Lounging Through the Storm

Posted: 2014/03/12 in Odds & Ends
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Woke to a big-time snowstorm that has made driving much more exciting than it should be. It’s a good day to stay home. My cat has the right idea – riding out the storm lounging on the sofa . . .

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As I preached, last Sunday (3/9), the first in my Jazz Christianity series of sermons, I used the list found in Matthew 5:3-11 traditionally called “The Beatitudes.” I use the Common English Bible (CEB) translation and it presents 5:3 as follows:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

The NRSV, as well as a number of other translations render the same verse as follows:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Both translations present problems. The traditional “Blessed” is archaic enough that it is functionally meaningless. “Happy” just doesn’t sound right since we we tend to think of happy as the way one feels when having fun. So. . . how what did Jesus/Matthew intend to say?

The Greek word, makarioi, can be translated as either happy or blessed, yet neither quite fits. And “happy”, as it is used in our vernacular, misses the mark by a fair margin. Rather the word means something a bit more complex—a sense of joy and feeling of well-being.

It also helps to read 5:3-11 with a little care and sophistication. Let me explain using 5:3. . .
People are not or ever happy to be hopeless, nor can we say that the hopeless are blessed by their hopelessness. To read 5:3 this way is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Rather the joy or blessing comes from God’s response to our hopelessness (or, traditionally, being poor in spirit), which is the promise of a place in the kingdom of heaven, which is good news indeed! Thus the happiness/joy/sense of blessedness and well-being is only now in part, because it is just promise, but will eventually be experience in full as the promise is realized.

We can work our way down this list this way and it makes sense.

(In an interesting interpretation of 5:3, Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom contends that we are indeed blessed/happy to poor in spirit in terms of poverty of possessions and attachments such that the love of God can fill us. See “Beginning to Pray” pp.40-41)

It all sounds a bit like academic Biblical studies nitpicking, but it isn’t. The so-called Beatitudes have always been a little tough to interpret, especially the first one, and because of the difficulty strange errors can creep in. For example, one might read 5:4, “Happy are those who grieve, because they will be made glad,” and then oafishly tell someone grieving the loss of a loved one that they are truly blessed or should be happy.

Like any other form of communication, as the Bible speaks, we need to listen carefully.

After a career working with computers and lots of other high-tech and cutting-edge stuff, it’s ironic that I’m back into the vacuum tube biz. It’s been decades since Dad and I took lunch bags of suspicious tubes to the local drugstore to test them on their console tube tester. What goes around sometimes comes back.

EL84

Since I bought an Ampeg tube amp from a fellow guitarist, I’ve learned more about those finicky, fragile, lethally high-voltage tubes than I ever expected to know. Here’s my latest observation:

My amp has two EL84s in the power stage, is rated at 15 watts output, and is just plain loud. I toned it down a bit with a pair of EL844s (a lower output version of the EL84). They sound fine and breakup occurs just a bit sooner.

I tried to adjust the pre-amp stage as well by replacing the one 12AX7 with a 12AY7, a tube with a lower gain factor. This swap hasn’t gone as well as the EL844s. The 12AY7 makes the amp sound oddly soft in terms of response and overall sound (can’t think of a better way to describe it). Having gone back to the 12AX7, the amp sounds better.

Back to work (on tomorrow’s sermon) and maybe a little time later for some guitar . . .

I know what you’re thinking: “Wud ya mean ‘FRUITCAKE Sunday’? . . . It’s gonna be TRANSFIGURATION Sunday!” (Aren’t we all enthusiastically preparing for Transfiguration Sunday; ordering the spiral-sliced ham; cleaning and decorating; getting ready for a houseful of relatives, including weird uncle Ralph?)

If you aren’t familiar with the Transfiguration Event, here’s the short version:

  • Jesus, James, John, and Peter hike up to the top of a mountain.
  • Really strange stuff happens: Jesus appearance changes to something ethereal, Moses and Elijah pay a visit, and God speaks out of a cloud.
  • Jesus, James, John, and Peter hike back down the mountain.

It sounds simple enough, but it isn’t, and I think it might be more accessible and understandable if we first get rid of the unwieldy name “Transfiguration” and call it something just as descriptive — Fruitcake. I chose Fruitcake, not because what happens during the event is crazy (it is), but because it is theologically dense and packed with symbolism like a fruitcake is packed with candied fruit.

Consider the symbols packed into nine verses:

  • mountaintop – important things in the OT happen on mountains
  • (Jesus’) glowing face – remember Moses after he received the Law from God?
  • (Jesus’) brilliant white clothing – purity, holiness, the garb of the martyrs (Revelation)
  • Moses – God’s Law and covenant
  • Elijah – God’s prophets
  • cloud from which God’s voice is heard – theophany (manifestation of God)
  • two + one witnesses – the testimony of two witnesses were considered reliable

If that isn’t enough, the very number of symbols (if I’ve enumerated them correctly) is seven, the number symbolic of perfection in Jewish gematria.

As I said earlier, it’s a theological fruitcake, both dense and heavy.

I won’t unpack any of this here because I’m preaching it on Sunday. However, I want to share one observation. I had always taken it for granted that the meaning of Jesus’ transfiguration is right out front in his changed appearance coupled with the visit by Moses and Elijah. While there’s powerful message in these things is readily seen, there is more that isn’t so obvious but Matthew is careful to bring to our attention: the mountain, cloud, the repetition of three (Jesus/Moses/Elijah & James/John/Peter), Peter’s wanting to build shrines, what God says. All of this stuff baked together offers us a very rich theological treat indeed!

I may do more unpacking after I’ve preached the Fruitcake on Fruitcake Sunday.

 

I preached a sermon, a few weeks ago, entitled “EVILution or CRETINism” about the relationship of religion (Christianity, in particular) and science. Not only am I proud of my cleverness with the title (in much the same way I was when, as a 12 year old, a buddy and I discovered the fun of tying firecrackers to eggs, throwing them up over a street and watching scrambled eggs rain down on the passing cars), the title exposes my feelings about the two polar positions in the debate. I’ll touch on this below.

I intended on a follow-up piece to “EVILution or CRETINism” that address some big questions raised by the sermon. Because I took the positions that the Creationist young-earth, catastrophism, dinosaurs & humans together, notions fail to pass rational and experiential muster, that the Bible does a great job of telling us why something happened (its meaning) but a lousy job of how it happened, and that science is a great tool for learning how things work in the real world, I unintentionally raised the question of the Bible’s reliability (even though I said it is true and authoritative). So, my purpose here was to deal with this question.

I found a blog entry (posted on MinistryMatters.com but linked directly below) that does all I was going to do and better. Check it out if you are wondering if your Bible still gets things right (don’t worry, it does) —

If Genesis Isn’t Literal, Is the Bible Reliable?

Okay, back to “EVILution” and “CRETINism”.

About “EVILution” — Because I accept that scientific inquiry yields facts and plausible theories about the way the world works, I have no problem with the theory of evolution, just as I accept the fact that the earth is a 4.5 billion years old sphere orbiting the sun. But science has the impassible limit that it cannot speak to what it cannot see, either empirically or theoretically, thus it is quick to claim as fiction things that go beyond its vision, for example, God. I believe there is room for openness about what we do not or can not know through science. To insist that “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI ?) is narrow minded.

About “CRETINism” — Creationism would be amusing if it weren’t so broadly accepted by so many people. If science is narrow minded about what it cannot see, then Creationism is blind, deaf, and dumb to the world right in its midst. I’ll not say more here, the piece linked piece above does a thorough job.

I gave the bottom line about the Bible in my sermon, which I’ll repeat here: For me, the Bible is entirely true and authoritative.
. . . And I don’t need to try to discredit science.

Right there in the middle (plotwise) of the first three gospels, something magnificent, profound, and bizarre happens. Upon reaching the top of a mountain, Jesus’ appearance changes. His clothing becomes brilliantly white and “his face shone like the sun.” (Matt 17.2) To add to the freakiness, Moses and Elijah appear and the three have a convivial chat.

Theologians and the Church have managed to obscure the strangeness and wonder of this event behind the awkward title, “Transfiguration.”

Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him. In addition to what they saw, they heard the voice of God say that Jesus is his Son and is to be listened to.

One purpose of this scene in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is to nail down Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and Messiah who fulfills the expectations of both the Mosaic Law and the visioneering of the prophets. It is centrally placed in each narrative to highlight the pivot from an almost directionless roaming ministry among his own people to a straight and intentional journey to the cross and the salvation of the world.

Another purpose of this mountaintop event has just recently worked its way into my thick head. It’s about Jesus unbinding himself from human attempts to categorize, co-opt, and control him. It’s Jesus telling us that we cannot define him or his saving work. And this becomes even more clear when we pull back and read the passages just before the mountaintop experience, particularly in Matthew. There, Jesus tells his inner circle of disciples (the Twelve) that he is headed to his death at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious leaders and will be raised from death just a few days later. Peter goes ballistic and scolds Jesus for even saying such a thing. Jesus returns a verbal body blow by calling Peter “Satan” (meaning “Tempter”, among other things), and telling him not to be a stumbling block.

Shifting gears just a bit, Jesus teaches that “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16.24) In other words, Jesus has a job to do (saving the world) that needs to be done a specific way (through his suffering and death), and to follow him requires becoming ready for a similar sacrifice by letting go of one’s own life to make God’s redemptive purpose the higher priority.

Before we’ve even begun to climb the mountain with Jesus, he has made it clear that only God and God’s redemptive, world-saving purpose defines who he is and what he does. We can make no claims on him and what he is about. Pretty powerful and jarring stuff on an era when we try in many ways to shape God in our own image and tell Jesus his business in order to protect or give advantage to the Church or our politics.

So. . . for the next few Sundays, I’ll be trying let Jesus tell us who he is through the passages mentioned above while also identifying how we try to define Jesus in some rather unhelpful ways.

Of course, this means I’ll be talking about religion and politics, two of three things one should never discuss at a dinner party. Praise God we’ll be in a church.

I thought I was tossing my congregation a softball Sunday morning. For several Sundays I’ve been pushing them pretty hard with some challenging preaching, such as two Sundays ago when I took on the relationship of religion and science (which, by necessity, pulled in biblical interpretation, Creationism, and evolution). To give us all a break I offered up a bread’n’butter sermon entitled “What Does Jesus Christ Want Us to Do?”

I came up with the idea for the sermon while thinking about the many times I’ve been asked by a parishioners what Jesus wants us to do within various difficult situations. Throwing together Scripture from Matthew and John, I came up with a preachable list of general tasks that outline the Christian life:

  1. Believe in and believe Jesus (which means not just cognitive assent but change of heart; John 3:16 & various other bits from the 4th gospel).
  2. Let go of our worldly attachments, especially to wealth and possessions (I.E. remove the competition for who gets our loyalty… our stuff or God; Matthew 19:16-22).
  3. Learn to love as Jesus does (John 13:34-35).
  4. Put that love to use serving others, especially the “least” (Matthew 25:31-46).

This is boilerplate stuff, as preaching goes.

About mid-afternoon Sunday, I had an “Oh My GAWD!” moment when it hit me how counter-cultural and subversive this stuff really is. Believing in Jesus (in particular, as Lord) coupled with letting go of attachments to things that might compete for our loyalty to Jesus, pushes to the backseat our nationalism (patriotism, if one prefers) and even family. This is especially subversive, especially for conservative Evangelicals in my country (America) whose majority of concerns seem to be around family and patriotism.

Letting go of attachments is also very dangerous to our consumption-based economy. What would happen if millions of Americans decided that we don’t need to buy so much stuff so frequently?

Loving as Jesus does and serving the “least” are at least as dangerous and subversive. I live in a nation that idolizes the mythical rugged, self-sufficient, individual who wouldn’t think of burdening those around him. Since the Reagan years, the driving economic theory is supply-side. Even though the American middle class has been economically static, if not slipping, we as a society seem to buy in to the idea that wealth will trickle down from wealthy, lightly regulated corporations to the rest of us, especially if we can find more ways to give them more money. We idolize the rich and powerful. Moreover, we blame the poor for their poverty and resist doing more to help them, whether that help is a higher minimum wage or continuing welfare for the long-term unemployed (to name a few). So, the idea that we should help the “least”—the poor, powerless, disenfranchised, and needy—runs against the grain.

A favorite mental experiment is to imagine how Jesus Christ would be received today. I suspect that the mildest reaction might be to ignore him and laugh him off. The strongest reaction would probably a good-ole-fashioned lynching, corporately funded using tax-sheltered income and cheered on by a gang of conservative Evangelicals (or even United Methodist clergy who disagree with Jesus’ stand on homosexuality… but that’s another story).