Archive for February, 2014

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).

I dislike meetings. I have too short an attention span to sit through most meetings. I often do not have the patience for meetings that decide nothing (a heckuva situation for a United Methodist Elder . . . I am thinking about proposing a name change at the next General Conference — The United Meeting Church). And I have even less patience for the formality and officiousness of Roberts Rules of Order.

More importantly, I dislike meetings because they were, for a time, dangerous places to be. I would often walk into a meeting and either be ambushed from behind the white-board or attacked outright. Meetings had become unpleasant gripe sessions.

I no longer step into a hornets nest when I attend a meeting but I have yet to shake the PTSD. I hope I am scribbling the trauma out of my system . . .

. . . because I have to go to another meeting.

The Dream. . . Again

Posted: 2014/02/03 in Uncategorized

Disclaimer: This blog entry may be uncomfortably or annoyingly self-reflective. If you do not want a glimpse inside my head, get out now.

Once again, The Dream—not quite a nightmare but the kind that leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling, a bit like having eaten a little too much of my grandmother’s oyster dressing during Thanksgiving dinner only to find out that the oysters were well past their “use by” date. The Dream always starts with a conundrum: I am at the end of my seminary training and I am taking a class that has no apparent connection to anything else in seminary. It is almost always an English or literature class, which is never quite specified. There are about two weeks left before the class’ major project is due, but I have not attended class, read any of the assigned material, or started on a project that requires months of work. My only recourse is to hand nothing in and, effectively, drop the class. My subconscious nausea comes from the anxiety I have that by doing so I will not have enough hours to complete my M-Div and thus my ordination will be disqualified (how I became ordained before finishing seminary is a mystery).

I suppose a Freudian psychotherapist might find something in The Dream about sex. I am pretty sure the The Dream has nothing to do with sex. Moreover, it occurs only when I feel that I am not getting things done in a timely fashion. If it is triggered only when I am busy and struggling to get things done, then I will be happy to let it go.

More intriguing, though, is the doubt I have within The Dream that my qualifications and credentials for ministry are real and valid. This is, I suppose, a reflection of my waking life as a high-functioning self-doubter (I wonder if such a diagnosis is in the DSM?). I often feel I am not very good at whatever I am doing until someone gets in my face and tells me otherwise, and then I doubt that I believe them.

In fact, I suspect that all I have written here is gibberish. Well. . . if it helps banish The Dream, it is worth the waste of electrons and bandwidth.