Archive for October, 2011

Life

Posted in Uncategorized on October 31, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. . . .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?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ . . . Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
—John 11:17, 23-27, 39-44

This particular story from John’s gospel serves as a useful précis of most of the major themes from that gospel. As such, this story offers insight into what we might possibly claim is the “good news” according to Lazarus. More specifically, for John, these themes frequently come as pairs of oppositions. In this narrative segment, we see John’s use of darkness and light to contrast ideas of both ignorance and separation with insight and connection. We witness John’s exploiting the tension between death and life in the motif of tomb and resurrection, a motif drawn out through dialogues on future hope and realized grace. Nevertheless, in the end, all of these conversations for John are really but a diversity of ways to talk about one thing: the incarnation.

For John, the incarnation is the pivotal theological and practical mass around which everything else revolves. We see this from the very beginning of John’s narrative, couched in narrative remembrances of divine creation and the coming of the Word-made-flesh. Incarnation begins, permeates, and ends John’s gospel.

Often when we read this particular story from John’s gospel, our attention is wrapped up in the dramatic confrontation between Jesus as the womb of creative life and a stone tomb separating him from his beloved friend. And, for good reason. This story is the stuff of Hollywood.

In reading this story, we invariably ask ourselves the question: Is it just the creative offerings of gospel storytellers, or did it happen? Did Jesus really call Lazarus from death into life? The answer to that question is less a matter of historicity or forensics and more a matter of faith. By that I mean to say that the answer to the question of did this really happen is not actually an issue for John as much as this story is a narrative confirmation of the character of the God in whom one has chosen to believe. In other words, this story is not a story that creates faith but creates a character profile of the one in whom you already have faith. The intentional juxtaposition of Jesus’ confrontation with “the Jews” and death and a tomb and resurrection in a town just outside of Jerusalem and immediately before his final entrance into that town is not happenstance. This event, in many ways, is meant to foreshadow Jesus’ own imminent confrontation with death and to prepare the reader to expect the appropriate outcome: clearly, when the Lord of Life is present, death steps aside and life emerges.

Therefore, in many respects, this story from John’s gospel is a story not about Lazarus’ remarkable recovery but a story about incarnated life as the ultimate answer to all questions regarding death. The incarnation brings God’s creative life into our midst to obliterate the barriers between life and death, heaven and earth, God and us. Resurrection, as it turns out, is the final, appropriate effect to incarnation. The presence of the source of all life draws life away from death.

In the end, this story is a story about resurrection over death, just not Lazarus’. For Lazarus, in particular, this story is not about his resurrection because he was not resurrected but resuscitated. Death remains in his future. The resurrection found in the story is the foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection to come, here, materially embodied in the person of Jesus—the Word of Life.

To further impress this point in his readers’ minds and, then, to extend the life-generating reality embodied in the Word’s presence into their lives, John uses a literary device. Embodiment of life in the Word of Life is echoed in a prayer found in this passage. That prayer seems to tie this story and its declaration of incarnate life to a practice of the church, a practice John’s readers would know all too well.

Just prior to Jesus’ calling Lazarus from the grave, he calls to heaven: ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me . . .” Jesus begins his prayer to God with a familiar word, eucharisto.

In Jesus’ prayer of thanksgiving, John links his community’s imaginings about this text to their worshipful imaginations shaped in their common gathering around a table for prayer and a simple meal. Like the radical recalibrating of reality that results from the incarnation’s in-breaking into the world, this choice of words, as reported by John, extracts the story of Jesus’ declaration of resurrected life out of the fictive ether of a story or the abstract distance of theological speculation or the ridged recesses of the past and injects the Word into the living, breathing body that is the body of Christ. John seems to be reminding his readers that each time they participate in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, that they, too, experience the same life-giving, death-denying, world-altering interruption that drove Lazarus from the dark of a tomb into the light of life. And, not only does John’s community experience that incarnation of life, they become it. They, the living church of Christ, are the resurrection-life-made-present for the world. In that eucharistic prayer, the church recites:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ . . . .

For John, resurrection and its promise of new life is not some interesting possibility but an incarnational reality made present each time the community gathers, themselves becoming the Word of God. And, like the Word of God witnessed in this story, their lives—as John understands it—should declare life, bring life, and embody life.

Such a realization seems all too significant as we approach another All Saints’ Day, a day on which we remember those from our communion who have died since the last remembrance. On such an occasion, Johns’ story of Lazarus’ resuscitation proves a necessary reminder that life is the dominant reality despite the lingering presence of death. Such “good news” becomes comforting as we remember those whom we love but see no more. Yet, this “good news,” also, pricks our conscience, resuscitating our own lifeless notions of incarnation. Our notions of the incarnation and the presence of life-giving, death-removing reality seem all too often the muse for stories from scripture and the province of some past divine encounter, more dead tales of something and someone from another time and another place. However, this text and its very particular prayer remind us of our role in embodying life for those around us.

This reminder leads us to ask, how do we become life in a world patently full of death? How do we become good news for those who legitimacy morn and suffer and who find their lives without meaning, hope, purpose, certainty, and stability? In a world where young men and women take their lives because they are told they are not good enough to be loved as they have been made, how do we offer life? In a world where life for some seems so easy and for others it gets harder and harder, how do we promise to resuscitate their lives, not in some spiritualized sense but in a concrete, material way? In a world where life is sometimes devalued, dismissed, and displace, how do we value life anew and return and replace dignity to all life, at all stages?

To these questions, I do not have simple or even clear answers nor do I think John supplies them, either. Rather, what I think this passage offers are not so much solutions as reminders as to where to begin and the truth of our real life-affirming vocations. Our beginning is in worship, gathered around a table with others committed to struggle as living witnesses to life and light when and where death and darkness persist. Our truth is that we are not so much a witness to what is to come but the incarnated presence of a renewal of life that is already washing over the world, a life that must creatively imagine how to bring that renewal of life in concrete, material ways.

Have a great All Saints’ Day.

Be life.

Advertisements

All Sin and All Grace

Posted in Uncategorized on October 24, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God: they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . .

Romans 3:21-24a

The gospel according to Romans . . . that can make for some interesting reflections. Reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Romans might prove interesting because this particular letter is unique among the Pauline corpus as a letter written by Paul to a group of people he did not directly know; because this letter is the longest of Paul’s letter; or because this letter represents—it appears—Paul’s last, most robust, and systematic theological articulations, the culmination of a life in ministry and its musings. All of these possibilities may help explain why reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Romans proves interesting. Yet, here, I am more curious to explore how Paul uses theology to attempt to resolve an internal, social tension within the Roman churches. His deployment of theology in this reconciling task seems both useful and a summary of the good news permeating this letter.

To understand why Paul wrote this letter to address some social tension within the Roman churches, it is helpful to establish when he wrote this letter, focusing the scope of our speculation on the particular circumstances that prompted Paul putting his apostolic pen to epistolary paper, as it were. Christians seemed to have arrived in Rome sometime before 49 CE. We do not have an exact date for the initial establishment of the churches in Rome. Some scholars use the date of 49 CE as a marker for the presence of the church in Rome because in that year that emperor Claudius expels all the Jews from the city. But, what does the emperor’s expulsion of the Jews have to do with the our knowing that the church is in Rome?

The answer to that question revolves around the letter “e.”

The Roman historian Suetonious records the reason for the expulsion to be because of regular “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Lives of Caesars, Claudius, 25). Both James Edwards and Leander Keck speak for a school of biblical scholars who hold that “Chrestus” is simply a misreporting of the as-yet-little-known Christ (or Christus in Latin). If the Jews are expelled by the Emperor in 49 CE because of a cult of Christ and the subsequent tension and tumult caused by his new gospel’s arrival to the Jewish congregations in Rome, then that helps explain (1) a date by which we may confirm the Jewish church’s presence in Rome and the impetus for the imperial expulsions, (2) the meetings with expelled Romans Jews found in the book of Acts, and (3) Paul’s subsequent writing of a letter to Roman Christians. I will take each of these explanations in turn.

First, since the early Jesus movement was—for good reason—indistinguishable from Judaism and the Jewish communities in which it initially operated, it is not an unreasonable leap to believe that Claudius is unfamiliar with Judaism as one of the many cults within the Empire and most likely unaware of the internal squabbling around the role of Jesus within this minor sect. Moreover, it seems equally likely that the emperor would broadly categorize all Jews as problematic because of the “Christus issue” and send the Jews away from his city in an effort to remove the problem and restore order. Hence, we have our date and our rational for expulsion. Yet, his removing of all the Jews from the city creates the very problem that Paul seems to be addressing in his letter, written several years after the expulsion edict was rescinded. I will return to that emergent problem shortly.

Second, in Acts 18, Paul meets with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth. Aquila and Priscilla had been expelled from their home in Rome “because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” It is the same married couple that Paul offers particular greetings in his letter to the Romans. After several years in exile, this couple had returned to Rome following Claudius’ death and the lifting of his banishment edict. This direct address in Romans 16 to both Aquila and Prisca—as Paul calls her—adds a personal dimension to Paul’s letter and offers some insight into the potential impetus for his writing this letter.

Third, Paul seems to have both a general and personal motivation for writing this note to the Roman congregations. Generally, as I alluded to above, with the expulsion of the Jews, including the Jewish Christians from Rome, a radical shift in the character and composition of Roman congregations develops. During the expulsion, congregations that had previously been either predominantly Jewish or mixed between Jews and Gentile converts became exclusively Gentile in both demographics and leadership. Now, with the return of the Jewish constituency, those congregations experience considerable flux. Such significant flux seems regularly to bring about tension, mistrust, and posturing. It is this posturing that Paul seems to address directly in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Personally, Paul is concerned for the reintegration of his friends, family, and fellow apostles who have returned. Consider his extensive greetings at the end of the letter to Prisca and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, etc.

Ultimately, Paul is addressing the congregations in Rome, reminding them that the gospel has a universal character; everyone is equal within it. Or, as the excerpt from Romans cited at the beginning of this reflection emphasizes, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God: they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . .” In other words, all have sinned and all have been saved. All are equal in the eyes of God and within the church. There is no inherent hierarchy. While the Jews received God’s election and the gospel first, that primacy is only chronological not administrative or ecclesiastical. Equally, while the election of God initially afforded solely to the Jews has been expanded to everyone, this does not mean that the Jews have been usurped or displaced within God’s kingdom. Again, all are equal not because of what any of us have done or because of who any of us are but because the righteousness of God has come not through us but “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” It is God’s gracious work that makes us equal, not one group’s primacy nor another’s addition. The emphasis always remains on God not on us and our political, sociological, or other “temporally” important statuses. By redirecting the attention of his readers away from themselves and toward God, Paul hopes to remind them of the relative lack of importance of the transient taxonomies about which they are so concerned.

Here, in Romans, Paul deploys a theological conviction for practical purposes. Paul wants all the people of God to be one, and he offers a theological justification for his claims.

For our contemporary context, I am sure we are never subject to the same internal squabblings and perplexities as afflicted the Roman church. Our churches and communities never have troubles resolving issues between the old with the new, the political left and right, our notions of traditional and modern, posturing of liberals and conservatives, the perceptions of conflicting interests of town and gown, or the complaints of natives and newcomers. On the other hand, do we seem to be afflicted with the similar troublesome maladies as our ancient brothers and sisters? I think we might.

For Paul, the solution is simple: once we stop looking toward ourselves to define what is essential, we will begin to see the greater commonalities we all share. Do not get me wrong, I think individuality and particularities are very interesting and important, possibly even essential. I simply think Paul imagines that by being reminded to look beyond ourselves we will find the opportunity to appreciate both our particularities and our commonalities concurrently.

That just might be the good news we need to hear.

Praises

Posted in Uncategorized on October 17, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
—Psalm 96:1-3

The gospel according to the Psalms is this week’s theme and focus of this reflection. Before exploring the “good news” issuing from this book of the Bible, we need to explore what exactly the Psalms are. Understanding the origin, structure, and use of the Psalms helps tune us in to the good news they deliver.

On the one hand, this book of the Bible is different from every other book in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures because it is not a unified narrative, a prophetic witness, apocalyptic tale, or an epistle. In fact, this book is not even a collection of primarily wise sayings like some of the texts immediately following it. While similar literary forms sporadically appear in other places throughout scripture(s), the book of the Psalms is unique in that in its entirety it is a collection of prayers-in-verse. On the other hand, like most books of the Bible, this book did not originally have a title. Rather, “Psalms” as a title to this particular text is a later addition, a titling that arrived with the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures in the second century BCE. That Greek title psalmoi—not only supplies a name to call this collection of prayers-in-verse but, more importantly, tell us something about how these loosely collected prayers-in-verse were used. The word psalmoi means roughly “accompanied by stringed instruments.” So, this titling tells us that we not only have prayers-in-verse but prayers that are meant to be sung with accompaniment. In the Psalms, we have Israel’s hymnal.

Usefully, this “hymnal” not only offers theological insight into the intellectual and spiritual life of Israel through our having access to read the substance of the intimate and communal requests, complaints, praises, and thanksgivings permeating the Psalms, but in these hymns we, also, gain insight into the existential churnings of God’s people and the liturgical habits that inculcate them. Existentially, songs of praise offered toward God, words of thanksgiving, songs of confidence, claims of trust, petitions of intercession and supplication, words of wisdom, and festival songs are included. Each of these themes in the various sung prayers supplies insight into how Israel understands itself in relationship to its God and how it understands the very character of that relationship. Clearly, given the intimate, honest tone of the Psalms, Israel understood that relationship to be very close, mutual, and influential. Liturgically, imbedded in the texts are liturgical rubrics or superscripts, vestiges not of the words of the prayers themselves but traces of instructions for the priests as they employed the songs to shape the corporate and individual worship of Israel. Like an ancient Book of Common Prayer from the Anglican tradition, the Psalms record primordial instructions that divide the Psalms by category, author, and purpose. In addition, some ancient marginal notes remain in the text that cannot be translated, their instructional purpose lost because we do not know what those ancient directions mean, e.g., “selah.” Yet, the deliberate retention of their presence in the text reminds us that this particular text of scripture is not just any text but a text meant for worship, recording ancient prayers, sung to the God who chose those people to be God’s own people.

What these Psalms disclose about Israel is the very essence of the good news they convey. These prayers-in-verse tell the story of a people intimately connected to their God, assuming that connection will change their lives in this world and the heart of their God who hears them. Or, as Toni Craven and Walter Harrleson distill, the essential import of the Psalms lies in their serving as “poetic discourse between Israel and God, who is said to hear and answer. . . . The psalms present a rich cross section of speech to and about God, and in some cases include speech from God. At their heart is the conviction that God is one to whom all can speak.”

In the end, the good news of the book of the Psalms is a twofold victory, a victory (1) over any assumptions that God is distant, indifferent, or immutable and (2) over any delusion that a robust, vibrant faith acts as an elixir to suffering, doubt, and disappointment. Through the Psalms, life and faith in their messy reality are recorded, giving real people permission to live real lives really connected—above all—to a real God.

Sing a new song. Sing a real song. Sing an honest song. Just sing. God can take it.

Justice

Posted in Uncategorized on October 10, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
—Amos 5:24

The gospel according to Amos is all about justice—particularly social justice—and his concern for social justice is our primary focus in this week’s iChapel. However, before turning to assess that concern, we must, first, remind ourselves as to who Amos is and what his role as a prophet in Israel was.

Amos was a farmer from the town of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah called to be a prophet around the year 750 BCE, confronting the leadership of the northern kingdom of Israel for their abandonment of the ideals with which God’s kingdom was meant to be governed. God’s kingdom, according to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, defined itself over and against other kingdoms of the ancient near east by the degree to which it embodied the unique character of their unique God, YHWH. As a kingdom committed to just one God, Israel was already different from other kingdoms. Yet, that kingdom’s experience of the divine in YHWH was utterly divergent from how many nations experienced the divine. While most nations worshiped gods of wrath and chaos, Israel committed to a god seemingly more interested in showing mercy and creating order. In addition, that distinctly divergent character was expressed in a peculiar concern for the powerless, exploited, and marginalized. This concern for the “least of these” is exemplified in how the government and social systems of the kingdom cared for the orphaned—the powerless, the widowed—the exploited, and foreigners—the marginalized, Brueggemann maintains.

At the time of Amos, Israel had begun to prosper and in its prosperity had become greedy, requiring the farming class within the kingdom to begin farming crops more suitable for trade than food for the nation. In this evolving economic system, the benefits were tilted toward the rich at the expense of the poor—especially the foreigner, orphaned, and widowed—who were already disadvantaged because of their lack of political, social, and economic standing, respectively, e.g., Amos 5:6-16.

Like any prophet, Amos filled a vital role in the political and theological life of Israel. Prophets, we often think, were fortunetellers, predictors of the future. We have come to use the term that way. Yet, originally within the life of Israel a prophet did not tell about the future but told something to those who could change the future. The purpose of the prophet was to speak truth to power, telling the powerful that if they did not respond to the prophet’s challenges to repent and live faithfully then the consequences of their disobedience would have dire results in the future. The results were predicted to be dire not because prophets were reading the future but are announcing the logical outcomes for a people who intentionally and belligerently move against the will of God.

In chapter five, Amos is complaining about how the poor have been pushed to the side in the way that the kingdom has developed its economic policy, a development in direct contradiction to the tenor of the second table of the Decalogue—i.e., an outline for the care for our social interactions. Moreover, this justice movement by God is meant to be socially restorative and never abstract, restoring the balance and relationships within the community between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, between the government and the governed. In other words, making YHWH’s people one people as YHWH was one god.

And, here in Amos’ account, we see how the prophet envisions that that justice from God will change both the immediate and distant future. For Amos, justice shapes the community in two ways. First, YHWH’s justice washes over our social institutions like a tidal wave, radically changing everything like (mighty) waters roaring over the land. Second, YHWH’s justice is like a stream, gradually reshaping the landscape over which it flows. In either fashion, Amos promises, YHWH’s righteous justice with restore and reshape.

For us, nearly, three thousand years removed from Amos’ prophetic complaints, we might be confused to the degree to which his concerns have relevance to our lives. I mean, we are not ancient Israel. We do not have a king. We are not a kingdom. We are deliberately not a religiously governed nation. So, how do Amos’ words offer any relevant “good news” to us, in general, and the poor of our land, in particular? The answer seems to lie in the prophet’s claim that YHWH’s justice—while specifically meant to be embodied by Israel—is not exclusively meant to be limited to Israel. In other words, God’s kingdom is meant to be a place that embodies in a particular way what is intended for all nations of the earth. The only unique character assigned to Israel is their role as responsible exemplars. Every nation—once aware to the reality of YHWH’s desire to care for the powerless, exploited, and marginalized—must respond, moving with the transformative waters that both rush in and gently flow, changing everything.

Having just returned from New Orleans from a fall break mission trip, the transformative power of water and its potential impact on a community are vividly evident in the forefront of my imagination. Determining to reflect on this passage long before we went to NOLA, I seem captured in the wake of either providence or a happy serendipity.

The waters that washed over NOLA in 2005 were not the result of divine judgment but the evidence of catastrophic human failures—witnessed in levies breached, people stranded, and governmental and systemic collapse. Yet, as those waters of our failure receded, another wave washed into NOLA. This new wave carries hammers and hope, love and possibilities. Initially as a wave and now more a gentle stream, communities are changing and re-forming, systems are being reformed, and justice seems to be washing over the land, exhibited not in how people “get what they deserve” but in how neighborhoods are reminded that they are filled with neighbors and making a better life together seems to have supplanted—for the time being—the importance of making a good living. I witnessed the power of that second wave many times in four days as tears of thanks wash down cheeks and faces were awash in smiles born of gratitude. The degree to which Amos’ words serve as good news to our modern ears depends on how closely we are willing to listen and look, hearing the cries of those drowning in our floods of indifference and our seeing the systems that might lead to some future calamity we may avoid if we only recognize the prophet’s complaints whenever we create structures that fail the powerless, exploited, and marginalized all around us.

The witness of the prophet and lesson of NOLA is for us to be sure to listen and move with the flow of God, pushing back the waters of destruction with a wave of compassion and necessary reform.

Rest

Posted in Uncategorized on October 3, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

As fall break approaches this week meaning we do not have chapel, I am diverging, once more, from the standard theme of this semester’s iChapels. As we look for moments to pause from our work and study, enjoy this poem from Lucy Maud Montgomery, notably the author of Anne of Green Gables.

“Come and Rest Awhile”

Come, rest awhile, and let us idly stray
In glimmering valleys, cool and far away.

Come from the greedy mart, the troubled street,
And listen to the music, faint and sweet,

That echoes ever to a listening ear,
Unheard by those who will not pause to hear¬

The wayward chimes of memory’s pensive bells,
Wind-blown o’er misty hills and curtained dells.

One step aside and dewy buds unclose
The sweetness of the violet and the rose;

Song and romance still linger in the green,
Emblossomed ways by you so seldom seen,

And near at hand, would you but see them, lie
All lovely things beloved in days gone by.

You have forgotten what it is to smile
In your too busy life¬come, rest awhile.