Sermon: Proper 5, The Third Sunday after Pentecost (RCL Year C, Track 2)

Preached 9 June 2013, Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, Albuquerque

You may have heard the variation of that old joke about the wife who is trying to get her husband out of bed on Sunday morning.  He’s says, “I don’t want to go church this morning.”  And the wife says, “I really think you should.”  And the husband says, “Why” And the wife says, “Because I really think you need to hear the sermon this morning.” The husband says, “How do you know?” And she says, “You left it open on the computer when you finished writing it last night.”

I can assure you Deborah didn’t have any trouble getting me out of bed this morning.  I am excited to be here, but after reading it over again this morning I realize this sermon is definitely something I need to hear.

When hearing these lessons, the thing that my mind goes to right away is the pain that these mothers, these widows must have felt at the death of the children.  In the reading from 1 Kings, we have a widow, who in the passage just previous to ours was preparing a final meal for her and her son, expecting that after that last meal they would die of starvation.  Elijah comes along, asks her to make him some food. When she does, her supplies are miraculously multiplied and she and her son are saved from starvation.  And, then, just like that, her son dies.  And she turns to Elijah and says, “Is this some cruel joke?  Did God save my son from starvation just to have him die?

As a father of one, with another child on the way, as someone who in the past has felt the pain of miscarriage, as someone who has stood by as people very close to me have dealt with infertility, I can only just begin to understand the devastation of losing a child, or of not being able to have children.  It is a devastation that I couldn’t adequately put into words even if I wanted to.  But it is an important aspect of our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning.  The biblical writers only hint at the agony these mothers, these two widows, must have felt at the death of their children.

These two readings remind me of another story, found in 2 Kings, in which Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, encounters another woman who extends hospitality toward him, and when he finds out that she and her husband cannot have children, he prays and she conceives and gives birth to a son, only to have that son die several years later.  And there again is that heart-rending question, why?  Why God did you give me this gift only to take it away?  In fact the Bible is full of these stories, having to do with children, of couples who have trouble conceiving, of children nearly dying, or dying, of sometimes getting raised back to life, and sometimes not.  There are literally dozens of stories like this in both the old and new testaments.  What does all this say about us, about children, and about God?

As mentioned earlier, my wife and I are expecting our second child, so I have been brooding about these questions for some time before I began preparing this sermon.  I have been experiencing what is hopefully a normal phenomena; I call it world-nesting, where I not only want to make a place for my unborn daughter in our home, I want to make a place for her in the world, meaning I feel compelled to solve all the world’s problems for her, make everything perfect; you know real quick, I’ll just figure out a way to end violence in our schools in between painting the nursery and buying a new crib.  Ask Deborah, when she is pregnant, I become the recycling Nazi, because I don’t want the world my little girl grows up in to be a dump.  The morning paper becomes my to-do list for things in the world that need fixing before it is safe to bring my daughter into it.  And of course I can’t get past the first headline.  And then a few weeks ago, I ran across an interview with the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas.  Dr. Hauerwas was asked about radical Christianity, radical in the sense of counter the culture of this world, radical in the sense of living into the strange and revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God.  He was asked, what was the most radical thing a Christian could do?  Here was his answer:

“One of the most radical things that being Christian commits you to is the willingness to have the patience to have children.  It’s very radical.  What it means to have a child is to learn to live without control.  And to learn to live out of control.  We try to become very good at controlling the world, to make the world safe for children.  And as soon as you try to make sure that your children are not at risk, because you want to make sure they can get out of life alive, then you do them a disservice.  This is a dangerous world.  And by being a Christian, it makes it more dangerous.”

The willingness to have the patience to have children, it just hit me like a ton of bricks.  As much as I like to be in control, or more accurately, as much as I enjoy the quaint illusion that I are in control, I cannot hold onto that as a parent, and we cannot hold on to that as followers of Jesus.  We are not in control.  That is the first message of the stories of the two widows who lost their sons.  The world is a dangerous place, and none of us, and none of our loved ones can make it out of life alive.

So why, why does God give us children, why does God give us anyone to love, why does God give us a caring community, only for it all to go away?  It is easy to give in to fear, to become pessimistic, or nihilistic.  It’s easy to wonder what the point of it all is. But then we come to the second message of our two readings. I like how Hauerwas puts it:

“Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (although intent on blowing itself to bits) is God’s creation (a fact we could not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living—and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,” but because God is the hope of the future.

Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world.  Because we have confidence in God, we find the confidence in ourselves to bring new life into this world.”

That is why children were the most important people to Jesus.  Why he had compassion on the widow and raised her son from the dead. That is why we must have the faith of a child to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is why our most important job as Christians is to be patient and caring toward our children, and not just our own children, but the children in our church and our wider community.  In fact, it is why we must be patient and caring toward all those who do not have anything to offer in return, because that act bears witness to the grace and compassion of a God who, in our weakness, came among us, became weak with us, and showed us a better way, a way of redemption and reconciliation and peace for all.  When Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead, the people exclaimed, “God has visited his people.”  God has not abandoned the world, quite to the contrary, Christ on the cross abandoned himself to the world, and for the world.

And so we must be patient.  And that after all is what ordinary time is about.  If Easter is about Resurrection, about Christ conquering death, if Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the church, then Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost, is about patience.  Patience means trusting in the promise of Easter in the face of everyday life, both its mundane parts, and its incredibly painful parts.  Patience belongs to the ones who accept that they are not in control, the ones who know that through patient caring for one another, for the weak and for the vulnerable, we can live into what we are destined to be as the church: a sign that God has not abandoned the world.  Amen.

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Future News: Episcopal Edition

Tony Sig

Wednesday, June 5th 2028

Today the Episcopal General Convention discussed a recent blog post from 2013 stating that young people are leaving Facebook at a startlingly high rate. Several Boomer priests concerned about the continued loss of financial benefactors, or ‘parishoners’, proposed that a committee be formed to study if young people are indeed leaving Facebook. The Committee to Maintain Cultural Relevance Among Young People or C2MCRAP would release their findings via group email one month before the next General Convention in 2031, along with some suggestions on what The Episcopal Church should do about it.

Debate was fierce on the floor. Fr. Jim Jefferson, well known for his blog ThinkingProgressivelyBetterThanOtherAnglicansEspeciallyTwoThirdsWorldOnes.com, was fired up, saying that young people are leaving Facebook and TEC because of tired old stale orthodoxies that just don’t make sense in a 2020’s world. “Why are we saying that Jesus rose from the dead? Twitter is 22 years old. Get with the program!”

Fr. Jeff Jimmerson, himself famous for StandingFirmLikeAStickInYourAss.com, decried the conversation, saying that the reason young people are leaving Facebook and TEC is because the church abandoned the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. “None of this would ever have happened if we had stuck with Eucharistic Prayer C.” When it was pointed out that Fr. Jimmerson wasn’t even in TEC anymore but in a random splinter-cell that used a mixture of the 1549, 1928, 1979 BCPs and the Roman Missal, he started screaming something incoherent about apostolic succession until escorted out by security.

Shortly after that the Super Ultra Very Right Rev Dr Feff Fifferson told a very moving story about a young person in his diocese which, while sentimental, had almost nothing to do with the topic at hand, though somehow everyone felt moved to “be more missional” after his speech.

As debate rose to a fever pitch eyes turned to the young Rev. Sarah Evans, aged 42, as everyone demanded to know why young people like her weren’t coming to church anymore. When she said she’d love to stay and chat but had to go pick up her 15 year old daughter from school, murmurs of “kids these days” filled the arena.

Easter IV – 2013: John 10:22-30

 

John 10:22-30

I vividly remember the first time I felt completely unprotected.  In fact, as an adult reflecting back on the event, I am more horrified than I was experiencing it as a child.  It’s one of my earliest memories; I was just three or four years old.  My father, who was then a young man in his twenties, had a friend who was over, showing off a new convertible sports car.  A sports car that my father, in all of his paternal wisdom, had refused to let me near.  They were saying their goodbyes, and I, a willful child that had spent the better part of the day begging for a ride in the two-seater, decided it was time to take matters into my own hands.  My father’s friend had not understood what the big deal about the car was, so when I climbed into the small space between the driver and passenger seats as he was leaving, I remember him saying, “Let’s have a little fun with your old man.”

The engine roared to life, the car jumped forward, and then swayed lithely from side to side as the air around us filled with the screech and stink of spinning tires.  As a child that spent life drifting little matchbox cars around imaginary race tracks in my mother’s yard, I was in ecstasy.  I felt my stomach hug my spine in an awkward embrace as the tires grabbed the asphalt and the car surged forward.  The moment was testosterone fueled bliss until I turned to look over my shoulder at my dad, thinking he would be just as excited as I was.  My father was shrinking quickly, but the look of panic was growing.  Of course, all my little eyes could interpret on my father’s face was anger, so I began immediately to plead with his friend to turn around and take me back.  He said, “Sorry, I’m already on the road, and I have a quick errand to run.  I’ll bring you back later.”  I remember feeling vulnerable, helpless, and completely convinced that the look on my father’s face meant bad things for me.  So, I did what any reasonable terrified child would do.  I lashed out like a cat trying to dodge a bath.  I kicked, screamed, bit, and pulled hair. 

Today, I think back and am amazed that he was able to keep the car on the road with a feral preschooler attacking his face.  Needless to say, I made it home and was not permanently harmed in the incident, though, I never saw my dad with that friend again.  For me, the enduring lesson of that day is that there are circumstances that will leave us feeling unprotected and out-of-control.  It was obviously a powerful moment for me as a person, because it was the day that the childhood illusion of safety was broken.  All things considered, though, it is a nice story to tell because it is also a safe lesson.  There was no lasting harm.  We might even be able to enjoy the humor of visualizing a raging toddler wrapped around the head of a man driving down the road in a convertible.

The unfortunate reality that this world is not a safe place remains, however.  It is harsh, but nonetheless true, that many people learn that they can be made vulnerable in violent and horrific ways.  Some are made vulnerable by having their source of protection snatched away by accident or illness. 

And, of course, we all gather today with a sense of questioning and grief.  We are concerned, and we contemplate the losses that we as a nation have suffered because of recent events.  Around our country this week, (and I assure you around the world,) so many innocent people learned that they can be made vulnerable – that this world can be an unsafe place.

We have the happy coincidence of a Gospel reading that addresses these exact issues this week.

Of particular interest, especially in light of recent tragedies which include the bombings at the Boston Marathon, is the fact that John utilizes an exchange between Jesus and “the Jews” in the Temple at the Feast of Dedication to illuminate a new paradigm.  This feast is probably better known to us as Hanukah.  It is significant that the Jews ask a question about whether Jesus is the Messiah at the Temple during the Feast of Dedication, because this is the very Temple Judah “the Hammer,” or Judas Maccabeus, defeated the Seleucid army, winning back the Jews’ right to worship freely.  It’s an event retold in your Bible in the book of 1 Maccabees.

As a result of his heroics, Judah “the Hammer” earned a spot among other beloved leaders in Jewish history.  He stood out along with the likes of King David as a warrior-leader, and many began to wonder whether he was the promised Messiah.  We know from other passages in the Gospels that some near Jesus expected that he would fulfill their desires for a warrior-king in likeness of King David or Judas Maccabeus.  They waited for a courageous leader that would lead the Jewish faithful in an uprising that would bring down an oppressive Roman occupation and elevate Israel to its former glory.  It’s likely that these Jews in John chapter 10 had a similar hope in mind when they ask Jesus to demonstrate plainly whether he is the Messiah during the Feast of Dedication.

Jesus’ response, then, might have come as somewhat of a shock when he explains that he has already demonstrated clearly that he is the Messiah.  They sought proof of an insurrection, but he calmly explains that one of Yahweh’s other promises has already been fulfilled in their midst.  Jesus recalls imagery of the promised shepherd of Israel in his response.  While many throughout the Jews’ history were intended by God to fulfill the role of protector and nurturer, they all had failed.  Jesus points out that the signs and teaching he provides are proof positive that he is the Good Shepherd of Israel.

It is somehow fitting, during this terrible week that we read a passage where many Jews found themselves under oppression, yearning for the justice and retribution that a military hero would bring, only to find a Messiah that planned to bring about a different reality, a Messiah that promised to fill a different need.

This passage in John provides an opportunity for even deeper reflection, though.  Present in this passage is a demonstration of the early church’s struggle with the person of Christ.    For the first few centuries of Christianity, scholars and church leaders wrestled with the paradox of Jesus’ dual natures.  It was their struggle, and interestingly enough, it remains one of our struggles.  Just how should we understand the person of Jesus Christ?  How does Jesus exist as the eternal God that became truly human?

The answer comes in part from how St. John handles our Gospel reading today.  When Jesus claims to be the Messiah by fulfilling the promise of the Good Shepherd he does so by giving a simple equation with a surprise twist that shocked the Jews.

Jesus tells them, the answer that they seek has been plainly revealed, but they don’t believe, because they do not belong.  Here’s how he says it works: the Father sent Jesus, the works Jesus does in the Father’s name testify about his status as the one being sent.

Jesus’ ability to work signs is God’s ratification of his ministry and status. God’s ratification comes, because Jesus is a righteous, loving, obedient son.  According to Jesus, all of this is possible in the first place, because Jesus the Son, and God the Father are One.

In John, Jesus declares that we can know what God is like by seeing what Jesus does.  In his declaration as Messiah, Jesus drops a bomb and essentially says, “Your promised deliverer isn’t just sent from God, He is God.”  Further, Jesus explains that his purpose in coming is to make the Father known.  And here is an essential lesson in our theology.  If you want to know what God is really like, look at what Jesus does.

Up to this point in Jewish history, God’s chosen people have relied upon the Old Testament to be a demonstration of God’s true nature and will.  This is a difficult thing, even for the Jews, because the Old Testament is comprised of many documents that are in tension with not only each of the other documents but also within themselves.  For centuries, the Jews were left puzzling out what God was like through the way they saw him acting in their own history.  Consequently, as they texts of the Old Testament follow the historical events of the Israelites, you see how the people interpreted their experiences in relation to God.  When they were obedient and victorious, God was a bloody warrior-king or a majestic-mysterious presence right in their midst.  When they suffered oppression for their sinfulness as a nation, God was distant and indifferent to their plight – he was an absentee father or a scorned lover.

Regardless of the ways these texts point to how God was acting in Jewish history, one huge problem remained for the Jews (and remains for us).  God was transcendent.  He was distant and enormous.  He was “out there,” even when he was acting on their behalf or sitting in the holy of holies.  God remained utterly unknowable and totally unassailable.

But in our Gospel reading Jesus promises that God can now be known, because he is here in the flesh.  Working backward through Jesus’ own statements; if he and the Father are one, then the works that demonstrate his Messianic identity are also the works of the Father.  We need Jesus to show us what God is like in terms we can understand.  God, being eternal and transcendent, becomes knowable through his own humanity.  Consequently, we have a clear way to understand what God is like.  We just have to look at Jesus.

It is a powerful declaration, then, that when pressed in the temple at the Feast of Dedication to prove whether he was the Messiah (you should understand this to mean, “If you’re the Messiah we expect, then it’s time to get with the military campaign”) he prefers to be the Good Shepherd and not the Warrior-King.  When faced with the plight of humanity and the oppression of the Israelites, Jesus chose to be a protector, healer, teacher, and priest – a suffering servant.  He did not choose to incite rebellion, to call down angelic armies, or debilitate the regime of the oppressor – he is not, here, a conquering hero.  All of this is particularly significant, because he expects us to receive his actions, miracles, and signs as a direct expression of what God is like.

 

Many of us will struggle with this, especially in light of recent events.  We want evil to be eradicated criminals to be apprehended, and perpetrators to be punished.  When we are robbed of security and peace, we want the thing that disturbed our lives to be removed, abolished, or controlled.  These are exactly the kinds of things the Jews wanted their Messiah to do for them.  Instead, he taught with patience, healed with compassion, loved with no boundaries…

In the midst of shocking realities like the fact that Jesus represents God in the unity of the Holy Trinity or that his purpose as Messiah would be to deal with the hurt of humanity through love and healing, we might just miss the promise in this morning’s text.  So, let’s read it again…

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

We find that all of this is happening in our own lives within the larger context of Eastertide.  So, what should we do in light of the Resurrection?  Of all the metaphors that Jesus’ uses for his relationship to the world, you’ll find many of them rely heavily on a notion of companionship.  Among others he is the Vine that abides, the Bread that sustains, the Water that quenches, the Light that endures, and (here) the Shepherd that is known by his sheep.  Why do the sheep know his voice?  Because they know him, and because they abide with him.

It is because of this, and because as Christians that intentionally follow the pattern of Christ’s life year in and year out, that we understand that walking with Christ in his suffering, in his death, and in his resurrection means that we ought to do those things that he has done.  By participating in his life, and doing those things he gave us to do by example, we are enacting the will of God in this world.  We become participants in the building of his kingdom, energized and enabled by the power of the resurrection.

Therefore, we could not have hoped for a more clear indication of how to respond to the evil we see in this world.  In being shepherded by the Good Shepherd, we learn what it means to be a shepherd to others – to protect, to guard, to love, and to serve others.  These are the actions of God himself in the face of suffering, pain, and evil.

So, what exactly does shepherding others look like?  I know it has become somewhat kitschy to quote at this point, but as the British wartime adage goes, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

It’s simple.  It’s succinct.  It points to the fact that many of you have spent lives dedicated to bringing about good.  Just because evil rears its ugly head in horrific ways, it doesn’t mean that your work is in vain.  It means that we must continue to do good work, to continue to train others to do good work, to support and love those that have not yet learned how.  It means that we continue to shepherd in our own small ways, in spite of pain or trouble.  Keep calm and carry on in your good work.

Allow me to suggest that you already know the voice of the shepherd, and in turn know what to do to shepherd others.

First, you should pray.  I learned quickly this week that I did not want to spend a lot of time reading news reports on the internet, especially the comment sections.  One commenter, presumably of some faith or other, stated early that she was praying for all those in Boston.  Another person, presumably of no faith, commented back, “Yeah, sure, pray…great way to make yourself feel like your doing some good without actually doing anything.  What a waste of time.”  I have to admit that my initial reaction was, “well, there might be a point there” and it bothered me – but, the more I reflected on it, I began to realize nothing was further from the truth.  When we engage in genuine prayer, we are not only petitioning action from our God, we are also making a concerted effort to humble ourselves and be changed by the Holy Spirit.  If everyone in this world made a genuine effort to purge their lives of selfish ambition, pride, and all those things that drove us to act only in our own interest and not in the interest of others, this world would indeed be a different place.  WE would be a different people.  Pray.  Pray for yourself and pray for others.

Second, you should give.  I know the immediate thing that jumps to mind is giving economic resources, and it’s logical.  We constitute a physical people in a physical church with physical needs.  We all give in order to continue the ministries of this church.  But, please, do not stop there.  Do not underestimate how much it means to others in this community when you give of yourself.  When you volunteer your time, your talents, and energy, you are giving sacrificially.  It is a personal sacrifice that is meaningful, valuable to the community.  It is a sacrifice that is pleasing to the Lord, and beneficial to your own growth.  Give.  Give out of your resources.  Give out of your time.  Give out of your abilities.  Give of yourself and give to others.

Third, you should worship.  Our personal acts of worship are for the glory of God, but there are beneficial to us personally and to our congregation.  When we bless God and each other with our worship, we both demonstrate and proclaim that the light of the world cannot be overcome.  When violence seeks to silence, we should sing louder.  When despair tries to darken, we should shine brighter.  When evil threatens to steal our hope, we should trust our Savior and throw ourselves at his feet with abandon.  When we come together to worship we encourage and strengthen each other.  I must confess that I was eager to get to church this morning – both to check on you and to connect with you.  Your presence here is valuable.  Your hugs, your smiles, and your interactions make this a wonderful place to be.  Your worship helps the light of Easter to shine more brightly.

In seeing the actions of Jesus we know the character of God; and in sharing the power of his resurrection we are enable to so behave.  Because he is the Good Shepherd, we are able to shepherd others.  These are the basis of our ability to see the weak and the vulnerable protected.  They are the foundation of our confidence that the light of good, that the light of Easter, will continue to overcome the darkness in this fallen world.  Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Night-sledding in Boscobel

Tony Sig

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fluffed snow falls continuous and light;
A subtle background to the purple night–
A quiet bidding for the towny kids
To grab their sleds and climb to the top of the hill,
Not rowdy fun or boisterous play, but still.
Night-sledding’s like a solemn evensong:
The snow gives call, we all respond. Along
The frozen ladder angelic intellects
Descend to join the chorus. (After all,
Delight’s the deepest life of the great and the small)
Across the cemetery, above the pines,
Before the football field and covered diamonds,
(Where children carry on their little games)
We, all assembled in our various array,
Process as Winter’s acolytes at play.
The first one down the virgin slope suggests
A path that one may take or not. The best
Line will be found out as each to each cascade.
Not that there’s just a single best to take;
Tonight there’s endless trails yet to make,
And there’s also endless time to make them.
The sun is down, what does it matter eight or ten
Or later? We’re here until the cantor sounds
The ending: Let us bless the Lord, thanks be
To God. We pack up sled and reverently
Return to our warm homes. The walk’s a slow
Going as nothing’s been yet cleared of snow.
But hope of cocoa makes it passable–
The kind with marshmallows you mix in hot
Water or milk– a sweet liquor hard bought.

A Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper[?]: A Review

Tony Sig

If we have any long-time readers, they will surely recall that there was a time when we talked much more regularly about Pentecostal matters. All the writers past and present have been Pentecostal at one time or another and two of us are proud sons of Assemblies of God pastors. But that aspect of our blog identity has largely faded. Here I would like to make another contribution our forgotten past by talking about Dr. Chris Green’s book Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper. I should confess up front, though, that I am friends with Chris, I like him a lot, agree with him most of the time, and he gave me the book. I should also say that I do not plan to systematically review the book in light of the rather extensive review a mutual friend of ours, Jason Goroncy, wrote. Do please give his a look.

This book is a modification of Green’s thesis and thus includes what is customary for such works: A history of research section, a section of historical theology, constructive work, and suggestions for further research. At Chris’s own instigation, I skipped ahead of the history of research chapter and dug right into the surprising and energetic chapter three, a (revisionist) historical account of the Lord’s Supper in the primary works of early Pentecostalism, including both the Weslyan/Holiness and Finished Work veins. Contrary to received opinion, Chis shows time and again how central the practice of communion was in early Pentecostalism. In the practice of the Lord’s Supper many testified to healings, many experienced affective intimacy with the Lord, and many even spoke of the Supper as a sharing in Christ’s very life. They were able to talk about the Supper in a way that was far more ‘metaphysically suggestive’ than their universally explicit denial of baptismal efficaciousness.

I found this section to be entirely fascinating. Growing up, there was little to nothing that we ever learned about the early Pentecostals. Ironically, I have learned more about Pentecostal history after becoming Anglican than I did before. Like learning that early Pentecostals were mostly pacifist and that they overcame (however temporarily) racial and gender boundaries in worship and ministry, learning about this persistent reflection on and experience of the Eucharist was a delightful surprise. One thing to note, though, is that there remained a strong resistance to suggesting grace was mediated by practices. Grace just sort of floated around while things were going on. In this way, Pentecostals still remained anti-sacramental in thought if not in practice.

Another great section of the book is dedicated to exegeting three key passages of Scripture related to the Lord’s Supper. Of these three I found Green’s investigation of 1 Corinthians to be creative and insightful enough to entirely reorient the way I think about the theme and structure of the letter, as well, obviously, as its content. For Chris, it is not hyperbolic to see the whole letter as a tract on the Supper and how the Corinthians’ various misdeeds are a violation of the reality of the meal.

After all this footwork, Chris enters upon some of his own constructive work on the Lord’s Supper, specifically what everything he’s just talked about means for Pentecostals. Interestingly I found very little in this section that is controversial, the lone exception being a rather scholastic point about whether the bread and wine are entirely transformed (as in McCabe, who he uses as an example) or whether they remain both objects of this world and of the world to come simultaneously, which is the position Chris advocates. But! This is only because of my own Anglican tradition and exposure to the larger tradition. I am confident that to a Pentecostal, most of this chapter will be a scandal, as it indeed ought to be. Yet if this chapter was not for me controversial, it was uplifting and suggestive, stretching and challenging.

Truth be told, this work is an apologetic, revisionist, and polemical work, in all the best senses of those words. That the polemic is rarely aggressive or rude doesn’t detract from its force. Green is calling on Pentecostals entirely to reorient their thoughts and practices on the Lord’s Supper. Luckily for us all, he has given them vast resources from which to pull in order to accomplish this. Whereas some in the Pentecostal world view the work of Assemblies liturgical theologian Simon Chan as alien and covert catholicizing, Chris pulls extensively and to great affect on Pentecostal sources and on extended Scriptural exegesis, such that they are without excuse!

If I have any critiques of the book, they are few and relatively minor. The index was not thorough: Consider that Sergius Bulgakov is cited seven times in the book (pp. 263, 278, 282, 285, 291, and twice on 292) but only pg. 285 makes the index itself. I also felt the book could’ve used some editing of Chris’ unique style, whose neologisms were extensive enough to confuse my brain – and more importantly, the flow of the argument –  as I read; mixed metaphors and manners of speaking also contributed to this. I also wonder to what extent it was in Green’s best interest to rely so strongly on Robert Jenson; not because Jenson isn’t a worthy theologian, but because his ecumenical Lutheranism isn’t exactly conducive to Pentecostalism.

The harshest things I have to say are less about the book and more questions about Pentecostalism itself. I wonder, given the extent of “what is required” of Pentecostalism to live up to Green’s excellent work, does this not tend to suggest that Pentecostalism, as a tradition, lacks the resources to be more fully Christian without ceasing to be uniquely itself? An example: Green says that Pentecostals will have to forcibly transform the way they read Scripture. Their current way of reading Scripture shows how novel their view of Scripture is, and how weak is the christology that feeds it. What is in fact called for in this hermeneutical transformation is nothing less than a revision of their de jure christology. And there are several other such examples. I have long claimed that there are several important gifts that Pentecostals can give the larger Church. Yet there are resources at hand in most churches to ‘receive’ those gifts, whereas I’m less sure there are resources within Pentecostalism to accomodate the Tradition without a substantive shift in Pentecostal identity.

A Different Kind of List: 2012 Music Favorites

Tony Sig

In years past I have offered a “best of” list for a year’s worth of music, knowing full well that such a list is limited and subjective. But everyone offers these lists, so this year I will be more creative and even more subjective.

Some Favorite Female Artists

First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar
Sharon Van Etten, Tramp
Norah Jones, Little Broken Hearts (A mature step forward for this artist)
Best Coast, The Only Place
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Favorite Guitar Tone

Mint,” from Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur
Runner Up: Japandroids, Celebration Rock <— Also winner of Best Record From Canadians
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Favorite Local Record, Favorite Record With Two Drummers, & The New Minneapolis Sound

POLICA, Give You The Ghost
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Most Culturally Astute Record

Anais Mitchell, Young Man In America
Runner Up: Passion Pit, Gossamer
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Favorite Record That’s Actually Pretty Good But Only Famous For One Single

Gotye, Making Mirrors
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Record Full Of The Most Beautiful Short Little Pop Ballads You Ever Heard

Perfume Genius, Put Your Back N 2 It
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Best Indie Rock LPs That I Rather Like But Probably Won’t Listen To In A Year

The Men, Open Your Heart
Metz, METZ
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light
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Best Indie Rock LPs That I Rather Like And Will Listen To In A Year

Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory
Alt-J, An Awesome Wave
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Albums That Were Predictably Fantastic Since They Come From Predictably Fantastic Artists

Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself, & Hands of Glory
Beach House, Bloom
The Tallest Man On Earth, There’s No Leaving Now
The Walkmen, Heaven
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Favorite Nostalgic Records

Twin Shadow, Confess
J. D. McPherson, Signs & Signifiers
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Records In A Genre I Normally Don’t Listen To, R&B, But Were So Good I Listened To Them Over And Over

Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man In The Universe
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Best Record By A Former Drummer of Fleet Foxes

Father John Misty, Fear Fun
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Records That I Wanted To Like More But Was Mostly Bored With

Sigur Ros, Valtari
The xx, Coexist
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Records Of Outstanding Quality

Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Grizzly Bear, Shields
Jack White, Blunderbuss
Hammock, Departure Songs
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
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There are about a dozen or so more records that I recommend, and one could find them on my Spotify List “2012 Worth Your Time.” Do please leave other suggestions in the comments. Until next year, vivat ars musica!

And The Word Became Flesh: Darth Vader & The Incarnation, A Christmas Sermon

Tony Sig

 

At the request of a handful of my friends, I am posting the sermon I preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota, on Christmas Day.

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In many great stories, there is a moment when something totally unexpected occurs that radically alters the shape of the narrative. Yet these twists can never really be entirely unexpected or arbitrary because then they feel imposed on the reader and foreign to the story up to that point. Usually after such a surprise happens, details are filled out so that we the hearer can understand how this strange thing came to be, and these details help not only to make sense of the plot twist, but help to illuminate and recast all that has come before. A classic example is the moment when, having just cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand, Darth Vader reveals that he is in fact Luke’s own father. Nothing to that point, or so we thought, had prepared us for this revelation: Vader is the dark, powerful henchman of the mysterious emperor, prone to strangling people with a twist of his fingers; Luke is the naive, whiny redneck who is destined to overthrow Vader, his mortal enemy; how can it be that he is bone of Vader’s bone – and of a mighty attractive princess from Naboo I might add? But soon after this baffling revelation, things that happened before start to make more sense, and even things that appeared to contradict this twist are shown to have a deeper meaning. Remember when Obi wan Kenobi said that Luke’s father was dead? But it turned out the inner meaning to this was that Anakin Skywalker was no longer recognizable in Vader. And let’s not even get into the fact that Leia is Luke’s sister.

Interestingly enough, the passage we read from the Gospel of John has its own story to tell about light and dark, and about unexpected events that, once they have occurred, not only make sense of themselves but help to illuminate all that went before, and all that will come after. And so John begins with some very familiar words: “In the beginning was the Word.” Now I wonder if these words sound strangely reminiscent of something we’ve read before. Let’s turn to the very first lines of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. There we hear: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning.” It’s not just our translations, but the Greek itself is identical. John wants us to hear these resonances. Whatever else John is about to tell us, it has something to do with all that has gone before. All things, all of the created cosmos “came into being” through the Word that was with God right there at the start. Now what does it mean that all things were created through “the Word?” Well the Greek word we translate as “word” is logos, and it has many resonances. In different strands of ancient philosophy one could almost say that the logos of a thing was its “nature,” that which made something this rather than that; that which made it intelligible. And sometimes, as in Jewish theology, and in parts of Scripture commonly called “Wisdom Literature,” we hear about an organizing principle through which God created the heavens and the earth. The book of Wisdom says God was the one “who has made all things with his word;” and Psalm 33 says “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” Other parts of Scripture use the same kind of language, but with reference to the wisdom of God; for instance Proverbs says that “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke forth, and the clouds drop down the dew.” And I don’t think we need to understand wisdom and word as incompatible, because they’re really speaking about this single reality, that God creates and holds the world in existence from the depths of his own being.

Now, this is all well and good, right?, that God created the world through his Word, but what of it? Well, we aren’t simply being told about a mere fact; we’re being told that this word became flesh. The Word becoming flesh was part of the plan from the very beginning.

So part of the good news of Jesus is this: That God’s loving action has never waited idly or passively. From before there was time God was pouring his love out upon his Son, his Word, and in creating the cosmos through his Son, creation itself participates in this exchange. As John says, those who trust in this good news are made children of God; we share in the Son’s relationship to the Father, as it were.

I would be amiss if I didn’t here mention the importance of angels in the Christmas stories. An angel told Zechariah about the birth of his son John, who would be the Baptist, and an angel told Mary that she would bear Jesus; and an entire heavenly host appeared to shepherds in the fields to tell them about Jesus’s birth. The shepherds were given a glimpse of the pulsing complex reality of creation, where mysteries normally hidden from our view, came into plain sight. The angels themselves, anxiously awaited the birth of Jesus; they love humanity and rejoice in its salvation.

So God has always been acting for our salvation in creation; but he has also been preparing the way for his Son in other ways, supremely in taking a people to himself; in calling Israel, in giving them the Scriptures, in inspiring their prophets; all these things point to the coming of Jesus. Perhaps here a return to our initial analogy is appropriate. Sometimes an earlier part of a story takes on a new and striking light when seen through an unexpected plot twist. Take the passage from Isaiah: It is rather obvious that on an historical level, Isaiah is anticipating the restoration of the city of Jerusalem after the Israelites had been scattered in exile. But we can’t help but look at that passage anymore apart from what has happened in Jesus. In Jesus, the prediction of Israel’s salvation is retained, but given a new shape; The heavenly Jerusalem is now the salvation we have been given; God’s kingdom has come in Jesus and we taste its fruits, however fleetingly, in the Church’s life, and especially in the sacraments. Not only the city of Jerusalem, but every place, may become a site where the seeds of God’s promised salvation can take root. And so, when in St. Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father – praises God for the birth of his son, he says:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
    he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
    born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
    from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
    and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
    to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
    holy and righteous in his sight
    all the days of our life.

Zechariah knows that in Jesus, God’s promises to Israel are coming to pass. One can see the same thing in the famous song of Mary, called the Magnificat. She proclaims:

God has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
    for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
    to Abraham and his children for ever.

So in the creation of the cosmos, and in the creation of Israel, God has always been actively at work, making the way for our salvation. Yet this is not all. Perhaps some might become uncomfortable with the idea that God’s plan is only known by a select group of people, be it ancient Israel or the Church. And while I would never want to marginalize the responsibility the Church has to testify to God’s work, I don’t believe we can say that God isn’t at work in people of other faiths or even of none. In fact, if God created the world and longs for everything and everyone to share in his love, then we have every reason to expect that the way for the good news has been and is being prepared everywhere. Now we didn’t read the story this morning, but surely most people recall the wise men who came from the East, following a star, to the town of Bethlehem to worship Jesus. We aren’t given much to know about them, but they surely were not Israelites. In traditional Christian worship, the wise men are taken to be representative of all gentile nations, just as the shepherds are representative of the Jews. We see, then, in the wise men, that God is always at work, preparing hearts so that they may be able to see in Jesus, their deepest longings.

But not everybody likes plot twists; and the sad truth is that there are some who react in strong ways to Jesus’s arrival. When the wise men told king Herod that they were looking for the Messiah, he felt his own position of power and authority was threatened, and in a terrible fit of anxiety, slaughtered innocent children. John’s own Gospel is filled with stories where Jesus is misunderstood, mistrusted, and rejected – sometimes even by his own disciples. In our reading we hear this, that Jesus came into “his own things,” which is to say to the creation which was made through him, and “his own people did not receive him.” Many of his own people were not able to accept that in Jesus, God’s promises to Israel were coming to pass. There may be things in our own lives that prevent us from believing the good news of joy and peace that we are hearing today. So how can, to borrow the words of the famous hymn, “Let every heart prepare him room?” It may be worthwhile to look at some of the people who were able to respond in faith to Jesus.

There were our friends the wise men. These were not a ragtag band of straggling astrologers; the gifts they gave to Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – these were kingly and expensive gifts indeed. And when they came, they were given an audience with King Herod in Jerusalem. One does not simply walk into Herod’s chambers and have a chat if one is not a person of some stature. They had seen the star roughly two years before their arrival in Jerusalem and probably came with an entire caravan with camels, tents, and servants. And this makes their story all the more remarkable. Because when they went from Herod and made their way to Bethlehem, and into a little space where the animals of village folk could stay, they didn’t up and leave, seeing such a place as beneath them, but in great humility, probably in fine well made clothes, gave their gifts and worshipped Jesus. Humility allows even the well born to recognize Jesus for who he really is.

There are also the shepherds. Poor and likely uneducated, they were in many ways the opposite of the wise men, but when they heard the angel’s message, and saw the heavenly chorus, they responded in faith, trusting that what the angels had said was true, despite the strangeness of the news. It might not seem that a poor woman’s baby was going to break the bonds of Roman oppression, but by faith they too saw Jesus for who he really is.

We need faith, because this work of God is a strange work, is it not? By some unfathomable mystery the word who holds the world in place became incarnate, took on human flesh, and dwelt among us, and so lifted our human nature that death itself no longer has dominion over us. It’s a strange work, and a hidden one! For nine months, God was hidden in Mary’s womb, and in hiddenness God’s work was already begun.

It is sadly true that during the holidays, there is as much depression and hurt as there is joy. We hear about deep loneliness, alcoholism, and broken families as much as Christmas cheer. Can God’s work of salvation be present even in such darkness? The answer to this can only be a yes. Jesus, John’s Gospel tells us, is the true light that illumines every person, the true life that has the power to make us children of God. Hear this good news, then; even when the work is hidden, God has always, God did, and God will always make a way for salvation.