Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An Introduction to Crowd-Sourced Exegesis.

Linguistics and Commentaries

One of the perks of being a Seminary-type person is that you get to know a lot of really good preachers. Some of them even have blogs! Like my friends Bethany and Stephen, both of whom are excellent writers and preachers.

I'm also a preacher (defined here as "one who preaches" even though I'm not ordained). And over the last couple of years I've done a series called "Crowd-Sourced Exegesis." Where I ask the internet with help writing my sermons. I've had moderate success with it, but have found that the people who do contribute to the discussion are wonderful and have brilliant insights.

Although I no longer have a regular preaching gig, I still think that the discussions we have are beneficial to me, and to those who participate. So internet, you and I are going to do a video-commentary series together.

Each Tuesday, I'm going to post a video of myself reading a scripture passage, following the Revised Common Lectionary. It will usually be the Gospel Passage, but may change from time to time. I'll read it out loud, give a few thoughts to start the discussion, and then turn y'all loose in the comment section.

In order to give time for good discussion to happen, I'm going to stay a week ahead of the lectionary. That way preachers who are fervently searching for ideas in the days before they preach will get to see a fully-fleshed out discussion.

It'll be like a homiletical Idea Channel!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Crowd-Sourced Exegesis: Luke 7:11-17

Proper 5C/Ordinary Time 10C/Pentecost +3C

11A little later Jesus went to a city called Nain. His disciples and a great crowd traveled with him. 12As he approached the city gate, a dead man was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. 13When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, "Don't cry." 14He stepped forward and touched the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried. Those carrying him stood still. Jesus said, "Young man, I say to you, get up." 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 

16Awestruck, everyone praised God. "A great prophet has appeared among us," they said. "God has come to help his people."17This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding region.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Pacifist Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day here in the United States. Which is kind of a weird day for me. It's a day that we set aside to honor persons who have died in the Armed Forces. We do this, of course, by not going to work on Monday and cooking meat over fire. Also, frequently beer is involved. Usually cheap beer. Because 'Merica.

So we celebrate in slightly strange ways. And perhaps a better celebration, which many of my friends on Facebook seem to have done, is to visit local monuments that honor locals who have died while in the Armed Forces.

Seeing those lists of names, especially if some of them share names with you, makes one feel the weight of their sacrifice in a much more real way than putting out a flag one Monday morning.

For folks who are not regular readers (welcome!), I am a pacifist who is highly suspicious of any kind of nationalism, especially in the church. I do not think that the United States is a Christian Nation, or that we have some kind of mandate from heaven to spread our way of life throughout the world. So Memorial Day, when our culture celebrates death as a glorious sacrifice on the altar of freedom, is a little difficult for me to get behind.

For much of my life, the cultural call was to "Support the Troops." I've never had any problem with that. I think it should go beyond bumper stickers and flag-shaped lapel pins to things like veterans benefits and body armor, but that's just me. In my experience, supporting the troops often meant unquestioning support of their mission, whatever it may be. Without naming any specifics, I've got to say there have been some missions on which we have sent our troops with which I disagree.

If "Support the Troops" means that we assume they can do no wrong, then I cannot do that. Soldiers and their commanders are people too, and people mess up. The nobility of soldiers is in their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others. Those who have done so are worth honoring.

But every time a soldier dies, either in combat, or as a homeless veteran on the street, or anything in between, we as a society have failed them. Every time a soldier is burdened with the responsibility of doing violence to another human being, we as a society have failed them. Perhaps our weightiest failure is that rather than paying for our own failures, we ask the military and their families to bear the burden of paying for our lifestyle with their lives.

So perhaps the best way of honoring those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for our national ideals is to no longer ask them to do so.

I am very grateful that there are men and women who are willing to die and to kill for the idea of America, and that the sacrifice of those who have gone before us makes our lifestyles possible. My prayer is that we will not treat the soldier's noble selflessness as a tool to spread our ideology, but as a cost too dear to be asked lightly.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Planted in Praise

Psalm 97:
1The LORD rules! Let the earth rejoice!
Let all the islands celebrate!
2Clouds and thick darkness surround God.
His throne is built on righteousness and justice.
3Fire proceeds before him,
burning up his enemies on every side.
4His lightning lights up the world;
the earth sees it and trembles!
5The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the Lord of the whole world!
6Heaven has proclaimed God’s righteousness,
and all nations have seen his glory.
7All those who worship images,
those who are proud of idols,
are put to shame.
All gods bow down to the Lord!
8Zion has heard and celebrates,
the towns of Judah rejoice,
because of your acts of justice, LORD,
9because you, LORD, are the Most High over all the earth,
because you are so superior to all other gods.
10Those of you who love the LORD, hate evil!
God guards the lives of his faithful ones,
delivering them from the power of the wicked.
11Light is planted like seed for the righteous person;
joy too for those whose heart is right.
12Rejoice in the LORD, righteous ones!
Give thanks to his holy name!

This is the word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Amy Sharp is one of the great saints of the church. She is not famous for miracles, or for mission work, she is one of the great multitude of witnesses who have lived out their faith in ways that proclaim the gospel at all times.

She was a member of my home church, taught Sunday school, volunteered with the Youth Group, and was in worship almost every Sunday. She is also one of the first friends my mother made when my family moved to Morganton.

As Mom’s and Amy’s friendship grew, it became increasingly apparent that Amy was not going to be just Mom’s friend, or my friend Josh’s mom, she also was a mother to me.

During my childhood, my mother leaned heavily on Amy for love and support while she dealt with depression stemming from her childhood. Sometimes this meant going out to lunch together and talking, sometimes it meant playdates at the Sharps’ house while mom had an appointment. Amy was a leader in the village that raised this child of God.

She was my mother’s best friend. Mom, who has resolved her issues, still calls her an angel.

A few years ago, Amy died after a long battle with cancer. I had the honor of attending her memorial service. I took my seat about a third of the way from the front of the sanctuary, next to the outside aisle.

The procession began with my mother’s voice, lifting up an old hymn.

My life rolls on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the real though far-off hymn
That hails the new creation
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

I was moved, and amazed. Even in the face of the loss of her best friend who had helped her as she walked through her own darkness, my mother could sing of the beauty of God’s rule over all creation.

My mother’s testimony of God’s reign continued into the second verse:
What though the tempest ‘round me roar,
I know the truth, it liveth,
What though the darkness ‘round me fall,
Songs in the night it giveth
Through all the tumult and the strife,
Those freedom bells come ringing,
Since Christ is Lord o’er heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

Though she was sitting in the midst of grief, My mother’s choice of opening hymn established a narrative of trust in God’s ability to work wonders that sounded an echo in the souls gathered for the service of Witness to the Resurrection. When we see the wonders of God’s rule in our world, how can respond with anything other than a song of praise. “The Lord rules! Let the earth rejoice! Let all the islands celebrate. Clouds and thick darkness surround God. His throne is built on righteousness and Justice.”

The LORD rules!

This isn’t a generic God that you could find in any ancient bazaar, this is not an abstract God who is here to make us feel better, the LORD who reigns is the one who spoke creation into existence, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, who spoke through the prophets of Israel and Judah, and accompanied her people into the captivity of Babylon.  The God who rules is the one who wrote the real though far-off hymn that hails the new creation.

This is not an ethereal force who binds us all together, all the rough edges of relationship sanded off so there’s no friction between us anymore. This is the God who argued with Moses and called a large fish to swallow Jonah for trying to run away from his calling. This reigning LORD is the truth that lives though the tempest may ‘round us roar.

“Fire proceeds before him, burning up his enemies on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees it and trembles!”

And having seen the works of God
How can we keep from singing?

The Psalm continues in verse three with a section where creation testifies to God’s sovereignty. The LORD rules over fire and lightning, and the earth trembles before God’s mighty actions. And though we are told in a proverb that we should build our homes on a rock rather than on sand, even mountains melt like wax before the LORD. Though the mountains are ancient, the strength of their stone foundations pales in comparison to the greatness of God.

Creation sees and testifies to the majesty of the LORD. The lighting, the fire, and the mountains that pass away like melting wax “before the Lord of the whole world” are intimidating images. It would be easier, perhaps, to have a soft, always approachable, easy-going God to worship, who pats us on the head when we show up in our Sunday best, then sends us on our way.

But this is not that god that we sometimes create for ourselves. “Heaven has proclaimed God’s righteousness, and all nations have seen his glory.” One does not earn that reputation by accommodating everyone’s preferences. God’s righteousness establishes justice for all people, and isn’t satisfied with merely making us feel better.

God’s justice through creation rings,
How can we keep from singing.

“All those who worship images, those who are proud of idols, are put to shame. All gods bow down to the Lord!”

We probably would not call ourselves idol worshippers. By the very nature of our presence in this church, we self-identify as following the God to whom this Psalm was written. We know there are plenty of modern Idols that we do not necessarily call gods. There’s always the classic: money. We even half-jokingly call it “The Almighty Dollar.” We know to watch out that money doesn’t become our focus and goal. The same goes for political figures, we know not to mistake political affiliation for faith, while our faith informs our politics, we know that they are still separate. We know better than to get caught up in those idols.

But this Psalm doesn’t just reject the easy idols, and it is easy to overlook the more subtly worshipped images. Not images of a golden calf, but images of who we think we should be. We worship the sneakier images in ways that we may not even recognize.

How about grades for the students? Or for those of us who perhaps wish perhaps that our children were better students? It is easy to cross from seeking to do our best with our gifts into worshipping the image of the perfect college application. Or those of us who have moved beyond the scholastic world may find ourselves substituting our resumé for that college application.

Many times we also bow to the image of the perfect American family, the one where Ma and Pa always smile lovingly at one another and never fight, the one where little brother and big sister always do their chores and speak respectfully to one another and to their elders.

Perhaps we worship the image of someone who has got their life together, who has a handle on everything and is always the helper, never needing help of their own. The rugged individualist who can accomplish anything on their own merits and talents. It’s the worship of that image that answers “How are you?” with “Fine,” or “Good” even when our hearts are breaking, or when we are overwhelmed and drowning.

This church knows better than most what happens when we pretend that nothing is wrong, deceiving ourselves that if we tell no one of our shame that eventually it will just go away. We watched it happen, and felt the pain of that breach of trust.

The perfect application, the all-american family, the ever-strong and independent individual.

If these are the images we choose to follow, we will be put to shame. Because all of these little philosophies and bits, for which we work so hard, bow down before the Lord like the little gods named by the Psalmist. They are subject to the rule of the LORD, and though we may try to convince ourselves otherwise, we too need the sovereign God.

In trusting God alone who reigns,
How can we keep from singing.

In writing this sermon, someone whom I consider a friend and mentor pointed to verse ten, “Those of you who love the LORD, hate evil!/God guards the lives of his faithful ones, delivering them from the power of the wicked,” and asked if it was saying that all one has to do is love God and be in right relationship and all the problems of your life would be solved.

If evil and wickedness have no power compared the the sovereignty of the one who is the Most High over all the earth, why do they seem to have such terrible effects upon us and those whom we love? If fire proceeds before God, burning up his enemies on every side, why do we sometimes find feeling burned? Is there another fire which God has chosen not to put out, or has the God who loves us burned us?

We know that the LORD rules, and we can let the earth celebrate, but we cannot always join in the praise. Because being guarded and protected as one of God’s faithful doesn’t mean that it is easy. It does mean, however, that it is not up to us to solve every problem and shoulder every burden. My mother sang at her dearest friend’s funeral, “Through all the tumult and the strife/Those freedom bells come ringing/since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth/How can I keep from singing?”

Because just as the mountains melt like wax before the one who is Most High over all the earth, so too our pain and suffering can hold no power over us compared to the ability of God to redeem us from the effects of this fallen world. Though our pain is real, it cannot hold our redemption back. We see that truth proclaimed nowhere more powerfully than on the cross, where God suffered and died. The cross where Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But we celebrate at the completion of this Easter season that the story does not end at the cross, but at the empty tomb!

God made Lament a song of Hope,
How can we keep from singing?

“Light is planted like seed for the righteous person; joy too for those whose heart is right.”

We are not righteous on our own. How could we be? We have fallen too far. But to bridge that gap, God sent Christ into the world to break the power of sin and death and re-establish our righteousness rooted not in our own faithfulness, but in Christ’s. The sovereignty of our God is such that we cannot run away from his eternal love. When we’ve seen the wonder of that sovereign love, we cannot help but to share it with one another. “Light is planted like seed,” and blows like a dandelion through this world, because though the darkness ‘round me fall, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. This is the source of our joy, that the God who loves us will stop at nothing to be with us. And the LORD before whom the mountains melt like wax rules over all that exists, and loves us beyond measure.

Rejoice in God, ye righteous ones
And praise his name most holy
The Father, Son and Spirit reign
How can we keep from singing?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Prologue to the Gospel of John

I made this video as the final project for my Worship in the Arts class. It's a video presentation of John 1:1-18.

The idea behind this was to explore the idea of translation, moving between mediums and ways of expressing ideas. In short, telling ancient truths through new media.

One of my classmates pointed out that this is also an example of meta-narrative. Here I'm using the narrative of scripture to tell a narrative of the changes in how we engage with and experience text.

I don't consider myself an artist, although I acknowledge my own creative gifts, they largely lie in the areas of music, rather than visual arts. That said, I am quite proud of how this came together, and am very grateful for all the people who participated in its creation.

The art pieces are not mine, they are a picture of the stained glass window as taken through the baptismal font at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, and a painting called "Day One," which is part of the Creation series by dear friend Rose McCurdy.

The music is an excerpt from Alfred Reed's Russian Christmas Music.