sent into exile is to be uncovered.  Removed of our previous religious moorings and culture, we discover who we are in profound ways.  Yes, we ultimately discover ourselves in relationship, but a certain learning also comes from separation.

שלום("shalom"; "peace"; 29:7)  Last week we read that Isaiah prophecies of a prince of peace (Jesus).  This week we hear that God intends to make people prosper, but it is actually the same word.  Again, peace in Hebrew is a much broader word than simply a truce!

מחשבה ("makhashaba"; "thoughts, devices, or plans"; 29:11):  I am always worried about the word plan in the Bible.  It can quickly make both humans and God into a fatalistic machine.  The word translated plan here can be mean plan, but it can also mean thought or device/plot:

NRS Psalm 92:5 How great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!
NRS Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
NRS Proverbs 16:3 Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.
NRS Lamentations 3:61 You have heard their taunts, O LORD, all their plots against me.

As the TWOT indicates:  "The basic idea of the word is the employment of the mind in thinking activity. Reference is not so much to "understanding" (cf. bi^n), but to the creating of new ideas."  What further attests to this is that the LXX translates this as λογισμος, which means thought or reason.  I do not disgree that God has plans for the people.  In this case, Jeremiah has very clear prophecies about 70 years.  But the OT word for plan in many cases means something softer than "calculated plan" and more like "creative and reasoned thoughts" that have as their end peace and hope.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Isaiah 9:1-7

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 4, most recently Nov 2013.  It is also the Old Testament passage for Christmas in the RCL.

Summary:  The inclusion of this passage at this particular juncture, it seems, is designed to have us read Isaiah within its historical context.  (Which probably means reading Isaiah 8, yuck).  Ultimately, I think reading within the broadest narrative is the only way to intepret it.  Matthew sees this passage as prophetic about Jesus; therefore, even if Isaiah didn't have this fully in mind (a debatable point) we don't have to debate whether it ultimately referred to Jesus.  Matthew said so.  QED.  The historical context us, reminds us that God, even in the midst of his wrath, still is a God of mercy, whose proper and ultimate aims are life and joy, not death and destruction.  In terms of the Hebrew, I have focused on vs. 1 and 2 and the names given to Jesus.

Note:  I am actually preaching this week on Isaiah 6, so I apologize for the shorter blog post.

Key Words focusing on Isaiah 9:1-2:
צלמות  ("tsalmwet", "deep death like darkness")  This word shows up in Psalm 23:4.  I wonder if this is a good word to describe what we saw in the recent Typhoon in the Philippines.  The people walking in the land of shadowy death.  We know from Scripture that Christ is present in this suffering to.

פהא ("pele", "wonder")  In the English language, wonderful is a word used by grandmothers to describe the artwork of their grandchildren.  Wonder in the Bible means God is doing something, like 7 wonders of the world, or like God making barren Sarah pregnant or the 10 plagues.

יועצ (yo-atz, "counselor", technically a verbal noun) The NET couragously and creatively translates this as "strategist."  While I think the captures the military nature of the passage, but doesn't seem completely fair to the word, which means more simply advisor.   I think it also becomes highly probelmatic for us to see Jesus as our strategist rather than our advisor. A strategist figures out how we can achieve our aims; a counselor or advisor directs us.  Nothing in this section describes this baby as one who is part of our agenda and not the other way around.

אביעד ("aveeyad", "eternal father")  This is quite a title for a baby.  This is and the title of mighty God make me really wonder how Isaiah could actually not be imputing divinity to the baby.  I also wonder how we reconcile the idea of Jesus being father.

שלומ(shalom, "peace")  Peace here means something far more than truce.  It means wholeness and restored relationship.  In Hebrew, peace entails righteousness, something that Christ brings about.  This is the last name, the last word, peace, really, wholeness.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Amos 5

The narrative lectionary, year 4, includes:  Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24.  In this post I focus on Amos 5.

Summary:
I find the Hebrew beautiful in this section.  Is presents three couplets of rejection, each with a different image and sense (God will not smell, look or hear the people).  Yet it leaves me curious as to how to translate the imagery of vs 24.  Are the waters of justice a raging river or simply waters?  Is the stream of righteousness a torrent, gorging flood or a cool stream to refresh all life?  Of course, its both.  While this particular passage (and the balance of the book) speak of God's alien work of judgment, it also promises God's redemption (see the last few verses of the book!)

Key words:
 דרש ("seek" (darash); Amos 5:4, 5, 6, 14)):  This word only appears once in this week's narrative lectionary snippet.  But it is a reminder that at its heart, prophets are always calling for repentance more than announcing judgment.

סבאות ("army"/"hosts" (sabboth); Amos 5:14, 15, 16, 27)  I always thought this was Lord of the Sabbath as a kid.  I had no idea this meant Yahwah of the Army.  What to do with this term?  Two interesting things about this term.  First, it is found in its full fury in Amos 3:13, where God is announcing his militaristic judgment against the nation.  Yet, 4:13 also makes it clear that this word doesn't simply mean military might, but also his providence in creation.


"For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth -- the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!" (NRSV)

In fact, the word in Greek (LXX) is not "army" or "military" but παντοκρατωρ, which means, almighty or literally "all holding."  The power of God's hand is not simply to kill but to make alive.  I think that ultimately a comparison of 4:13 and 3:13 reveals that even in this military image of God, even in this book of judgment, we find the two hands of God at work:
  The alien work - to destroy
  The proper hand - to make life
Restoring creation requires both

Sense words in vs 21-24:
ריח (Smell-21; Technically it means to open wide, as in the nostrils open wide)
-I will not smell your religious assemblies
נבת (Look-22);
-I will not look at your peace offerings
 שמע(Hear-23);
-I will not hear the music of your stringed instruments

Most translations  cover this up, but is a beautiful, crescendoing three pronged couplet of images.  (In Hebrew, rhymes are not based on sound, but on meaning; each vs 21, 22 and 23 is therefore a rhyme).

מימ ("waters" (mayim), 5:24)  The only thing modifying water is "of justice."  In short, there are waters of justice.  But what kind of waters? 
 נחל
 ("wadi; torrent" (nahal); 5:24).  While TWOT indicates:  "This noun usually refers to a dry river bed or ravine which in the rainy season becomes a raging torrent, and/or the resulting torrent," there are many examples in the Bible where it simply means a stream.  Most importantly for us, Elijah (the narrative lectionary star last week), drank water from a Nahal; it nourished him.

I think within this particular context of Amos, a more violent translation makes sense, but I think one cannot deny the canonical understanding of what kind of waters God pictures of justice and righteousness.  I think finally the flood will give way to waters of life around the tree of life, the cross.

Technical note:  The verb in 23 switches to the singular second person (you instead of all of you).  The NET Bible notes this might mean that the prophet is attacking one individual.  I think a better understanding is simply that as the prophet levels the accusations, it becomes clear that ultimately, all the nation is guilty as one.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

1 Kings 19:1-18

The narrative lectionary year 4 includes this passage for All Saints Sunday.  It also occurs a number of times in the Revised Common Lectionary (or at least portions of it).

Summary:  If you are preaching All Saints, what a great image of a saint:  discouraged, yet fed through the tangible word to obedient yet difficult service.  Theology of the cross, reformation and vocation all in one.  One could even get to spiritual warfare and anfechtung through the voices that Elijah heres in the messengers. 

What I find interesting in the Hebrew this week is the use of the word "soul" or "life."  The Hebrew (and LXX) use words that we often translate as soul.  Yet the death would be very physical; furthermore, the treatment is very physical.  Back to all saints:  our sainthood is lived out and revived in this world.

Key Words:
נוח ("nuach"; "rest" vs 3)  Elijah does not ditch his servant, but rather gives him rest.  This word is where the name "Noah" comes from.

נגע ("naga"; "touch", vs 5 and 7)  This word can mean touch or strike.  Did the angel touch him or prod him?  What was this touch like?

נפש ("nephish"; vs 10 and throughout).  The word nephish here, sometimes translated soul, is the word used for "life"; a reminder, as always, that our pseudo-Greek worldvied of souls and bodies is not Hebrew (nor Biblical!)  Elijah's soul needs food and water!  This relates to other words and ideas in this section -- eat, touch, even hear!

דממה ("dammah"; "silent voice" vs 12).  The NSRV translates this phrase as "sheer silence."  Yet the Bible seems to suggest it is a small whisper.

Translation issues:
vs. 2: "If"/"let" and the jussive mood.
If you read the Hebrew, you will not find the words "if" when Jezebel speaks, "May the gods do X if I have not done Y." The reason is that the verbs, "do" and "add", are in the jussive mood. Greek grammars all call is subjuntive mood, but Hebrew Grammars call it different names based on the person (ie type of subject, I, you, or he/she/it). The long and short of it, the Hebrew here is a hypothetical folded into a vow. "May the gods kill me if I don't kill you."

Hebrew consectuive verbs.
vs. 3 Hebrew has no adverbs, really. Instead it places verbs in a consecutive fashion. In this case, you have "he was afraid, he was standing and he was going." Or more accurately, "He was going in a fearful and standing way" or even better "He immediately ran scared."
vs.5 Based on the two consecutive verbs, "get up" and "eat," we can red the "get up" as an adverb. Ths, Elijah is not told to stand up and eat, but rather, eat immediately.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cherubs and 1 Kings 8

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 4 (really the full passage is 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13).

Summary:  For Lutherans working their way through the narrative lectionary, today's story about Solomon building a temple is a tough one.  I find two powerful reformation themes here though:  Vocation (everyone had to help in building the temple) and semper reformanda (always being reformed;this temple would become a spot that Jesus had to cleanse.)  Indeed, I think today's story, when coupled with the cleansing of the temple, suggests a few avenues for reform:
-Including, not just serving, the poor in the church.
-Stop worshiping our buildings (1 Kings 9; a reminder that its not about the temple)
-Overcoming historical differences to work together (Heram and Solomon)

But if you are focusing on this text, and this text alone, I think a fruitful avenue is the image of the Cherub.  We make them into fluffy childlike angels.  In the Bible they are terrifying.  A reminder of what we do to God -- make him fluffy, ignoring his awesomeness!  Indeed, in the skyscraper era it is hard to imagine what a profound impact the very size of the temple would have had on viewers.

Key Word:
כרנב
"Cherub"  This word appears a number of times in the Bible falling into five categories:
Garden of Eden:
Genesis 3:24     The cherubs guard the tree of life

Ark of Covenant
Numbers 7:28   This describes the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 26), on which sat two Cherubim, as the place from which God spoke to Moses.  For a picture, you can check here.  Actually, there a number of pictures online, but you get the idea:
http://hebrewvisionnews.blogspot.com/2012/02/parshat-terumah-inside-ark.html

In Temple:
1 Kings 6:23 and 24: Massive cherub statues in temple (wings 15 ft long); worth noting is that in 1 Kings 7:29 Cherub are listed next to Lions and Oxen

"Horsemen" of God's sky Chariot:
2 Samuel 2:11  Cherub move God's chariot
Ezekiel 10 has a huge description of Cherubs. 
-They have human hands
-Their entire body, their rims, their spokes, their wings, and the wheels -- the wheels of the four of them -- were full of eyes all around.

-Each one had four faces: the first face was that of the cherub, the second face was that of a human being, the third that of a lion, and the fourth that of an eagle.

Later Ezekiel will add

Ezekiel 41:19  a human face turned toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion turned toward the palm tree on the other side. They were carved on the whole temple all around;
In Heaven:
The OT seems to describe God as existing in the temple, but also in the heavens (ie, the temple and then ark become a model and portal to the heavenly worship).  In the New Testament, God's temple is not located in the temple in Jerusalem, but the New Jerusalem in heaven.  Thus, the four creatures of Revelation 4 and 5 are likely Cherubim.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Exodus 16:1-18

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 4, most recently Oct 2013.

Summary:  This is such a rich theological text.  It gets at the heart of God's abundance amid human selfishness.  Our response to God's abundance:  To misunderstand it or eventually, to hoard it (vs 20).  Yet God is faithful and continues to provide, over and against our complaints and our disobedience.  As a side note, I think John 6 is Jesus' last supper/passover meal in his Gospel.

נסח ("test", Exodus 16:4)  God lists a number of motives here for his action:  Their complaints and their understanding of his power (12) but also this notion of testing.  This harkens back to Abraham; this test though the community will fail, as they will just about everything in the wilderness.

מן ("Manna", Exodus 16:31, simply comes from the Hebrew for "What is it", kind of like "what the?"

פה  ("mouth", Exodus 16:16, 18, 21)  In order to describe how much a person should gather, the Bible commands "to a man a mouth he eats to pick."  In otherwords, a mouthful.  This is a very small amount, especially by American standards!

לקט ("glean", Exodus 16:4, 5, 16, 17, 18 and elsewhere)  The word can mean collect, but its use the in Hebrew Bible suggests more of a gleaning action.  In Leviticus, people are instructed to leave food on the crops so that the poor might glean; Ruth then is able to glean with the others who are poor.

שבע ("satisfy", Exodus 16:3, 8, 12)  The point of God's provision is not simply that we could eeke out an existance, but that we would have abundance.  The Psalms remind us (104:13):  The earth is full/satisfied with the fruit of your work.  Furthermore, Deuteronomy 31:10 warns of becoming too full!  America is a land of both great scarcity and abundance that attests to both the words of Psalms and Deuteronomy.

כבוד ("glory", Exodus 16:7, 10)  The Narrative lectionary pairs these OT readings with the Gospel of John. This week they went with the Bread of Life texts.  They could have just as easily gone with John 1 and the image of God's glory "dwelling" among us, not in a tabernacle in the wilderness, but in the midst of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Genesis 28:10-17

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 4.  It also occurs in the RCL as part of Genesis 28:10-19a.
 
Summary:  Even in Sunday School we pick up on the irony (or simply unfairness) that God picks Jacob.  A careful reading reminds us that of another irony:  Jacob doesn't really pick up on God's global aims.  The whole vision and promise of God speaks to much grander things than Jacob has in mind.  While we might be tempted to slam Jacob's narrowness or immaturity (especially his absurd response in vs. 20-21), I think he speaks to the faith situation of a lot of people:  Some sense of God's providence to others in the past, but little sense of God's provision for that particular individual and scarely any sense that God intends to bless others through that individual.

סלם  ("sullam"; "ladder"; 28:12)  This word could also mean "stairway" or "ramp."  The NET Bible notes:  There appears to be an Akkadian cognate simmiltu which has a specialized meaning of "stairway, ramp"; TWOT notes:  "...Jacob's ladder, raised from earth to heaven (Gen 28:12). Some would suggest the translation "stairway" and liken the structure to a ziggurat, which is possible. However, there are other words for stairway, and ladders were used at a very early time."

I am not sure how much is at stake with this translation.  Perhaps some don't like the idea of ladder theology (we need to climb to God through our deeds), but stairway theology doesn't seem an improvement.

Side bar:  It is fascinating to think of angels going up and down a ladder, even a very big one.  I either think of monkey-like creatures leaping everywhere; or human like creatures having to move very carefully up and down the ladder. 

םלאך  ("malak"; "messenger" or "angel", 28:12)  Up until this point in the story, angels have only interacted with members of Abraham's family.  This vision of numerous angels reminds the reader that God is very busy at work, not just with Jacob (or even his family).

הנה ("hennah", "behold"; 28:12 (2x), 13, 15)  The writer continues to invite us to envision the sequence of events.

ברך ("baruch", "bless"; 28:14)  The form of this word is interesting here.  
A grammar review:  If you recall from Hebrew, verbs can come in a variety of forms, such as "qal" or "niphal."  While the rules are not entirely regular, these various forms suggest something about how that verb is being employed.  The "niphal" form means the verb is passive (I was hit, for example) or reflexive (I hit myself), with the passive meaning the more common. 

If the verb is translated in the passive, then this passage reads, "All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and your offspring."

If this verb is translated in the reflexive form, then this passage reads, "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves through you and your offspring."

It is probably most natural here to use the passive translation; however, elsewhere in Genesis (26:4 see) God clearly uses another form that is reflexive with the blessing language.

The question is not whether God will use Jacob's seed to bless all the earth; the question is to what extent will Jacob's seed have in sharing this blessing with the rest of the earth.  That seems like a very rich and if not haunting question about the abundance of God's blessing and our role in sharing this blessing.  Interestingly, Jacob's response suggests that the blessing of the world is not significant to him.

σπερματι ("spermati"; "seed" or "offspring"; Septuagint, 28:14), Paul will pick up on the fact that in both the Hebrew and Greek, the word for "seed" is singular.  Paul takes this to mean "an offspring" instead of "offspring" which he claims is Christ.  While I have no problem with Paul's intrepretation, especially the thought that through Christ the whole world is blessed, it is worth noting that "offspring" rarely ever appears in the plural in Hebrew.

דבר ("debar"; "speak"; 28:15)  The Bible does not say God "promises" here; rather, whatever God says will happen is a promise because God is faithful and always fulfills his word.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Genesis 22

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 4, most recently Sept 15, 2013.
 
Summary:  This story is obviously challenging and the Hebrew offers no easy way out.  The Hebrew (and Greek translation) does have some fascinating connections to other stories in the Bible.  One helpful point for this story is that God does provide; yet Abraham cannot fully "see" this provision, but has his eyes lifted by the Word of God.  In the one case, the Word of God immediately changes his course of action (vs 11); in the other case, Abraham needs time to see God's plans unfold (vs 4).  While none of us are asked to sacrifice our sons, we are called to go where we do not want to.  God provides a means for us, but we don't always see it.

Key words:

הנני ("henney", "behold", 22:1):  Typical response of a willing servant in the Bible. 

ולך-לך ("lake-lakah", "get up and go"; 22:2):  Two theological points.  In Hebrew, sections of the "scrolls" were not divided by numbers but instead by key words that summarized or set-up a story-line (or series of stories, what we would call chapters).  This section of the Bible is called
"לך-לך" named after this story.  Furthermore, this is not the first time Abraham has been given this command; God told Abraham to get up and go in verse 12:2 to a new land.

Note on Hebrew:  This is a repeated verb:  "Go - go"; because Hebrew uses a small vocab, the first verb in series of verbs is an adverb.  So in this case, "Go in a going way" or "Hurry up!"

עלם:  ("olim", whole sacrifice, 22:2)  A whole sacrifice meant that everything was burned; nothing was given to the priests.  All that remained were ashes.

αγαπητος ("agapetos", "beloved", 22:2)  The Hebrew (and English) do a dramatic build up:  son, only son, Isaac, your beloved.  This phrase "beloved" is used rarely in the Old Testament, but will be picked up in the New Testament to refer to God's view of Jesus:  Jesus Baptism, his transfiguration and finally Mark 12 and a vineyard parable.

נער ("na'ar", "young boy, or servant", 22:3)  Fascinatingly, the two young men could be simply young boys, and not young male servants.  This makes for a number of scary thoughts...

ראה ("ra-ah", "see", 22:4).  It is on the third day that Abraham finally sees where God called him to go.  Sometimes we cannot see where God wants us to be until we get there...I find this curious that it takes until the third day to see the mountain of sacrifice.

אמר ("omer", "say", 22:2 and 3). The NRSV mistranslates:  God never shows Abraham where to go; he simply speaks to him.  In short, Abraham is living on God's word and that is all he has!!

"We will return" (22:5); the English is correct -- Abraham says they will return.

נשא  ("nassah", "looked up", 22:4, 13)  Abraham had to raise his eyes to see what God would provide.  In one case, it took time to see what God's Word meant; in the other case it took the Word of God calling him by name to change his path.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Acts 16:9-16

This passage occurs in the RCL Easter Season, Year C, most recently May 2013.

Summary:  Two things caught my attention about this passage.  First, a woman wins an argument with Paul :-)  Second, Lydia has so much in her life going right for her.  Yet she is not content.  Often we assume that people need to hit rock bottom for the Christian Gospel to make an impact.  In Lydia's case, clearly something about her life was incomplete, even if she was not lamenting her life or commiting awful sins.  I wonder if this is a helpful angle for reaching the consumerists out there -- no, you are not awful, evil and hell-bent people, but deep down something is missing; the world of selling and consuming doesn't add up.

παρακαλων ("encourage" (participle form), 16:9)  It is interesting that the man "encourages" them to come to Macedonia.  You could call him an advocate for Macedonia.  In fact, the word for Spirit in John's Gospel (and the appointed text for this week) is παρακλητος, the noun form of this verb.

συμβιβαζων ("proving, pulling together, knit" (participle form), 16:10)  I find this is great verb for how we understanding the work of the Spirit -- we pull pieces together to build of picture, a map, of what the Spirit calls us to do.  When this word is used in Colossians it means "knit together."  We pull at pieces -- visions, stirrings of the hearts and basic facts -- to figure out the will of the Spirit.

κολωνια ("colony", 16:12)  This word does not really feature in the interpretation of this passage, but it speaks to how we can understand Paul's letter to the Philippians:  http://www.zionsjonestown.com/paul/philippi/home.htm  See here for more info.

πορφυροπωλις ("dealer in purple cloth", 16:14) Lydia, unlike the jailer, does not encounter the Gospel at a time of weakness, but of relative strength.  She is a rich merchant who sails the seven sees.  She is at worship.  Yet something isn't right; she hungers for something more.

Sad side note:  Purple cloth was ruined because of over harvesting of the snails that produced the dye.  It is believed those particular snails are actually extinct.

διηνοιξεν ("open", 16:14)  This word can simply mean "open" but it can also mean "open" in a more metaphorical way.  See the word dianetics and Scientology!!

ο οικος αυτης  ("the house of hers", 16:15)  This verse is often used as justification (or permission) for infant Baptism.  No changes here, but I think the translators overtranslate here.  They translate it "She and her house."  It should read, "Her house was baptized."  First, the word "she" is missing.  The only thing in the nominative is "the house."  It seems unlikely "she" is implied in the verb because the verb baptize is in the singular, which would not match "she and her house."  Furthermore, the word "de" appears, which suggests a change in subject; "Lydia" was the subject in the previous sentence suggesting a new subject.  She was baptized; my point is simply that her house was not baptized as an afterthought, but that the act was done all together.

If I lost you, I think I might of lost myself with this last point.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Revelation 21:1-6

This passage occurs in the RCL Easter Season, Year C, most recently May 2013.
 
Summary:
This verse is paired in Year C with John 13:31-35, "By this they will know you are my disciples, if you love one another."  Jesus sets up a strong imperative in John 13 for us to create the Kingdom of God on earth through our mutual love.  But Rev 21 is a perfect antidote, that finally, we cannot create the Kingdom, but this is an act of God.  The Greek really spells this out.  Like much of the Johannine writing, these brief verses allude richly to the Old Testament and other places in John's Gospels.  In fact, the connection to the rest of John is quite striking in this passage.  But to get back to the juxtaposition of John 13 and Rev 21:  This is the tension of Christian community:  We must work for a better world, but know that we cannot get there until Jesus comes again.

Key Words
καταβαινουσαν ("descending", from καταβαινω, 21:2)
εκ του ουρανου ("from the heaven", 21:2)
απο του θεου ("from God", 21:2)
All of these words, put together, form a trifecta clearly showing that the holy city is not established by our activities on earth, but is entirely from God.

νυμφη ("bride", literally "nymph", 21:2)  The Bible begins and ends with a coupling of man and woman, a marriage, first of Adam and Eve and then later of Christ and the church.  I realize that Lutherans have tended to put marriage in the "left-hand" kingdom (and therefore allow it to be dictated by science and not Scripture), but clearly it is something that God cares for.  I guess it is a question worth asking -- what is the bride adorned with?

σκηνη ("tent", 21:3)  In the first chapter of John's Gospel, we read that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The word for dwell here is "σκηνεω " which means το tent or tabernacle. (The parallel to the OT is striking here; the next sentence in John's Gospel is "And we beheld his glory." In the OT, once the tabernacle was set up, the people could behold God's glory). This is the same word here. In some ways, this then is a powerful book end of the NT and the Johannine literature. It begins cosmically with God choosing to dwell with us on the old earth; now it ends with God choosing again to dwell with us on the earth he has again prepared for us.

ω ("omega", 21.6) One thing worth smiling about. The word "Omega" is a word in English. In Greek, it is a letter, literally, "Big O", Jesus says he is the "alpha and big O."

αρχη ("beginning", 21:6)
τελος ("end", 21:6)
The word in Greek for the "beginning and end" are "αρχη" and "τελος." Both of these words have all sorts of connotations. Arche can mean ruler (as in monarchy), first principle, beginning. (En arche = in the beginning). Telos can mean completion, final, last, ultimate. Jesus is the beginning and end; Jesus is the ruling principle and ultimate reality.  The point here is that Jesus is both the book ends of the story (in the beginning was the Word), but also the intellectual and emotional beginning and end.

Comments from early posts on Rev 21:

21.1 The word sea "thalassa" is used just a few verses earlier (20.13); it was holding the dead. Perhaps one could argue that if the sea no longer exists, then death also no longer exists.

21.4 The word for wipe away (exaleiph-oo) means more like wipe out than wipe away. The activity is probably a bit less sentimental than this pastor would like ;-)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

This passage occurs in the RCL Epiphany Season, Year C, most recently January 2013.
 
Summary:  I looked at Paul's words from 1st Corinthians today.  I am not sure if I have arrived at a sermon, because the words really spoke to me as a leader.  Do I really honor the weaker members of my church?  Do I see myself as brother and sister in Christ to other Christians, especially outside of my congregation?  If there is something worth preaching on though, it is Paul's communal understanding of Baptism, over and against our individual notions of salvation.

εβαπτισθημεν ("baptize" or "dip", from βαπτιζω, 12:13)  Two things are worth pointing out here.  First, that Baptism is in the passive here.  In the Old Testament, cleansing rituals were done by an individual for one's self.  Baptism is a passive experience; it is something that is done to us by God, through the church.

It is also worth noting that Paul here puts a clearly communal understanding of Baptism.  Most of Western reflection on Baptism has noted the individual's relationship to Christ, but here, Paul uses Baptism to speak of the bridge between each of us.

τιμη ("honor"; 12:24) Our society is not an honor - shame society.  The ancient world was.  A modern example of this is in Wii tennis (a product of Japan, still an honor-shame society).  When you lose, you sulk with your head down.  I suppose I should say more about the historical conditions of shame and honor, but the point doesn't get lost in translation.  To give honor to the poor, inept and feeble is what Paul commends to us here.  Do we do this in our churches?  We all honor our star volunteers, but what about the people who consistently don't perform they way we need them to.

σχισμα ("divisions"; literally schism, 12:25)  Paul explains that their should be no schisms in the body.  This is a painful word for me because clearly the church around the world is not united.  Ironically, Baptism is one of the issues about which we most often disagree!

κυβερνησις ("government" or "guidance", 12:28)  Greattreasures.org defines this word as as:  "a steering, piloting, direction, hence, a governing. The idea being that of guidance rather than rule."  I think this really defines well the role of a pastor.  One who steers, but doesn't rule.

Grammar:  συν verbs
In Greek, the prefix συν (syn in English) is often added to verbs to give them a collective meaning.  We can translate this in English, but we add words.  In verse 26, Paul uses most of his verbs (co-suffer; co-rejoice) with συν. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

John 2:1-11

This passage occurs in the RCL Epiphany Season, Year C, most recently January 2013.
 
Summary:  The numbers tell the story here.  This is Jesus FIRST miracle that happens on the THIRD day, in which he transforms SIX vessels of imperfect cleansing into celebration.  In fact, the word FIRST here means foundation, because this miracle foreshadows all the other miracles of Jesus; they are all miracles of transformation, including the resurrection on the third day.  Lastly, on a very Lutheran note, the transformation includes humans who are put to use for the service of others.

Key words:
τριτη ("third", 2.1).  The phrase third day only occurs in John's Gospel during this story and the accounts of the resurrection.  Furthermore, Jesus refers in this chapter to the fact that the temple will be raised on the third day (2:19-20), also a reference to the resurrection on the third day.  Jesus' glory will fully be revealed then.

εξ ("six", 2:6)  Six in the bible signifies something as incomplete.  It is not coincidental that John connects six with Jewish cleansing rituals.

αρχη ("first" or "principal", 2:11)  The word can mean first.  But if you look at the other times when it is translated as first (and not "beginning"), it has shades of primary, or foundationally first. So we need to ask ourselves -- why is this a foundational miracle?

John 6:64
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.
Colossians 1:18;
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Hebrews 2:3, 3:14
It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him,
For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
Rev 22:13
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."

Two other words:
διακονος ("servant", 2:5):  Just a quick pointing out of this word, whose meaning continues to come under fire (can this exist outside of the word and worship is the current Catholic debate).  In this case, Jesus brings the διακονος to service for his ministry.  Can you count this as a worship service...hmm...there is Wine and the word.

επιστεθσαν ("believe", 2:11):  Believe in the book of John is never a noun "faith" but only a verb "to believe" or "to trust."

Grammar review:  An idiom you should know
"τι εμοι και σοι"  Jesus asks this question of Mary.  This is not a very nice thing to say to a person.  It means, "Who the hell are you."  It is also used
* Widow to Elijah, whom she believes is responsible for her son's death;1 Kings 17:18
* The demons to Jesus when he wants to exorcise them; Mark 5:7

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Luke 3:15-22

This passage occurs in the RCL Epiphany Season, Year C, most recently January 2013.  
Summary:  I get why the lectionary dismisses vs 18-20.  However, I would encourage you to add them back in.  John ended up in prison; all those who come near the waters of Baptism risk their health and life.  This is perhaps why Baptism for Luke is so tied to prayer -- because where there is Baptism, there is the cross, and where there is the cross, there will be prayer.  I also recognize why the lectionary separates out Jesus Baptism from Jesus' temptation.  But again, this is highly problematic because it robs Baptism of its fundamental character:  entrance into the Spiritual warfare of Christ against all evil in the world including in ourselves.

Three sermon ideas based on the Greek:
What are you waiting for?
3:15 Luke here uses the word, "prosdoka-oo" for "wait" or "expect." Interestingly, Luke uses this word a whole bunch (6x in Luke; 4x in Acts), far more often than anyone else. In this case though, the people are not waiting for Jesus, per se, but rather the Messiah, and wondering whether John would be it. Perhaps a reminder and a challenge -- what are we waiting for?  Jesus shows up when we were expecting something and offers us REAL life.

Power of prayer:
3:21 Once again the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus praying. The word "praying" is a present participle in this case, which means it is a concurrent action. The question of course, if which verb is it concurrent with: the Baptism or the opening of the heavens? The Greek here presents a grammatical ambiguity; perhaps it alludes to a spiritual mystery. Its intersection points toward another insight: Prayer is what unlocks the power of our Baptism. God has claimed us and established a relationship with us. Prayer is how we live into this relationship -- how the heavens are opened to us.

(I would add that the grammar leans toward the pray being concurrent with the heavens opening.  Regardless, the first action after Jesus' Baptism is prayer.)

The word baptize is used four times in a few verses here. I think Luke wants to draw our attention to the actual action. Perhaps to tie it back to prayer, because of the act of Baptism, we always hear the answer to our own prayers: That we are a beloved child of God and brother of Jesus Christ, claimed in the waters.

Incarnation of the Spirit:
3:22 At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of the flesh; in Baptism we celebrate the incarnation of the Spirit! The Holy Spirit fleshed itself -- it came "soma" (body) style!  The Spirit again become flesh in our Baptism into the body of Christ.