Bart 3:16 – The Bible, Football, & Pop Culture

by Ken Howard

Image      As they used to say on Sesame Street, today’s blog post is brought to you by the numbers 3 and 16…and the letters J, O, H, and N:  John 3:16, the letters and numbers seen at more NFL football games than all other numbers combined. While I’m not at all into football, it’s hard not to see at least some pictures of the games and the fans. And there, amidst the crowds of people with faces painted blue were people with John 3:16 painted on their cheeks. There, amongst hundreds of people with blocks of cheese on their head were people with 3 and 16 stenciled on the sides of the block.

I don’t think it was always so big. Nears as I can tell, it started small:  that one guy by the ticket line with the rainbow clown fro and the 3:16 sign.  Then it started to catch on with the people in the stands:  3:16 on cardboard signs; 3:16 on cheese-head hats; 3:16 on giant foam “We’re Number One” fingers. And the latest permutation:  3:16 painted on bodies…in coordinated team colors.  Then it crossed from the stands to the field:  3:16 pressed on Jerseys; 3:16 tattooed on shoulders; 3:16 in sun-block on Tim Tebow’s cheeks. Continue reading

Leaving Rapture Theology Behind

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Advent 1C:

Happy New Year! Liturgical, that is. This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the church year. As the colors on the altar change from green to purple (or sarum blue, for some), the lectionary changes from readings from Luke to readings from Matthew. The readings do this somewhat seamlessly, taking the first part of one of Jesus’ discourses found in both gospel accounts and connecting to the second part.

Luke, two weeks ago: People describe the beauty of the temple. Jesus says it’ll all come crashing down. They ask when it will happen. Jesus describes all of the bad things that will happen and tells them that by their endurance they will gain their souls.

Matthew, this Sunday: Jesus says only God the Father knows when “that day” will come (the one or ones when all that bad stuff will happen). He reminds them about Noah and his contemporaries, who carried on living and many of whom were washed away. Jesus says they should be ready, as the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

5203186545_05b890e18bI wouldn’t be the first to suppose that Jesus is talking about “The Rapture” here; this is one of the texts often used to support the idea that God will pick some of us up via toy crane come some specific day. The Left Behind book and movie series have been wildly popular, and Nicholas Cage is about to star in a big-budget Hollywood remake.

Because in midrash we look at any possible interpretation, we can look at this one without committing it to our concept of reality. You could conceivably interpret this passage in that way, though “the Rapture” is not ancient and also arguably not biblical; the concept was at least popularized only two hundred years ago.

Some of the shortcomings of Rapture theology, according to Marcus Borg, are that it implies that this world doesn’t matter very much—it’s all about the next. Peace, the environment…none of it really matters because we’re just waiting for God to find enough quarters to save the good ones.

Rapture theology is violent—not that the Bible isn’t, but there is a slight difference. The Bible contains stories, myths, history, poetry, lamentation, etc. written by tons of people over the course of thousands of years as they experienced and reflected on and anticipated and attempted to understand life—communal life in conjunction with belief in God. Rapture theology is a more self-interested look at doing enough to be personally saved by God, violently destroying an anti-Christ, and escaping this world. The Bible is primarily about life in this world—about seeking justice and peace and relationship with God and each other.

If we read this passage from Matthew and avoid placing a rapture theology on Jesus’ words, what do we have?

Since Jesus was just spilling out some anxiety-ridden warnings to some anxiety-ridden people contained within the Gospel According to Matthew, which was written to and by an anxiety-ridden community, maybe we can look at what this passage does to our anxiety levels.

If you’re like me, you get anxious about a lot of things. If I am stressed out about something, my neck gets tight and a headache follows behind. Suddenly my clumsiness is cause for great frustration as I spill food on myself or drop something that I’m carrying or trip on nothing. I’m well acquainted with anxiety…we’re besties. That being said, this passage pulls me in both directions. On one hand, Jesus confirms that “that day” is coming and no one knows when and it will catch everyone by surprise. On the other hand, the inability to know frees me from attempting to try and figure out when.

If I only worried about the rapture, I’d be perpetually anxious. My grandmother, Lily, used to tell me that when she was a child she was worried that if she went to the bathroom, the Lord would come take her family away and leave her behind. Could you imagine living with that kind of fear? That fear is where the thief analogy in the text really breaks down. The point Jesus makes here is that we need not fear all of this bad things that will happen because in our anxiety we lose out on those moments when Jesus comes into our lives.

Jesus calls us out of complacency, but not quite into fear. We need not worry about any rapture, but if we carry on focusing only on ourselves, we will miss those times when Jesus appears in the face of someone on the street or in some other situation. Somewhere between anxiety and complacency is where we can build a home for ourselves—seeking to make this world a more just and lovely place, trusting that God is just and loving.

That is the mystery place of midrash–living between those places. More practically though, what might the significance of this be for us today? Since last weekend, people were  camping out at various stores for last night’s Black Friday sales (yes, “last night’s” because we just couldn’t wait to buy crap we still don’t need). We can be angry and upset about the consumerist insanity. Or we can play along and push people to the ground for $2 DVDs. We can do any number of things that either result in our own anxieties or our own complacency with “the way things are.” But how can we understand this crazy consumerist culture in a way that doesn’t alienate others? How can we participate in this world in a way that witnesses to Jesus and seeks justice?

We are beckoned to walk the middle way, not to be thrown asunder by the challenges of this world, nor to be desensitized by overwhelming trends. How will we do this in the shadow of consumerism, a violent culture, and any number of other cares of this world?

The Rev. Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Photo: ©2010 Todd Anderson, Flickr

Have you seen the light?

By Laura Sykes, Editor – Lay Anglicana

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Now we see through a glass darkly. Yes, but. The Church of England may, just may, be beginning to see the light.

Suppose we think of the Word of God as pure white light. John Donne talked of a heaven where there would be no dazzling, nor darkness, but one equal light. But in this world we are unable to see the light of the Logos in all its clarity but look at everything through a glass, or prism. As we all learnt in physics, this means that what we are seeing is refracted light, literally distorted, broken down into its component colours. It is further ‘distorted’ by idiosyncracies in our own lenses.

Although we are warned not to create God in our own image, we can only see and understand God according to our own perspective – no amount of will can change that. Almost all of us read the Bible in translation into our vernacular, which further ‘refracts’ the original. Even scholars who understand Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac do so from a 21st century perspective, and their understanding of the language of the Early Christians at this distance in time must only be partial.

With my prismatic rainbow analogy, some will see the Word of God as red, some as blue and some as yellow. You may think there are seven colours in the rainbow. But to Pantone,  there are more than 3,000 colours in our world. This was implicitly acknowledged in the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateralbut recently in the Anglican Communion the redd-ites have been thumping the table, hoping to persuade the green-ites to abandon their interpretation of the Word in favour of the ‘one true meaning’. And, of course, vice versa.

The Church has been drawn into endless pitched battles, incapable of resolution since everyone can see their own points of view so clearly. The Anglican Covenant was but one example of the Church being diverted from its true task into pointless attempts to make the reddites and the greenites see the same truth.

Archbishop Justin has made no such mistake. From the moment he talked to Giles Fraser about squaring the circle by means of perception, many of us hoped that he would be chosen as the next Cantuar, and  our prayers have been answered. Of course it is an impossible task, but the Revd David Keen is not alone in sensing a change in the air.

Yes, we want women admitted to the episcopate as soon as possible. Some of us also hope for fairer and more loving treatment of the LGBT community. And after those two, others of us would like greater inclusion of (and less condescension to) the laity. But that must wait. To those who say that we cannot ask more people to join us in the Church until we have created a more worthy church (by women bishops etc), I have come to the conclusion, after several years of watching the internal wrangling at close quarters, that we will never get there by simply doing more of the same until the mills of God gradually grind us all down.

The only hope is for us to follow Archbishop Justin’s lead and concentrate on the pure white light that we know is behind the prism. And the good news that we are now being asked to share is knowledge of that white light, not the 3,000 colours and viewpoints it can be broken down into.

 

Laura Sykes, an occasional contributor to Paradoxical Thoughts, is the Editor of the Lay Anglicana website and blog, which aspires to be the unofficial voice of Anglican laity worldwide and to offer a place to exchange news and views from the pews.

Laura compares the perspective of her website, her blog, and herself to this quote from Anthony Trollope: “I trust … I shall not be thought to scoff at the pulpit, though some may imagine that I do not feel all the reverence that is due to the cloth. I may question the infallibility of the teachers, but I hope that I shall not therefore be accused of doubt as to the thing to be taught”. (Barchester Towers)

Holiday Greetings as Persecution?

by The Rev. Ken Howard

A day or two ago, I came across a brief but trenchant blog post by friend and fellow author Rachel Held Evans. The title of the post, Are You Being Persecuted?, was catchy enough, but what really caught my attention and perked my interest was the graphic that accompanied it: a logic flow chart outlining the steps in answering the eponymous question of the title, as it applied to the greeting, “Happy Holidays.”  It was quite a cheeky little chart (I like cheeky), and it challenged me to some cheekiness of my own (see my amended flowchart below).

Are You Being Persecuted Flowchart

It is, after all, THAT TIME OF YEAR, when certain folk, who often apply to themselves descriptions like “Christian,” “orthodox,” “traditionalist,” and “conservative,” bring forth conspiracy theories about “Wars on Christmas,” and other plots by those they label “politically correct,” “bleeding-heart liberals,” “secular humanists,” or simply “them.” Continue reading

Cross

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Reign of Christ C: Luke 23:33-43

3327103505_da1ed4cd78This Sunday is Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday, so how could we not look at the passage from Luke that puts Jesus on the cross being challenged to save himself but assuring those hanging next to him that today they will be with him in Paradise? In doing midrash we look for contradictions as entryways for deeper discovery of the message within and around the text, so this one is perfect because…you know…savior/messiah/son of God humiliated and crucified. Not to mention that the chapter and verses are 23, 33, and 43, so that’s pretty cool.

Jesus is up there on the cross. As he asks his father to forgive his executioners, they divide his clothing among themselves. At least they are equitable with material goods, right?

People are watching and the leaders are scoffing and saying he should save himself if he is the Messiah of God. Soldiers mock him and tell him to save himself, and the inscription above his head reads, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Fun Fact: INRI, the letters that commonly appear above Jesus on crucifixes, is an acronym of Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrumthe, Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. “King of the Jews” is a phrase really only used by gentiles (non-Jews) in the Bible.

Even the criminals—or bandits…probably revolutionaries (a.k.a. ones who rebelled against the state) join in on the conversation, asking Jesus to be saved and pointing out that while they have been condemned justly, Jesus has done nothing wrong.

That’s the scene; a lot of temptation for Jesus to flex his savior muscles and show everyone that he is the Christ. I mean, he’s done it before, performing miracles, becoming transfigured, making tons of food…etc. Yet this time he resists. He’s also been tempted before—tempted in the wilderness to turn stones into bread, become a powerful earthly ruler…etc. On this day, Jesus faces temptation for the last time—and once again he shows that he is victorious over temptation (and soon, death).

If Jesus had saved himself and the other men in that instance, he would have showed everyone that he was “magical,” but he wouldn’t have demonstrated at this crucial time that salvation is the work of God. God saves, and human beings ultimately cannot save themselves. Now hold on because this is really challenging stuff, and I don’t mean to insinuate that I am describing the only way to think about it.

I want to point out one particular aspect of this as described by my favorite theologian. Please excuse his male-centric language. William Stringfellow wrote, “Men hate the Cross because it means a salvation which is unearned, undeserved, unmerited. Men would much prefer God to punish them than to forgive them because that would mean that God is dependent upon men and needed their obedience to be their God. [But] Then God would be in fact no different from an idol of race, nation, family, or whatever, and a man would feel justified either by his obedience to the idol or by the punishment of his disobedience” (Free in Obedience, 33).

His point is that the role of the Church is not to take control of the means by which anyone might obtain salvation, but to proclaim that God welcomes ALL to God’s city…even the criminals whom we condemn by our notion of justice. Many things happened on and around the cross; one of them was this powerful statement about the reality of the nature of things.

This kind of topic raises more questions than it answers, and this is the nature of midrash. I have simply gone down one possible avenue toward understanding just what happened up on that cross. I encourage you to read this article by Marcus Borg about two mainstream notions of the Cross in America. Consider what it all means to you, and don’t settle for easy answers.

The Rev. Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Managing Theological Diversity: A Response to a Comment

by Ken Howard

seeds-of-lifeA few days ago I received a comment from Stephen Clark in response to my blog post about our survey on clergy preparedness for dealing with theological diversity. He said that he loved the article, but found fault with my hermaneutical analysis, what he saw as “incomprehensible theological language,” and the use of business terminology to describe the calling of clergy. I thought his questions important enough that I decided to leave my response as a public post rather than a comment on a comment. Here is my response:

Dear Stephen,

I am sympathetic to your criticism of the terms “deployment” and “hiring,” and generally use of the terms “vocation” and “calling” when I have time to explain them (as applying to everyone, not just clergy).

However, in this case, because the survey is going to multiple denominations and because it includes those called as school chaplains (whose supervisors usually do think of them as hired), we decided to use plain English terms.

As to your deeper criticism, permit me to respond with a small amount of “cheekiness” by noting that your criticism itself is an example of paradoxy, in that you are both correct in your surface analysis but miss the mark when it comes to the heart of the matter.

For example, you are correct in saying that Paradoxy is not a word, at least not in common English usage.  In one sense, it is a made up word, in that I use it in my book “Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them” to describe a radical middle way of thinking about orthodoxy, which transcends the seemingly opposing connotations attached to it by conservative and liberal Christians. Yet it is an existing English word (see Merriam-Webster Dictionary) and a Biblical one, as well, from the Greek word παραδοζοζ (see NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon). It is taken from the people’s response to Jesus’ pronouncing himself the Son of Man and claiming and demonstrating the power to both forgive and heal:

They were all taken–beside themselves [Grk: ελαβαν] with ecstasy–fear–wonderment [Grk: εκστασι] and began praising–honoring–glorifying–worshiping God [Grk: εδοξαςον]; and they were burning–filled to bursting–overflowing [επληθησαν] with fear–terror–overwhelming awe [φοβου], saying, “We have witnessed–perceived–experienced [ειδoμεν] things beyond human understanding [παραδοξα] today.” (Luke 5:26)

The point of Paradoxy (the book and the term) is that both the conservative and liberal paradigms of orthodoxy are incomplete, unbiblical, and ultimately unworkable. The conservative Christian paradigm of orthodoxy, grounded in assent to presumably objective doctrinal propositions, tends to treat as irrelevant the ethical teachings of Jesus. The liberal Christian paradigm of orthodoxy (i.e., orthopraxy), grounded in the practice of the presumably universal ethical teachings of Jesus, tends to treat as irrelevant doctrinal considerations.

Meanwhile, neither the conservative or liberal paradigms of orthodoxy reflect its original and literal Biblical meaning:  “a fitting response of praise.”  This is of critical importance, I think, because both paradigms place the locus of control of orthodoxy within control of the individual – to give cognitive ascent to doctrinal propositions or behavioral ascent to ethical practices – either of which remove grace from the equation.

I share your longing to call people to be attentive to what God is trying to communicate with us here and now in the twentieth century.  And a large part of me would prefer to do plainly, without made-up words. Unfortunately, many people are so stuck in conceptual boxes of their own making, that direct approaches result in resistance. In such cases, made-up words, playful parables, and paradoxical propositions may be the only way to get through.

5787688-young-sprout-makes-the-way-through-asphalt-on-city-roadIf you will pardon my rephrasing your metaphor, I prefer to think of it not a crap which must be cut, but fertilizer which may help new ideas to sprout and break through the pavement.

In Christ’s love,
Ken Signature

Write Your Own Epitaph

A Midrash Sermon on Luke 21:5-19 (Year C – Proper 28 – RCL)
By Ken Howard

You will be hated…betrayed…imprisoned…put to death…
But don’t worry: not a hair on your head will perish.

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Wow!

This one is a classic: classic disciples questions, classic Jesus answer.

For the disciples it was always “What’s in it for us?” Even the twelve, his closest followers, always seemed to think that following Jesus ought to confer upon them some sort of comparative advantage: certainty as to their status, security about their future, or power to control their lives and the world around them. Not just compared others but even among themselves. And before you get down on them for that, just remember, they’re only being human, only doing what human beings do. It’s called “sin.” And in that they are no different from us.

This is what is at the heart of the questions they are asking Jesus about the temple. There’s an ancient Talmudic saying: “Jerusalem is the navel (the bellybutton, if you will) of the world, and Temple is the umbilical cord that connects us to God.” The Temple was a symbol to the Hebrew people of their unique relationship with the God. Only moments before, the disciples had been admiring the temple: its beauty, its overwhelming size, its seeming permanence. You can’t blame them. The Temple occupied more than 50 acres: four times the size of the land on which our church sits, 4,500 times the size of the building in which we sit. The smallest of its stones weighed as much as 5 tons; the largest was 570 tons and one-fourth the size of this worship area. The Temple seemed epitome of permanence, but Jesus had just told them that the days would come when “not one stone will be left upon another.” The Temple gave their lives meaning. They thought it would last forever, or at the very least outlast them. No wonder they were stunned.
So now they were saying to Jesus, “You are gonna tip us off, right? You’re gonna tell us the signs, right? So we can get outta town before the waste products hit the oscillating machine, right?” And thinking to themselves, “There’s gotta be some advantage in following this guy.”

Wrong… Jesus wasn’t having any of it. Continue reading

Classic Jesus Misdirection

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Pentecost 26C: Luke 21:5-19

2987048424_be9fb0ba7bSome were speaking about how beautiful the stones of the temple and the gifts around it were, and Jesus tells them that at some point in time none of it will exist. They ask Jesus when it will be, and Jesus tells them to watch out for those who say, “The time is near!”

Classic Jesus misdirection.

Sometimes I want people to push Jesus to answer their questions directly, just like presidential debate moderat…just like news pundi……I have no frame of reference with which to judge the people’s interrogation skills…we just don’t have a good modern example.

So instead we are left to look deeper into the misdirection. What piece of their question is Jesus responding to? They ask him when the temple will fall—as if he was offering a specific prediction of a specific event—and instead of giving an answer to that question, Jesus offers them some advice: don’t listen to people who claim to know the future.

Maybe they are asking questions about football to someone who only knows about fútbol; know what I mean? Maybe Jesus is speaking on a different level; they are concerned with specific events and knowing when shifts in power will occur, so that they can use their knowledge to their best advantage. It’s a natural human impulse. We want as much information as possible in order to make decisions that benefit ourselves and the greatest number of people. Continue reading

The Good Old Days

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

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Pentecost 25C: Haggai 1:15 b-2:9

Here’s a fun fact: The prophet Haggai’s name wasn’t actually “Haggai.” Everyone was just so embarrassed that they didn’t remember his name, so when they would call out to him they would just yell, “hey…guy!” And a prophet was born. (That’s a true fact that I just made up.)

The prophet Heyyouguy asks the people of Judah how they will get back to the way things used to be before the temple was destroyed. Since they all returned from Babylon, they have largely been concerned with constructing ornate private homes—nothing has been done to the temple. And here we are on a holy day (all of that reference to the seventh month and twenty-first day puts us squarely on the feast of booths or Sukkot) without a temple at which to worship. Heybuddy becomes a building committee in himself, questioning how those few who knew the temple in its glory, as well as the political and spiritual leaders of these recently freed people can stand by and let the temple continue to be a shell of its former self.

Ah, remember the good old days when priests took scripture seriously? It must have been in the 50s…you know, when all families had one father, one mother, and 2.5 children—not two and half men or five guys, some burgers and some fries; Mother donned an apron and kept the house tidy as Father would march through the door after a long day at work in a brown corduroy suit. Men were men and women were women. There was no unnecessary violence or unpleasantness—only lemonade stands, and peace, and quiet. At least that’s what that reality show, Leave it to Beaver, on Nick at Nite taught me. How do we get back to that place and time? Continue reading

#Blessed

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Pentecost 24C: Luke 6:20-31

For All Saints Day, which is actually on November 1st but will be celebrated at St. James’s on Sunday, November 3rd, we hear a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain from Luke—specifically the Beatitudes part.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…”

Unlike it’s close relative in Matthew, these blessings are pretty explicitly meant for people who are actually poor (not just in spirit), and hungry (not just for righteousness); they’re for the underdogs. There is no mixed message as to whom Jesus is referring. The confusing bit about all of this is that poor, hungry, weeping, hated people don’t seem very blessed—that is, they don’t seem to show any signs of divine favor.

Even more confusing is that Jesus says quite bluntly that those who are rich, full, laughing, and popular are not blessed. Is Jesus lying? Is he (or the writer of Luke) just trying to perk up the audience hearing or reading this sermon/scripture?

Out of curiosity, I typed “#blessed” into the Twitter search bar—just to see what people see as evidence that they are blessed. Here are a few examples of the majority of what I saw:

Tweets Continue reading