Friday, August 22, 2014

The Importance of Being Wrong

[Proper 15, Year A: Is 56: 1, 6-8, Ps 67, Rom 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matt 15: 21-28]

Don’t you just hate it when Jesus is wrong?

Lastman, Christ and the Canaanite Woman
(Web Gallery of Art)
In the Gospel for this week from the Common Lectionary, Jesus signally fails to say what we all know he ought to have said. Let me be clear: when he says to his disciples that he was sent "only to the lost sheep of Israel," and to the Canaanite woman that one should not take "the children’s food and give it to the dogs," surely this is wrong.

What I want him to have said, and maybe you will think similarly, is something like this: "I was sent not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to lost sheep—and dogs—everywhere. In me there is neither dog nor sheep, Canaanite nor Israelite, male nor female.” I want a Jesus who will uncompromisingly reject the barriers by which people oppress, exclude, marginalize. I want all to be children, or at least to be sheep—and for all to feast. Instead we have talk of dogs, and crumbs.

Jesus misses the golden opportunity for the unambiguous teaching moment that we could all have been using this past week regarding events in Ferguson, Missouri; earlier in the month regarding the crisis on Mt Sinjar; all year, regarding events in Gaza, and who knows where else for centuries before now. Hasn’t he even read Isaiah 56 (which we just heard) and the promise of God calling all nations to the holy mountain?

This group, leaning generally if not universally to the more progressive side of religion and/or politics (according to the latest scientific poll taken at coffee hour today), are not the only ones to have been disappointed by Jesus. The 20th Century German NT scholar Ernst Käsemann tells a story of a group of conservative Dutch Reformed elders who gathered on the eve of disastrous floods that in 1953 threatened to overwhelm the dykes that protected their homes from the threatening tides of the North Sea. Their theological dilemma was not one of persons but of time; the floods threatened to hit on a Sunday, and they were being called to reinforce the dykes on the “Sabbath” when Calvinist ethic demanded pious inactivity. The minister, seeking to enrich the conversation, pointed out that Jesus himself had asked about the forms Sabbath observance should take, and said it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. One elder voiced the doubts others were feeling:

"I have been troubled, pastor, by something I have not been able to say in public. Now the time has come to say it. I have always had the feeling our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal.”1

Truth be told, Jesus is often getting it wrong, making mistakes, disappointing us. He thinks Moses wrote the Pentateuch and David the Psalms—you’ve got about a week left to live with those fantasies, junior class. A little earlier on this journey, he wants a fruitless fig tree to yield out of season—no happy ending there. And a few verses after this story, it’s Peter who shows what it means to be right, saying Jesus is the Messianic savior of Israel; but instead of accepting and throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression, Jesus predicts his doom, calls a friend one who will turn out to betray him—and gets himself killed.

So failing to fix the anti-Canaanite dogs-and-crumbs problem isn’t so much a departure from the usual for Jesus, it’s characteristic. Being disappointed by Jesus’ failure isn’t so much an exception in the Gospels, it’s typical.

The good news is that this is what incarnation means. God’s encounter with us in Jesus is a sharing in our own limitations, even our mortality. A Gospel with no mistakes might not have mere crumbs for dogs, but it has no cross either. The Gospel has a cross, because it is a Gospel for a real world that has crosses in it.

Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman isn’t perfect—that’s because the situation in which they meet is not perfect. Some commentators see the Canaanite woman as challenging and instructing Jesus, even changing his heart and mind. The text allows this conclusion. Yet in their encounter, each of these two speaks from the beginning in ways whose honesty is discomforting for us, because they do not avoid what unmistakably real for them.  The greater error is that of the disciples, who want to sent the woman and her need away—Jesus will not. Jesus joins in the difficult conversation. He does not however pretend at any point that Canaanites will no longer struggle for Israelite crumbs, when he has gone on his way from the region of Tyre and Sidon. But neither does he deny that a certain woman’s faith is great. And for all the verbal sparring, on that day more than crumbs was given, and a child—not a dog—was restored and healed.

At this table we commemorate and share with the real Jesus, who apparently makes mistakes; above all, the mistake of becoming a vulnerable person who has a body and blood to spill and share, not just fine fare that is all plenty and no pain. These, however, are crumbs worth gathering. The God he reveals likewise may not run the world the way we might prefer, but has entered into it fully and shared in our reality, with honesty and no qualms. Even God has let go of being “right” all the time.

God does not ask you to be right today, or in class, or when the first paper is handed in, or the first quiz completed; not to be right first, but to be here. So, come to this table, trusting not in your own right-ness, but in God’s many-fold and great mercy. God may not give you what you want first either, but here Jesus gives us what we need. God’s crumbs are worth begging for, but we will be fed more generously than that, with Jesus’ very presence. Thus, we may ever more dwell in him, and he in us.

Fed, empowered, embodied thus, we are called to travel into different and difficult places; to pursue God’s uncomfortable conversations about love and justice and healing and wholeness; and to be willing to be at least as wrong as he was.

Sermon from the Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist, Marquand Chapel, Yale Divinity School, during Before the Fall Orientation 2014

1. Jesus Means Freedom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970) 16

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Gutenberg in Melbourne: Inventing the Bible

From the Manchester Gutenberg Bible: the beginning of
Paul's Letter to the Romans
The rare and valuable character of the Gutenberg Bible, an example of which is about to be exhibited at the University of Melbourne's Baillieu Library (on loan from the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester), belies its real significance.

What is most remarkable about this first book printed with movable type is that it heralded an era of plentiful and cheap books. For all its passing resemblance to the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of its own time, the spiritual offspring of Gutenberg's project are the aesthetically modest Bibles of modern hotel-room drawers, and indeed mass-produced paperbacks in general.

Before Gutenberg or what Gutenberg and his Bible represent, much of what is now taken for granted about books, secular and sacred alike, was impossible. The new technology, based on a flexible and reusable type whose expense could be recouped not just in multiple copies of a single work, but in an infinite number of works, ushered in new possibilities beyond Gutenberg's intention or imagination.

Prior to the invention of movable type, books in the West were of course rare and expensive. This meant not only that they were largely in the hands of wealthy individuals and powerful institutions, but also that the purposes of books were largely focussed on the public liturgy and private devotions of Christianity.

The contents of those older scriptural books conformed only rarely to the modern idea of a "Bible". Gospel books, epistolaries, psalters, lectionaries, and other collections and selections from a biblical library, were the tools of trade of those who led liturgy, and the media through which most heard scripture read. But they were not "Bibles".

Johannes Gutenberg's project was not intended to change this social and religious reality, so much as profit from it; his market was still an elite section of society, as the impressive "rubrication" (supplementary decoration and adornment) of the Gutenberg Bible makes clear enough. After all, relatively few had the level of education that allowed them to read. And while Gutenberg's Bible heralded a new level of access to the biblical text, his own publication was still the traditional Vulgate, the canonical Latin scriptural text of the Roman Catholic Church. The new printed Bible preceded the German Reformation by the best part of a century.

It is hyperbolic to say that Gutenberg "invented" the Bible; but without him the Bible as it is now understood in many places - as a single and particular book synonymous in content with the canon of Christian scripture -  simply could not have come about. Christian scripture, of course, is very much older, but these sacra biblia ("holy books") hitherto constituted not a single book but an inspired library, which most heard communally rather than read individually. As already noted, the conjunction and collection of different scriptural works in one binding was determined mostly by liturgical use. When the whole of scripture could readily be encompassed in a single volume (or two, as most Gutenberg Bibles were bound), a new possibility emerged; the library of scripture now became a single book, and canon itself, rather than devotional and communal use, determined its internal architecture.

The disruptive character of the new technology, and its potential significantly to increase access to scriptural and other texts, thus did not appear overnight, and required other social and intellectual developments to catalyse it. The emergence of a bourgeoisie whose interests, material and spiritual, did not sit easily with the traditional alliance of Church and old aristocracy, was crucial. As a larger group of educated and increasingly powerful merchants and professionals found themselves able to ponder scripture, as well as the classics and other sources encouraging critical reasoning, they were ripe also for the ideas of such as Luther. The new printing technology then allowed the very writings that fomented reform to circulate rapidly, too.

While it is impossible to imagine Protestantism, or the place of the Bible in it, without these complementary social and technological developments, there were further changes before distinctive modern forms of western Christianity, with their assumptions about faith and spirituality based on personal Bible reading, could emerge. Gutenberg's movable type did not yet create mass literacy, or make Bibles cheap enough for typical households. Yet it had allowed the idea of a "Bible" in a hitherto almost impossible sense.

While this technological revolution in printing was a necessary condition of democratising literacy in general and the Bible in particular, the same developments were at best a two-edged sword for the centrality of the Bible, and for the place of Christianity in western culture. For the infinite variability of moveable type heralded a new and open-ended set of textual possibilities; if the Bible were indeed a "book", it would now have many other books alongside it, and form part of an increasingly complex  and competitive library of meaning.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Top Ten List for Theological Students (Sermon for Friday after Ascension for Trinity College Theological School)

The Matthaean Ascension story depicts Jesus instructing the eleven to make disciples and baptise, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. This “everything” did not seem to all ancient readers simply to refer back to the Gospel itself; many Christians assumed that whatever they did in Church had been prescribed among such commands, and some documents like Church Orders explicitly placed liturgical and ecclesial instructions into this narrative context, giving their own practices apostolic or even dominical origins.

Being myself about to leave and scheduled to preach in Ascensiontide, I have my own opportunity for parting advice, but thought it sufficiently important to de-emphasise the relative importance of my own by putting them into a genre that implies a little self-satire. So, bearing in mind also that my next long-term destination is the USA, I offer you on departure a quintessentially American discourse, the “top ten” list à la David Letterman, for the theological student and future minister.

10. Listen
Emerging from theological college with degree, and from cathedral with holy orders, it is tempting for the newly-ordained to begin inflicting themselves on the Church; insights and passions are likely to be spilling from your full cups. Stop. Listen. God has been doing things in your new place of ministry before; more indeed probably than you will get to do. Things are as they are for a reason. Pay attention not just to individual pastoral need, but to community understandings and concerns. You will be effective leaders only if you start where the people are, and then move together.

9. Take Initiatives
The central structures of the dioceses are important, but different from (rather than more important than) parishes and other communities and networks. In our time the most important initiatives are likely to come from the latter. Bishops often have their work cut out just managing what emerges from the local scene; don’t wait for them to take action. We need you to be entrepreneurs and initiators, engaging with new ways to offer people the Gospel and the sacraments. Sometimes you will have to seek forgiveness rather than permission.

8. Keep studying
We can’t possibly teach you everything you need to know here in theological college. In fact the realities of the Church today are that you probably didn’t even know all the things the curriculum still assumes you do before you got here. That’s not your fault; your fault would consist of not remedying that, and that process can’t end here. If your personal standard for theological education is just meeting degree or diocesan requirements, you’re aiming too low. Come back for your Master’s in a few years, when you know more about your needs and gaps, or take the steps to seek the further education that will help you and the kind of learner you are.

7. Get mentored
Given that the curacy system is less extensive than it was, some of you will find yourselves ministering without the support and supervision formerly taken for granted. There are structures intended to compensate but these cannot do all you need. Neither, for that matter, can a traditional curacy, truth be told. So get it yourselves. Ask those you trust for advice about senior colleagues (in experience, whether or not age) who might help. Don’t stick to friends; don’t be afraid to learn from people who are different.

Now a few that relate to your roles of liturgical leadership and prayer: 

6. Prepare
Liturgy can be as easy as opening the book and turning the pages; but that is rarely good liturgy. If you believe that word and sacraments are worth dedicating your life to, prepare for both. A well-designed pew sheet is not a substitute for a well-rehearsed liturgy either. If you would typically throw a large party with no preparation, by all means try the same for the liturgy; you will see in time how many people come back to either. 

5. Preach
Preaching of a high standard is not the most common experience in our Churches today, and one of the results of that is that some of you may not have heard many preachers who actually made you want to preach like them. But the vocation of the priest and deacon in public worship is as much or more to preach than merely to intone prayers or perform sacramental acts.  The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer indicate that a sermon is a normal part of the liturgy; do not despise the privilege this offers to proclaim the Gospel and to teach.

4. Read the Bible
The Daily Office allows Anglicans to hear or read virtually the whole of Scripture every year. This gives us an almost uniquely biblical spirituality, if we fulfil it. For various reasons the framework for this discipline is less effective than it was; don’t let this prevent you from reading and learning about scripture as best you can, day in and day out. Of course you’ve studied the Bible here in sophisticated ways, but method is not an alternative to content. It’s forgivable if not edifying when a lay person scheduled to read on Sunday can’t find their place; the same doesn’t apply to a cleric. If you really don't know the names of the books of the Bible in order, go learn them. Knowledge of and facility with scripture is a gift to you personally, but also an indispensable tool for teaching and for debate in the issues we will face as Anglicans in the years ahead. Do not dare self yourself short by thinking that others may take a stand on scripture, while you can work from some other set of authorities.  

3. Pray
This work relies on our being called to serve a reality which lies not just deep within but beyond ourselves; it is not our own work, but God’s. Prayer is the means by which we engage and acknowledge that reality. Prayer is not just asking; prayer is listening. Your survival in ministry and your effectiveness depend on that acknowledgement and connection, practiced in a disciplined form. The Daily Office is again the most evident gift that the Church offers you; use it, and whatever else you need, to pray alone and with others.

And two broader ones about the self and vocation:

2. It’s not about you
While we all believe you are here because God has called you to be, what God has called you here for is the Church, not yourself. God doesn't need theological colleges and ordination processes to work in the world, but the Church does. We trust that your deepest self will in fact be nurtured and expressed in however your own calling turns out to be fulfilled, but that is not the same thing as the fulfilment of your own dreams and yearnings as they now are. Resist the temptations that ministry offers to use liturgies, vestments, and whatever else primarily as expressions of your own personal theology and spirituality; put the best of who you are in the service of the whole community.

1. God will cope
After the above list and its accumulation of things you ought or ought not to do or be, let me offer a word of assurance. When you fail to meet these or other expectations that you or others set, God will cope. This is not your excuse for indiscipline or incompetence; rather it is the reminder that we dependent on grace. God has called you to this work and will do through you what God will; engage in this work with passion, and trust in the end that it is not up to you.

So much for lists. Over on NBC (and here in Australia, on ABC 2) Jimmy Fallon has a different sort of signature “list”, in the form of “thank-you" notes. My “thank-yous”, then: to my colleagues for their efforts and support here over these eleven years; to you, for daring to come and see what God might do with you and through you, as well as to you; and last but not least, thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.