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, 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.

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
-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? 
 ("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 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:
"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:

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, 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.