Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why Should Christians Read the Old Testament?
a guest post by Lauren Cochran

This post is the 3rd in Chasing Yoder's series of guest posts by different authors addressing the question, "Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians?" Lauren Cochran is a friend and the Christian Formation Director at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI. 

You can find the first post in the series, by Paul Cizek, here, and the 2nd post, by Sarah Puryear, here
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One of my earliest memories of the Bible is the giant set of books from the Old Testament that my little brother had on the bookshelves in his bedroom. I knew exactly which book had the story of Esther in it, and I must have made my mother read it hundreds of times.

In this particular version of the scripture, printed (I'm guessing) in the 1950s, Esther is pictured with bright red hair wearing a blue dress. She was my Disney... I mean Bible....
Princess.

For the purposes of this guest post, I thought about trying to use Esther's story to show
how the Old Testament can give us wonderful stories and characters that we can come
to love and understand over many chapters--- this is after all one of the reasons I love
reading the Old Testament.

But then it dawned on me that there is a much more simple, and more important reason
for Christians to read, study, love, and embrace the Old Testament.

Women.

Women!

I dare you to name women in the NEW Testament who are not named Mary or Martha.

Go.

(If you got Anna, or better yet Phoebe, I'm proud of you. And no, "the woman at the well" does not count; I want names.)

Yes, there is a small handful of women in the New Testament, but their stories are short
and their names are rare. The Old Testament is chock full of the ladies. 

Without looking (I promise!), I listed Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Ruth, Naomi, Hagar, Zipporah, Hannah, Rahab, Delilah, Deborah, Miriam, Leah, Bathsheba, and Esther (of course).

Those are some of the more popular names, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. A quick search on Google tells me that the Bible names 188 women. By my best count, there are only 25 named women in the New Testament. That leaves 163 named women in the Old Testament.

Now let me be clear: not all the women in the Old Testament are women that we should
look up to or model our behavior after (I'm looking at you, Bathsheba!), but the great part
about having so many different women present is that we - both Christian women and
men - have a selection to learn from.

These mothers of our faith are practically leaping from the pages with amazing lives and
lessons to share with us, and if we don't venture into the Old Testament, then we miss it!
I could go on about the endless opportunities that come from reading about the women in the Old Testament... for example I think that a careful study of these women could be a wonderful opportunity for women of all the Abrahamic faiths to get together and talk... But alas, I must draw myself to a close.

I implore you to read the Old Testament. Do it because Jesus was a Jew and these were his scriptures. Do it because the Old Testament and the New Testament are on equal ground. And, no matter what gender you are, if you are a Christian, do it so you know our Christian foremothers.
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Lauren Gallant Cochran is a "certified candidate" (for ordination) in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She is currently serving as the Christian Formation Director at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI, and she earned her Masters of Divinity at Harvard University.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Theology of Kindermusik, Part I


It's Monday, which means Bek and I are about to squeeze the kids into their snow jackets and make the short (beautiful) drive to First Presbyterian Church in Waunakee for J and A's weekly Kindermusik classes. I confess my initial reaction to the classes was suspicion that my in-laws - who gave the classes to our kids as a gift - were looking to inflict Rafi-like soundtracks on Rebekah and me, in retribution for some unknown, secret sin of Rebekah's childhood. That still may be the case, but the class has been the opposite of my every apprehension; it's been a blessing.

Apart from the obvious benefit to the kids and our family, the theory of learning behind the class shape and structure is something I find interesting and tremendously engaging.

Among the first instructions we (parents) received concerned the feedback most helpful for our children. Rather than performance-based remarks - like, "good job" - we are encouraged to name what we see our children doing: "I see you clapping," etc. Having named the action, we are free to issue challenges: "I see you clapping. Can you clap above your head?" The follow-up is always to name what the child does next, whether she accepts the challenge or not: "I see you clapping behind your back."

Even on the first day of my awkwardly wearing these new instructions, the joy on J and A's faces when they received the words "I see you..." was beyond describing. I see you. Way better than praise. I see you.

Their joy called me out to the extent that it named the times I hadn't seen them; had not had time to, had not had desire to. For all kinds of reasons. Life and joy and fire in their eyes: I see you.

Now, I mislead the reader if I somehow imply that my children had been entirely invisible to me before learning to emphasize these words. Being Jude and Annie's Daddy is one of the great joys of my life, and I cherish the life we share. Even so, their delight in hearing the words surprised me. I see you.

When I was a seminarian, I loved preaching, but I hated having preached. I hated having preached because I felt uncomfortable with the task of shaking hands and making small talk after the service. (Humorous now, because I live in coffee shops and for exactly these moments, which I enjoy to no end.) It wasn't the people I minded; it was the idea of being the center of attention. It all felt so fake. And then one day I noticed someone edging by the crowd of people lined up to shake the preacher's hand, and I called out to him, and his face lit up. Evidently, his downcast face had not been because he wanted to be invisible; he only thought he was. He looked up with the joy I now see in my children's eyes. "I see you." I remember realizing that, for servants of the Gospel, all things - even the contrived practice of church receiving lines with its accompanying contortions of power - could be redeemed as exercise in the practice of seeing and being seen.

As I began to discern and develop my own "style" of ministry, I gravitated toward examples in my mentors that modeled this: the priest who matched the eye-level of the children he blessed; the friend who started sharing a prayer request with the congregation before catching himself and leading the prayer; the mentor who warmly greeted every child as a full member of the community, every time, even when their eyes were diverted in a trained show of respect and understanding of their "place." Over and over, the chance to be present, the chance to leave the race track of our minds and our disappointed expectations for where the others "should have been," and to squat to the level of our children where they are, to find the eye-line of the passerby, the stranger, the spouse, and say: "I see you," and mean it.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Slaughtered King:
A Reflection on Palm Sunday



A lot of Scripture tonight. Lots of words. Testing the attention span of all of us – we who live in the age of the push button notification. Just give me the sound bite, the pertinent information, and move on. The mystery of Holy Week begun on this day resists tidy delineations of this kind. The mystery, overwhelming; the story, to be entered; Christ crucified and risen, the garment we put on. Still, a lot of words. I don’t want to add too much to them, but instead to offer a short reflection to focus our attention in the midst of the words; a reflection on the first verse of our first reading, Luke 19, verse 28: “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.”

After Jesus said this. The “this” that Jesus said, before he went up to Jerusalem - the immediate context for all that follows - is the familiar parable of the talents, which ends with the nobleman’s ominous lines: “‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence’” (Lk 19:26-27).

The connection between this earlier passage and the Passion narrative swells with an unresolved tension. Plainly, Jesus’ parable and the nobleman’s words do not prepare us to see the heralded, new king slaughtered. But God’s rejection of the evil wrought by “these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them,” lands squarely on Jesus.

Palm Sunday reveals Jesus as at the same time God’s elected and rejected one. This is meant to be Good News for us, but it is still hard to see Jesus slaughtered in the presence of God and God’s enemies. Harder still to hear the words on our lips – “Crucify him!” – and realize that we are God’s enemies, the ones “who did not want me to be king over them.”

I do not like to think of myself as an enemy of God, but my not liking it does not by itself make it untrue. I am like the double agent who sometimes forgets whose side she is on. But I have found grace in Jesus’ hard words to his disciples, “Love your enemies” (Lk 6:27).

“Love your enemies” is what we do when we imitate God’s love for us. Love for enemies is how God's love first finds us.

I used to think of an enemy as the worst thing a person could be, but enemy status has not proved enough to keep God from us or to prevent our being found in Christ. Instead, love without expectation or personal gain is arguably only known in the context of enemies. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Jesus asks. So I have learned to ask for God’s help in loving my enemies, and also to pray for enemies to love.

Maybe loving enemies is how we go up, with Jesus, to Jerusalem. Maybe this is a piece of the surrender and truthfulness by which we learn the friendship of the crucified King.

Here is this week’s great mystery: once enemies of God, loved, now friends, of the crucified King. The promise and threat of this week are both there in the words: 
Crucified King.” Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder narrates this moment for us, the moment we come to this week and stare at the cross and see him for who he is and ourselves for who we are and wonder in horror what it all means. He writes, “Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.
Let us pray.

Gracious God, heavenly Father: you have given your Church grace to hear and proclaim; we preach, we proclaim, Christ, and him crucified. Keep us attentive; keep us awake this week, so that we might know him whom we preach.

Amen.

SFH. 3.24.13










Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reading All of God's Story

This post is the 2nd in Chasing Yoder's series of guest posts by different authors addressing the question, "Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians?" The Rev. Sarah Puryear is a friend and Episcopal priest, serving at St. George's Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN. 

If you missed the 1st post, find it here

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Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to read through the entire Bible. I was inspired by a new edition of the Bible called Reading God's Story, which reorganizes the material of the Bible into one big story divided into several acts. Instead of reading in the traditional order, in which you read about the rebuilding of Jerusalem in Ezra/Nehemiah before you read the prophets predicting its fall, this Bible moves chronologically. Job follows right after Genesis (since Job is thought to be set in the time of Abraham), the Psalms David wrote are interspersed into the story of his life, and the historical accounts of the kings of Israel are punctuated by the corresponding prophets who lived and prophesied in their time.
 
I grew up in evangelical and charismatic churches where reading the Bible was as important as taking in oxygen or getting enough food to eat, so I had read all the books of the Bible before but never in this order. Plus, truth be told, I felt out of touch with the Bible. My long held habit of reading the Bible first thing each morning had floundered and fallen by the wayside. I had struggled to find my bearings with the Bible since becoming Episcopalian and going to seminary, not because I went through a crisis of faith, but because my overfamiliarity with the Bible made it feel flat when I tried to read it devotionally. In seminary it was all I could do to keep up with the readings assigned about the Bible, so I rarely read the primary texts of Scripture in my Old and New Testament classes, though they were assigned as well. I told myself, in a moment of evangelical smugness, that I already knew them well and certainly a lot better than most of my mainline classmates! So even as I spent time about studying the Bible, I wasn’t getting much face time with it. Then I became a priest, and much of my time with Scripture was spent preparing for sermons and classes. I had fallen into the classic clergy pitfall of making reading the Bible “something I do for work.” It was finally time for me to wipe the slate clean and reengage with devotional reading of the Scripture.
 
I began my reading on January 1st, 2012, planning to finish the whole thing in a year. But then 2012 turned into a very unusual year. In March I went on a first date with my future husband, and things moved quickly; we got engaged in June, and we were very happily married in September. It was a whirlwind of a year, and I wasn’t as faithful to my reading as I had expected to be. I started up again this January half way through the Bible and will get to the finish line in June.

This adjusted timeline means that I'm just now finishing up the Old Testament. Before my reading this past year, if you asked me why Christians should read the Old Testament, I might have told you about how the Old Testament was Jesus' "Bible"; he quoted from 24 of the 39 books. (check out this comprehensive list of all the quotes of the Old Testament in the New). I might have mentioned how the early church denounced Marcion as a heretic for excising the Old Testament from the Christian Scriptures, thus cementing the Old Testament’s place in our canon. And I would definitely have gone on and on about my wonderful Old Testament professor, Ellen Davis, who wowed us lecture after lecture with her theological interpretation of the Old Testament, deftly navigating around the many pitfalls that await anyone who tries to engage the Old Testament as a Christian.
Now that I’ve read the whole thing again for myself, I would say that I need to read the Old Testament, because there’s no way I can understand Jesus without it. It’s far too easy for us to remake Jesus in our own image (check out Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus for some entertaining and disturbing examples of this), turning him into whatever our model human looks like in our particular cultural moment. Jesus was part of the people of Israel, himself steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, and he doesn’t make sense without them – or worse yet, we may think we know what he means, when we’ve really only imposed a meaning upon the text based on our own context. Before we try to make the interpretive leap to our own day, we have to know the context in which he lived. As I’ve read the Old Testament, I have come across phrase upon phrase and story upon story that echoes and resounds through the gospels. It’s easy to look up the cross-references when the Old Testament is explicitly quoted in the New Testament, but there are hundreds of other resonances that don’t get a footnote.
As I’ve read, those resonances have stood out, not just as isolated verses that crop up again somewhere in the gospel, but as the traces of the grand story that God is writing across the narrative of the Bible. When we've read about how God comes to walk in the garden with Adam and Eve, when we've seen how he seeks out Abraham and makes covenant with him, when we've witnessed God’s faithfulness in calling Israel to himself and then watched the long troubled story of their covenant relationship unfold, when we've seen how the people fail over and over to uphold their end of the bargain, when we have heard God promise through Jeremiah to one day make a new covenant (Jer 31:31), then we realize that Jesus follows in the course of a much bigger, grander story. When we finally arrive at the Last Supper and hear Jesus say, “This cup is the new covenant of my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20), we know that this is the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise. We know just how long this has been in the works. God's faithfulness over the long haul to make his people his own and to be their God becomes evident. God has been faithful to the same vision from Mount Sinai to Calvary to the New Jerusalem.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Old Testament’s only worth comes from its connection to Jesus, as though it ought to be gleaned for its references to him and then put up on a shelf to gather dust. I do mean that we cannot read the Gospels well without knowing the Old Testament too; we are called to enter into the entirety of God's story and allow it to shape us as his people.
Perhaps one of the reasons that my reading of Scripture had gotten flat was because I was reading too little of it; I was reading my own little canon within a canon over and over until it got starved for air. That's a pretty common occurrence for those of us who commit to reading the Bible regularly; we have favorite parts that we like to revisit. If your reading of the Bible is getting a little stale, try expanding your horizons and taking in a broader swath of Scripture. I'm going to keep forging ahead into the New Testament and see how it comes across with a reading of the Old Testament fresh in my mind.
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The Rev. Sarah Puryear serves as Associate Rector with a focus on youth and young adults.  Originally from the great state of Maine, Sarah attended Wheaton College, where she  studied English, Ancient Languages, and Theology. She received her Master of Divinity  from Duke Divinity School in 2008 and then served at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in St.  Petersburg, Florida. She was ordained by Bishop Dabney Smith in the Diocese of  Southwest Florida. Her interest in mission work has led her on trips to Nepal, the  Philippines, Mozambique and China. She had the honor of serving as a steward at the  Lambeth Conference gathering of bishops in 2008. She enjoys traveling, music, and reading. She is married to Dan Puryear. Read Sarah's blog here

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dying We Live:
Reflections on Axe Body Spray
and the Kingdom of God



[Grace and peace. My name is Father Jonathan Melton, and in addition to serving as chaplain to St. Francis House at UW, my family and I are blessed to be parishioners here at St. Andrew’s. Andy and I have joked that, because he and I lead worship services at different times and places, we could call on each other to preach if something unplanned were ever to happen to either of us. It’s not everyone who has parishioners with sermons they’re planning to preach later that day. Unfortunately, the unplanned has happened, and Andy is at home, sick. I am happy to be able to fill in for him this morning and for the chance to be with you. Please remember Father Andy in your prayers. Now to the gospel…]

Three hundred denarii worth of perfumed oil, requiring roughly one year’s worth of wages to purchase, is what we’re told Mary took to wash Jesus’ feet that night, about a week before he died. The Huffington Post reports that, in 2011, the median annual wage dropped to $26,364. Wage reductions notwithstanding, that is still a lot of oil to pour on your Savior’s feet. Even less than one-fifth of that amount – or $5,000’s worth – would be comical. Consider that Axe Deodorant Body Spray, which advertises itself as a fragrance “classically masculine and sophisticated with an addictive fresh combination of crisp sparkling fruits, sage, and a creamy, musky background” sells at Walgreen’s for $3.74 a can. $5,000 would buy you 1,336 of those cans, with a little left over. But we’re not talking about $5,000, are we? The number – the median annual wage in 2011 - was $26,364, which would buy you 7,049 cans.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Mary was using anything as crass or lowbrow as Axe Body Spray that night. I am suggesting that it is nearly impossible for us to wrap our heads around just how extravagant this act of hers is. We’re talking about a semester’s tuition for a non-resident student at UW-Madison or a year and half’s tuition, in-state. A YEAR AND A HALF'S TUITION. Poured out in a twinkling.

I don’t know about you, but I live on a budget and consult my wife on purchases greater than $20. I’ve never thrown an epic party, and nearly every piece of furniture in my house is a hand-me-down from someone else. I like to think I’m a big tipper, but I’ve never left even a one-hundred dollar tip before.

And so I only have one thought to think at an impromptu $26,000 pedicure: irresponsible; improbable; wasteful, even.

But this is where the story gets interesting - Jesus says it’s not a waste; that Mary needn’t torture herself calculating the opportunity costs for what the money might have purchased otherwise; that a life poured out at Jesus’ feet is not wasted. Did you hear that? A life poured out at his feet is not wasted.

A good word for those of us still wondering what we will do someday. Do we ever stop wondering? Wondering how you will live out the gifts God has given you. Christians are asked to keep a broad imagination for what it might look like to pour out one’s life at his feet.

I don’t want to romanticize it, far less tell you how to do it, but I wouldn’t be a truthful priest for you if I didn’t tell you that thousands on thousands of Christians throughout the ages have done exactly this; that thousands on thousands of Christians have poured out their lives at the feet of Jesus in sacrifice and to the point of suffering, in imitation of his self-emptying and death, in order to share the fullness of new and unending life in him. These saints shared Paul’s desire in the epistle this morning to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

St. Francis, the namesake of our university ministry – and the Catholic Church’s newest pope – is the poster child in this dynamic of self-emptying in imitation of Jesus, but there are others. Countless others: teachers, preachers, farmers, artists, mothers, fathers, sisters, partners, brothers, bankers, waiters, doctors, botanists, scholars, women and men – known and unknown - of all kinds of gifting who have given themselves up to the one who has given them everything.

I may have told you before about the time I was with a group in Taize, France, and one of us, a teenager, asked an honest, but almost cruel, question of one of the brothers. (It wasn’t me.) He asked, “Why did you do it? Do you even know what you walked away from? No offense, but you don’t have a real job. This doesn’t count. No family. No hope of children. I know my parent’s hopes, their dreams for me, how disappointed they’d be…why on earth would you, how could you, give it all up?”

The brother monk smiled a tender smile and nodded. It was not an unfamiliar line of questions. He looked at the boy, straight in his eyes, and talked about his joy in Jesus’ words when Jesus said, as if to him: “...the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

We stared at the brother in perplexity and wonder as we soaked in this strange answer. But he wasn’t waiting on our response. Like Mary, he was already poured out at his Master’s feet.

So we watch with a special attention today, as Mary drops to her knees, undoes her hair, and begins to wash Jesus’ feet, and we realize that it’s not just about the money wasted. It’s the scandal. It’s the end of other opportunities. To identify with Jesus in this way is to go all in. Her reputation will not survive it. Her future will not outlast it. She’s becoming a fool in front of their eyes and she knows it; the eyes of the others falling hot on her shoulders, as a shame she is supposed to feel, but doesn’t.

Mary knows. She knows she’s aligning herself with a dead man. Knows that there’s no going back. She washes his feet anyway. Why? I wonder if Martha had told Mary about the conversation she shared with Jesus some weeks before, in the moments before he called Lazarus out from the tomb. “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ I wonder if Mary is ready to become like him in his death, if somehow she can attain the resurrection from the dead.

Mary finishes drying his feet. She picks herself up. It is finished. And this is Mary saying to Jesus, “Wherever you are going, I’m going, too.”

Like Mary, we know where Jesus is going. Lent is almost over. Holy Week begins next week. By the end of that week, Jesus will be dead. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die on the cross. Another in a line of senseless deaths, we think. Poured out in a twinkling. A waste. 

But this is where the story gets interesting – the Father says, and Easter will show, it is not a waste; that Jesus needn’t torture himself with regret for what might have been; that this life poured out for us on the cross is not wasted. And this moment, these weeks, is our moment, our chance, to meet Jesus in the place of divine love and self-emptying. This moment and these weeks want to give us permission to live lives that don’t make sense apart from the story they tell. In days ahead, then, will you listen with me to the story they tell? This moment is our time to learn how to say to Jesus, “Wherever you are going, I’m going, too.”

Amen.

SFH.3.17.13

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians?

Over the next several weeks, Chasing Yoder will feature a series of guest posts on the question, "Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians?" This first post comes from scholar/youth minister/good friend Paul Cizek. 
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Dear Jonathan (and Chasing Yoder readers),

It’s a joy to devote some time and typing responding to the question in the title of this post.  Thanks for the invitation!  I hope what follows at least serves as good discussion fodder, and perhaps is even true.  Let me know what you think.

To begin, the question “Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians?” could be asked in at least two ways. 

Unfamiliarity might lurk behind the question.  Just as a low-church Christian stumbling upon an Advent wreath for the first time might ask with curiosity and openness “Why do Advent wreaths matter?,” our question might be asked out of unfamiliarity but with openness towards the Old Testament itself.

Or, the question might imply a value judgment: “Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians… when we have the New Testament?” or “…when we believe the Old Testament points to Jesus?” or some other suggestion that for Christians the Old Testament is no longer necessary because something better has replaced it.  This view expresses what is typically called supersessionism.

I have 5 responses.

1) The Old Testament matters for Christians because it informs our “Rule of Faith.”  In the 2nd century AD, Ireneus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote that Scripture has an order, which he called the “Rule of Faith.”  This Rule of Faith makes a claim about the order of Scripture, though it is not necessarily articulated in Scripture itself, but rather has been passed down through the church from the apostles.  Ireneus articulates this Rule of Faith in various ways, so it’s clearly not quite as set and defined as our Creeds, but Ireneus’ account always follows the same narrative path from creation, through Christ, to everlasting glory.  Two contemporary examples of a Rule of Faith might be the Reformed articulation of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Kingdom of God, or one developed at the Duke Youth Academy using 7 Cs: Creation, Crisis, Covenant, Christ, Church, Calling, Coming Reign of God.  But what’s most important for Ireneus is that whenever Scripture is used, it must be interpreted in accordance to and never contrary to the Rule of Faith – this is the “rule” or “measure” of how faithful an interpretation is.  What’s important for us is that Scripture and the Rule of Faith have a cyclical relationship: the Rule of Faith is derived from Scripture, and Scripture can’t be interpreted faithfully unless it’s done in accordance with the Rule of Faith.  And the Rule of Faith has always situated Christ somewhere between creation, God’s covenant with Israel, the church and everlasting glory, as if Christ was the climax of Scripture’s grand narrative – or, Rule of Faith.  So logically, if our ability to read Scripture faithfully depends on understanding the Rule of Faith, and our Rule of Faith is derived from Scripture – including the Old Testament, than the Old Testament matters for Christians because it informs our Rule of Faith.

2) The Old Testament ought to matter to Christians because the church catholic still believes that the Old Testament is part of our canon of Scripture.  Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics offers a helpful description of “God’s Word,” “Scripture,” and the “canon.”  For Barth, “God’s Word” is the second person of the Triune God, who revealed God most concretely in the person of Jesus Christ.  “Scripture” is the medium by which the church recalls the revelation of God’s Word in Christ, but Scripture itself is not exactly God’s Word.  Rather, from time to time Scripture becomes God’s Word, when God is pleased to speak to the church by means of the words of Scripture and when God’s Word grips us and enables us hearers to say and believe “The Bible is God’s Word.”  In other words, Scripture itself is not God’s Word, unless God is pleased to act through Scripture.  And our “canon” of Scripture is the set of texts through which the church catholic has regularly heard God speaking.  In other words, the canon is not a set of texts that the church has chosen for itself, but rather a set of texts that God seems pleased to speak through and through which the church has received and is receiving God’s Word.  So, unless the church catholic suddenly stops hearings God’s Word through the Old Testament and discerns that God is no longer pleased to speak God’s Word through the Old Testament – and as far as I am aware this is not under serious consideration in any part of the church catholic – then the Old Testament matters because God seems pleased from time to time to speak God’s Word through the Old Testament.  In other words, the Old Testament matters because God seems pleased to use it.

3) Relatedly but directed more pointedly to the supersessionist version of our question, the Old Testament matters just as much as the New Testament, neither of which contain or possess the fullness of God’s revelation.  Again Barth is helpful.   As noted above, Barth thinks that God revealed God’s self most concretely when God’s Word took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and that Scripture is a means through which the church recalls God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus Christ, but is not itself the revelation.  Second, Barth differentiates between the Old and the New Testament describing the Old Testament as pointing forward to the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and the New Testament remembering the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, because the Old and New Testament both point to the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, but neither contain nor possess this revelation, Jesus is not in the New Testament any more than Jesus is in the Old Testament, and the New ought not to be privileged over the Old.  I have a story to help illustrate this idea.

My Grandpa began giving me Savings Bonds when I was two years old.  My Grandpa knew what he intended these bonds to be used for and so did I: for college or for a house in the future.  But this does not mean that my knowledge as a child was the same as my Grandpa’s knowledge; my Grandpa knew from experience what paying for college or a house was like, but I had no clue.  But as I grew closer to the moment in which I would buy a house or go to college, I began to appreciate these Savings Bonds more and more. Finally, when I needed money for a down payment on a house (really needed it!) and I cashed in the Savings Bonds, when I was, therefore, in the concrete moment to which my Grandpa’s gift had originally pointed, then and only then did I fully understand and experience the goodness of my Grandfather’s gift.  And now, at this moment, I can recall the moment I received the fullness of this gift, but I no longer possess this gift itself and I am no longer receiving this gift.  For, the gift was given in its fullness at a particular moment in time that is now past, and no story no matter how faithful or vivid will enable me to again grasp this gift.

Similarly, while the Old Testament points ahead to the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the New Testament recalls the event of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, neither contains nor possess the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.  The Old and New Testament certainly have different vantage points on Christ, but there is no reason to privilege one Testament over the other – as our question seems to do.

(For example, I have a Good Friday sermon that uses both Psalm 22 and John’s Gospel as my routes to the cross, though the passive objectification of Christ in Psalm 22 could not be any more different than the active subject Christ seems to be in John.  Both routes lead to the cross and both routes illumine the cross in a unique way.  Sermon available by request.)

4) The Old Testament matters for Christians because it offers us a starting point in interreligious dialogue with Jews and Muslims.  (Admittedly, I’m now writing about something of which I know very little, but hope it to be true.)  The Christian Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible share common books, though we arrange these books differently.  The Quran shares common stories with the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, though the Quran tells these stories a bit differently.  Might these commonalities be a starting place for dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims?  If we think interreligious dialogue matters, then the Old Testament matters for Christians.

5) Finally, the Old Testament will not matter for Christians unless we begin to read it with more regularity.  Just as prayer or exercise become vital for those who do them regularly but seem inconsequential for those who do not do them regularly, the Old Testament will matter more to Christians the more we read it and hear it preached on.  There are many ways to begin reading the Old Testament, but in order to set yourself up for success you may want to start with something accessible or short, like reading a psalm a day, or reading through all the minor prophets over the course of a month.  Like any new discipline, you may not love it or get anything out of it at first, but over time you’ll grow familiar with the psalmist’s cries for help or words of praise, or you’ll grow familiar with the prophets calling God’s people out on their faithlessness and calling them back to their faithful God.  Or if you preach, make a commitment to preach once a month on the Old Testament, or perhaps even preach for a whole month on the Old Testament.  And help yourself out by starting your sermon prep a tiny bit earlier than normal, because you’ll have to work hard to preach on a text with which your congregation is unfamiliar. 

And perhaps if we begin to read and preach on the Old Testament with a bit more regularity, not only will we begin to discover for ourselves that the Old Testament matters, but we may even discover that the Old Testament is one of God’s great gifts for God’s people.


____________________________________________________


Paul lives in Durham, NC with his wife and two daughters, studied at Duke Divinity and the University of Wisconsin, works as the Youth Minister at Church of the Holy Family (Episcopal) in Chapel Hill, NC, and blogs at http://otlampsandlights.blogspot.com.

Not the Same Without You:
Why Christians Need the Old Testament

Today begins a series of guest posts on Chasing Yoder in response to the question, "Does the Old Testament Matter for Christians?" And, "How?"

It is a question that first came up in this year's Scripture study at St. Francis House. "My preachers growing up just skipped to the gospels," some shared. Truthfully, the question has quietly, and somewhat surprisingly, been at the center of many conversations with students and colleagues in my first months as a campus minister. In addition to the surface-value importance of the question for how we engage Holy Scripture - and what it means to call something Holy Scripture - it is a question I found unexpectedly emerging this past year in conversations on race, as in, "What do Christians do with the People of Israel?"

The first - and really excellent - guest post suggesting how and why the Old Testament matters will go up later today. Before that post goes up, I wanted to make sure I had first conveyed the concrete nature of the present challenge: a Church that increasingly regards the stories of the Old Testament as 1) long and difficult, 2) outdated/irrelevant, if not 3) embarrassing, and - most disconcertingly - 4) not essential to being shaped - individually and as a people - by the Christian story.

To set the stage, then, here is a description of the current predicament by Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge:
In recent years, the mainline churches have become increasingly dependent on a common lectionary for worship and preaching on Sundays. An Old Testament text is always indicated, and yet sermons on Old Testament texts have become increasingly infrequent. Many preachers, especially in my own Episcopal denomination, routinely base their Sunday sermons on a passage from the Synoptic Gospels; some have even assumed it is a rule! In an age when biblical illiteracy is widespread even in the church, the Old Testament has fallen into the background and, in some poorly informed circles, has even become suspect. This may or may not be the result of lectionary use, but it has happened concurrently with its widespread adoption… The most serious problem with the lectionary is the lack of context. When everyone is reading from a printed sheet, no one is learning where in the Bible the passage is located, or how it is linked to what comes before it and after it. A whole generation of churchgoers is being raised with no sense of actually handling the Bible, of finding the passage and reading it in its sequence. The large Bibles on the lecterns are sitting unused, their pages gathering dust; some have been removed altogether. The wonderful sight of the reader mounting up to the lectern and turning the pages to find the place is seldom seen today in Episcopal churches; the readers come up with flimsy little pieces of paper which for the most part will be left in the pew or thrown away. The lectionary has certain advantages, but concentration on one book at a time, in its total context, encourages biblical literacy more than shifting every week from one to another. Because of the crucial need to provide context, seriousness, and continuity in biblical proclamation, a preacher is blessed when he or she has a steady pulpit from which to preach on most Sundays. When one is preaching every Lord’s Day to the same congregation, one can take one’s time to expound a whole book. One of the preachers I most admire has recently preached all the way through Ecclesiastes and Jonah, to very eager congregations. Moreover, the hearers were expected to follow along in a copy of the actual Bible, rather than from a printed excerpt. This sort of expository preaching is not a model for everyone in every place, but surely it should be considered; the present lectionary-based system is not improving the knowledge and understanding of the Bible among Christians.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"The Exasperating Patience of God"

I have been complaining to some of you recently about my Captain Irony moment of last week. For the two of you I haven't whined to yet, the story is that I found myself stuck in traffic - a 4 mile commute taking 40 minutes on account of the state high school basketball tournament - while listening to a podcast/talk on reconciliation, exasperation, and impatience. I found myself not amused.

God's humor notwithstanding, the talk - "The Exasperating Patience of God" by Sam Wells - was really good. Here it is, with an except that especially resonated with me.
In Genesis 3 God says to Adam and  Eve, ‘Where are you?’ And in Genesis 4 God says to Cain, ‘Where is your brother?’ And God keeps asking Israel these same two questions throughout the Old Testament; and has been asking us the same two questions ever since. ‘Where are you?’ and ‘Where is your brother?’ – questions that name the conflict between humanity and God and between humans and one another.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Tragedy of Bitter Christians



From a popular article I read recently:

"...there’s an adjective for those who go through life disappointed that other people don’t act as we would have them act, a term to describe those of us who blame the world for its failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency. [That word is] 'Bitter.'"

To go through life disappointed that other people don’t act as we would have them act.

It’s a dynamic present, certainly, in politics: we grow weary of watching the tired acts of mutual resistance by all parties, mostly for show, aimed at producing by considerable effort inefficiencies sufficient to warrant voting one another out of office. A dynamic present in personal relationships, also: in marriages and friendships, wherein the desire to change the other person leaves one party exhausted and both parties resentful, neither party appreciating the fullness of what they have. Parents have to figure in to this, too, of course, from either end of the dynamic – either disappointed or disappointing, actual or perceived. Teammates and coworkers are an acute example: where one’s own performance is left vulnerable to the performance/behavior of another. And then there are neighbors who won’t keep up the lawn and so bring down the good name, the good standing, of the neighborhood association. And we haven’t even mentioned the bowlers who have not been brought up with the proper etiquette to defer to the bowler already standing in the adjacent lane.

Bitter.

Bitter is the oldest son in tonight’s parable from Luke’s gospel. Bitter at the world, bitter at his brother’s behavior, bitter and embarrassed at the injustice of his father. 

As we attempt to translate this parable, if God is the father and we are either of the two sons, I wonder what it means to find ourselves in the shoes of the oldest son: that is, to be disappointed in God when God does not act as we would have God act. I wonder what we make of God’s failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency. (It does feel like God is failing the Episcopalians, uniquely – because nobody thinks of Baptists when they think of propriety and decency – they think of us. It comes with the stuffy reputation.) What do we do when God fails the expectations we have for God? What do we do with God on Good Friday?

Straight to the point, when in your life have you been bitter at God?

I wonder if, like the older brother in the parable, you have ever found yourself feeling taken for granted by God. You show up. You give stuff up for Lent. Not just little stuff, like chocolate, but big stuff. You say your prayers and, generally, forgive the stupid people around you. And for what? For something, presumably. It’s supposed to be Good News. The good news that God saves us unconditionally, but it turns out to be unbearably bad news – or at least especially hard news – to the extent that we want conditional love – or think we do; want to think our faithfulness accrues as frequent pray-er miles; that God’s love for us is a result of our own work. And I am no exception. 

But it doesn’t work that way, does it? All through Luke’s gospel, it doesn’t work that way.

Instead, we get a God who heals on the wrong day, provokes the pious persons, and instructs his followers to love the wrong people. This is no way to run a respectable Kingdom of God. And the ones who grasp this reality most clearly are the ones who have the hardest time with this God. They’re more than confused. They’re bitter. 

The most regularly bitter characters in Luke’s gospel are the Pharisees. By their judgments of others, Jesus points out, they judge the generosity of God as weakness.  Reading a false enmity between the Law’s two great commands with which we’ve been beginning our Lenten worship - love your God and love your neighbor - they judge God and find him wanting. In the famous words of Calvin and Hobbes: “No efficiency. No accountability. I tell you, Hobbes, it's a lousy way to run a universe.” 

But if there is a word for those of us who blame God for his failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency, there is also a word for what happens in the moment God upsets our expectations, a term to describe God’s embarrassing disposition toward his children. That word is "grace."

Grace can be a tricky word to pin down. The Prayer Book catechism defines grace as “God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved: by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” The Prayer Book goes on to explain that we encounter this grace in lots of ways but uniquely in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, whereby we are adopted as God’s children, united to the death and resurrection of his Son, and fed with the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ. In Prodigal Son terms, Baptism and Communion are the equivalent of our being welcomed home as God’s children and sitting down to the feast of the fatted calf, respectively.

That’s all well and good, but my enduring image of grace is slightly different: it starts at a silent retreat I attended as a student in grad school. I did not want to be there. Program requirement. A weekend away from my girlfriend. Being holy. In silence. No TV. What’s not to like, right? I showed up cranky and on the edge of bitter. I quickly resolved to be as petulant as possible, and began looking for ways to act out my crankiness. 

Almost immediately, an opportunity presented itself: in the opening session, the chaplain explained that there was a freezer in the retreat facility’s kitchen filled with nearly every kind of ice cream imaginable, and an unlimited supply of spoons and bowls. The freezer would be accessible all weekend. Similarly, she said, chocolate candies were available throughout the facility, seemingly everywhere, and were there for our enjoyment. A symbol, she said, that the weekend was our gift to enjoy.

Well. This was the opportunity for which I had waited. I quickly resolved to devour as much chocolate as possible over the next forty-eight hours, making a mockery of the gift and engaging at least two of the seven deadly sins at all times – greed and gluttony – in order to insulate me from any threat of a spiritual breakthrough. 

This is exactly what I did. At every turn, bowls of chocolate, and I stuffed my mouth, stuffed my pockets. I took them just to take them, sometimes not even bothering to eat them. The silence protected me from accountability, I thought.

But. Not two hours into my exercise of willful rebellion, the chaplain found me. Sat down next to me on a bench in a courtyard. Looked into my eyes. Silently, reached her hands out to me, took my hands in hers, held them a moment, and then...she gave me some more chocolates. With a gentle smile and a hug, she was gone. I wanted to cry.

Grace.

St. Augustine once said that, before the fall, humanity was equally able to sin or not sin; that after the fall, humankind was only able to sin, not able not to sin; that in baptism, we are again able not to sin, but also to sin; that in the heavenly realms, we will not be able to sin, only able not to sin. 

That weekend away on silent retreat, I wanted so badly to sin. But I couldn’t. I was unable. I could not steal, because everything I saw - everything I could covet - had been given to me. I could not hoard from others, because there was more than enough for everyone. I could not even in dwell in shame and self-pity at my own miserableness, because generosity and forgiveness had caught me in the act and embraced me at my worst. 

St. Paul writes: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (not even cranky chocolate hoarding student-misers), will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

There is a word for those of us who go through life disappointed in God when God does not act as we would have God act; a term to describe those of us who blame God for his failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency. That word is "bitter." And there is also a word for what happens in the very moment God upsets our expectations, a term to describe God’s embarrassing disposition toward his children. That word is "grace." 

And it’s for you.

Amen. 


SFH.3.10.13


Monday, March 4, 2013

Moses and the Fire



I saw a meme on Facebook this week that was a shout out to tonight’s epistle, in which Paul writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” The meme said, “God gives us only what we can handle. Apparently God thinks I’m a bad-ass.” The sermon tonight is not about Paul’s epistle, but I thought in the midst of whatever challenges life and the semester have given you, you’d be happy to know how highly God thinks of you.

Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas, not Texas, but it still feels like something of a Texan’s unofficial obligation to be a fan of Johnny Cash. In any case, I count myself a fan without need of external persuasion. So when the Rector of St. Dunstan’s recently asked what could be done to enhance the Easter Vigil worship at her parish, my answer came with confidence and like instinct: “Ring. Of. Fire.” I told her.

Truthfully, it was not an original idea. When Rebekah and I were dating, both in grad school, we began a six month course of instruction at our church in Chapel Hill. I prepared to renew my baptismal vows; she prepared to be confirmed. Some sixty to sixty-five others were likewise prepared by the community for either baptism, confirmation, reception, or the renewal of vows, all of which was to take place in the presence of the bishop at the Easter Vigil, that marvelous evening service celebrated in the late night hours before Easter morning.

When the night finally came, we gathered as the Assembly inside the nave, all in darkness. Only the Great Fire was lit - in a fire pit on the edge of the garden, just outside the red church doors. All else was darkness. Indeed, the sun had long since set. From the Great Fire, the Paschal candle was lit in turn and slowly processed into the Assembly. “The Light of Christ,” the cantor sang. “Thanks be to God!” the people responded.

And in that moment, that candle in the midst of us was the pillar of fire that led Moses and the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt. In that moment, the light, that candle, stood as the flaming torch and fire pot that split the terrifying darkness - remember from last week - solemnizing God’s covenant with Abrahm. In that moment, the light, that candle: shining as the answer to the anguish of Good Friday: Jesus, betrayed, crucified, and buried, now risen from the dead. The Light of Christ.

The congregation slowly filled the pews with light, each one lighting candles lit from candles lit from the Pascal candle, lit from the Great Fire.

We read the readings, lots of them, still in relative darkness. The preacher, likewise, preached in darkness, candle in his hand. We baptized in darkness, then made our way outside into the night. More darkness. And there, on the brick courtyard, I saw it for the first time: flickering, haunting, leaping; the bishop’s seat all surrounded by a tremendous ring of fire.  

As we gathered in the midst of the fire, each candidate was led by her sponsor around the perimeter until, in her turn, she found her place before the bishop. And Rebekah was confirmed as a member of this Church.

Moments later, we returned to the red doors of the church, and the bishop rapped his crosier on the doors. No answer. He peered inside the empty building, meant to symbolize the empty tomb. He is not here. “He is risen!” the bishop shouted. Floods of light as the church lights came on now, no darkness at all, and the celebration was begun.

Impossible light. New fire. The presence of God. Freedom from sin, death, and the worst part of ourselves. The victory of God. Creation’s restoration to God. Light, life, and laughter for the People of God.
All around this fire.

Surely, I think, the joy of that Great Fire of the Easter Vigil, even the ring of fire around the confirmands that night, is prefigured, anticipated, by the fire, the burning bush, which signals the presence of God to Moses on the hillside; which signals encounter with God; the miracle by which humanity meets God and we, like the bush, are not destroyed.

Understanding the moment, Moses, we're told, hides his face. Hide and seek with God, and, somehow - I bet you’ve noticed - somehow, God always wins that game. Moses had killed an Egyptian whom he saw beating a Hebrew. Word about the murder had threatened to get out, so he took to the hills, this hill, even, where God comes to him, says he has a call, a plan, to bless God’s people through him.

Scripture tells us that seeking the Lord, we will find him. But what do we make of God’s regular practice of showing up uninvited, to the uninviting? What do we do when the biblical witness gives us Paul, met by the risen Jesus, while killing the Christians; or Jonah, a reluctant prophet actively attempting to sabotage God’s call. Or the disciples, who spend the better part of three years not understanding a word of what Jesus says; who leave him at what looks like the end. Or Peter, who denies him, becomes the rock on which God builds the Church. Or even the women - that first Easter morning - who come with no faith, but to wrap up the body, who become the first witnesses of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.

I was taught in Sunday school that God comes to the godly, the polished, and competent, but what when God comes to me and the floors are unmopped, and the trash is still in the can and smelly? If I could believe that God’s presence was conditioned upon those times when I am on my best spiritual behavior, I might be ready, might be looking, might know when and where to expect God. But with the biblical witness and examples like Moses, who knows when God will break in?

I used to worry about not being good enough for God. It was easy to worry about not being good enough for God because I had lots of practice worrying about not being good enough for all kinds of people. Parents. Teachers. Friends. I hope you have had better luck than me in not worrying about your not being good enough. But if you haven’t, at least you know the feeling in the pit of Moses’ stomach as he stares at the flame. On the edge of becoming the greatest leader in Israel, Moses stares at the flame, doubting God and himself.

Moses pipes up: “Lord, there’s been a mistake. Who am I to free your people?” God’s answer is telling: There’s been no mistake, Moses. Who are you to free my people? You are the one I am with.

That’s what this plant on fire means to tell Moses. The fire is God’s saying to Moses: “Moses, you are the one I am with.” And my being with you will be the most important thing about you. More than what you did or you didn’t do or what you fear. Moses, I am with you. And, when you are ready, I will bless my people through you.

Moses stares again at the flame. Impossible light. New fire. The presence of God. Freedom from sin, death, and the worst parts of himself. Years later, smiling at the memory: the victory of God. Light, life, and laughter for the People of God.

The Light of Christ, the cantor sings. And the children, adults, gathered for baptism, those God-troubled waters, splashing their way into the death and resurrection of Jesus, shout their answer, “Thanks be to God!” The confirmands, too, destined for the ring of fire, take their part. The entire assembly, trembling with expectation and joy. God’s being with them the most important thing about them.

Impossible light. New fire. The presence of God. Freedom from sin, death, and the worst parts of themselves. The victory of God. Light, life, and laughter for the People of God.

Thanks be to God, they sing.

Amen.

SFH.3.3.13