Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Something new, something old

And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." (Mt. 13:52)

M. Eugene Boring, Professor at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, TX, offers these thoughts on the verse above:
Matthew affirms both the old and new. Like a skilled scribe, he brings out of his storehouse the treasure of his Jewish past (scripture, traditional imagery, perspectives, concerns) as well as older Christian tradition (Mark, Q.) But he does not merely repeat the past. Alongside the old, he introduces the new, presenting the old in a new light, reclaiming it for the new situation in which he finds himself, seeing all things in the light of the Christ-event and the coming of the Kingdom. Even the unexpected order of "new and old" may be important: it is the new that provides the key to the appropriateness of the old, not vice versa." (From his commentary on Matthew in The New Interpreter's Bible.)
This idea, it seems to me, is in synch with the verses from the sixteenth chapter of John's Gospel, where Jesus tells the disciples that he still has many things to say to them, but they cannot bear to hear them yet. "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth..." (John 16:13a)

Being "scribes of the kingdom" takes skill and wisdom. Too many so-called conservatives tend to err on the side of making "tradition" something that must be preserved at all costs; indeed they often define fidelity to Christ as staying faithful to those enduring truths from the past. Too many so-called liberals tend to discard the faith of our fathers and mothers, or too much of that faith, in a desire to be "relevant."

We need more scribes of the kingdom: more people who are willing (and able) to claim and interpret the past in light of new situations and circumstances; people who can see all things in the light of the Christ-event and the coming of the Reign of God.

The Venerable Bede, whose Feast Day is commemorated today, was a gifted scholar who, at least according to his biographers, was a "balanced and judicious interpreter" of eighth-century tradition. He knew and understood that passing on the story to the next generation is not merely about preserving the past, but about imagining the future. It's about something new, and something old. In the prayer offered to commemorate this day, we ask God to "...grant that as as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of your truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make you known in all the world..." 

Lord, hear our prayer!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture, Sweet Rapture

Great A.A. Bondy Tune Here

In the undergraduate course I teach at Assumption College, "Intro to the Bible," I always ask them a question on the final about the Book of Revelation that goes something like this: 

Your roommate comes into your room to tell you that she has cracked the code and knows for sure that the world will end on 5.21.11 (or whatever date someone will be certain about next time around.) Based on a critical exploration of the Book of Revelation, how might you respond?

My most attentive students are always a little surprised to learn that in Revelation there is no rapture; rather, the prayer of Jesus is answered as the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven, and the New Jerusalem replaces the old one, and lives up to its noble calling as a city of peace.

As Episcopalians we affirm the Paschal Mystery every time we come together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We live “between the times” – between already, and not yet. We live with mustard-seed signs of the Reign of God all around us. But we know that that Reign of God has not yet grown to fruition. The work that God has given us to do is to cultivate and tend to the growth that is already there, with God’s help. 

Jesus himself says that the Bible is not a code to be broken, or a puzzle to be solved. He says that “of that day or hour no one knows—not the angels of heaven, not Jesus himself—only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36). It is the height of arrogance to assume that we know a secret that the Father has not revealed even to the Son. 

One of my colleagues here in town chose to use the news of this week to send out an email blast, basically saying that if the rapture happened this weekend he’d see them all for worship in heaven around the throne of Christ. And if not he expected to see them in church on Sunday morning. Clever, and mostly (I hope) tongue in cheek. And I’m all for encouraging people to be in church. 

But I would respectfully say that if we take seriously the end of human history then the mission before us is not to get to church on time but it is to do the work God has given us to do in the world. The Church has a role in the missio dei, the Mission of God, but the Church is a means to that end, not an end in itself. The criteria by which the nations, the Church, and we as individuals will be judged is the difference between the goats and sheep in Jesus’ parable about the end of human history. Have we done the work God has given us to do? Have we fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, visited those in prison? (See Matthew 25) If we are about these things, about caring for the least among us, then we do it to Christ himself. And if not, then we ignore the Christ who is not confined to the heavens but already among us—hungry and thirsty and alone in this world. 

Forget for a moment about the end of the world. Think about something that may be just as great a mystery, but is much easier to narrow down: the end of your own life. Each of us will have to account for our lives.So if you found out that you had a year left, or a month, or a week—or indeed if you knew that today would be your last day on this earth, then tell me this: how would you spend it? What would you do with your one wild and precious life?

Do that! Do not let whacked-out fundamentalists who spend their money on billboards and media campaigns to announce the end of time sow fear in your life. Do the work God has given you to do, today, tomorrow, and the day after that. Contemplate the end of your life and then work backwards: what is it you hope to be remembered for? How will the world be different because you lived in it? Bottom line is this and it is pretty simple—as one poet wrote during one of the most difficult times in the history of this nation, in the middle of the nineteenth century when this country was almost torn in two:  

Come, labor on!
Claim the high calling angels cannot share—
To young and old the Gospel gladness bear;
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.            (Jane L. Borthwick)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Death of Bin Laden

I have been taking it all in, trying to get in touch with my own ambivalent feelings. I am a "quick processor" in many things, but have found that in events of this magnitude I need to step back a bit and just ponder for a while. A parishioner emailed me yesterday to reflect on his own feelings and ask about mine and I found myself starting to find some clarity. I know that newspaper headlines like "Rot in Hell" certainly don't do it for me. I don't understand 'vengeance' and I can't celebrate the loss of a life, even this one, with laughter.

But neither have I shed a tear. I agree with Ghandi that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Even so, I believe in this case justice was served...and I am glad about that. I don't think it really brings the "closure" we are so desperate for in this country, but maybe it does let us turn the page to a new chapter. I hope so. And while things in the short term may get scary again for a while, I do think the world is better off without bin Laden and in the long term, as I heard one of the talking heads say (actually it might have been John Stewart!) - Americans may now be able to focus on the Muslims who yearn for peace and democracy all across a rapidly changing Middle East, rather than on bin Laden as the "face" of Islam. I pray that it will be so. This Friday night, as it turns out, I am taking some parishioners to pray at a mosque in Worcester. May we continue to deepen the bonds of respect and love among Christian, Jew, and Muslim as we go forward.

I came across a prayer this morning that was offered by a pastor about whom I know nothing at all, but her words spoke to me and I admire her for finding them much faster than I possibly could have. Her name is the Rev. Becca Clark, and she offered this prayer in the Vermont House of Representatives on the day of bin Laden's death. A friend of mine posted it on Facebook.
O Life and Hope, Holy One. Today we breathe a sigh. A sigh of relief, perhaps, for the death of a violent and brutal man. A sigh of fear for retaliation that may lurk around the next bend in the road. A sigh of resignation that the work and danger have not passed, only changed. A sigh of hope that we may know peace. 
Peace. We pray for peace.
More than the absence of violence, of terror, of danger, of bloodshed. The presence of justice, kindness, forgiveness, and hope. Peace for our nations. For weapons to be laid down. For men and women to return home from the battle fields. For us to learn the craft of war no more. Peace for our world, for the places where hatred is bred, where oppression and violence and extremism forge killers out of children. Peace that is hope and tenderness and compassion, that is Shalom and well being and goodness. Peace that does not subdue violence, but renders it obsolete.
Peace for the dead, for all who died, civilians and soldiers, Americans and allies and combatants and enemies. Peace for those who died in towers and on planes, in military operations and in bombings and raids and suicide attacks. Peace and rest for those who have died. Peace for loved ones who mourn: for all who have lost a mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, spouse, friend. For those who feel that the death of a man can bring long-awaited justice– peace. For those who feel that adding to the dead cannot bring back the dead– peace. For all who mourn and grieve and seek healing not in headlines and history, but in the slow agony of living– peace.
Peace. Deep Peace. Your Peace.
Peace, Jesus told his disciples, divine peace, holy peace, is not the world’s peace. And peace, the song says, must begin with us, with me. As I take and live each moment in peace, in hope for a better world, in compassion and care for all around me. Peace.
May it begin with me.