Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Christmas 2: What star is this?

The story is told of a Christmas pageant in a small church. It was so small that one child – a girl – represented all three magi. She proudly carried all three gifts on a pillow to the manger, and when she arrived, she announced, “Lo, I bring rich gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, circumstance, and mud.”

Most of us would be very glad to have the kind of supernatural guidance that the magi were given. Matthew’s account of the magi tells us that they were guided by a star. “We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”. And later the star that led them to Jerusalem also led them to Bethlehem. “Ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

There are few stars to guide us in the world in which we live. What guides you?

All of us are sometimes guided by the star of self-interest, and some people are guided by nothing else.

The Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, famously remarked that self-interest is “the invisible hand” that guides a free market to produce goods and services beneficial to all. Generally, I think Adam Smith was right, but I believe that we should be guided by more than self-interest.

It would be wrong for a business owner to neglect her bottom line. She has employees to pay, and a publicly-held business must also produce dividends for its stockholders. However, there is a time and place for business to consider the well-being of the community, as well as the bottom line.

Several years ago I taught an introductory ethics course for a group of so-called “mature students”. These were students who worked all day and could attend courses only in the evening. I decided that I would ask them to make brief presentations to the class on ethical dilemmas they encountered at work. This was the year that the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ came out, and one of my students worked for a chain of movie theatres. She did a report on whether or not her company should show this film and concluded that it would be OK to screen the film if it made money for the theatre chain. Other class members challenged her, saying that the theatre chain had a responsibility to the community not to present obscene and sacrilegious films.

Another class member worked for the largest electrical utility in the state of Alabama, and she talked to the class about the ethical dilemma posed by those who could not afford to pay their power bills during the coldest months of the year. She concluded that Alabama Power had a responsibility to its shareholders to produce a profit and so should cut off power when people could not pay. The class generally agreed with her. So, I said, “What is the difference between the theatre chain’s responsibility to the community not to show objectionable movies and the power company’s responsibility to the community not to leave the poor without electricity during cold weather?” And the class was silent. They saw that self-interest is not always a good guide for behavior.

Some claim to be guided by the voice of God speaking within their hearts.

Several years ago The New Yorker ran a story about a prominent journalist named John McCandlish Phillips, Jr. It seems that Phillips got his start in journalism when he was traveling by train from Baltimore to Boston. Phillips says that when the train stopped at New York’s Penn Station God spoke to him, saying, “Get off the train.” In New York, Phillips saw an ad for an editorial trainee at the New York Times and God spoke to him again saying that it was his mission to get a job at the Times.

I don’t want to disparage this man’s experience, but God doesn’t speak to me in that way. I think that such experiences of direct divine communication are few and far between. However, I do believe that God guides us.

Most of the time God guides us by the light of reason. Seventeenth century English theologians were fond of quoting this verse from the Book of Proverbs: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.” (Prov. 20.27) Those theologians identified the “candle of the Lord” as human reason.

Many times God guides me by opening or closing doors. It seems an inefficient way of providing guidance, and running into those closed doors is often terribly painful! However, this has been the way I have often experienced God’s guidance.

But God also guides us subtly and indirectly through prayer. I believe that if we are silent and open ourselves to God in prayer, then a star will arise in the skies and guide us on our journeys just as surely as the magi were guided on theirs. However, note this important fact: the stars are unimaginably far away and we receive only a tiny amount of light from them. In other words, the traveled in the darkness and received only the faintest of lights to show them the way. We, too, travel in the darkness, and the guidance we receive is seldom brighter than a star.

You and I are on the same journey as the magi, the most important journey of all – the journey to God. It is in that quest above all that we should be looking for God’s star to guide us. And God never fails to guide faithful seekers.

Friday, December 17, 2004

"Silent Night" A Christmas Meditation

Recently, a parent found “Silent Night” offensive because of its religious nature, and a New Jersey school deleted it from its holiday music program (although they later reinstated it). My first reaction was “How silly;” the school’s program was admirably PC (politically correct), including songs celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. But then after more reflection, I thought that perhaps this was a good thing. Maybe the parent who found “Silent Night” offensive understood a little more about Christmas than the teachers who put together the holiday music program.

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace

What’s so offensive about that? Well, to tell the truth, I’ve never been a big fan of “Silent Night.” It seems to belong to the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” school of hymnody. However, the Christmas story is there in shorthand. A mother who is also a virgin… a holy infant. I wonder about the “heavenly peace,” though. If we follow Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem was anything but peaceful. It was so crowded with weary travelers that the only place a very pregnant woman could find to rest was a cattle stall. Matthew’s version is even less peaceful. Joseph is tempted to “put away” his fiancée when she becomes pregnant before their wedding. And after the magi alert one king (Herod) that another king (Jesus) has been born, he has all the children in the region put to death.

We have let culture co-opt Christmas for so long that we no longer appreciate the hard and dangerous edge of the Christmas story. Christmas is both offensive and subversive. It offends our reason by celebrating a God who embraces human weakness so completely that we confess that the “holy infant” was in the most literal sense “God in the flesh”. And Christmas is subversive because the true King came to his kingdom to reign, and the “kingdoms of this world” were out to get him from beginning to end. Herod tried to use brute violence to kill Jesus and failed, but Pilate succeeded by using the tried and true method of getting rid of troublemakers: Try ‘em; convict ‘em; string ‘em up.

Some would argue that Christmas is a holiday for everyone, not just Christians. Perhaps it is. Certainly, the circle around the manger is wide enough to include all of us. But the marriage between Christmas and culture has blurred its distinctiveness. The Christmas story is a dazzling tale of daring adventure. It is about a rescue mission in hostile territory. Imagine parachuting into an occupied country during a bitterly fought war. That is a poor metaphor but it gives some sense of what God did at Christmas.

So this Christmas, by all means let’s sing “Silent Night” at the elementary school holiday program. But the words of Robert Southwell (1561-1595) that Benjamin Britten set in his Ceremony of Carols give us a better sense of the grandeur and mystery of Christmas:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

Glory to God in the highest!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Advent 4A: Christmas according to Paul

For a couple of years I taught Old and New Testament survey to college students at a small liberal arts college in the deep South. It was a great experience because I finally learned all those things that Brevard Childs and Luke Johnson had tried to teach me, but even more because I had some wonderful students. Every teacher has a list of his or her favorite wrong answers. On a New Testament final I asked my students to list three of the symbolic animals in the Book of Revelation. One student wrote, “The lion, the dragon, and the seal.” I asked her, “Seal? There are no seals in the Book of Revelation.” And she replied, “Of course there are. It talks about the seven seals, doesn’t it?’ Another question was “’BLANK and BLANK to you’ was Paul’s characteristic greeting.” Instead of “grace and peace,” one student wrote, “Hello and how are you?”

One of my favorite thought-provoking questions to my students was “Just what did Paul know about Jesus?” and watch their faces grow puzzled. St. Paul may have known a great deal about Jesus’ earthly life, but his letters give us very little information about him. Paul tells us that Jesus gathered with his friends for a ritual meal the night before his death; he gives us Jesus’ teaching on divorce (1 Cor 7); and of course, he knew that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. But other than that, Paul says very little about the historical Jesus. There is nothing about the miracles and the parables. All that Paul tells us about the birth of Jesus is that “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4.4) And he adds in the epistle for Advent 4A that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh”.

It would seem that if we want to “hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind … go even unto Bethlehem”, then we need to look somewhere other than the letters of Paul. But Paul’s letters are the oldest documents in the New Testament. What would Paul tell us if we asked him to tell us the Christmas story?

One clue is in the first verses to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Notice that Paul collapses Jesus life into two events: Paul tells us that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection”. That’s a breathtaking example of the Bible’s way of compressing an extensive narrative into a few words. Paul moves from Jesus’ earthly lineage to his resurrection without pausing to tell us anything that happened in between.

For Paul, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection were everything. To borrow a metaphor from science, Jesus’ death and resurrection were Paul’s Hubble telescope. For Paul, the perspective of the cross and the empty tomb brought everything else into sharp focus. For Paul all of human life was lived under the sign of the cross and in the light of the resurrection. Another way of saying this is that the New Testament was written backward; it was written from the perspective of the resurrection. Just ask yourself: what would we know about Jesus of Nazareth if it were not for the resurrection? To be sure, he was a remarkable man. He healed the sick, spoke eloquently of God’s love for us and our obligation to love others, and boldly denounced religious hypocrisy. But the same could be said of any number of great religious leaders. What set Jesus apart is that he rose from the dead. Christmas shines with the brightness of the resurrection. The “Gloria” that the angels sang to the shepherds echoed the Easter “alleluia”.

So this Christmas let us go again “in heart and mind …even unto Bethlehem” and “hear again the message of the angels”. But this year, let’s ask Paul to tell us the Christmas story which is also the Easter story, the story of One who moved from borrowed manger to borrowed tomb. And because his story did not end with a borrowed tomb, we, too, can sing the angel’s song of Christmas glory and Easter triumph.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Advent 3A: Are you the one who is to come?

In almost every Eastern Orthodox Church the apse, that is, the space behind the altar, is covered with an enormous fresco of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus out toward the world. For the Orthodox, Mary is an icon or image of the church. The painting in the apse is visual shorthand for what the church is supposed to be about: conceiving Christ within us by the power of the Holy Spirit and presenting him to the world. Mary seems to be seeing, “Look here! Here is one we have all been waiting for! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The readings for Advent 3A bring together two figures who point toward Jesus: Mary and John the Baptist. The painter Matthias Grünewald also brings them together in his Isenheim altarpiece. One one side of the altarpiece we see the Beloved Disciple supporting Mary the Mother of Jesus. Although devastated by grief, she is looking at her son’s body on the cross. Her gaze guides us to the cross, so in a sense, she is fulfilling the function that Orthodox iconography assigns to her. On the other side of the cross is John the Baptist pointing his bony finger at the Crucified Christ and holding a book on which is written the words, Ecce Agnus Dei – “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

Theologian Karl Barth had a reproduction of Grünewald’s painting of John the Baptist on the wall above his desk. He said that it perfectly exemplified the task of a theologian: to point the way toward the Crucified Christ. Perhaps if Barth had been a little more Catholic and a little less Reformed, he would have had a reproduction of the entire altarpiece above his desk, because Mary, no less than John, points us toward her son.

In the gospel reading for Advent 3A, John's disciples asked Jesus an intriguing question: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" And even more intriguingly, Jesus did not directly answer the question. Instead, Jesus told them what they would see when the true Messiah came: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” The Magnificat, the canticle of Mary that we may use in place of the psalm on Advent 3, also tells us what to look for. When the Messiah comes, he will “scatter the proud in their conceit… cast down the mighty from their thrones… [lift] up the lowly… [fill] the hungry with good things… [send the rich] empty away.”

Perhaps Jesus did not give John’s disciples a simple yes or no answer because he wanted to keep us on our toes. That’s what Advent is about: staying on our toes, being awake and alert, and watching for the signs that the Messiah is drawing near. And if we really long for the Messiah to return, then we will not only be like Mary and John, pointing the world in the direction of the Crucified and Risen One, we will also find that we are the ones opening the eyes of the blind, helping the lame walk again, and filling the hungry with good things. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Next Christendom

I promise that my weblog will not be just a forum for reviews of New York Times' columns and books, but the David Brooks' column that I touted in my last blog reminded me of a terrific book I read about a year ago that I want to encourage everyone to read. In his book The Next Christendom (Oxford, 2003) Penn State professor Philip Jenkins argues four propositions convincingly.
  1. The center of gravity of the Christian faith has already or soon will shift decisively to the southern hemisphere.
  2. Most Christians are now or soon will be non-white.
  3. The most important influences on the 21st century church will be evangelicalism and pentecostalism.
  4. The conflict between the church and Islam will intensify.

There is no doubt that he is correct. I used to say almost exactly the same thing to my church history students at the conclusion of my course on church history from the Reformation to the present. I wish I'd written a book about it! The only thing I added that Jenkins doesn't mention is the significance of the ordination of women at all levels of the church, but this is a largely First World phenomenon and not accepted by the largest Christian body - the Roman Catholic Church.

Jenkins spins out some of the implications of these changes. One is that the churches of the global south are coming north. Walk down the streets of almost any large city, and you will see that he is correct. In every major city there are numerous and growing Spanish-speaking churches; there are Korean and Chinese churches and African churches from every part of the African continent. Jenkins points out that the largest church in London was founded by a Nigerian pastor. The southern hemisphere churches are not just founding congregations for their expatriates; they are sending missionaries to evangelize the secularized northern hemisphere.

However, Jenkins' theses have economic and political consequences, too. Take oil-rich Nigeria, for example. Imagine that a repressive Christian regime came to power and began to persecute Muslims systematically. It is entirely likely that Muslim countries would intervene to protect their fellow Muslims, and it is not hard to imagine other African states or even European states being drawn into a larger conflict. Or consider this: Although China is still an officially Marxist state, Chinese communities around the Pacific rim are often characterized by vibrant and growing Christian churches. What would happen if Chinese Christians in (for example) Muslim Indonesia were oppressed by the Indonesian government? Is it possible that China would intervene to protect Chinese Christians from Muslim persecution? It's a scenario both ironic and frightening, but it could happen.

Jenkins argues that the church is undergoing a transformation as momentous as the Reformation. I believe he's right. His book is the 21st century's equivalent of the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.

Just who IS John Stott, anyway?

Has the New York Times gotten religion or what? Last week I was impressed by Nicholas Kristof's excellent article, "Apocalypse (Almost) Now." Today Jewish columnist David Brooks has an equally fine article, "Who is John Stott?" Brooks starts with a mini-review of last Sunday's Meet the Press, a disaster encounter between Jerry Falwell and the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land on the right and Al Sharpton and Sojourners' magazine editor Jim Wallis on the left. The only one of the four who had anything to say that was worth hearing was Wallis. Brooks aptly summarizes the encounter by saying that inviting these four guys to the table to discuss politics was like "inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. " Then Brooks makes the point that the media elite should pay attention to, namely, that in their quest for ratings and readers, the media misrepresent evangelical Christians by focusing on the "Elmer Gantry-style blowhards" instead of the responsible and important figures such as John Stott. As Brooks says in his column, most people do not know who Stott is. I would guess that even most Episcopalians (and perhaps even a majority of members of evangelical churches) do not know who he is. Brooks does an excellent job of outlining Stott's significance, so I won't repeat it here. But, in short, Stott is unquestionably the most important Anglican evangelical of the last 25 or 30 years. Now, make no mistake: I'm somewhere to Stott's left, but I respect Stott and regard him as an evangelical who holds reasonable and respectable views (unlike Falwell, Robertson, and the SBC's Land).

Brooks' point about the importance of presenting a balanced portrayal of conservative religious leaders can hardly be overemphasized. I would second it and amplify it by saying that the media need to do a better job of presenting responsible voices from all points on the religious spectrum. Too often the media call on Bishop Spong and those like him to represent the Christian left without realizing just how far beyond the pale Spong's views really are. To borrow a metaphor from politics, to believe that Spong is a responsible representative of the Christian left is like believing that Ralph Nader is a responsible representative of the political left. And believing that Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson is a good representative of the religious right is like believing that Pat Buchanan is a good representative of the political right.

Brooks' last few sentences bear quoting in full:

"Politicians, especially Democrats, are now trying harder to appeal to people of faith. But people of faith are not just another interest group, like gun owners. You have to begin by understanding the faith. And you can't understand this rising global movement if you don't meet its authentic representatives.

Not Falwell, but Stott."

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Eschatology Today

When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, some wits put out an occasional satirical journal entitled "Eschatology Today." The title still makes me chuckle. Nothing seems to change more dramatically than fundamentalist versions of eschatology, that is, the doctrine of last things, e.g., the second coming, final judgment, the end of the world, and so on. As New York Times' journalist Nicholas Kristof points out in his outstanding article, "Apocalypse (Almost) Now," Hal Lindsay's The Late, Great Planet Earth seemed to anticipate that the Second Coming would occur before the end of the 20th century. Kristof also references William Miller's prediction that the world would end in 1845 which brought hundreds or even thousands of people to hills and mountain tops all over America to await the event. Well, Miller's followers had to go back home while he recalculated his predictions, and Lindsay's readers are still waiting. And one could cite hundreds of similar stories throughout the history of the church.

I bring this up not to ridicule either conservative Christians or Christian eschatology per se. Eschatology is an important element in the Bible and in Christian theology, and liberal Christians are seriously mistaken if they either dismiss it or misconstrue it. For example, in her weblog, "Sarah Laughed", the Rev. Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that "We're in the season of Advent, and time of prayerful reflection and keen watching for Christ's coming. This is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one 'Easter.'" (link) Huh? Easter the second coming? I don't THINK so! I'm not aware of any Christian theologian from St. Paul to Rosemary Radford Ruether who would equate Easter with the second coming of Christ. When the Risen Christ leaves his followers, the heavenly messenger tells them, "This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1.11) And the Nicene Creed is pretty clear that we're still waiting for a fairly significant event: "He will come again in power and great glory."

There are at least five main strands of eschatological thought in the Bible: the prophets, the synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the letters of Paul, John's gospel, and the Book of Revelation. And they do not speak with a single voice. The prophets anticipate that God will vindicate Israel and establish a reign of justice centered upon Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty, although they hint that this will have a cosmic dimension. For example, Isaiah writes, "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.... He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth...Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them." Isaiah seems to anticipate a world redeemed and restored under the direction of a ruler from the Davidic line. Second, the synoptic evangelists present the teaching of Jesus about his second coming in terms heavily influenced by the prophets, especially the Book of Daniel and the later prophets. The classic statement is the so-called "little apocalypse" in Mark: "In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory." (Mark 13.24-26) Third, John's gospel has little if any eschatological horizon. The closest John gets to a prediction of the second coming is Jesus' statement in 15.26 that "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. " Fourth, Paul has an eschatology deeply influenced by first century Jewish thought, although his unique contribution was to associate the resurrection of the faithful with the second coming: "Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed." (1 Cor. 15.51.52) Finally, the Bible's most highly developed eschatology is in the Book of Revelation. Its vision is profoundly informed by first century Jewish apocalyptic thought which (in turn) evolved out of the ideas put forward in the Book of Daniel and similar documents. Needless to say, the Book of Revelation is far too complex to be summarized in a few sentences.

Conservatives too often over-emphasize eschatology and under-appreciate the Bible's divergent eschatological views. On the other hand, liberals often use those divergent views as an excuse to dismiss eschatology altogether. However, the Bible is consistent in its overall eschatological message.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells us that the universe is finite. It had a beginning and will have an end. Thus far, science and faith agree. But what faith tells us (and science does not) is that the universe is God's good creation and that whether it ends in a bang or a whimper, God will both judge and redeem all that God created.

Christian eschatology has undergone a rebirth, thanks primarily to the towering figure of Jürgen Moltmann, who "rehabilitated" eschatology in his book Theology of Hope and subsequent volumes. But the eschatology we need is one which puts the emphasis where it belongs: on the God who comes to establish justice in the sense in which Israel's prophets used that word. That is to say, the future anticipated by Biblical eschatology will bring good news to the poor and bad news to their oppressors. The question for us is not about how to interpret all the complex and confusing symbolic language of the Book of Revelation. It is far more important to be attentive and alert, ready to open the accounts of our lives to the One who will come to judge and redeem those for whom he died and rose again, and as far as possible to build God's realm upon earth. The question is not, Who is the anti-Christ? There have been anti-Christs from the time of Nero to the present, and they will continue to the very end. And the question is certainly not, When will Jesus come again? No one knows. The question is, What did we do when the homeless Christ needed shelter and the thirsty Christ needed a drink of water? (cf. Matthew 25.31-46)

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Advent 2A (December 5, 2004)

The vision recorded in chapter 2 of Isaiah is remarkable. The prophet appears to envision a restoration of the harmony between human and non-human creation that existed in Eden:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;

But the prophet’s vision is not just Eden restored but Eden amplified. The tree of which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat was the tree of the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil and after they had eaten, the Holy One acknowledged that they had “become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” But the world of which Isaiah dreams is one in which humankind will be saturated with divine knowledge “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

Knowledge of one kind was the exit from paradise; knowledge of another kind is the way back into the garden. Henry Kissinger once remarked that the problem that the problem with some students was that they knew everything. “But, unfortunately,” he continued, “they don’t know anything else.” Apparently, his enigmatic remark referred to the kind of person many of us know: a person who knows all about a vast range of subject but who lacks spiritual depth.

The English language has only one word for knowing but most other languages have at least two. The French have savoir and connaitre; Germans have wissen and kennen. In both cases, the first word refers to intellectual and scientific knowing; the second to personal, intimate knowledge. The first is the word we would use to say we know the multiplication tables, and the second is the word we would use to say we know someone whom we love with all our being.

The knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve acquired from the forbidden fruit was good as far as it went, but it was only knowledge about. The knowledge of the Lord that will cover the earth when God restores paradise is of a different kind altogether. As Paul says in First Corinthians 13.12, “Now we know in part, but then we will know fully, even as we have been known.”

Monday, November 22, 2004

November 14, 2004

In the 1979 Prayer Book the following wonderful prayer floats around in the last few Sundays before Advent instead of finding the home it deserves:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, p. 236)

The Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard’s university chaplain, likes to tease his Episcopalian friends by saying that the Episcopal Church should really be called the Bible church because of the amount of scripture that is read in most Episcopal churches on Sunday: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a portion of one of the Gospels. And yet you rarely hear a sermon about the Bible.

What do Episcopalians believe about the Bible? Every Episcopal priest is required at his or her ordination to sign a statement affirming that the Bible is the word of God. But that simply begs the question, What do we mean by the word of God?

We are fairly clear about what do NOT believe about the Bible. We are not fundamentalists and do not believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. But I believe that we need to move from a negative position to a positive one.

Most Episcopalians either tacitly or quite openly believe that there are portions of the Bible that are certainly not the word of God, and the lectionary aids and abets us in this by omitting many of the Bible’s “hard sayings” from our cycle of eucharistic propers. For example, the eucharistic lectionary omits chs 13-18 of the Book of Revelation. The problem with this is that by omitting sections of the Bible progressives are ceding interpretation of these passages to conservatives. Like explorers we need to stake our claim to what Karl Barth called “the strange new world of the Bible.”

Has the Bible been used as a stick to beat up women, African Americans, and gays and lesbians? Of course it has. Does this mean that something is wrong with the Bible? Not at all. Any good gift can be abused. Food, drink, and sexuality are all God’s good gifts and all of them can be and often are abused. The way to deal with bad interpretations of difficult texts is not to pretend that they aren’t in the Bible but to do a better job of interpreting them.

Here are some things that I believe we mean when we say that the Bible is the word of God:

First, the Bible tells God’s story. No where else can we read the story of how God created the world, called Israel to be God’s covenant people, and sent prophets to proclaim the divine word of justice and grace. Only the Bible tells us the story of how God came among us as one of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible contains the unique record of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. And only the Bible contains Paul’s witness to the Spirit’s work in spreading the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the “ends of the earth.” This is not to say that other faiths do not have great treasures in their holy books. Far from it. There is much wisdom in the Qu’ran, the Upanishads, and the Buddhist sutras. But the Bible’s story is unique. And when we are baptized the Bible’s story becomes our story. When we are baptized we become one of the Hebrew slaves whom God brought safely across the Red Sea. When we are baptized we are (quite literally) buried and raised again with Christ. And we learn this story no where else but in the Bible.

Second, to read the Bible is to invoke the very power of God’s to change the world, for the Bible is arguably the most subversive book in human history. There’s a reason that slaveowners didn’t want captive Africans to learn to read and the Soviets did their best to keep Bibles out of the Soviet Union. From beginning to end the Bible promises that God will overthrow the powerful and will exalt the humble. The Bible not only comforts the oppressed; it might also inspire them to rise up.

Third, we learn God’s own language when we read the Bible faithfully. Muslims insist that the Qu’ran can only properly be read in Arabic. Christians do not say that the Bible can only properly be read in its original Hebrew and Greek, but we do believe that the Bible has a unique grammar. To know God aright, we must learn the Bible’s grammar. The grammar of the Bible is not a matter of proper nouns and irregular verbs. When we learn the Bible’s grammar then we become fluent in turning the other cheek, returning good for evil, taking up our cross, standing on the side of the poor and persecuted, and so on.

In the Gospel reading appointed for Proper 28, Year C, Jesus promises his disciples that when they are “brought before kings and governors” he will give them the words they need to speak. (Luke 21.12-13). He’s already given us most of the words we need to speak. They are between the covers of the book we call the Holy Bible.

BTW, check out former Sen. Gary Hart’s terrific article about faith and politics in the Nov. 8, New York Times.

Christ the King (November 21, 2004)

Three random thoughts:

First, a wonderful story from Malcolm Muggeridge's autobiography:

In the dark days of Stalin’s rule, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge worked for the British newspaper, the Guardian, as a correspondent. One day while walking in the woods outside of Moscow he came across a small church and noted that someone had given the church a fresh coat of bright, blue paint. Muggeridge writes that he felt that he ”belonged to the little disused church [the painter] had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. 1, The Green Stick (1972), pp. 226-227.)

Second, an observation about one of the gospel readings for Christ the King:

One of the gospel readings assigned today is Luke 25.35.43. It contains the poignant story of the "good thief." In it the penitent thief says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What do you suppose he was thinking? Was he holding out hope that Jesus would be rescued and set up some sort of earthly kingdom? Did he hope that when he was dead and gone that someone would say, “I remember old so and so”? Or did he use the word “remember” with the meaning it has in the Torah and the Prophets? The imperative “remember” (zakhor) appears 169 times in the Old Testament. When God remembers something, things change. Exodus tells us that God heard the “groaning” of the Israelites “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex. 2.24) To be remembered by God is to be held in life.

Yale’s Miroslav Volf writes, “The remembrance of suffering is not turned in upon itself and self-enclosed; rather, it is a hopeful remembering, a remembering open to a transformed future. As Christ was raised, so also those who suffer will be raised with him. They are not locked in their past, unable to free themselves from it. Rather, they are on the path through death to resurrection along with Christ, and what happened to him will also happen to them. (link to Volf article)

Third random thought: is a terrific source for selecting hymns. It's especially rich in recently written hymns. Here are a few good ones for Christ the King:

"To mock your reign, O Dearest Lord" and "Lord, who left the highest heaven" both by Timothy Dudley-Smith, former Suffragan Bishop of Norwich (England) and author of "Tell out, my soul", as well as many other good hymns (

"Lord Christ, we praise your sacrifice" Alan Gaunt, a pastor of the United Reformed Church of Great Britain. He's a wonderful hymn writer. See his communion hymn "Come to me," says Jesus". (

Thanksgiving Day (November 25, 2004)

Rabbi Harold Kushner is one of my favorite theological writers. Here's a great story from one of his books.

Rabbi Kushner tells the story of a colleague who said to a member of his congregation, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. Tell me, where are you running all the time?” The man answered, “I’m running after success, I’m running after fulfillment, I’m running after the reward for all my hard work.” And Kushner’s colleague replied, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, trying to elude you and if you run fast enough, you may catch up with them. But isn’t it possible that those blessings are behind you, that they are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?” Kushner observed that God may have all kinds of blessing in store for us – “good food and beautiful sunsets and flowers budding in the spring and leaves turning in the fall – but we in our pursuit of happiness are so constantly on the go that God can’t find us at home to deliver them”! (Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (New York, 1986), pp. 146-147)

Have a look at this hymn by Charles Wesley with a surprisingly contemporary feeling: Glory, love, and praise, and honor

Advent 1A (November 28, 2004)

Literary critic George Steiner makes the following thought-provoking comment:

"Man alone can construct and parse the grammar of hope... Of all evolutionary tools towards survival, it is the ability to use future tenses of the verb – when, how did the psyche acquire this monstrous and liberating power? – which I take to be foremost." (quoted in Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, p. 16.)

Advent invites us to "parse the grammar of hope," to exercise the 'liberating power" of the future tense. All of today's readings draw our attention to the horizon, to that which is coming. Isaiah writes, "In days to come..." Paul tells us that "the night is far gone, the day is near..." And in Matthew's gospel Jesus speaks of "the coming of the Son of Man" on a "day and hour no one know."

Twenty-first century Americans are inclined to have a love/hate relationship with the future. My generation grew up on the Jetsons, Disney's Tomorrowland, and any number of popular constructions of the future, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. However, we also grew up with the possibility of nuclear catastrophe or eco-catastrophe.

The Enlightenment predicted a hopeful future, because it was based on the idea of the inherent goodness of human nature. Darwin's theory of evolution appeared to give scientific support to the idea of the inevitability of human improvement. But the Enlightenment was given a staggering blow by the violence of World War I and was more or less finished off by World War II, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima. Rather than being a location of hope, the future of humanity after 1945 looked bleak. Popular constructions of the future were more likely to include nuclear war than utopias.

Advent directs us toward an entirely different set of possible futures. Advent challenges both the naive optimism of the Enlightenment and the superficial pessimism of the late twentieth century. Unaided by grace, human perfectibility is not an option. As the collect for Advent I reminds us, we need to "cast away the works of darkness," and in every life, there is plenty of darkness to cast away. The future is a location of hope rather than despair, not because of the basic goodness of human nature or its inevitability perfectibility but because Advent tells us that the future is in God's hands.

At times Christians, especially conservative ones have also projected a future of despair rather than hope. The conservative reading of Christian eschatology has too often been a matter of "Jesus is coming again... and he sure is mad!" From The Late, Great Planet Earth to the Left Behind series, the focus has been on the more spectacular (and peripheral) elements of Biblical eschatology.

However, from beginning to end, the Bible speaks of God's future in hopeful terms. Isaiah's familiar words project a future in which weapons of destruction become instruments of creation and cultivation, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Paul encourages the Christians of Rome to "lay aside the works of darkness" not for fear of punishment but because "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers."

Jesus, on the other hand, sounds a note of judgment. He compares the present age with the age of Noah and warns that when the Son of Man returns the process will be as comprehensive and violent as the Flood had been. We must not ignore or diminish the note of judgment. There is much that needs to be "swept away." But Jesus' apocalyptic teaching was in response to his disciples' question, "What will be the sign of your coming?" They were looking and longing for the return of one they loved and had followed. Like Jesus' first disciples, his disciples today, too, long and look for the return of the One who has invited us into his fellowship and walks with us on our journey.