The Grace of the Fig Tree

Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2016 || Lent 3C || Luke 13:1-9

graceofthefigtreeThis is a sermon about grace. I’ve been wanting to share with you my definition of grace for a while now, but the time didn’t seem right. Then after spending time with Megan Palmer’s family two weeks ago, preparing for and leading Megan’s service last weekend, and having the stomach flu most of this past week, the time to talk about grace has finally come. Maybe I was waiting for a moment when I was sure I had recently experienced it. But before we talk about grace, I need to tell you about my dad’s sense of humor.

Growing up, my favorite movie was Return of the Jedi. I watched it about once a week, except for the year I was six when I watched it once a day. VCRs were still relatively recent inventions, and none of us realized you could wear out a VHS tape until I wore out Return of the Jedi. Whenever I finished watching the movie and the iconic John Williams score started blasting throughout our house, my father would turn up in the living room doorway and ask, in all seriousness, “Did the rebels win this time?”

Whenever my sister or I got hooked on a particular movie, this same joke would resurface, notably in the late 90s. “Did the Titanic sink this time?” And after I got my Lord of the Rings Special Edition DVDs: “Was the ring destroyed this time?” Now when it comes to senses of humor, mine is a chip off the old block, for better and worse. And so when my kids start watching the same movie over and over again, I will never in a million years be able to resist the urge to ask: “Did they find Nemo this time?”

I tell you all this because, believe it or not, it impacts the way I interpret today’s Gospel lesson. You see, I think the Gospel writer Luke and my dad share this bit humor. Luke narrates Jesus telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Do you get the joke yet? It’s pretty subtle (and not exactly haha funny), and maybe you had to grow up with a dad like mine to see it. The joke is this: that fig tree is never getting cut down. Luke preserved it in his Gospel. Luke knew this great story he was writing would be shared and he hoped it would be shared until the sun stopped putting forth its light. Every time someone read this parable, the fig tree got another chance. Luke wrote these words down about 1,936 years ago, which is 1,935 more years than that fig tree had to produce. And the fig tree is still standing. Every time we read it, there is the tree still standing. Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi – every time – because that’s how movies work. And yes, the fig tree is still standing because that gardener is taking care of it and always will. I told you this is a sermon about grace. Do you see it yet? We’re getting there.

Now you might quibble here and say Luke’s joke doesn’t work because, even though the fig tree is never going to be cut down, it’s also never going to bear fruit. It’s stuck in this in-between time, a time of potential but no results. Yes, this is true, and we’ll get back to that in a minute.

But first, one more word about why I think Luke is playing with his readers here. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot in common, so much in fact that we often refer to them as the “synoptic” Gospels. “Synoptic” means “with the same eyes.” But Luke’s version is the only one with this parable about the fig tree. There’s a fig tree in Matthew and Mark, which Luke does not include, and their fig tree fares much worse. In Matthew and Mark, the fig tree withers and dies when Jesus gets a bit petulant that it doesn’t have any figs on it. But Luke doesn’t share that story. Luke shares this one, the one about the fig tree that always has another chance to bear fruit whenever the story is read.

The key words here are “another chance.” That’s grace. “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Next year. Another chance. We read the parable again. Next year. Another chance. That’s grace.

Growing up, I always heard my dad define the concept of grace together with the concepts of justice and mercy, as a way to distinguish between them. His version went like this: “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” I’ve always loved that, and these definitions have guided me my whole life. But recently, I’ve added this: “Justice is having a chance. Mercy is having a second chance, or a third, or a fourth. Grace is not having your chances numbered.”

Grace is not having your chances numbered. Grace is being the fig tree that will always have the gardener tending to it, no matter how long it takes to bear fruit. Grace keeps us moving ever on, especially when we are stuck in the in-between time, the time of potential but no results. Grace gives us another breath when grief has knocked the wind from us. Grace gives us another chance when disillusionment or apathy sap our will to seek for justice and peace. Grace gives us another bit of rope when we think we’ve come to the end of ours.

Grace is the sublime consequence of a God who will never give up on us. That’s pretty good news, right? And yet, while God will never give up on us, we still have every opportunity to give up on God. Our chances are not numbered except by how many we are willing to take, by how often we are willing to trust God to be with us, come what may. That’s God’s promise to Moses in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, by the way. “I will be with you,” says God. No matter how often you fail, no matter how many chances you need, I will be with you. That’s grace.

It’s true that our chances are only numbered by how many we are willing to take. It’s also true that another chance is always shimmering on the horizon of possibility. And so grace beckons us to take more chances, to lead more expansive lives, to trust more deeply in the God who will never give up on us. And to bring that God to people who have never even been given one chance, who have never experienced the blessing of justice, let alone mercy or grace.

Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi. Every time. Yes, the Titanic sinks. Yes, the ring is destroyed. Yes, they find Nemo. Yes, the fig tree still stands. And yes, grace abounds in limitless chances to trust in a God who never gives up.

Behold How Good

Sermon for Sunday, April 12, 2015 || Easter 2B; Psalm 133

BeholdHowGoodEcce Quam Bonum! I first heard these three Latin words in the fall of the year 2000 when I was a senior in high school. I stepped out of the car and stared in awe at the soaring Gothic architecture of the buildings arranged around the quad of a little college tucked away in the mountains of Tennessee. Ecce Quam Bonum! As a prospective student, those words were words of welcome to me: “Behold how good!” they proclaimed. These are the opening words of our psalm today, Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” Walking towards the beautiful sandstone chapel on that visit, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to experience living together in unity at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennesee. The next fall I matriculated, and the four years I spent at Sewanee were years of friendship, formation, discernment of call, and lots and lots of singing.

Even though I didn’t know how to sing at the time, I still loved to do it, so I joined the University Choir my first month of college. That choir became my family for four years. The intensity of being in the choir at Sewanee matched that of playing a varsity sport. We did everything together. Several times a week, I got to sing with that special community. It was a gift to be able to add my voice to that group. The fellowship of the choir at Sewanee made real for me those three Latin words: Ecce Quam Bonum, Behold how good!

The words of Psalm 133, which we sang a few minutes ago speak of the desire for joyful, harmonious fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Three other readings join this psalm, and each speaks about community and fellowship. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a happily-ever-after picture of the apostles and their companions, in which the “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32). In the First Letter of John, the writer says, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1:3). In the Gospel, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples as a group, grants them peace, and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas is not with the disciples at the time, so as a group they seek him out and tell him the good news. A week later, when Thomas has returned to their fellowship, Jesus once again appears, and Thomas believes.

In just a few minutes we are baptizing two eight-month-old babies (two wonderful, beautiful babies, if I say so myself), and I can’t think of better lessons to accompany such a joyous occasion. The sacrament of Baptism celebrates the inward movement of God in a person’s life by outwardly welcoming that person into God’s family the Church. We baptize infants because we believe God is moving in all people, regardless of their ability to recognize or verbalize such movement. We baptize infants so that their earliest memories will be ones of being loved and cherished by a community of faith.

The “outward sign of inward grace” definition of a sacrament is tried and true, but it is also well worn, so let’s expand our understanding of what’s going on in baptism with a less academic and more musical metaphor.

The music of God plays in each one of our hearts. You’ve heard the expression, “tugging on my heartstrings” to describe something that evokes compassion and sympathy. Well, God tuned those heartstrings to resonate with God’s music; that is, God’s desires, yearnings, hopes, and dreams for God’s creation. That’s why we feel a tug on our hearts when we see someone in need – because God is directing us to notice and help that person.

Within our hearts, sometimes the music of God is soft, a half-whispered lullaby, barely discernible over the din of the world. Sometimes the notes crescendo to a deafening fortissimo that knocks us, weeping, to our knees. Most often, the music sounds as the percussive TUB-thp of our hearts — a rhythm that, if you listen closely, beats in time with the rest of the performing forces of creation. I’m not a theoretical physicist, but what I’m describing might be considered a poetic version of some of the more modern theories of how the universe works – it’s all about vibration, right? That’s really all music is – collections of well-defined vibrations. We identify the source of that vibration – that resonance – as God.

Each one of us has the music of God resounding within, but the choir is incomplete until we have found each other, until we have joined together in fellowship as the chorus of God, so to speak. In Greek, this fellowship is called koinonia, but I’ve always thought that “fellowship” is a rather limp translation. For the sake of our metaphor, let’s translate koinonia as “harmony,” which lands much closer to the descriptive intent of the Greek word. Musical harmony is the collection of notes that add structure, color, tone, depth, and meaning to the main tune. This tune, called the “melody” is the music of God within us. The combination of our own unique passions and hardships; our successes and failures; our gifts and shortcomings; our hopes, our dreams, and our joys creates the harmony of the music of God.

In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we welcome another soprano, alto, tenor, or bass into the choir. We await eagerly the subtle changes in timbre that these new lives will bring. Together, we sing the koinonia, the harmony, of the music of God to a world so accustomed only to noise and clatter. The sound of our anthems resonate with the movement of God in this world. This is the sacrament of Holy Baptism: new sound, new harmony, new resonance in the chorus of the music of God.

One of my favorite songs is called “One Voice,” by the band The Wailin’ Jennys. With each verse, another voice is added to the mix. By the third verse, each member of the band is weaving her voice with the other two. They sing:

This is the sound of voices three
Singing together in harmony
Surrendering to the mystery
This is the sound of voices three
 
This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us

So Ecce Quam Bonum! Behold how good it is when we all sing together in harmony and surrender to the mystery of God’s movement in our lives. Behold how good it is when we welcome new life into God’s family and embrace the new life the resurrection brings. Behold how good it is when we invite others to join us as we add our harmonies to the melody of the music of God.

First Words

(Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 || Proper 24A || 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 )

Any spherical object! (that's me at age 2)

Did your parents ever tell you about the first word you ever spoke? More than likely, your first word was “Da,” which is short for, “Daddy, go get Mommy so I can have lunch.” Perhaps, your first word was “Ma,” though this is unlikely, considering the “M” sound is much more difficult to make than the “D” sound. Perhaps, your first word was “No,” which you probably heard your parents say many, many times when they asked each other if the other had slept last night. My first word was “ball.”  And thus began a lifetime of me kicking, catching, and throwing any spherical object I could get my hands on.

Christianity has some first words, as well; at least, they’re the first words that we still have a record of today. They aren’t as hesitant or half-formed as are the first words of infants. Rather, they spring from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable (even uncanny) clarity, vitality, and comprehensiveness. We heard these words a few minutes ago when we listened to the first ten verses of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.

Now, before we get to some of Christianity’s first words, we need to clear up one spot of potential confusion and talk for just a minute about the similarities between Thessalonica in 50 AD and the United States in 2011. First, the potential confusion.

If you pull up the Bible on your smartphone, you will notice two things: number 1, the New Testament begins with the Gospel according to Matthew; and number 2, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is actually eighth on Paul’s depth chart, not first. So how could these ten verses from First Thessalonians possibly be the oldest recorded words in Christian history?

For starters, the folks who put together the New Testament put the four accounts of the Gospel up front because the rest of the pieces didn’t make a lot of sense without first hearing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the people who wrote the Gospel didn’t start doing so until probably 15 to 20 years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As for Paul’s depth chart (and this is a little strange) – his letters are actually in order by length, from longest to shortest, and First Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters. But if the New Testament were ordered chronologically by when the texts were written, our reading from Paul today would be on Page 1. Okay, confusion averted? Great. Let’s keep going.

Our modern moment shares several things in common with mid-first century Thessalonica, the community to which Paul writes the first words of Christianity. Like the modern United States, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, with a plurality of religions and cultures all rubbing shoulders. As the capital of the region of Macedonia, there were plenty of things to do, not unlike the glut of stimulation that assaults us at every turn. And the Thessalonians had not received the good news of Jesus Christ before Paul arrived, just as people in modern America have lost contact with this great story of the Gospel.

To these people in Thessalonica and to us here on the Interwebs, Paul sends these first words. He, of course, had no idea we would consider them the first words of Christianity, which lends a special kind of authenticity to his message. These are words written to people who hadn’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are words written to people who lived in a society that knew very little about this faith that Paul brought with him. As such, these are words that can serve us as we practice sharing our faith, as the Thessalonians did, with people outside the walls of this church.

In these first ten verses of the first text of Christianity, there are six words in particular that shimmer for me: grace, peace, faith, love, hope, and joy. Notice how Paul uses each of these special words: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

These words are special because each has a meaning outside the church and a greater meaning inside the church. The secular understanding of these words can give followers of Christ like you and me a place to establish common ground as we share with others how God is present in our lives.

Let’s quickly look at each of these words to see how we can expand the secular definition to fit into the greater reality of following Jesus Christ.

“Grace” is a perfectly lovely word. We use this word to describe ballet dancers because they move with poise and precision. They throw their bodies into the air trusting that they will land on their feet, and if they don’t they get back up quickly and keep dancing. How easily can we take this understanding of grace and elevate the grace of the dancer to the Grace of God, this grace that picks us up when we fall and teaches us to find beauty in everything.*

We hear the word “peace” when conflict ends and “peacekeepers” enter the recently warring region to monitor the new situation. We use this word to describe a calm ocean after a storm or an infant who has finally dropped off to sleep. We can expand this to the Peace of God, which takes situations of conflict and infuses them with possibilities for unity, justice, and new beginnings.

“Faith” is the trickiest word on this list because all human attempts at “faithfulness” fall short. We put our trust in banks, in governments, in products, in each other, and sooner or later we are always let down. But when we expand the definition of faith to include the Faith of God, we find the one example in all of creation that will never fail. How wonderful to tell someone about this kind of faith!

“Love” is tricky, too, because we use the word in so many different circumstances, from our shoes to our spouses. But when we find that most authentic use of the word, when the word “love” springs unbidden from our lips and doesn’t describe an emotion but a state of being, a state that we entered unwittingly and never want to leave – then we begin to see the edge of the extraordinary Love of God. And we can celebrate that love with each other.

“Hope” is about the future. All people have used this word to talk about what they dream for the days and years ahead. I hope to have children and to teach them to play soccer. These human hopes are safe hopes, the kind that we can see in our mind’s eye five or ten years down the road. This understanding of hope elevates to the Hope of God when God releases us from the boundaries of the merely possible and shows us the realms of glory that exist far beyond our sight. And then we have a greater hope in which our everyday hopes can dwell.

Finally, we talk about “joy” most often when we have “enjoyed” a dinner party or a new film or a ballgame. We mean that we had a good time and might want to come over again. What we don’t realize is that this “joy” we feel is more than happiness. The Joy of God is a feeling of wholeness, of completion that comes when we discover that we are exactly the people who God created us to be.

Each of these words, these first words that Paul used when he wrote to the Thessalonians makes sense outside the context of the Christian faith. But within the greater reality of following Jesus Christ, these words shimmer with new facets of meaning.

I invite you this week to take these first words of Paul and try them out for yourself. Pray with this question in your heart: how has God encountered you when you have had an experience of grace, peace, faith, love, hope, or joy? Then find someone from within your own faith community and try out these words. Practice sharing with one another before you go out and share your Christian life with those outside your church.

Like the first words of an infant, our first attempts in sharing the first words of our faith will be halting. They will be hesitant. They will be half-formed. But they will be ours. And God will take them, shape them, and elevate them into God’s own words.

Note

*I wrote “Grace…teaches us to find beauty in everything” and then realized that I stole those words from U2. Thanks, fellas.

Mountaintop removal

The following post appeared Monday, May 3rd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

I recently moved to one of the top ten most beautiful spots in the world. I live a three-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean. I can see a lighthouse from my living room window. I bought a new car. I started working at a new church, which is as beautiful as the town surrounding it. The people at church are wonderful. The trees and flowers are exploding with spring colors. And to top it all off: it’s Easter, the happiest and most celebratory season in the church year. I know I am blessed, radically blessed.

So, why am I having trouble finding something to write about? Why am I having difficulty elucidating God’s presence in my life, at this, one of my life’s most idyllic moments? You’re probably thinking: “Adam, go back and read your first paragraph and quit complaining.” Fair point. But my difficulty is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual malady, which (strangely enough) a simple recitation of my blessings actually exacerbates. I’m sure this malady affects more Christians than just me, so let’s do a little diagnosing.

Our walks with God are topographically interesting. For the most part, we walk the straight path, which Isaiah and John the Baptizer proclaim is the way of the Lord. But sometimes, we meander through desolate valleys, in which simply finding the tiniest token of God’s presence is drink for our arid souls. Other times, we climb mountains, atop which we touch the very face of God and can never imagine a time when our spiritual energy will need recharging. The valleys and peaks, the lows and highs, are the times we remember.

We remember the smile the stranger gave us in the frozen food aisle when we’d forgotten that God was still around. We remember hearing the choir singing choral evensong and how our hearts soared into the very heart of God during the first chords of the Magnificat. We remember the smell of disinfected despair when we sat overnight in the hospital room. We remember standing on a literal mountaintop and breathing in the wind of the Spirit and seeing the patchwork creation spread out below us.

These valleys and mountains shape our lives as Christians. Some folks have Grand Canyons and Himalayas. Others have dry streambeds and foothills. But the slope of our lows and highs matters little. For this discussion, let’s agree that our walks with God have valleys and peaks. The spiritual malady I mentioned a moment ago severely limits our ability to process the peak category.

By removing the mountaintop receptors, the malady keeps our souls from gathering spiritual nourishment from the peak times in our lives. Our minds know that God must be moving in our lives for life to be so full of blessing. But our souls have trouble metabolizing that blessing into the nutrients that sustain us while we search for God’s presence. Without that sustenance, we cease our active awareness of God until there is a noticeable change from “good” to “bad” times. When the paradigm shifts from “good” to “bad” – that is, from mountain to valley – we enter spiritual survival mode and begin frantically looking for God, only to have the walls of the depression limit our sight.

The disciple Peter is patient zero for this spiritual malady. When Jesus calls him out of the boat, Peter walks on the water as if he’s ambling down a garden path. Walking on the water is a spiritual mountaintop, but the paradigm shifts quickly. Peter notices the waves around him, and he starts to sink. Only when he is floundering in the surf does Peter reach up his hand for Jesus to rescue him. Peter could have taken Jesus’ hand while walking atop the water, but he waits until his valley moment.

Like Peter, I forget to seek God when things are going well. When I’m on a mountaintop, I rarely open my eyes to take in the glorious view. Through an intellectual exercise, I know that I am blessed, but this blessing fails to filter into my soul. Only when the jaggedness of grief or deprivation assaults me do I begin my tardy search for God anew.

I know I’m not alone in dealing with the spiritual malady of mountaintop removal. If you suffer from it, then know that there are steps to address it. Take a few moments to look at your life. Orient yourself on the topographical map of your walk with God. Where are you in relation to your most recent valley? If you know that you are no longer in the valley, force yourself to do more than think about your blessings. Rather than an amorphous abstraction you call “blessing,” separate each small blessing into individual shimmering lights of grace. Write each one down. Then thank God for the blessings individually, and be creative. Thank God with action, not thought. If your blessing is having enough food, go feed someone who is starving. If your blessing is living near the ocean, go stomp around in the shallows. If your blessing is being a member of a loving family, go tell them how much they mean to you. If your blessing is the song in your heart, go sing.

Once you’ve acted out your thanks to God, don’t stop. Actively seek out ways to thank God for God’s blessing in your life. Every morning when you draw your first breath, decide to look for God’s presence that day. Then over time, you may see the ground beneath your feet rise into a mountain. And you will notice just how close is the face of God.

Graceful

At today’s weekly healing service, I forgot something rather important. “Today, we are using Eucharist Prayer B found on page 367,” I said, and then a moment later, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you” came the reply from seven chilly parishioners (unlike the abiding presence of God, the heat in our building is both scarce and unreliable). We then exchanged the rest of the sursum corda* and I prayed the proper preface for Epiphany. Together, we said the Sanctus, after which I began the rest of the Eucharistic prayer.

“We give thanks to you, O God…” O God, I thought. I looked down. I looked up. O God. I looked down again. My distorted reflection peered up at me out of an empty chalice. I stopped speaking, pulled my hands out of the orans position, and turned around. “It seems that I forgot to put the wine in the chalice. Um…one moment please.”

I finished setting the table, smiling in a mortified kind of way. Then we continued the Eucharistic prayer, and the rest of the service went as expected. As I was walking back to my office, I thought to myself: I can’t believe I forgot to fill the chalice. That wasn’t very graceful of me.

Then I remembered some of the words I heard at my friend’s ordination, which I attended this weekend in Denver. The bishop looked at my friend standing before him and said, “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace…”

Nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. What a phrase. At my own ordination, these words passed right through my sternum and took up residency in the neighborhood of my left ventricle. They set me on fire and I never thought I’d stop burning. But in the last seven months, I somehow forgot the message of these words. I don’t know — maybe their house in my heart went into foreclosure. Maybe I wasn’t inhaling enough Holy Spirit with each breath to keep the fire going. I never forgot that it was my job to nourish. But I did forget whose meal was providing that nourishment.

You see, as a priest (heck, as a person) it is my job to say, “I have nothing of my own to offer. I have only what you, Lord, have given me.” Too often, I get caught up in succeeding at things that I forget that my success is not really mine at all. Too often, I try to nourish Christ’s people from the paucity of my grace, rather than from the riches of Christ’s. But doing that is like trying to water your lawn with the hose turned off.

When I forgot to put wine in the chalice, I remembered just how graceless I am. There I was with hands outstretched and prayer on autopilot, about to ask God to bless an empty cup. After filling the chalice with wine and a few drops of water, I realized that it was not the only empty cup in the room. I needed to be filled, too. I needed the riches of Christ’s grace to nourish me again because I — through inattentiveness and pride — had let his sustenance leach from my body.

This guy invented the salchow. His name is Ulrich Salchow. What a coincidence!?!
This guy invented the salchow. His name is Ulrich Salchow. What a coincidence!?!

We use the word “graceful” when we describe a dancer pirouetting or a figure skater performing a triple salchow. The word also applies to those people who suck every ounce of nutrition out of Christ’s nourishment and walk about with shimmering cascades of grace spilling over the tops of their heads. I know a few such people. You can tell them apart because they leave little puddles of grace behind them when they leave.

Lord, help me to remember that it is your grace with which you call me to nourish others. I can’t nourish them if I don’t allow you to nourish me. So please, fill this empty cup with the shimmering riches of Christ’s grace.

Footnotes

* Here’s a list of the technical words I used in this post:

Sursum corda: The three calls and responses at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, in which the congregation gives the priest the okay to go ahead and celebrate the Eucharist. The responsory nature of this prayer makes explicit that the Eucharist is a corporate event.

Epiphany: The twelfth day after Christmas, on which we celebrate the coming of the wise men to see Jesus. The coming of light into darkness and the call of the disciples are stressed during the season of Epiphany, which extends from January 6 to the day before Ash Wednesday.

Sanctus: “Sanctus” means holy and is the name for the prayer which begins “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” In Hebrew, there’s no way to make a word superlative (good, better, best); so, a three time repetition serves the same purpose.

Chalice: The cup we use at church. Remember that scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The room with the old knight is full of chalices. (“He chose…poorly”)

Orans position: “Orans” comes from the Latin word for “prayer” and is used when the priest is saying a prayer on behalf of the congregation. Think of a referee unethusiastically signaling touchdown and you’ve got it.

Ordination: The thing that happens to make someone who’s not a priest into a priest. The word comes from Latin and means something to the effect of “to put into order”; thus, ordination is when someone is set apart from others. There are four “orders” in the church: lay, deacon, priest, bishop — the latter three are “ordained” positions.

Unmuddying the waters (Bible study #9)

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the hardest thing to do when studying the Bible is to read the words on the page without the baggage of tradition lending a hand. For the purposes of this Bible study, “tradition” has a lowercase “t.” (While it rhymes wimusicmanth “p,” it does not stand for “pool.”) This tradition is everything from the writings of the church fathers to the texts of songs in our hymnals. Now, I’m not saying that reading with a knowledge of tradition is a bad thing — far from it. Sometimes, however, tradition serves to muddy the scriptural waters to the point that we can no longer see our soggy selves floating around.

The opening of the second chapter of Matthew, one of the choices for this Sunday’s Gospel text, illustrates just how murky the waters can get. This is the bit where the wise men from the East come to see King Herod, and he sends them on a reconnaissance mission to find the newborn “king of the Jews.” Until a dream notifies them, the wise men are unaware of Herod’s malicious plans. They bring the infant Jesus some gifts he has no practical use for (does myrrh clear up diaper rash?) and then go home by another road.

Okay, now let’s bring in tradition. For years and years we have smooshed the beginnings of Matthew and Luke together so much that we have trouble separating them, even when reading them independently of each other. But this independent reading is so important for seeing how each evangelist is setting up his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you let the “no place in the inn” bit of the story (from Luke) fall away, you’ll notice that it certainly looks like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Bethlehem — they relocate to Nazareth after their jaunt in Egypt. Indeed, the wise men come to Mary’s house, not a stable. So, while Luke uses the census to get the holy family to Bethlehem and back, Matthew uses Herod’s slaughter of the infants to get the holy family out of Bethlehem and eventually to Nazareth. But that’s not how we usually tell the story.

Now, bring in that hymn about the kings and everything gets even murkier. First, the wise men are “magi,” not “kings” — yes, these are entirely different words in Greek. Second, we have no way of knowing how many there were: we surmise three, but that’s because of the gifts. Maybe a couple went halfsies on the frankincense.

I acknowledge that using “We three kings of Orient are…” is a bit of a cheap shot, but it sure gets my point across. While these are small things that end up being mere distractions from what the text says, there are pieces of our tradition that amount to much more. Here’s one: Martin Luther’s “law/grace” dichotomy has colored readings of Paul’s letters for five hundred years. Luther’s viewpoint is so thoroughly embedded in biblical scholarship that it has taken on its own scriptural aura. But his is not the only reading.

Here’s another: one segment of Christian tradition — let’s call it the “rapture dispensationalist” segment (please read the footnote if those words are unfamiliar)* — sees the book of Revelation** as a script for what is going to happen during the “end times” (cue ominous music). This has led people (who would most likely — and ironically — call themselves “biblical literalists”) to speculate that the dragons and locusts symbolize things like atomic weapons and AK-47s. This reading of Revelation as a blueprint for the future has leaked into Christian tradition over the last two hundred years — so much so that the waters of Revelation (already murky by the difficult imagery of the text) are muddied even more by futile searches for modern analogs to biblical images. A more productive reading sees Revelation as an early Christian warning against complacency and the errors of  “the world,” a warning that transcends the time in which it was written.

Tradition helps us float in our biblical waters. But when we study the Bible, we should always take one swim unsupported by inner tubes or those floaties you wear on your upper arms. Perhaps, when we peer into that clear water, we will encounter God in new and fresh ways. Then we can add our encounters to that long story that is our Christian tradition.

Footnotes

* These are people who believe that the world will end in seven years of really gruesome carnage and destruction. Depending on which flavor of rapture dispensationalism you subscribe to, you will be brought bodily to heaven either before, in the middle of, or after these seven years.*** Again, depending on your flavor, Jesus comes back at some point in this time frame as well. As you can probably tell from this explanation, I am not a rapture dispensationalist.

** Please, please, please don’t say “Revelations” when you talk about this biblical text. There is just no “s” anywhere in that word.

*** A footnote inside a footnote! One term for the “middle of” way of thinking is this: “Mid-tribulation rapture dispensationalism.” See how smart you can sound with silly church words!