Albums and Playlists

Sermon for Sunday, October 15, 2017 || Proper 23A || Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

People don’t listen to albums anymore. In the age of digital music and playlists and Pandora and Spotify, you can tailor your listening experience exactly the way you want to. Don’t like a particular song? Don’t download it, or at least uncheck it from the list being exported to your device. Now the observation that people don’t listen to albums anymore is not new; the music industry has been in flux since I was a teenager when the invention of the mp3 changed all the rules.

But such an observation struck me recently when I went to YouTube and watched the new tour of one of my favorite bands. U2’s seminal album The Joshua Tree is thirty years old this year, and at their concert, they played the entire album straight through from “Where the Streets Have No Name” all the way to “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Because I had consumed many of the tracks via U2’s “Best Of” albums, I had never heard The Joshua Tree as a unit. And I was stunned. I had never noticed the intense longing the album as a whole conveys. Taken singly, the songs are fine – some are even extraordinary – but as a whole, The Joshua Tree is an astounding, beautiful, and heartbreaking work of art. Continue reading “Albums and Playlists”

“The Jews” in John’s Gospel

On Sunday, I promised a fuller discussion of the use of the term “the Jews” in the Gospel According to John. Here it is. What follows is a lightly edited and expanded section from my seminary thesis on the “Fourth Gospel,” which my outside reader, the truly wonderful Brian McLaren, encouraged me to include in the final manuscript. Previous to the inclusion of this section, I had footnoted the use of the term “the Jews,” but back in 2008 Brian rightly identified it as more important than a mere footnote.

After the turmoil in Charlottesville, VA where white supremacists were heard chanting anti-Semitic slogans, I now have firsthand knowledge as to why Brian urged me to add it to the final draft. To all my Jewish friends, please know I stand with you in denouncing the hateful and disturbing rhetoric of those white nationalists, Klan members, and neo-Nazis, whom you have been attacked by for years and years, but to whom many of us Christians are only now and belatedly waking up. For not speaking out sooner, I seek your forgiveness. Continue reading ““The Jews” in John’s Gospel”

The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)

Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2017 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42

Recently, a few dozen parishioners of St. Mark’s blessed us all with their meditations on Bible passages found in the Lent issue of The Lion’s Tale magazine. Their work got me thinking about biblical interpretation in general and that fact that such an adventure is not reserved for clergy alone. Anyone can be an interpreter of the Bible, though I am aware that most people do not feel equipped to do so. So today, I’m going to give you a crash course on interpreting the Bible, as at least a place to start: Ten Handy Guidelines for Interpretation (or HGIs for short) that we will derive from the Gospel story I just read. There’s a bookmark in your program that lists the Handy Guidelines, and I invite you to stick it in your Bible when you get home. You ready? Here we go. Continue reading “The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)”

Revealing the Present, Changing the Future

Sermon for Sunday, April 24, 2016 || Easter 5C || Revelation 21:1-6

revealingthepresentI need to warn you right off the bat: if I had a soapbox I would stand on it right now. And on the spectrum between personal and academic, the sermon I’m about to preach is so far to the academic side that it might as well be called a lecture. But I think it’s important to take this opportunity, while we are reading the book of Revelation this Easter season, to talk about this strange and scary and sorely misunderstood piece of ancient writing. You may have read some or all of it yourself at one time or another. (My money’s on “some of it.”) Or you may be aware of popular media that references it, such as the Left Behind series. Or you may know a thing or two about some of the stranger doctrines of certain forms of Christianity: doctrines that use words like “rapture” and “dispensation” and “tribulation.” Or you may have had no contact with Revelation whatsoever, so you’re wondering why I seem so worried about it.

Whatever your knowledge of the book of Revelation may be, my entire intent today is to redefine for you two words. (This is the soapbox.) The misunderstanding of these two words has led to a horribly mangled history of misinterpretation of the book of Revelation. The two words are “prophecy” and “apocalypse.” Even if you’ve never read Revelation, you’ve heard these words. They’re pretty powerful words. And I guarantee our culture has shaped an erroneous definition of both of them in your minds.

Prophecy is foretelling the future, right? Apocalypse is the end times, right? Nope.

To understand the proper definition of “prophecy,” let’s compare two people who have both been labeled prophets. First, in this corner, Michel de Nostredame, the 16th century French apothecary who wrote a book called The Prophecies, which purported to predict future world events. You’ll know him better as the “Nostradamus.” Second, in the other corner, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher and civil rights advocate of the mid-20th century United States.

The Nostradamus has been called a prophet, but he was not one. He was a fortune teller. He was an astrologist, who attempted to divine the future by looking for patterns in the order of the planets and stars. In other words, he was a meteorologist, but for the future, not for the weather. To use the same word to describe him as Martin Luther King is utterly laughable.

Dr. King was a true prophet. He spoke truth to power, and he didn’t flinch. A true prophet does not predict the future, but puts forth a compelling vision of a better possible future. True prophecy is about telling the truth of the present in order that the resulting future might change. This is what King did when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said those immortal words: “I have a dream.”

Do you see the difference? A fortune teller like the Nostradamus wants his predictions of the future to be accurate, or else no one will buy his book. A prophet like Martin Luther King wants more than anything else for the future to be different than the one the present is heading towards.

The story of Jonah illustrates the true nature of prophecy. People usually remember the bit about the fish, but there is more. Jonah goes to the city of Ninevah and says, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He says this to shake them out of complacency, to get them to turn back to God. And they do. The king proclaims a fast and repents of evil. He even puts on sackcloth and ashes. At the end of the forty days, the city is not destroyed! Does this make Jonah a false prophet because his words didn’t come true? No. Quite the contrary: Jonah succeeds as a prophet because the people of Ninevah listened and changed.*

So to sum up, prophecy is telling hard truths about the present so that the future might turn out differently. Let’s turn to my other soapbox word: “apocalypse,” a very scary word in our culture, to be sure, but one that is not necessarily about the end of the world. Rather, “apocalypse” simply means “an unveiling” or “revealing.”** We’re used to hearing the word paired with trailers for disaster movies, but the term is really about pulling back the curtain of so-called reality to see the deeper reality at work underneath.

The message of Revelation is urgent not because the book is specifically about the world’s eventual destruction, but because much early Christian thought grew out of the notion that Christ would return very soon. In that context, John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, prayerfully looks behind the veil of the world’s reality and tells the truth about his own present. John’s vision convinces him that true reality is a very different place than the one, which the Roman propaganda machine describes. The Empire had declared peace – the Pax Romana – but John sees this peace for the sham it really is: a violent, suppressive regime that rules by intimidation, occupation, fear, and capital punishment. This is why so much of the imagery of Revelation is bloody and violent.

John addressed his Revelation to a set of seven churches in Asia Minor, which had begun to buy into the Roman system of social domination. They were getting comfortable and complacent. They were adapting to the false reality of the Empire rather than living the countercultural lifestyle of the followers of Jesus Christ. So John pulls back the curtain, or to change the metaphor, lifts up the rock to see all the creepy crawlies festering underneath. And he uses coded language – graphic and gruesome coded language to get by the Roman censors, much like modern day satire can skewer the positions of a government without ever talking about them specifically.

So we have prophecy, which is telling the truth of the present in order to change the future. And we have apocalypse, which is the revealing of true reality that is often covered over by a false narrative put forward by the powerful. In his Revelation, John of Patmos is a true prophet. He pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth of his own present, which happens also to be the truth of ours and all the times in between. This truth speaks of the corrupting nature of absolute power, the passing nature of all oppressive regimes, and the eternal nature of God’s triumph over evil and death. Timely for John; timely for us. John’s Revelation is not meant to be shelved until the eventual end of the world. His Revelation is meant to be read to help change the world again and again. That’s why the words in today’s reading are so powerful. The one sitting on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new.”

I am making all things new. Constantly. Continuously. We have the opportunity to forsake our allegiance to the old systems of domination that John describes in all their gory detail and instead to join God’s team of renewal and reconciliation. We have the opportunity to have our thirst quenched by the gift of new and fresh and clear water gushing up from the spring of the water of life. We have the opportunity to be at home with God, experiencing the daily newness of God’s presence both here on earth and in heaven. And through it all, we have the opportunity, with God’s help, to be prophets: to speak hard truths about our current reality so that the future will turn out better, not just for more people, but for Creation as a whole.

 

* The funny thing is that Jonah gets a bit petulant when his prediction doesn’t come true. That’s when God teaches him the true meaning of prophecy.
** The words “apocalypse” and “revelation” are actually synonyms. For a long time, the book we know of as the “Revelation of John” was called the “Apocalypse of John.”

P.E.A.C.H.

Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14

peachToday I’d like to do something a little different. Do you remember how, in math classes, your teacher told you to “show your work” in order to get full credit for answering a question? Well, this morning, I’m going to show my work as we go through this sermon together. Rather than just give you the end product of my Bible study, my struggles and false starts, and my attempts to listen to the Holy Spirit, I thought I’d pull back the curtain and show you some of the process.

I’ve decided to do this today for two reasons. First, the passage we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew is very difficult to encounter, so taking a step back and looking at it from a higher vantage point can be beneficial. Second, I never want to fall into the trap where I set myself up as such an unassailable expert in all things spiritual that, instead of inspiring you, I keep you from thinking you have the necessary skills to do what I do. Believe me, I am not an expert. I’m just a fellow disciple, who perhaps has a bit more specialized schooling than you might.

So think about this sermon as one that is really a step or two from the normal finished product. In it, we’ll explore together one way I like to study and interpret Biblical passages. My hopes are, by the end of this sermon, we will hear a word from God about today’s Gospel reading, and we will all be just a little bit more confident the next time we sit down to read the Bible. So without further ado, let me introduce you to a favorite acronym of mine: P.E.A.C.H. PEACH will lead us through five steps toward more fruitful Bible study. I commend these steps to you whenever you sit down to study our sacred texts. PEACH stands for Prayer > Encounter > Atmosphere > Charge > Humility.

We’ll start where any endeavor should: with Prayer. You might seek out a prayer specifically about reading the Bible, or you may write one for yourself to pray whenever you sit down to read. Or you may allow a new prayer to bubble up whenever you are getting ready to pick up your Bible. Perhaps your prayer might sound something like this:

“Dear God, thank you for prompting me to read the Bible today: please help me to be surprised by the generosity of your Word, to be patient in the face of everything I still don’t understand, to be enfolded by your grace as I read, and to be courageous as I bring your love with me from these pages out into the world; In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.”

After you pray, read your passage. Read it aloud. Read it slowly. Try to have an authentic Encounter with it. Don’t allow preconceived notions about how you think you should feel about the Bible ruin this authentic encounter. If the text makes you revolted, feel revulsion. If the text makes you question, feel confusion. If the text makes you peaceful, dwell in that peace.

Today’s parable from Jesus contains so much overt hyperbole that any emotion our encounter with it evokes will most likely be a strong version of that emotion. The parable begins innocently enough. We have a king, a sumptuous wedding banquet for the prince, and guests who decide they have better things to do. So far this sounds like several other parables Jesus tells. But then everything goes haywire. The realism of the story disintegrates when the would-be guests kill the invitation deliverers. And then when the king burns down their city. And then when the host throws the improperly dressed fellow not back out into the street but into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I don’t know about you, but so far my authentic encounter with this story leans me toward discomfort, if not all out revulsion. It’s entirely possible that such a response is exactly what Jesus is going for. To look further into that, we turn to the next letter in PEACH. “A” is for Atmosphere.

The atmosphere of a reading is everything around it that helps it breath. This can mean a lot of different things where Bible study is concerned, but for our purposes, let’s say the atmosphere surrounding our reading is everything that happens within a couple of chapters of it in the Gospel. Backing up, we witness Jesus ride in humble triumph into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. That means we are at the beginning of Jesus’ final week. We know what’s right around the corner, and by all accounts, so does Jesus. Jesus gets off the donkey, walks into the temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and drives out all the sellers of sacrificial animals. This disruptive action probably seals his fate.

Jesus returns to the temple the next day, where the chief priests, Pharisees, and many others question him. He tells three consecutive parables, all having to do with inviting a new and unlikely set of people into the kingdom of heaven. The first parable (which we read two weeks ago) speaks of two sons, on who did the will of his father and one who didn’t. The second (which we read last week) speaks of wicked tenants who kill the son of the vineyard keeper. By this time, Jesus’ opponents realize he’s talking about them. But he’s not done. Now Jesus tells today’s parable, and the violence ratchets up again. With each story, Jesus gets more explicit and more graphic. After a few more verbal skirmishes, Jesus stops speaking in parables entirely and denounces the scribes and Pharisees openly. If chasing people out of the temple didn’t sign his death warrant, this indictment surely does.

The important thing to glean from our look at the atmosphere of our story is the constant ratcheting up of tension within Jesus’ parables. With each successive story, he makes his point more graphically so that no one mistakes his meaning – that those chosen to represent God among the people had failed in their duty and that God was welcoming all to become God’s representatives.

And this is where we find the “C” of PEACH. This is where we hear our Charge from God, the word God puts on our hearts during many prayerful, authentic encounters with scripture. In today’s passage, our charge comes when the king sends his messengers out to invite everyone they find in the street to attend the wedding. Everyone becomes a guest, no matter what. We hear our charge in this good news. Everyone is capable of being a guest at the heavenly banquet. Therefore, God invites us to treat all people – regardless of any reason we might have not to associate with them – as guests at God’s table, as people who bear the image and likeness of God in their souls. The more we treat each other as God’s honored guests, the more generosity, hospitality, and gratitude we will show one another. And not just each other, but everyone, for the wedding hall is filled with guests.

But this charge, which invites us to be radically welcoming, runs up against our last letter in PEACH. “H” is for Humility. The prayerful, authentic encounter with scripture often leads to unanswered questions and causes for further study somewhere down the road. The humble response when this happens is simply, “I don’t know.” Such is the case with me and the very strange paragraph about the fellow who doesn’t have a wedding robe. I confess I don’t know what to do with those few sentences. I have no answers, just questions, and so I strive to remain humble in the face of these cryptic words of Jesus, to admit I’m not in a place to hear them instead of throwing them out or explaining them away.

So there you have it. I invite you to try this process when you read the Bible. For fruitful study, try PEACH: Prayer, Encounter, Atmosphere, Charge, Humility. Without going through these steps this week, I would still be stuck in the discomfort of the passage and I would not have heard my charge, which I now share again with you. Everyone is a guest at God’s table. Far be it for us to bar the way. Instead, why don’t we go out “into the main streets and invite everyone we find there to the wedding banquet.”

5 Years: Humor in the Bible

This June is the 5th anniversary of Wherethewind.com, and we are celebrating by looking back at some of the best of the last five years of this website. Today we have the the second of the four video Bible studies I shot in my house in West Virginia before I moved to Massachusetts. (Originally posted October 22, 2009)

If I were a superhero, this video Bible study would serve as part of my origin story. About six weeks after filming it, I received a phone call from Ron, an editor at the United Methodist Publishing House. The video had ended up on Ron’s computer by way of a complicated series of connections borne equally by the Internet and the Holy Spirit. This is the video that started my relationship with my publisher, and I am so thankful it made its way to them. (And now, a plug: remember my new book, Letters from Ruby, arrives in stores August 20th!)

Sermon Reconstruction: Luke’s Lord’s Prayer

A few weeks ago, I preached* a sermon on Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, but I never wrote it down. The sermon existed in my mind as a skeletal structure of six or seven keywords, but with no meat or movement. So during the preaching moment, I wove in the muscles and tendons, and (as she so often does) the Holy Spirit animated the whole thing with breath. All that to say, my fingers never hit the keys on this particular sermon, so when a dear, dear lady at my church asked for a copy, I had none to give her. So what follows is not exactly what I preached, but a rough approximation of the sermon based on a reconstruction of my initial skeletal thought processes.

Jesus is praying in a certain place when his disciples approach him and say to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I imagine Jesus looking at them with bemused surprise and thinking: “Took you guys long enough. I called you six chapters ago!” Then he teaches them his own prayer:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

You might look at these words and say, “Hey, wait a second. Where’s the rest of it? Is this the Cliff’s Notes version or something?” True, the version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s account of the Gospel is not quite as long as the one found in Matthew and there are also a few differences in word choice (“sin” instead of “debt/trespass,” for example). Most scholars agree that Luke’s version is the older one, citing the fact that shorter versions of similar passages tend to be older because phrases tend to get added over time rather than subtracted. For our purposes, just remember that we’ll be talking about Luke’s version during this sermon and not the one we’ll pray later on in the service.

Jesus begins his prayer with the expectation of close relationship with God. Rather than saying something like “Almighty God, Lord of the Universe,” Jesus starts with a familial word. By addressing God as “Father,” Jesus tacitly shows himself to be in the role of child. And because he is teaching his prayer to his friends, he lets them and us know that we, too, are God’s children. With one word, Jesus sets up the relationship between God and us. We are both closely connected to the Father, and we occupy the position of dependent in the relationship.

With the words “Your kingdom come,” Jesus introduces hope into the prayer. Hope is about the future. When we hope, we begin to expect that the boundaries of possibility are far wider than we once supposed. When we pray for the coming of the kingdom, we show our willingness to participate in the advent of that kingdom here on earth, both in its current, unfinished manifestation and in its future culmination. The mere act of hoping for a better future can begin to change the present, which is the subject of the next phrase.

While scholars aren’t quite sure of the meaning of the word translated into English as “daily,” the fact that two words in this next sentence have to do with “today” stands out. Jesus teaches us to pray for the nourishment that sustains us just for this day – not yesterday, which is past, nor tomorrow, which is yet to come, but right now. When we pray for sustenance today, we remain grounded in the present moment, the moment in which we can encounter God moving in our lives. Nourishment today helps us hope for tomorrow, and sustains us to continue walking the path with Christ.

More than anything else, this path is about reconciliation, which is the subject of the next sentence. We ask for forgiveness, and at the same time we make a commitment to forgive others. I’m reminded of that great Anne Lamott line, in which she says that not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. A quick recap: forgiveness is the action we take in the present to participate in the coming of the kingdom. Nourishment sustains us in the present. Hope drives us to the future. And a close relationship with God allows us to pray. One more sentence to go.

With the final phrase, Jesus gives voice to the fear that crops up in each of us. We do not like to think about coming into a time of trial. But by saying the words aloud, we permit ourselves to give that fear up to God. And the thing that occupies the space left by that fear is peace. This peace frees us from the worry that might keep us from praying in the first place.

And Jesus says that we must never stop praying. The disciples asked him to teach them to pray, but he’s interested in more than just the words they use. Like the person who keeps knocking and knocking to get his friend to come to the door, Jesus tells us that persistence is the key to prayer. Just like improvement in sport comes through constant training, practicing prayer makes the act of praying second nature (or perhaps, even first nature).

This persistence in defining a close relationship with God, hoping for the future, finding nourishment for the present, reconciling and asking for forgiveness, and discovering peace leads us into deeper faith in God. Through prayer, we participate in God’s movement in our lives, and our persistence helps us notice God’s blessing in our lives.

Relationship, hope, nourishment, reconciliation, peace, persistence, blessing. Jesus teaches us to pray these things. I pray that God may grant us these so that we can continue to be blessings in this world.

The sermon went something like this, though I know there was a line from The Shawshank Redemption in there somewhere. Mrs. E, I hope this is what you were looking for!

Footnotes

* Perhaps you’ve never given this much thought, but I’ve always wanted the past tense of “preach” to be “praught.”

Whatever Passes Along the Paths of the Sea: The Oil Spill and Psalm 8

I first posted this reflection on Psalm 8 (the Psalm from Trinity Sunday) on the website Day1.org, a site on which I am a “key voices” blogger. If it sounds more academic than my normal writing, it is because this piece began it’s life as a seminary paper. I promise it sounds way more academic in it’s original version.

* * *

source: huffingtonpost.com

Seen from aerial photographs, the oil spill looks like any old gasoline rainbow you might see on the pavement outside a gas station after a drizzle. Then you realize the picture is taken from a few thousand feet and the patch of oil is hundreds of square miles in area and the spill is growing because it’s not a leak, it’s a geyser. Such thoughts send the mind reeling. How could we be so bold, so cocky, so derelict in our duty to God to be stewards of this creation that we pump toxic liquids out of the ground without so much as even a sketch of a plan to deal with the consequences of our own fallibility?

With these thoughts on my mind (and, I must confess, I am safely ensconced on a different coast far from the poisonous ooze), I glance at the readings for Trinity Sunday and the words of Psalm 8 hit me hard upside the head.

1. O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2.  Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3.  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4.  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5.  Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7.  all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8.  the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9.  O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

With uncanny prescience, the psalmist speaks to our modern world about humanity’s role in creation, one based on the proper comprehension of humanity’s status as God’s subjects and therefore as servants of God’s creation. The second verse, which introduces the theme of dependence, seems out of place in the overarching language praising God for creation and humankind’s place in it. Of course, it’s always the verses that seem out of place that hold the most interpretive weight. By introducing the idea of dependence, the psalmist directs the audience to reflect on the necessity of human humility in regards to humanity’s relationship with God, especially concerning the dominion over creation.

At first glance verse 2 stands in contrast to the rest of the psalm since it concerns itself with enemies that are not mentioned again; further, verses 1 and 3 flow together nicely, with the thought of heaven connecting the two verses. But instead of mentally removing verse 2 so that the psalm flows smoothly, the reader must dwell on the second to come to the subtler and deeper orientation that the psalmist attempts to reach. The psalmist praises God for founding a “bulwark” (or strength, stronghold) against enemies “out of the mouths of babes and infants.” For those reading the psalms in order, this is the first time infants are mentioned in the entire Book of Psalms; indeed, the image of the babe is a fresh idea. A prevalent mental association made with infants is their dependency on their parents. The psalmist makes this association explicit by using not only the word for child, but also the word for “nursing infant,” The nursing infant truly is dependent on his or her mother in a way to which no other relationship quite compares. And it is out of the mouths of the utterly dependent that God achieves God’s plan — in this case beating back the foes, which scholar J. Clinton McCann deems “the chaotic forces that God conquered and ordered in the sovereign act of creation.”

With the interpretive key of dependence planted firmly in our minds, we can turn to the rest of the psalm. Verse 1 names God with the divine name and then follows with a title for God. The divine name automatically engenders feelings of obedience, but the addition of a title of “sovereign” serves as a further reminder that God is in charge. Because God exercises complete sovereignty, humans are as completely dependent on God as nursing infants are on their mothers.

Moving to verses 3-5, the psalmist looks up to the night sky and is walloped with a feeling of insignificance. And why not? In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams unwittingly offers an explanation of verse 3: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Scholar Peter Craigie points out that the psalmist drives home the point of humankind’s insignificance by saying that God establishes this mindbogglingly big thing with God’s fingers. This awareness of humanity’s smallness in the grand scheme could reduce us to apathetic movement through life because nothing we do would seem to matter. The psalmist nearly slips into this dangerous mode of thinking in v. 4; indeed, the hymn of praise could become a psalm lament at this point. But in the words “mortals that you care for them,” the reader recalls verse 2 and remembers that we are in a dependent relationship with God, who is our sovereign. Verse 5 continues this recollection by adding “yet you have made them (a little lower than God).” By reading verses 3-5 in light of verse 2, the faith that God made us and cares for us outweighs any feelings of insignificance that the night sky may provoke.

Verses 6-8 shift the focus from humankind’s dependence on God and humanity’s misplaced feelings of insignificance to the role God has ordained for humankind on earth. These verses recall the vocation God gives humanity on the sixth day of creation. While the word “dominion” in verse 6 is different than “dominion” in Genesis 1:26, the parallels with Genesis 1 are unmistakable. The language of largeness and smallness remains in these verses, which continues the theme of significance/insignificance seen in the previous three verses. God gives humankind dominion over small sheep, birds, and fish, and also large oxen, beasts, and “whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (the Leviathan which God “has made for the sport of it,” perhaps? (Psalm 104)). Humankind is given charge over great and small creatures; as the psalmist says, “you have put all things under their feet.” However, the psalm does not end with humanity’s dominion. In an inclusive bookend with verse 1, the psalmist reiterates the sovereignty of God over all things. This reprise recalls once again the dependence that humanity has on the LORD, who is their Lord.

What does this discussion offer the modern audience? We live in a global society hell-bent on destroying itself. We clear-cut forests, remove mountaintops, and pump toxic levels of Carbon Dioxide into the air. We do not share the bounty of the land, thus pushing others to burn rainforests and oases for farmland. We live under the delusion that we can develop “safe” oil rigs. We refuse to believe that our actions are slowly turning our world, a piece of God’s creation, into a planetary rubbish bin, fit only for storing the waste we accumulate.

Psalm 8 is a wakeup call, the An Inconvenient Truth of the Bible. To put it simply, the world today has forgotten the truth, which Psalm 8 espouses — that we are dependent on God even though (or more appropriately, especially because) we exercise dominion over the earth. We miss the all-important message that God has given us dominion: we do not intrinsically have it. We properly receive this gift only when we recognize our relationship with God is one of total dependence. Scholar James Mays puts it this way: Psalm 8’s “vision of the royal office of the human race is completely theocentric, but humanity in its career has performed the office in an anthropocentric mode. Dominion has become domination; rule has become ruin; subordination in the divine purpose has become subjection to human sinfulness.”

In the end, the problem is the oldest problem in the book — human self-aggrandizement destroys the purpose that God originally conceived for humanity. Misplaced delusions of grandeur unravel humanity’s proper relationship with God. Scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.” Psalm 8 calls us back to the correct relationship with God concerning creation. We are utterly dependent on God, we are significant in the realm of creation, but we are not the source or the beginning (though we may very well be the end). In Psalm 8, the psalmist reclaims our primal orientation as dependent subjects on God who has been given us the gift of caring for creation. When we recover this proper relationship, we can take steps to retrieve creation from its slow decline, so that we can once again see the “majesty of God’s name in all the earth.”

Schooling Nicodemus (or) “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”

The following post appeared Sunday, March 14th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge,  so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

A Gospel Medley

Several people who’ve heard me sing this live have asked for a recording, so here it is. And I’m including the lyrics because parts of it (especially the Peter Gabriel section) are a bit difficult to follow. If you want to play it yourself, let me know, and I’ll send you the lead sheet. I hope you enjoy it!

(Oh, btw, I’m working on a second Gospel Medley. If you think of a song I could use for a piece of the Gospel, let me know. Right now, I just have Bryan Adams for the call of the disciples.)

(To download, right-click picture and choose “Save Link As…”)

The Nativity (Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin'”)
Just a virgin girl when the angel said to her,
“You will bear the Son of God.” She said, “Here am I.”
Just a carpenter of David’s line from Bethlehem;
He took her for his wife (the angel told him to).
So Caesar made the census rule
Telling all to go back home
In a stable Mary bears her babe
He’s the Son, the Son, the Son, the Son.

Shepherds grazing up and down the countryside
The wise men searching in the night
Starlight, angels singing ‘bout the Incarnation
Shining on this holy night

Don’t stop believing
Remember it’s with God you’re dealing
Peace to people

– – –

John the Baptizer (John Mellencamp, “Jack and Diane”)
A little ditty about John the Baptist
Whose favorite dinner was honeyed locusts
John, he’s saying, “I’m just the voice crying out:
Prepare the way of the Lord, that’s what I’m talking ‘bout.” (Sayin’)
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
the kingdom has come near, repent your wrongs
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
He is coming soon, I can’t tie his sandals’ thong (now walk on)

– – –

The Feeding of the 5000 (The Proclaimers, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”)
Jesus looks up, and he knows he’s gonna feed,
He’s gonna feed the people coming to see him.
The disciples, they all say they’re gonna need
They’re gonna need denarii to feed them all.

But I see there five loaves of bread
And I see there two tiny fish
I will bless this food to feed five thousand people
So sit down in the grass
Gotta lot now! Gotta lot now!
Gotta lot of scraps of bread leftover now!

– – –

Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration (John Parr, “Man in Motion (St. Elmo’s Fire)”)
Jesus asks, “Who do you disciples say has come?”
Peter says, “You’re the Son of God, the Chosen One.”
God revealed this to you, not some fleshly search
So I name you Rock, now go build my church.

Then they climb the highest mountain, underneath the starry sky
And they witness Jesus’ changing, whiter and whiter
Gonna build some tabernacles, but then a cloud descends:
“This is my beloved Son, listen to him”

– – –

The Last Supper (John Denver, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”)
All my friends are here in this upper room.
Their feet are clean, now my Passion looms:
Here’s a four long chapter speech to say goodbye.
See this bread I’m breakin’, it’s a special loaf,
The wine you’re drinkin’ is my blood’s merlot.
Let’s share this meal before I’m brought to die.

So take, eat: you’re sharing me.
Drink this to remember me.
Hear my words ‘cause soon I’ll have to go.
I’ll be dying on the cross soon,
But know that I’ll be back again
Oh, friends, I hate to go…

– – –

The Crucifixion (Peter Gabriel, “In Your Eyes”)
On his head’s placed a crown of thorns;
The temple veil will soon be torn.
Without a noise, without his pride, he reaches out to his bride.

They crucify: the blood, the sweat
His mouth is dry from thirstiness.
Eli, Eli, Have you forsaken
Me to die? You’ll be with me in
Paradise. Oh God forgive them.
Then he cries: I commend my Spirit.
I see the blood and the sweat, oh, but it’s not over quite yet.
Just come on down this Sunday, meet you there at sunrise.

– – –

The Resurrection (U2, “Beautiful Day”)
They go to the tomb, on the first day of the week
But there’s no stone, so Mary takes a peak
She’s out of luck, and the reason that she had to care
Was apparently snuck away when they were unawares
But she knows she’s found a friend when the gardener says her name.
And then Jesus sends her saying, “My return proclaim.”

On this Easter Sunday, the grave falls and you know
On this Easter Sunday, death’s sting is wiped away
On this Easter Sunday…

Touch me, put your finger in my side
When I leave, my Holy Spirit will abide

It’ll be Pentecost Day, tongues of fire, you know
On that Pentecost Day, the Church is here to stay
On that Pentecost Day…