Sermon for Sunday, April 7, 2019 || Lent 5C || JOHN 12:1-8
Today’s sermon is a full on teaching sermon. I’m going to talk to you today about the books of the New Testament that we call the Gospel. I’ll begin with a trick question. How many Gospels are there? (Don’t answer that because you’re going to want to say “four.”) If you listened carefully to how I introduced the Gospel reading a minute ago, you heard a hint at the correct answer. “The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.”
There is only one Gospel, and that’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Gospel, by the way, means “good news.” The numerical confusion stems from the fact that this one Gospel reaches us by way of four different perspectives (or “accounts”), which we name Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That’s why I said “according to John” a minute ago. The “according to” is a really important preposition because it reminds us which perspective on Jesus’ Gospel we are working with in the moment.
I always think of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis when I read the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent, particularly this year when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation as told by the Gospel writer Luke. In the book, C.S. Lewis pens a couple dozen imaginative letters from Screwtape, a Senior Tempter in the devil’s bureaucracy, to his nephew Wormwood, who is in charge of tempting one particular man. The letters present an incisive look at the moral and spiritual life through the lens of that which might lead such a life astray. The book is wildly creative and written so well that sometimes you find yourself agreeing with Screwtape and then realize you got suckered in by the temptation. This book is just so good.
Sermon for Sunday, May 20, 2018 || Pentecost B || John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since before my time at St. Mark’s, the readers of our biblical lessons have concluded their readings with this line: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Before coming to St. Mark’s I had never heard this response to the lessons, and I fell in love with it immediately. At my previous churches, the more traditional line was always used: “The Word of the Lord.” Let me hastily say the traditional response is just fine in its own right, but there’s something about what we say at the end of our readings that really gets my blood pumping.
A few weeks ago at our Episcopal 101 class, they asked me why we say, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” This was a new formulation for them just as it was for me back in 2014 when I came to St. Mark’s. And their question got me thinking. Why do we say this? What are we proclaiming about God and God’s Holy Spirit by ending our readings with such a bold statement? “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.”Continue reading “What the Spirit is Saying”→
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”→
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)”→
Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14
Today 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.”
In the fourth installment of The Moving Picture Bible Study, join me for a field trip to my seminary’s library to look at some of the books you can use to help you study the Bible. They get pretty heavy, so no need to go to the gym after this video.
The following post appeared Tuesday, February 2nd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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Sometimes, I am too young to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel. Or too old. Or too naïve. Or too refined. Often I wonder if God is holding a particular set of words in reserve for a particular time in my life — when I need those words I will finally hear them. Or perhaps I already have, and they have settled into the bedrock of my faith.
The words of Jesus are beautiful and dynamic. They grow in depth of meaning as I grow in depth of experience, emotion, and faith. Many of Jesus’ words mean something new to the disciples after the resurrection because the disciples are different after the resurrection. Likewise, the words of Jesus are the same, the chapters and verses are the same, but I am different every time I read them. In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says a similar thing about the natural history museum:
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finishing catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole…Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time…Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean.
Both small differences in me from day to day and large changes in me from year to year can affect my reading of scripture and my encountering the words of Jesus. The climactic change in the lives of the disciples was the resurrection; for me, the changes tend to be small, the differences subtle. But a new encounter with Christ can erupt from even the smallest change, the subtlest difference. When I open myself up to seeing gasoline rainbows, when I realize I am different than I was before, I discover the power of the words of Christ working within me.
In a recent bout of nostalgia, I read some of my old writings and found that I had discussed the same verses on three occasions. After he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The words were the same each time, but I was different. Here’s what I mean.
It’s May 9, 2004, and Easter season blooms on the domain of Sewanee. I’m a junior in college. I’m two or three steps into the exhaustive process towards ordination. Classes are drawing to an end; exams are approaching. With flagging energy, I am writing lectionary-based reflections on xanga.com (before people ever used the word “blog”). And Jesus’ words encounter me:
“Wow. [Jesus] could not have put it more succinctly, or more beautifully. It does not take mighty acts or wondrous miracles to show people that we are followers of Christ. Just love. But I would argue that love is a mighty act, it is a miracle. Loving with the love Christ taught us – the only true love – is more powerful than anything. […] When we love with the love Christ taught us, we bring Christ to others. This love is powerful, transformative, life-changing, irresistible. Paul tells in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from it. And it is our duty, and it should be our joy, to spread this love to others.”
It’s March 7, 2005, and fog rolls into the domain along with Lent. I’m a senior in college. I’m a postulant for Holy Orders, and I’m waiting for my bishop’s decision about sending me to seminary next school year. I’ve broken John’s Gospel into forty passages, one reflection per day for my Lenten discipline. And Jesus’ same words encounter me again:
“This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian – to love one another as Christ loves us. We are capable of love because God loves us. Indeed, Paul tells us, ‘God is love.’ So how do we love? I think that is an impossible question to answer succinctly. In a past reflection, I called love the ‘conscious or unconscious search for God in other creatures.’ Searching for God means searching for all that is good, right, true, and graceful about another. However, this does not mean looking past all the other stuff. When we love truly, we see the good and the bad and continue to be in relationship. Contact (spiritual, emotional, &c.) is essential for love – only by staying in contact with God and others can we feel the love that purges our iniquities from us.”
It’s March 20, 2008, and Maundy Thursday comes impossibly early this year. I’m a senior in seminary. I’m a new deacon in the church, and I’m preaching at my field education parish. But the flu keelhauls me for five days, the middle of which is Palm Sunday. Being ill is all I can think about, and Jesus’ words encounter me a third time through that illness.
“Life is only worth living when it can be shared with others. This sharing is another word for love. And love shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency. When the flu knocked me out, my friends served me. I had no choice but to let them serve me because I could not serve myself. And I am better for it. They showed their love for me by bringing me medicine and food. In their act of loving service, they washed my feet. I have a share with them, and we all have a share with Jesus Christ. We are his disciples because we have love for one another. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency. An inability to accept the service of others masquerades as self-sufficiency. But this masquerade is a dismal half-life. Christ came that we may have life, and have it in abundance. Washing each other’s feet, serving one another, and loving each other with the love of God brings this full, abundant life in Christ.”
It’s January 26, 2010, and I’m seeing through the eyes of my old selves. On each day when I read those verses from the Gospel according to John, Jesus encountered me with the same words. And each time, Jesus used my gasoline rainbows to transform me into a new vessel for those words. Over the years, the same words have helped me change into the new person I am continually becoming.
I invite you to look for the gasoline rainbows in your life. You are a new person since you last picked up the Bible. How are you different from the last time you read a particular passage of scripture? What is new about you? How have Jesus’ words made you new? What are your gasoline rainbows?
Watch the pilot episode of my new video series, The Moving Picture Bible Study! As with most pilots, there are some kinks to work out, but I think I’m on the right track. If you have suggestions of things you’d like me to address, please let me know.
In the middle of the second century, a guy named Marcion took his Bible and tore out most of the Gospel according to Luke and some of Paul’s letters. He stapled these together and chucked the rest in the dumpster. Marcion had decided that the “god” who created the world was evil because the world sure wasn’t doing him any favors. The other god, the real “God,” was Lord of the “spirit world,” totally alien from our world, except for that thing about sending his son here. The trouble was, that’s not what the Bible said. So, Marcion, with a stockpile of misplaced entrepreneurial zeal, made up a new one.
Well…that’s not actually what happened. You see, the “New Testament” as we now have it wasn’t compiled yet. Christians and various derivative groups had been writing letters and gospels and stories and strange things called “apocalypses” for a hundred years. Some circulated widely, like the ancient equivalent of viral YouTube videos. Others stayed put in the community which produced them. Some were attributed to Jesus’ apostles or their associates. Others were written by that guy with the hair and the thing. Some espoused doctrine that both created and helped support the emerging theological position of the “Church.” Others claimed “secret knowledge,” known only to the few who could get into the metaphysical country club.
The viral papyri attributed to an associate of Jesus and espousing sound theological views eventually became what we now call the “New Testament.” The other stuff — the classified documents, location-specific texts, and the ones written by that guy — predictably faded into obscurity.*
Okay, let’s go back to Marcion. Since there was no list (or “canon”) of authoritative texts, Marcion felt entitled to make one up that suited his own viewpoints. When he threw the Hebrew Scriptures and many of the viral papyri into the rubbish bin, the leaders of the Church said something to the effect of, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And Marcion shot back, “Too bad, suckers.”
At that point, those leaders decided that a list of their own would probably be a good idea. But, things moved slowly in the ancient world, so the top 27 texts were not finalized until the end of the fourth century (and even then, there was still some dispute between the Eastern and Western churches). But, I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.
With Marcion’s heresy forcing the Church to respond with its own canon of authoritative texts, scholars began compiling lists. Certain texts were shoe-ins. First and foremost, the Hebrew Scriptures (which became known as the “Old” Testament) were never in question because these texts were the Bible for the people who wrote the rest of the Bible. Second, the letters of Paul (the most virulent of all the viral papyri) and the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Acts of the Apostles (which is sort of the Godfather II of Luke’s Gospel). The Gospel of John was on the bubble at times because some of the heretical groups loved it. But, it made the cut partly because its “high Christology” helped the Church’s position on the divinity of Christ.
Over time, the New Testament canon solidified with 27 texts.** The four accounts of the Gospel came first, as they narrated the reason why the rest of the texts exist. Then the Acts of the Apostles propels the canon into the letters of Paul (strangely enough, appearing in descending order by length). After Paul, Hebrews begins the section of various texts addressed to a wider audience (the “catholic” epistles). Appropriately, the Revelation to John ends the canon.
The compilation of the New Testament from viral papyri to authoritative text speaks to us today of the value of various viewpoints within a larger structure. Unlike Marcion, who depleted the message until it said only what he wanted it to say, the 27 canonical texts present myriad experiences that coalesce into the great message of the love and grace of God. From an early time, the Church valued several different expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it realized that one text could not contain such overwhelming truth and beauty. What is striking about the compilation of the canon is that the Church exhibited pretty startling ecumenism over a long period of time as the churches from both far-flung places and major cities shared their experience of the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.
I wonder when we Christians decided to stop valuing the experience of our fellows. The viral papyri tell a different story. Would that we could live that story again.
* Well, until a sensationalist media program digs up a “gnostic gospel” and decides that “everything we know about Christianity is about to change.” Honestly, give it a rest. That story lost the lead to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
** In the mid-1700s, an Italian named Ludovico Antonio Muratori stumbled upon an ancient fragment stuck in a book in a library in Milan. The “Muratorian fragment,” which could be dated anywhere from the second to the fourth centuries is the oldest extant list of the texts of the New Testament. What’s most interesting about the fragment is the short justifications it gives for why certain texts were either chosen or not.