Better Questions

Sermon for Sunday, November 25, 2018 || Reign of Christ B || John 18:33-37(38)

One enduring characteristic of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we have received it is this: Jesus almost never answers a question directly. If you examine the way he responds to questions, you realize he answers the questions he wished people would ask him, not the ones they actually do. For example, when a legal expert asks him, “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus could have responded: “Everyone! Next question.” Instead, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, which answers the question he wished had been asked: “How can I be a neighbor?” The answer to that is by showing mercy to those in need, no matter how different from you they might be. This happens over and over in the Gospel – Jesus answering deeper questions than the ones that were asked.

Continue reading “Better Questions”

Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 3)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the last of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take Three

I shut the door behind me, and the noise of the crowd dies away. What do they expect me to do? They didn’t even offer an accusation, and they want this man dead. If they just wanted him dead, someone could have knifed him in the back. No, they don’t just want him dead. They want a spectacle. So they come to me. They think they can manipulate me into complying with the whims of their high priests. We’ll see about that.

I open the door again and motion for Jesus to be brought to me. He enters the chamber and immediately fills it with his presence. I feel the same way I do when my commander comes for an inspection. “Are you the king of the Jews?” I ask, and an ounce of wonder escapes my lips with the words.

He replies with his own question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

I feel suddenly put on trial. I take a step back; indignation replaces wonder in my voice: “I am not a Jew, am I?”

He is really from a different kingdom, he says. His followers would be fighting if he were from here, he says. The nation I am governor of has no bearing on him, he says.

“So you are a king?” I am perplexed, but at the same time I am conscious that my office does not allow for vexation brought about by a local celebrity.

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

His words hold such power. They linger in the air, catching the morning light that is streaming in the window. I want to believe what he is saying, but a lifetime of orders and spears and pavement and paperwork and…holds me back.

He stands in front of me, hands clasped as if in silent prayer. I look into his eyes and they reflect the words, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I slump down, back to my desk, knees bent. “What is truth?” I say. It is a plea more than a question. I bow my head, upset that I let my emotions show in front of this Jew. My vision begins to mist as tears build in the corners of my eyes.

Get a hold of yourself. You are the governor. You are in charge, not this delusional freak. I sling my head back and whack it on the desk. My head clears. The tears are gone. I look up and see a hand reaching down. My eyes narrow. I do not need your pity, I think. Knocking his arm away, I pull myself up and stalk out of the room, without a further glance back at those eyes or those hands.

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 2)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the middle of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take Two

I slam the door open so hard that it crashes into the mantle, sending a vase toppling. I catch the vase in midair with both hands and look at my warped features in the curved, glazed surface. Red splotches have broken out on my cheeks and neck. I grit my teeth, spin, and fling the vase at the far wall. It shatters, satisfyingly.

My personal guard comes bolting into the room, sword drawn, at the sound of the crash. He stops and stands dumbly when he sees that I am alone. “Bring me the prisoner,” I say, chest heaving.

I stand with my back to the door. I lean with my knuckles on the desk, hands clenched in fists. I hear the door open slowly. Without turning, I say, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answers insolently, questioning me when I am the one asking the questions.

“I am not a Jew, am I?” I say, half mocking, half enraged. I always have trouble with locals this time of year, but this is as bad as I’ve seen it. I feel justified in my rage and it feels good. When will they learn that we are in control? “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

I hear a sound and whip around to find Jesus bending over the broken vase. He is holding a flower. This is too perfect, I think, as my ire grows stronger. This dove thinks he can play with the lion. He has no idea who he is dealing with. I stride over to him, snatch the flower, and snap its head off. I can play with him and those meddlesome priests at the same time: I can expend my anger in sport.

Then he babbles something incoherent about his kingdom. “So you are a king,” I shout, throwing my hands in the air.

“You say that I am a king,” he says, quietly. His calmness threatens to diffuse my anger. I won’t let him. He continues, as I pace around him, stepping on the broken vase and flowers with each pass. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

He finishes. I grab him by the shoulder and spin him around, grasping his garment in my left hand and pulling him close. We are nose to nose. His expression is one of mild surprise. There is no fear, not even concern in his eyes. Why isn’t he afraid of me? Why is he so calm?

“What is truth?” I don’t shout it. I don’t scream in his face. It comes out as a bellow, almost a growl. I push him away and storm out of the room, slamming the door behind me.

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 1)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the first of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take One

I beckon for Jesus to follow me inside, and then I ask him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He won’t give a straight answer, but I can tell he believes what he says. There is no hint of fever or delusion, just honesty. But I have learned from long experience in the politics of the Empire that there is a difference between honesty and truth. “So you are a king?” I press.

He looks at me for a moment, considering his response. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I lean back on my desk and cross my arms. This man really, honestly believes what he is saying. There is no trace of deception in his face. He is playing the game and playing it well; his answers are both vague and cryptic, but neither seditious nor treasonous. I try to keep my face from betraying my internal skepticism, but I am sure my right eyebrow rises.

“What is truth?” I say. I say it flatly, so that there is barely a question mark at the end of the phrase. I can’t help but add a bit of sneer to my raised eyebrow. What a ludicrous proposition. He thinks he is on a mission to testify—to die—for the truth?

The truth? I don’t even think there is such a thing as truth, let alone a singular, definite truth. There are too many lies masquerading as truths out there. There is a chain of command in this Empire and that means there is a chain of lies, as well. I can lie to everyone beneath me, and they have to believe what I say is truth. And I am sure my superiors lie to me, but what am I to do? Consider it truth: that’s all I can do. Yes, there are too many lies out there masquerading as truths to think I can nail down any one single Truth.

My skepticism leaks out of my raised eyebrow and my sneering mouth. He knows I couldn’t care less for his truth. I just need to make sure I still have a job tomorrow. Truth. Lies. These things don’t matter. Keeping my position and my head: those are my concerns.

Still, nothing he has said makes him guilty. I stand up straight, look Jesus in the eye for a long moment, and then sweep past him on my way to talk to the locals again.

Don’t just read it (Bible study #7)

If you take the vast sweep of Christian history into account, far fewer people have read the Bible than have heard it read. When the New Testament was still just a collection of letters and a few strange things called “Gospel” (say from about 50 to 325 CE), specially trained performers recited entire letters and books from memory during worship. In the middle ages, the majority of people never heard scripture read in a language they could understand and probably wouldn’t have recognized a book if it fell on them from a scriptorium window. Even as the Reformation gained steam and the printing press made vernacular versions of the Bible available, most people heard scripture, but never read it. The “family Bible” didn’t become fashionable until the 18th century, and even today churchgoers hear more scripture than they read (no matter the ubiquity of the Bible online and on store shelves).newsies

What’s this have to do with biblical interpretation? I’m glad you asked. The texts that make up the Bible were always meant to be read aloud. Acts 8 makes this quite clear: Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch and knows he’s reading the prophet Isaiah because he is reading out loud. To himself. Follow the eunuch’s example (no, not that example). Read your passage out loud. I know you are reading a translation, but the beauty and rhetorical power of the biblical text do not necessarily suffer in an English treatment. When you read aloud, you will notice oratorical patterns and cadences that the Biblical writers employed to make recitation easier and listening more captivating.

Try this one on for size: say the following two verses in your mind and then say them out loud. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).

Notice the oratorical power in the repetitive cadence. This is called a “step argument”: each phrase builds on the previous one until the sentence climaxes on the word “glorified.” Paul obviously wrote this sentence to be spoken rather than read. So there’s no point in studying these verses as “written.”

Besides appreciating the oratorical flair of Biblical writers, reading aloud gives you the opportunity to engage the drama of the Bible. A good chunk of the text is narrative and a good chunk of the narrative is dialogue. Now, we have no audiovisual documentation of the conversations recorded in the narrative, so it falls to us to interpret how the dialogue sounds.

Let’s take Pilate’s response to Jesus as an example: “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ ” (John 18:37-38). How does Pilate say, “What is truth?” Is he angry? Is he skeptical? Is he desperate? Each of these readings offers a different insight into the mind of the Roman governor. If you take reading aloud seriously, the dialogue will force you to make interpretive choices of tone, emotion, and motive. I’m not going to lie. Practicing a text for performance is an awesome way to enter into an interpretive mindset.*

A trained musician may be able to “hear the music” when she looks at a score, but most of us cannot comprehend music’s beauty and power without hearing it played. Similarly, the Biblical text soars when it is read aloud. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. When we read the Bible aloud, we access that creative voice within ourselves and use the breath and the bodies that God created.

So, read the Bible, yes. But don’t just read it. Speak it. And don’t just speak the Bible. Proclaim it.

Footnotes

* The next few posts on this blog will expand this discussion of exploring dialogue in the Bible by presenting a three part Midrash on Pilate’s statement “What is truth?” Stay tuned.

** I want to thank the writer of the first comment on this post. Reading scripture aloud during worship is the main way people are exposed to scripture. Knowing that, we’ve got to make sure our lectors are trained and know what they are reading ahead of time. Too often, (for various reasons) priests are running around five minutes before services looking for people to read. Reading scripture aloud is too important for that to be the norm.