A Disrupted Advent: A Homily for Advent 4B, 2020

It’s a familiar story. They are words we’ve heard many times year after year. A story depicted in countless paintings; gestures and words mimicked in devotional practices. It has settled into our memory like other stories that have shaped us—stories told in our families that seem to capture something of the essence of who we are and where we came from; stories of our nation, mythic stories that define us. Such stories are often so familiar, so beloved, their meaning so fixed in our memory that we rarely explore them more deeply.

There’s so much we don’t know about this story; so much more we want to know. We don’t know who Mary was, not really. We don’t know how old she was, although it’s likely she was a teenager. In first century Palestinian Judaism, girls were often betrothed at age 12 or so, and married no later than 19 or 20. We don’t know, can’t imagine, what this encounter, this new reality did to her. The gospels are largely silent about what she does later in life, about her response to her son. John tells us that she was present at the crucifixion; Luke says she was among the group of disciples that gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension, and presumably right through to Pentecost. Tradition has filled out the story. Theological reflection and devotional creativity have answered questions raised by Christians for 2000 years.

We have this story. A young woman, her life suddenly disrupted by the appearance of an angel; her world shattered and remade by events out of her control. That we know something about. So many of our certainties, so much of our lives have been disrupted over the last nine months; who could have imagined back in March that we would be here, the pandemic still raging, our lives on hold, fear, and weariness, and anger, still overwhelming us? Exhausted, fearful, the lives we led, the world we lived in nine months ago seem distant memories, faint whisps of dream we once had, with no connection to reality in which now live. Our hopes for the future cling by a slender thread. Oh, yes, we know what disrupted worlds and lives are like.

An angel came to Mary, saying “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her world upended, first by the very appearance of an angel.. And then came more, that she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the world.  

I’m always fascinated by her response to the angel. First, when he appears to her and greets her, Luke she was perplexed and wondered what sort of greeting this might be—perplexed and wondering, not by the appearance of the angel to her, which would no doubt shock and surprise us, but by his greeting, by him calling her “Favored one.” And then when told the rest, she asks the question, “How can this be?” 

The tradition of devotion and theology, and perhaps going back to Luke himself, has tended to portray Mary as a passive recipient of God’s grace and favor, as someone who accepted her fate quietly, submissively. Often she has served as a role model for passive, submissive femininity, and certainly in Luke’s gospel, she functions as something of the ideal disciple, one who follows meekly and obediently.

But here we see something else. Surprise, wonder, questions. Mary’s faith is not that passive, unquestioning faith. She wants to know more, she wants to understand. And then, in the midst of her disrupted world and disrupted life, something else. We know the scandal of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, of teenaged mothers left on their own with no resources, forced to struggle to provide for themselves and their little ones. We can imagine how hard it would have been for a teenager in first-century Palestine, with all of the shame and stigma, traces of which remain in the accounts of Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. We can, I think, imagine the fear, the future she imagined as she heard the angel’s words.

But can we imagine also the hope? In the middle of this disruption to her world and to her life, Mary visits her elderly cousin and during that visit, sings a song that has echoed throughout history down to our day:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior 

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

And while it has become a song of pious devotion, it is a profound prophecy of God’s power, justice, and mercy. It is a song of hope in the midst of fear, hope for justice in the midst of oppression, a cry of resistance against the forces of evil and inequality.

Mary is an example for us. In the midst of our disrupted and upended lives and world, nothing seems the same, and our wishes for a return to normalcy, to turn the clock back nine months or a year, or simply an exhausted desire to ignore what’s happening around us and get on with our lives, when we are beaten down, Mary is an example for us.

We can’t know what her life was like, what she thought or felt. But we know her faith, her hope. We know the God in whom she trusted. And the words she sang can become our own as we hope for a new world, a better future, for ourselves, our nation and world. 

Into our disrupted world, into our disrupted lives, Christ is coming. The angel’s greeting comes to us and in that greeting, in Mary’s song, we may find strength and hope for the coming months. The world being brought into being by Christ’s coming, is a world disrupted by God’s justice and mercy, where the mighty have fallen, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. 

Mary sings of and shows us the world as God intends it, a just and equitable world, not the old world of wishful thinking and faint memories. Mary points us toward the future, a future full of hope, a future where God reigns. May we raise our voices with Mary, in hope and faith that God is with us now and reigns in justice and mercy.

Returning from Exile: A Homily for Advent 3B

Advent 3       

December 13, 2020

Advent Exile

December 7, 2014

We are now observing the Third Sunday of Advent. It is known as Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of joy. In many churches, the purple or blue vestments that are used throughout Advent give way to rose or pink vestments. And the dominant themes of the season—repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the second Coming, give way to rejoicing. We don’t make the change in liturgical colors, but as you can see, our advent wreath includes a rose-colored candle to represent this Third Sunday.

This theme of joy comes out especially in the first reading and the psalm today. Both texts speak to our own situation as well, because as you probably know the first doses of a covid vaccine are being shipped today, signifying that our struggle with the pandemic may be coming to an end. At the same time, experts warn that there are dark, difficult times ahead.

Both of those texts, Psalm 126 and Isaiah 61 reflect the experience of God’s people in exile in Babylon. The Psalm speaks of God restoring the fortunes of Zion, of people who left weeping, return in joy. The prophet speaks of God providing for those in Zion, replacing their mourning with a garland. He speaks also of building up the ancient ruins and repairing the ruined cities.

Exile is an image that may resonate powerfully in this season. Forced from our churches, our downtown nearly abandoned, having to give up many of our cherished activities and familiar routines, we are in exile physically, but also spiritually and psychologically. We feel profoundly dislocated from our community, our friends and family, even perhaps, from ourselves. We are disoriented, longing for return. And now, we may be able to see an end to all of this. Our hope is rekindled even as the number of those suffering and dying continues to rise. 

Advent speaks to that longing, of hope in the midst of difficult times. As the year comes to a close, the days shorten and grow cold, the candles we light each week seem to be an act of defiance, a statement of faith that the light coming into the world, shining in the darkness, will overcome the forces of evil. It is a hope expressed in our faith that the one coming into the world, the Word made flesh is at work making all things new, even when chaos and evil seem to be overwhelming everything. 

Our faith this season, our waiting, our hope, is not passive. It must participate in the work that God in Christ is doing here among us. That’s the message of the prophet, who proclaims those powerful, familiar words, echoed by Jesus himself in his first public sermon in the Gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

because the Lord has anointed me; 

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, 

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

This is the work that God in Christ is accomplishing, the work that we ourselves are called to. And in this season of struggle, of waiting and hope, it is work that we may want to defer or ignore because of all that is going on around us and in our personal lives. 

We have, I think, been tempted to focus on ourselves, on our fears and on all that we have lost—and we must, as we say that, recognize that many of us have lost a great deal indeed, loved ones, jobs and livelihoods, our hopes for the future, a sense of security. As we have seen in the runup to the election, and now in the weeks since, the anger and fear, the emotions surrounding all of that loss have driven deep in our individual and national psyches, heightened division, led to violence.

But even as we have tended to focus on ourselves, it is important to pay attention to the words of scripture this week, to the prophet’s call for justice, to bind up the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, to rebuild the city. He was talking about Jerusalem, of course, the desolate city that the returning exiles would encounter. But our city is not so very different, with its deep inequities and injustice, with its boarded up windows and abandoned restaurants and retail establishments. As we return in the coming months, to the downtown and to our church, we must not lose sight of the work we need to do to advocate and struggle for a more just and equitable downtown, where all are welcome and may flourish.

As we think about our return, we would do well to heed the example set by John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. When asked if he was the Messiah, he repeatedly denied it, and directed attention away from himself toward the one who was coming into the world, Jesus Christ. John was a witness; his proclamation, his testimony was not about himself but about Christ. His repeated denials, his pointing away from himself to another, is a powerful witness to us in our age.

Among everything else we see in our culture today, in our highly individualistic, perhaps even narcissistic culture, is an emphasis on the individual, on the individual’s rights. We are bombarded with images from politics, from culture, from social media of people who go out of their way to bring attention to themselves, make everything about them. What, after all, is a “social influencer” if not someone who is marketing themselves? In our response the pandemic, in the debates and conflicts over masks, or public gatherings, even worship, the rights of the few are often privileged over the needs of the many. 

But John shows us a different way. His popularity, his notoriety, brought him attention, brought the religious elite to him to question him. And when questioned, he bore witness, not to himself, but to Jesus. 

Even when we want to do the work to which God calls us, advocating for justice, feeding the hungry, binding up the broken-hearted, we may often do it for reasons that are as much about ourselves as they are about the needs of others or following the teachings of Jesus. 

But John shows us a different way. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. In our work for justice, in our efforts to help our fellow human beings, our priority must always be to point the way to Jesus. As we look ahead to our return to the city, as we look ahead to Christ’s coming, may our longing, our waiting, our searching point us to Christ, and help us point others to him as well.

What shall I preach? A sermon for Advent 2B, 2020

Advent 2       

December 6, 2020

What Shall I preach?

December 7, 2014

Whenever I read the Isaiah text, I find myself reading it in the cadences of Handel’s Messiah, the beautiful Tenor aria that begins that oratorio. I have no idea how many times I have heard that music; it was an annual accompaniment to Christmas throughout my childhood and youth. Although it’s been years since I’ve attended or sung in a performance of it, the music remains in my memory. 

I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we encounter and interpret scripture. Take Messiah, for example. If you’re familiar with it, it’s very hard not to hear it when you read, or listen to, the scriptures that Handel set to music. There’s a sense in which the music has shaped our experience and interpretation of the texts. 

That makes our experience of Advent this year especially difficult. The familiar hymns are heard only in recording, we try to remember what it was like to join our voices with hundreds of others, or the sheer joy of attending holiday performances of favorite works. Our celebrations are muted, or transformed as we focus our efforts more intimately at home, with family and friends.

Music interprets texts; texts interpret texts. In the gospel reading, Mark draws on the language from Isaiah 40 to make it relevant for his own day. The words from Isaiah helped him to understand John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” and Jesus, especially Jesus. The reading from Isaiah includes the verses: 

Get you up to a high mountain, 

O Zion, herald of good tidings; 

lift up your voice with strength, 

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, 

lift it up, do not fear; 

say to the cities of Judah, 

“Here is your God!” 

It’s imagery Mark picks up and uses for his own purposes, although our translations don’t make that clear. Mark tells us “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” Good news, good tidings, Gk euangelion, also translated as “gospel.” Mark is identifying himself, and John the Baptist, with the one who climbs the high mountain and proclaims the good news, “Here is your God!” Mark is looking back to Isaiah and to other biblical stories as he attempts to convey to his readers the urgency and significance of the good news. 

Mark’s John is not only a voice crying in the wilderness, drawing on themes from Isaiah. In his depiction of John, Mark reaches even further back, to the legendary figure of Elijah, depicting John in the very same terms that the prophet Elijah was depicted, wearing camel skins and with a belt around his waist. By the first century, Elijah had become much more than a figure from Israel’s ancient history. There were fervent hopes that he would return, and when he did, he would usher in the messianic age. In the gospel of Mark, both John and Jesus are mistaken for Elijah.

Mark uses all of this imagery from the Hebrew bible to impress upon his readers that the long period of waiting and anticipation is nearing its end. Israel’s hopes for God’s inbreaking into history are coming true. Mark is a herald of Good Tidings, a proclaimer of the good news. And the good news is “Here is your God!”

But there are other ways, other contexts, in which we interpret and read scripture. Primary among those other contexts is the situation in which we find ourselves. Covid case numbers are skyrocketing and the number of deaths reaching unimaginable totals, almost 3000 reported on Friday. At the same time, our mental and emotional exhaustion with the social distancing requirements meaning many of us are giving up, what words of comfort and consolation, what message of hope can be offered?

When I read those words from Isaiah, “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” The prophet’s words become my own. Like so many, I struggle to make sense of what we’ve learned about our nation in these past weeks and months. I struggle too, to find words that can express honestly and faithfully my own heartbreak and what I think the good news of Jesus Christ might be in this moment.

For Isaiah, the question, “What shall I cry?” is part of a standard call narrative. That is to say, here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls someone, there is often resistance. Remember Moses, called by God at the burning bush, responded that he wasn’t an eloquent speaker. Other prophets resisted God’s call. Jonah, for example, traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid the responsibility God gave him. Here, the prophet’s question is followed by his observation that prophetic utterances don’t matter—human beings are weak and fickle; they come and they go like grass that flowers and then turns brown.

We know the futility about which the prophet speaks. We know the disappointment of dreams and justice deferred. We know a world in which the hopes of an earlier age have faded in the face of what seem to be insurmountable problems. In our own lives, we know the routine grind of daily life, our hopes for a brighter future crushed by economic realities, social change, illness, or personal failure. We know the grief we should be feeling, the extraordinary we should be taking, the exhaustion and despair that have set in.

We do know hope. Mark proclaims, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Isaiah is told, “Get up to a high mountain … say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’!” Our hope is that God is here among us; that we are God’s agents, helping to bring God’s reign into being in our world. 

We also know comfort and consolation. In the midst of the disappointments and pain in our personal lives, in the midst of a world where injustice and violence seem to have free reign, the prophet’s words come to us, reminding us that in the midst of all our struggle and pain, God is present as well, that God’s love and grace sustain and surround us. The prophet’s image of God as shepherd, feeding and protecting the flock assures us of God’s protection and care in the midst of everything.

Advent is a time of waiting as we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Christ child. Advent is a season of discernment as we look for signs of God’s grace in the midst of a dark world. Advent is a season of hope as we look forward to Christ’s coming among us and as we prepare ourselves to receive him in our hearts and in our world. Advent calls us to kindle our faith as its candles are lit. Advent urges us to get up on a high mountain and shout aloud, “Here is your God!” May we respond to that call and offer words of comfort and consolation to our hurting world.

Don’t look back, don’t look ahead, look around: A Sermon for Advent 1A, 2020

Advent 1       

November 29, 2020

Here we are, beginning the season of Advent, observing it in ways none of us has ever done before, looking ahead to a Christmas season that will be equally unsettling in the compromises we will have to make because of the pandemic’s continued presence among us. Our joy and excitement are tempered by fear, exhaustion, and the ongoing sense of isolation—from our church, our friends and loved ones, from the rituals that have offered us such great comfort and to which we look forward each year at this time.

It’s enough to make us want to cry with the prophet, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and make the mountains shake!” We want deliverance from all of this; we look for solutions—vaccines, political leadership, magic bullets, that will remove all of our hardship and anxiety, and return things to normal.

In our present circumstances, the themes of Advent, as expressed in today’s gospel reading may provide less comfort and consolation, than increase our anxiety and exhaustion. In our struggles, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the situations in which the gospels were written; in this case, Mark in particular.

The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, and the cycle of our readings switches. This year, we will be reading from the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was the first of the gospels to be written. And it was written in difficult circumstances indeed. Around the year 70, so about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The gospel reflects the challenges those 40 years presented. During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly announced the coming of God’s reign, and proclaimed that he would soon return in majesty to usher in that reign of justice and peace. But 40 years had passed and Jesus’ followers saw no signs of that coming. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this delay constituted something of a crisis of faith for the early Christian community.

Another factor was emerging as the gospel was written. In 66 ce, Jewish revolutionaries had taken up arms against the Roman occupation. Early successes had led to Rome’s vicious crackdown. We don’t know whether Mark was written immediately before, or in the immediate aftermath of Rome’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple, but we know that this turn of events created crisis both for the emergent Christian community and for Judaism. 

The destruction of the temple was catastrophic for Judaism of the day. I used to say to my students that we couldn’t imagine what it meant emotionally, psychologically, and religiously to the Jews of the day. But now, I think we may have some sense of the significance of that cataclysmic event. Having been prevented from public worship, from gathering in this familiar place regularly, we have been forced to reimagine, reinvent our worship and our common life. And we have had to do that in the midst of our frustration and anger that we are not able to gather, that the old rituals and spaces are unavailable. We have spent a great deal of our time and energy in lament, mourning, and anger; looking back to the past, rather than forward into the uncertain future.

It’s in this context, to this moment, that Mark is writing his gospel. In this context, in this moment, we are beginning once again to observe Advent. Mark speaks to us, now, in our context, in this moment. We may be looking back to the past, to Advents and Christmases of years past, wishing we could easily recreate them without worry or concern for our safety. We might even, as so many are doing, observe them this year as we have in the past, throwing caution to the wind and endangering ourselves, our loved ones, our community. Our we might put everything on hiatus, put our lives and our celebrations on hold for a safer time. We can see all of those responses hinted at in the gospel reading. 

But there’s something else.

At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans. 

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. 

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified. 

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. We live in a time when many of our fellow Christians, many of our denominational institutions are more concerned about individual rights than the wellbeing of the wider community, the flourishing of all people. And in their demand for rights and power, they cause suffering and pain, they threaten the lives and health of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate. 

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty. Remembering that Jesus died on the cross teaches us to seek his presence in the midst of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability.

For us in this season, let us not look back, nor look forward. Let us look around, keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence. Let us be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days. May we share the good news of Christ’s coming, of his presence, and may we help others recognize and know his presence in the midst of their anxiety, fear, and longing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Magnificat

The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment.

From a sermon preached in London, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 1933

The Messiness of the Messiah: A Sermon for Advent 4A, 2019

As I grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to make keep up with all the changes in popular culture.

That sentence could be the lede for an almost infinite number of examples..

In this case though, I’m thinking of the Hallmark Channel, of which I was only vaguely aware. I learned this fall that from approximately Halloween to New Year’s Day, there’s an endless stream of Christmas movies; and that on Friday nights throughout the year, Hallmark shows holiday-themed movies. Apparently other channels have followed suit. With good reason. Apparently Hallmark’s programming is so successful that for the fourth quarter last year, it was the most popular channel among women aged 19-54.

other channels have followed suit. Apparently, this programming is so successful that Hallmark wins the ratings war for the final quarter of the year with the key demographic of women 19-54. Continue reading

“Advent” by Christina Rosetti:

Advent

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
Is still the watchman’s word.

The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.”

One to another hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise:
“Surely He is not far to seek,”–
“All night we watch and rise.”
“The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.”

One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
“They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.”

There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.”

Come, Lord Jesus: A Sermon for Advent 1C, 2019

Could the news get any worse? We are faced with a relentless cycle of stories that break our hearts and that bear witness to the brokenness of humanity and the brokenness of our world. What’s more, in the face of these crises—the global climate crisis, the crisis of political legitimacy that so many nations and peoples are confronting, beginning with our own, instead of coming together to work on solutions, we are growing more divided. Our differences seem to be widening even as things seem to be getting worse.

Among those divisions, one of the most interesting to me is the generational conflict that seems to be growing. Younger generations are becoming more resentful, more angry at their elders. And the target of much of that anger is my generation—the baby boomers. Well, we sure have messed things up, haven’t we? On our watch, warnings about global warming have become climate catastrophe; economic inequality has increased to levels not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century; our political system, not just in this country, but worldwide, seems to be nearing total collapse with authoritarianism, nationalism, and racism on the rise. Continue reading

Listening to and reading Fleming Rutledge

I had the opportunity to hear the Rev’d Fleming Rutledge speak today. Her presentation was entitled “What happened to Theology?” I went out of curiosity and because I have read two of her books in recent months. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ(2018) accompanied me as I prepared and preached Advent in 2018 and last week, I read Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ(2015). I found both books challenging theologically and at times off-putting but engaging with them is time well spent. I had the same reaction to her presentation today.

One of the biggest challenges for me is simply her Barthian presuppositions. She contrasts Christian (biblical faith) with religion. The former originates with God; the latter with humans. I struggle with this for two reasons. First, because of the nature of scripture itself. Without going into a lengthy discussion, holy scripture is a compilation of books, deemed authoritative by human decisions, written by humans, using language which is also a product of human culture. Thus, revelation is necessary mediated through humans and to speak of God being the subject of theology, or that “scripture is the story God is telling of Godself” is true on the one hand, yet at the same time, it is also being told and preserved by humans.

Secondly, to contrast biblical (Christian) faith with religion is problematic in our religiously plural age. Does it result in a privileging of Christianity over against other religious traditions? Does it privilege Christianity over “not-Christianity” (ie., Judaism) in reading scripture? Does it overlook or ignore all of the ways in which the various forms of Christianity, historically and in the present are similar to other religious forms? Indeed, is it necessary for her project to make such distinctions?

 

One of the things she stressed today was the importance of learning and living in the biblical story. Whether or not I accept her views of the nature of revelation, I do agree that scripture tells the story of God, and that by wrestling with the story contained in scripture we encounter God, we learn about God’s relationship with humans, and we learn about human beings as well. To read scripture, to immerse oneself in scripture, is to immerse oneself in a conversation with God, in which God does the talking, but as we listen, we are compelled to ask questions, of ourselves, of the world, of scripture, and of God.

One of the things I appreciated most about Crucifixion was that instead of laying out a theory of the atonement, Rutledge explored the many images that the New Testament uses to talk about the crucifixion. Many of these images are problematic and challenging, but in her exposition, she showed their power to convey something unique and meaningful, without asserting that any single one conveyed all of the meaning of the cross. In that work, she very much shows what it means to enter the story of scripture, as she teases out the many possible meanings of “sacrifice” for example. She insists, for example, that it was an image used by early Christians, and for us to understand the faith of those early Christians, and for us to be faithful Christians in the twenty-first century, engaging with the entire range of biblical imagery concerning the cross helps us understand our faith, and perhaps come to deeper faith. I will never again be self-conscious about loving the great Lutheran passion chorales, for example.

I was as challenged by her emphasis on apocalyptic themes in Advent as I was by her appeal to take seriously the full range of biblical imagery surrounding the cross. Advent emphasizes the Second Coming in its scriptural passages as well as its hymnody much more strongly than it does the Nativity. Apocalyptic falls in and out of fashion as culture changes, and for many contemporary mainline Christians, its association with a particular emphasis in conservative Protestantism makes it suspect. Still, while scholars may debate the extent to which Jesus himself was an apocalyptic prophet or preacher, the fact of the matter is that early Christians, beginning with Paul, were convinced of his early return, and Paul’s letters are written with an urgency reflecting the imminence of the Second Coming. His theology is shaped by that apocalyptic perspective.

At the heart of apocalyptic is both the sense of a cosmic struggle between good and evil as well is a firm belief that in the end God will make all things right. In our context, it may be that such a worldview helps us make sense of our world better than any other.

 

But to return to the theme of her talk, as I left I wondered whether Rutledge is fighting a losing battle. Given the changes in our culture, the decline of Christianity, the multiple claims on our allegiances, is the sort of deep engagement with scripture even possible? In her talk and in the question and answer follow up, she told stories of people who were biblical theologians, people who were soaked in scripture and able to see God at work in the world through eyes opened by an intimate relationship with the text. Is that even possible any more? Are the kinds of “biblical theologians” Rutledge calls for a nearly extinct species, destroyed because the habitat that gave birth to and nurtured them is now a barren desert?

 

 

 

 

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones: A Sermon for 4 Advent, 2018

 I’ve been reading W. H. Auden’s great poem: “For the Time Being” this Advent. Published in 1944, it very much reflects the mood of the time, the great struggle of good and evil that was playing out in World War II. It also reflects the struggles in the poet’s personal life. And yet, it is also universal and speaks to our situation, our world. It is a poem, meant to be an oratorio, of Advent and Christmas, of Incarnation.

It begins on a somber, dark note. And even if we haven’t felt blasts of cold winter air or snowstorms yet this year, we do know the darkness of the season. I’m grateful for a sunny day today but it’s not just that Friday was the shortest day of the year, it seems like we’ve had more overcast days this December than usual and the gloom outside can be oppressive. We are also aware of all of the suffering in the world. Auden writes:

The prophet’s lantern is out

And gone the boundary stone,

Cold the heart and cold the stove,

Ice condenses on the bone:

Winter completes an age.

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