See older posts from 2006 to 2014 on the blog archive site at blogarchive.kairosucc.org
Something about the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday led me to thinking about the various ways in which we approach scripture. A few times in my ministry I’ve taught a course on “Ways to Study the Bible.” I’m not going to tackle that large subject in a single blog entry. My reflections did lead me to a favorite book in my personal library, Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale. Written in 1977, it is still one of the best books on the task of preaching I have ever read. It’s a bit lyrical at times, maybe even fantastical, and heavily thought-provoking and challenging at others.
Any attempt to summarize or offer a representative quotation is doomed to failure, but I’ll do it anyway. The following two quotes come close to the author’s own summary, in my opinion. (The book was written in an era when “man” was used to designate all humanity, male and female. I’ve not changed that wording from the original.)
“The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy. And yet, so what? So, what if even in his sin the slob is loved and forgiven when the very mark and substance of his sin and of his slobbery is that he keeps turning down the love and forgiveness because he either doesn’t believe them or doesn’t want them or just doesn’t give a damn? In answer, the news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen to him just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen.”
I wouldn’t express some of the details in quite that way but I find it immensely helpful to think of the Gospel as tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale. It captures a lot of the way in which I experience the Gospel stories.
I offer three possible starting points for a conversation about this week’s lectionary readings. You can add your own, starting from an entirely different point.
Starting point number one: Kerygma. It’s the Greek word for “preaching.” It “has come to mean the core of the early church’s” telling of the story of Jesus. The leaders of the early church developed a summary of that story that was usually the beginning point of their sermons. “The term kerygma has come to denote the irreducible essence of Christian apostolic preaching.” I’m not going to try to set that summary in stone. It’s there in the sermon Peter preached after the astounding event experienced by those gathered for Pentecost. Those present wanted to know how and why this was happening?
The portion we are given features Peter standing up, preaching a sermon of explanation. He begins with that summary: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know---this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (vss. 22-24)
How would you summarize what you believe about Jesus? What part of Jesus’ story touches your life, is a source of power and meaning for you?
You can see that we have a ton of scriptures for Easter Sunday. The reasons are buried in the workings of church traditions which have many “set” services for Holy Week and Easter, including something called “Easter Vigil.” Easter Vigil was/is a long service in darkness that usually includes baptism. Think of it, maybe, as an Easter sunrise services, but more. Some traditions have a midnight service as Saturday turns to Sunday. Today, I’m just taking all these readings as a variety of scriptures that shed some light on our understanding of Easter, and I’m not even looking at the Easter Vigil text.
Both my memory and the internet fail me at times. Two memories came to mind that I would like to have included in my writing today---a song, Go to Galilee, by Rev. Al Carmines, and a joke about a child’s image of what it meant for Jesus to live inside him. I couldn’t remember either nor could I find them on the internet. I have the song on an old cassette tape, but I can’t get it to play on the only machine I own that is equipped to play such things. (If you want to know who Al Carmines is, you will find extensive information about him online.)
Easter discussions sometime get bogged down in how the resurrection happened, trying to describe, or debunk, the physical details. More power to you wherever you want to go with that. I won’t argue with you one way or another. What remains important to me is where we look for Jesus today and what we should look for?
It’s all about the authority which we allow to guide our lives, and about the kind of “king” that is worthy of that kind of obedience.
I came of age in an era when the term “counterculture” came into widespread use. Intentional communities (some called them “communes”) grew up where people attempted to live by values which challenged those prevailing in the wider and dominant culture. I was enamored with these communities and maintained contact with a number of them, although I never fully moved into one. In my adult years, I did spend a three-month sabbatical at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study and retreat center which functioned as an “alternative” residential community.
The churches of my early years were alternative communities of sorts. They refused to accept the cultural norms for the use of makeup, entertainment (no movies or dancing, for example), alcohol, etc. I remember refusing to participate when physical education included dancing. One may disagree with these particular restrictions, but there is no question that there was a bit of a countercultural attitude at work here.
Counterculturalism sometimes walks a fine line, leading to conspiracy theories and snipers, but, to this day, I find myself feeling a bit (and sometimes more than a bit) of dis-ease (and disease) with the values that seem to drive so much of society. My focus (and my denominational affiliation) have shifted to a concern for justice and peace. I look for alternatives to greed and reliance upon power and force. I look for compassion and cooperation rather than selfishness and competitiveness and conflict.
One of the ways scripture approaches such issues is by putting before us the choice of a “king,” calling us to think about what king, and what kind of king, we are ready to follow. The prophets, and Jesus, and the early church were often seen as a threat to the loyalty earthly kings demanded.
We see the threat coming to a climax in this week’s lectionary readings.
Ezekiel 37:8, part of one of the two long stories the lectionary gives us this week, is my starting point. It is a story that stirs childhood memories for me. Quartets from what was then called Multnomah School of the Bible (now Multnomah University) used to visit the church I was attending. They actually stayed in our home. Their program was rich in Bible stories, often with a lot of acting while they were singing.
Singing about “Dem Bones,” they herky-jerked around as the bones flopped about and came together. The words? “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, Now hear the word of the Lord.”
“Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
Shin bone connected to the knee bone
Knee bone connected to the thigh bone
Thigh bone connected to the hip bone
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.”
“Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. Now hear the word of the Lord.”
It turns out, though, that it’s about a lot more than bones getting connected. Here's what Ezekiel says (Ezekiel 37:8) after the bones he saw in that valley were reconnected: “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them, but there was no breath in them.”
I’m a theme sort of guy. I like to find common threads and see connections across lots of scriptures, including the sometimes seemingly random weekly selections from The Revised Common Lectionary. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem to come to me.
This is such a week. Perhaps it is because we got back late Tuesday from celebrating our son’s wedding and our granddaughter’s playing Ursula in The Little Mermaid---both in Hawaii where they live---to find a message on our answering machine that Margie, my wife, was to start chemo on Thursday morning. It wasn’t unexpected, but seven hours at the oncology center made a long day. We have to go back this afternoon (Friday).
All that’s not to dismiss this week’s readings. In fact, I found them particularly rich. I just didn’t find an integrating theme. There are some references to light and seeing. “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light---for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true . . . (E)verything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:8-9, 13-14) Then there are the words are spoken by Jesus as he is dealing with questions of blindness and sight in the presence of “a man blind from birth.” "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:1 & 5) After restoring the blind man’s sight, Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” prompting the Pharisees to ask, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (vss. 39-40)
All did not go well with the Israelites when they escaped from Egypt. They got hungry and thirsty and began to complain. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3) After all, we can’t live very long without water. I suppose there’s nothing much more panic-inducing than extreme thirst. I really (really!) can’t imagine it. And then to have to watch your children suffering. How much worse can it get?
It still goes on in parts of the world. Experts tell us that the most critical geopolitical issue in the coming years is probably water and its distribution, and attempts to control it by various political and tribal and national entities. So, water and suffering are related.
Then there’s the issue of suffering, in and of itself. Why me? Why? Why? Why? It’s a question that has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. How can a good and loving God allow such pain and suffering and conflict and destruction? Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1981 book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is still widely read. For many, it was one of the most helpful attempts to answer a question that has no fully satisfactory answer. Notice that the title talks about “When,” not “Why.” Kushner, and I believe much of the Bible, assumes that bad things will happen to everyone. The critical question is, perhaps, how we respond when they do. It can be relatively easy to live “by faith” when we are comfortable and things are going well. Sooner or later, though, some challenges are going to come our way.