A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Joseph's Dilemma - A verse sermon after Sondheim

This was not on your list
Not a part of your plan
When your young Mary came to you
When her story began…
How could THAT be the truth?
Surely she’d been unfaithful!
How could you, a good man
Keep the faith with her now
With her secret so shameful?

You could openly shun,
You could put her aside.
There’s no one who’d condemn you there.
Look, the Law’s on your side
And you’ve always abide
-ed by God’s own commandments.
So now here’s how it stands,
With her fate in your hands,
You can do what’s demanded.

Should you broadcast her plight?
Should you end your betrothal?
Knowing what that might do
Both to her, and to you
Would you shoulder that blame?
Or, in spite of her shame,
Was there something less scand’lous?
Something else you could do
Lest the worst would come true:
Her life hang in the balance.

So, compassion will out,
And you really do love her.
And you’ll think of a way,
At the end of the day,
That will not cause her harm.
Will not raise an alarm.
Simply part from her, quietly.
Though she’s broken your heart,
Send her back to her start,
Let her family hide her.

But then into your dreams                             
And disturbing your sleep
Comes the Lord’s wing├ęd courier
With a message that seems…
Well, as if he blasphemes.
Yet there’s truth in his face
And it bids you replace
All the doubt in your mind
All the fear in your soul.
And you see
In this strange reverie
God’s grace poured out in abundance.

And now you understand
Just what God had in mind.
How a humble, poor carpenter,
Truly righteous and kind,
Could be part of God’s plan,
Could assist God’s salvation;
And the Child who’d be born
Of your Mary that morn
Would redeem every nation.

Joseph, chosen to be
(out of David’s own house),
The young Jesus’ brave guardian,
Mary’s partner and spouse,
Is our own model true,
Of the faithful obedience
God is calling us to:
Faith that triumphs o’er doubt,
Love that casts out all fear:
“God with us”, our expectation.
Let us welcome God’s grace,
Word made flesh in small space,
Our desire, our hope, our salvation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Reviewing the new CEB Women's Bible

I have lots of Bible. Numerous translations and paraphrases, ancient and recent; well-worn from study or barely touched; purchased, gifted or inherited; in print and electronic formats, fill my shelves and my Nook. I really didn’t think I needed another Bible. In particular, given other gender-specific Bibles I’ve seen, I was pretty sure I didn’t need a “Women’s” Bible. And yet, church nerd and Bible geek that I am, when members of an online women’s clergy blogging group to which I belong were invited to write reviews for the new CEB Women’s Bible, I was happy to accept the invitation. I have never seen a Bible like this.

The CEB (Common English Bible), first published in 2011, is a fresh, scholarly translation of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. (Some versions are available with the apocrypha; this edition does not include the intertestamental literature.) It has been widely embraced; my own denomination approved it for public liturgical proclamation soon after it debuted, and we use it in my parish at one of our two Sunday services.

But the appeal of this edition of the CEB goes beyond its translation. Several features stand out, among them an index of every woman in the Bible, named or unnamed. The often discounted place of women in our sacred story is lifted up: “Women often take a role in the countertraditions,” says the introduction to Genesis, “and we observe God working in the countertexts as well as the traditional ones.” Introductions are provided for each new book, chapter, or narrative; numerous sidebar articles (indexed alphabetically and canonically) offer reflections on topics as varied as reproduction, idols, fragrant oils, being “married to Christ”, and the complexity of women’s relationships with other women (to name but a few), relating the scriptural treatment of these topics to contemporary understanding. In doing so, the writers and editors name the particular challenges that arise from trying to bring ancient meanings into present-day interpretation, and while presenting ideas to consider, do not provide easy answers.

The standard features one expects from study Bibles are here. Indexed maps (16 in all), covering all the major eras of Hebrew and nascent Christian history, are clear, detailed, and colorful. Reading plans suggest ways to read through the scriptures in periods of time ranging from a month to a year. Another notable highlight of this edition is a series of discussion and reflection questions, based on the three-year Revised Common Lectionary readings and presented seasonally.

But what really makes this latest CEB stand out is that the editors and the authors of the articles and reflections – eighty of them - are all women: biblical scholars, pastors and church leaders, and novelists. They love Holy Scripture, are committed to telling its story, and hope to provoke that same love and commitment in their students, congregations, and readers. It is a tremendous feat that they have accomplished, and any disappointment I might have with the lack of inclusion of the apocrypha (what would they have to say about Judith? I wonder) pales in comparison to my admiration and respect for their painstaking and diligent work. My only concern is that in calling it a “women’s” Bible, the information and insights it offers to all people might be initially missed.

“You’re not alone when you open a Bible,” the preface to the CEB Women’s Bible begins. “God is with you and so are the voices and influences of all with whom you’ve journeyed through life…. When you open a Bible, you see that a variety of voices have always been part of God’s good creation.” Amen. The Bible truly is the story of all God’s people; we who practice the faith and follow the story must find our places in it. This new edition will surely aid both women and men in their faithful pursuit of that holy task. Visit www.CEBWomensBible.com.

I guess I did need another Bible after all!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Festival of Homiletics - Day 1 - Letting Go

I'm spending this week in Atlanta, Georgia at the 24th annual Festival of Homiletics, a workshop/conference by, for, and about preachers and preaching sponsored by Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. The opening worship service was held Monday evening at the Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, a 7700-member church with a beautiful campus and lovely, state-of-the-art facilities.

The preacher was Anna Carter Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary. She took us into the resurrection narrative in John 20. In fact, the entire liturgy was structured around Easter - we sang "Jesus Christ is risen today", the gospel was festooned with Alleluias - and it was odd to have a liturgy structured for Easter morning the day after Pentecost. But as Anna explained, the week we were embarking on was less about continuing education than about resuscitation for preachers (which drew applause); hence the emphasis on resurrection.

So into that early morning on the first day of the week she took us, explaining that Mary Magdalene is the real preacher in this account, just as she is the apostle to the apostles ("she's the one who shows up; she's the one who was sent"). But first, she simples has to be there, weeping and sitting with her grief. Anna played with the scenario of the "missing" body of Jesus in light of change, of new ways of looking at some of our dearly held habits, customs, interpretations. On Mary's desperation at finding the tomb empty, and interrogating first the angels, then the gardener (wink, wink): "when the Jesus you  know doesn't stay put, someone is to blame."

Of course, when the gardener speaks Mary's name and she recognizes him as Jesus, she wants to embrace him, cling to him. Anna calls Jesus' response -"do not hold on to me" - the first post-resurrection teaching. It's a lesson for all of us who seek to proclaim the gospel in new ways for different contexts, as we struggle not to hold on to and pass on comfortable messages, but go from our own encounters with the risen Christ to share the radical hope of the gospel.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What's in a Number?

Decades ago my parents moved themselves and their baby daughter from Lexington, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio. During the intervening years, our family, then later my widowed mother, moved two more times, both times within a close enough radius that we could keep the same phone number.

We started out on a party line – one of my parents would pick up the phone to make a call (I was too young to use a phone then) and hear someone else having a conversation. Fortunately that soon stopped. We went from a letter prefix for our exchange (“BE”) to the corresponding numerals (“23”). We started out dialing “0” for the Operator when we needed to make a long-distance call; over time that was replaced direct dialing, and our number got a three-digit prefix, the area code. The Bell Telephone monopoly ended, and we had our choice of carriers.

Over the years that phone line flowed into basic black rotary dial instruments, larger and smaller wall phones, the “princess” model (I never did get one of my own in my bedroom!), push button phones, and cordless.

And the conversations that phone line knew! My little self, talking with grandparents, aunts, and uncles. My teenage self, waiting for a boy to call, or commiserating with girlfriends when he didn’t. My college student self, calling because I was homesick, or needed money or advice on a life-altering decision. No answering machines, no voicemail, no caller ID. You answered the phone – or didn’t – and took your chances. You called, and had to decide how long to wait before giving up and hanging up.

That phone line shared good news and bad. I was home alone as a teen when a call came in from my uncle in Georgia telling me that my grandmother had died. From that phone I called the friends my parents were visiting that afternoon and from that phone told my father that his mother was no longer with us. Years later, my mother called to tell me that her mother had died. Many years after that, from that same number, she called my family and me three states away to tell us that we needed to come to Columbus sooner rather than later for Christmas break if we wanted to see my father before he died. I dialed that number to tell my parents, twice, that grandchildren were on the way, and twice that those grandchildren had arrived.

Recently my mother moved into a nursing home. She has her own private phone in her room, but she’s just far enough outside the radius of her former residence to have had a new phone number assigned. I’m actually amazed at how quickly I’ve been able not only to memorize that new number, but to have conditioned my brain to think of it when I pick up my phone to call her – after all, old habits die hard. I doubt I’ll ever forget the old number, though (every so often I’m tempted to call it just to see if it’s been re-assigned yet) – after all, that old number was a part of my life for as long as I can remember. That’s what’s in a number: memories, relationships, history, and most of all the substance, significant and otherwise, of the living of ordinary lives. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Burning Questions

The story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), which is the Hebrew scripture lesson for Lent 3-C for those using the Revised Common Lectionary, is a fairly well known one and rich with meaning. Moses, alone with Jethro’s flock at Mt. Horeb, sees a bush that is blazing yet impervious to the usual effect of fire on plant life. He decides he must look at it; that is, until he hears the voice of God telling him that he stands on holy ground and the voice self-identifies as the God of Moses’ own ancestors, ancestors that until that moment he may not have actually known he had. At that point, Moses turns away.

But a conversation ensues, and Moses is given a mission. At that point the reluctant prophet asks two questions of this holy Presence, questions that echo through the long history of divine/human relationship. Stated simply, they are: “Who am I?” and “Who are You?”

Granted, Moses’ Who am I is more of a “Why me?” After all, he had assumed he was part of the royal house of Egypt, having been raised by Pharaoh’s daughter for almost all of his life – why would he be expected to deliver those whom his people had enslaved? But in this exchange God gives Moses back his true identity: he is a son of the Hebrew patriarchs, a member of the very race his adoptive family has oppressed, and God has chosen him for the important task of leading his people – his true people – to freedom. And God will not abandon him, but will be with him and his people and give them a sign: they will worship God on the very mountain where this conversation is taking place.

Then comes the second question. If Moses is to have any credibility with the Hebrew people, he must be able to tell them who, exactly, is the God who has called him out. It’s one thing to say “the God of your ancestors”, but what is God’s name? (Remember, the ancient near east was rife with deities, all of whom had names. It was important to know to and of whom one was speaking!) God’s answer here is frustratingly non-committal – “I am who I am” – frustrating, that is, until we recall what Moses would learn (and what Yul Brynner, in The Ten Commandments, would ultimately give voice to): God is God. There are, there can be, no others. “I am has sent you.”*

“Who am I?” “Who is God?” These are burning questions that the journey of faith seeks to answer. They are neither easily nor readily resolved, and can only be truly and finally answered through ongoing relationship with the Creator.

*In Mark’s gospel (6:47-52), when Jesus comes walking across the water toward his disciples as they struggle in a boat against “an adverse wind”, he tells them “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Some scholars have identified the phrase “it is I” in the original Aramaic to be more properly translated “I am.”