Tuesday with Pharaoh and Paul
2008-08-19 by Tom Steagald
Free associating a little bit here, but that is what I do this early in the week, trying to find a place to land, a metaphor to expand, a truth to tell.
I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' observation, variously recorded as a question or a statement, either way to this end: a fish does not know it is wet. Perhaps the biggest problem in dealing with the Romans text is the fact that we preachers and our people do not know all, or perhaps even many of the ways we are swimming in the cultural pools. The usual suspects, I guess, are things like money and power, greed and largesse... but I wonder if we are not in much deeper water than that. So deep that, like some fish, we are blind.
Perhaps that is why Flannery O'Connor turned to the grotesque as a way of shaking us to sensibility--that the "freakish" worked for her in distinctively theological ways, offering a sense of displacement to the reader. It is in fact displacement that we most often do NOT see or feel, because we swim so comfortably in these waters.
How else might one recognize the acculturation that moves our gills but deadens our hearts? How might we foster a healthy and spiritual, on-the-way-to-freedom displacement in our preaching (which hopefully translates into our people's hearing)?
I think of the text in Philippians 4: think on these things, which are not grotesque but beautiful, really beautiful, and not in the cosmetic, pachaged, fashioned and styled. I think of the old hymn, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus..." and the accompanying counsel of Charles de Foucauld, "I must remember only Jesus, think only of Jesus, as a gain any loss at the price of which I have more room in myself for thought and knowledge of Jesus, beside whom everything else is nothing." The Gospel lesson makes this same point but, again, is so familiar as to be cliched at this point. I wonder whether anyone has ears displaced enough to hear it, lips displaced enough to preach it without it sounding deadeningy pious? If so, one might have to turn to John's memory of the disciples' confession: "we have nowhere else to go; you have the words of life." The disciples know they are displaced, to be sure, at least from their former life and thinking.
Slaves, of course, are painfully aware of their displacement, but the anger and resentment at injustice can itself become so familiar that the exile itself might yet appear to be home. On the other hand, slaves who are not suffering from "Stockholm Syndrome" or "Store City Syndrome," while forced to build Pharaoh's store cities and tombs--that last is a powerful image, I think, that in unjust slavery as well as faithfulness followers of the Lord are helping Pharaoh to build his grave--still maintain hope against the available data (Brueggemann) that by grace justice will be done.
It is understandable how former generations read the Exodus texts allegorically; if that hermeneutic is itself displaced by more critical sensibilities, the metaphorical power of these stories remain very current.
Who (What) is my Enemy?
2008-08-18 by Tom Steagald
I have to confess that on first reading I am rather uninspired by the texts for the week. Not that they are uninteresting texts! The problem in not with the stories and songs...how could it be? Clearly the problem is with me. It is August, after all--Ordinary Time.
The texts, though, are anything but ordinary. Here are some of the most compelling lines in all of Scripture: Now there arose a new Pharaoh over Egypt who knew not Joseph... If it had not been the Lord who was on our side... Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed... Who do people say that I am?
In one way there is too MUCH here for a summer Sunday, and still I at first found myself kind of yawning. Precisely because we have heard the texts so often their power is domesticated, too familiar.
But then in my prayer time this morning I was directed to Psalm 18. In the back room of my thoughts was a question, perhaps THE question for all Christians, asked this time by a young woman in my Church School class, a new believer whom, along with her daughters, I was blessed to baptize two Easter Sundays ago. "But Tom, how do we love our enemies? That seems to be the hardest thing..." Indeed. But are all enemies to be loved? Which ones?
Which is to say, who or what is/are the enemy/enemies? The Psalmist of song 18 does not love the enemy, but writes, I pursued my enemies and overtook them;/and did not turn back till they were consumed./I thrust them through, so that they were unable to rise;/they fell under my feet./For thou didst gird me with strength for the battle;/thou didst make my assailants sink under me./...I beat them fine as dust before the wind;/I cast them out like mire of the streets.
Just the difference between Hebrew Scripture and New? Or is there something more nuanced here?
I reread Romans 12. Do I have enemies? Who or what is the enemy? Is there something or someone I must pursue and not turn back till it/they are consumed?
Perhaps my enemy is all the stuff in me that leaves my mind untransformed, that would conform me to the world, or leave me there. While I do not normally like the language of "spiritual warfare"--and don't get me started on a seminar I went to once, a bunch of us unsuspecting Methodists ambushed by this lady and her camouflage-colored tamborines with little plastic weapons glued to them, which we was supposed to tap in staccato (because "the enemy doesn't like that sound;" reminded me of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: "They hate it when I do this") and claim my victory--there is yet a a sense in which that is the kind of engagement Paul seems to be suggesting in Romans 12 (and also in the deutero-Pauline Ephesians 6). It is hard work, battle, giving God room to transform our minds. Hard work, battle, presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice. It is a kind of warfare, actually, thrusting-through all those things in ourselves that would enslave us (oblique to Exodus, too). I find myself thinking of Kallistos Ware who said, "if we do not find prayer difficult, perhaps we have not begun to pray."
Blogging This Week...
2008-08-17 by Tom Steagald
Greetings, friends. I will be blogging again this week.
Though I am a rather frequent contributor to this site, and have served as guest blogger once before, David Howell asked me to introduce myself again.
I am a United Methodist pastor serving a small town's First UMC. I am a graduate of Belmont University (Belmont College when I attended, and home of this year's second presidential debate), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (in the good ol' days before he take-over) and the Candler School of Theology, Emory University (D.Min.) I have written two books (one of which is advertised on this site) and a third is due from Upper Room in 2011. I have contributed sermons, reviews and essays to such periodicals as Lectionary Homiletics, Journal of Biblical Preaching, The Christian Century, United Methodist Reporter and the Circuit Rider. I am a frequent contributor to the The Abingdon Preacher's Annual and I have written 12 entries for Feasting on the Word.
I am sometimes professor of preaching and worship at the Hood Theological Seminary (AME Zion)--a real learning experience for an aging, white United Methodist!--and comment pretty regularly on Theolog.org.
I hope we can discuss the texts this week. Look for my first entries on Monday afternoon.
Ro; "Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-08-15 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to guest blogger Ro Ruffin for diving into the tub. Scroll down to read her Olympian thoughts on this puzzling, controversial text from Matthew 15. She does a splendid job of exploring the idea of Jesus as bigot – a shocking notion indeed. Scroll down to swim around in Ro's rejuvenating writing.
Below are highlights from some of the articles for this week in Lectionary Homiletics.
Among several other points, Osvaldo D. Vena directs us to Matthew 14 and Peter's little faith, which contrasts with the Canaanite woman's great faith.
“Scripture and Screen”
Dan Dick writes about the movie Liar, Liar, which tells of an inveterate liar who suddenly is unable to lie. Clearly the movie stresses the value of pure honesty over lying and over telling the truth because you have to and not because you do so freely.
The movie connects with the pericope in its emphasis on honesty. The Canaanite woman, likewise, is honest, speaks from the heart.
“Preaching the Lesson”
Speaking of honest, bold women, Anna Carter Florence makes several gold-medal points in her article. One is the idea that the woman functions as a prophet in that she pushes Jesus and all of us to acknowledge the truth and so to act the way God calls us to act.
My sermon will soon appear at the cafe.
Wishing I were Shawn Johnson, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Going to the Dogs
2008-08-10 by Ro Ruffin
Is Jesus a bigot? Such an idea is inconceivable, yet that is the question forced by this passage. The Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon, 1995), suggests that the author of Matthew is showing how Jesus is “learning from a woman of an inappropriate ethnicity (961).” Honesty demands that the negative tone of Jesus’ remarks be taken seriously. There is a history among Jews (and their surrounding ancient neighbors) of the low estate of the dog. Proverbs 26:11 (also referred to in 2 Peter 2:22) tells us that the person who returns to her foolish ways is like a dog returning to its vomit. Ecclesiastes 9:4 sardonically compares the preference for a living dog over a dead lion. And Jesus himself has previously warned his hearers that they should “not give what is holy to dogs (Matt 7:6).”
To call people dogs is a huge insult. We can rationalize it all we want, but the fact remains that Matthew depicts Jesus as denigrating Gentiles. I have been wondering if we don’t spend too much time tip-toeing around the Gospel portrayals of Jesus. Cannot Jesus handle a bit of searing questioning?
Chapter 15 begins with the controversy over unwashed hands. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of demanding a piety from the people that is based on their own ideas, while they are themselves unwilling to follow the law that was passed down to them. Jesus then explains to Peter and the others that one is defiled by the evils that spew from the heart, like so much vomit, rather than by what, or how, one eats. It is here that we have our connection to the dog. Instead of heeding God’s laws, the Pharisees have returned to their own vomit, and now expect others to partake of that vomit. This leads people away from God, rather than restoring them to right relationship with God and each other, which is what Jesus is all about. This brings us to Jesus’ treatment of the “Canaanite” woman.
It is a given that in every way, this woman is an outsider, a dog. But suppose this passage wasn’t meant to be about Jesus’ treatment of the woman per se. After-all, our writer must not have seen anything amiss or he would have written the account differently. If we ask ourselves what his readers, or hearers, would have thought about the words and actions of Jesus, we may remember that to the Jews of that time, all non-Jews were outsiders and all women were non-men. Calling Gentiles dogs was the norm. If it is normal, or ordinary, to call outsiders ‘dogs’ and to turn them away without helping them, what is Matthew’s purpose? It seems to me that Matthew is depicting the ordinary turned extraordinary. If Matthew’s community sees itself as learning God’s ways along with Jesus, then Jesus’ behavior becomes an “everyman” lesson, and the outcome of the lesson is a changed heart. Look, says Jesus, this is something important about God. Come. Follow me! The change is so all-encompassing that when Jesus leaves the woman, he spends several days among other Gentiles and feeds them all, from just a few loaves and fishes, like scraps from the table.
Now let’s strip the story down to what the passage actually says. Jesus moves out of Jewish territory into Gentile territory. The woman pleads with Jesus for her daughter’s life. Jesus ignores her pleas. The woman persists. Jesus gives her what she expects (not necessarily what she deserves, but what she expects). What should Christians today make of this? Most, or all, Christians understand Jesus to be the all-compassionate Son of God. They are unlikely, then, to hear rancor in Jesus’ words. While they understand that the Jews have a covenant with God, they would expect Jesus, according to the new covenant, to give to every person according to his need. Perhaps they would see this passage as akin to the eschatological wedding feast where they have been drawn to the banquet when those invited didn’t come.
What about the first century Jewish Christians of Matthew’s community? Might they have taken this passage as a warning? The Pharisees, they were just previously told, were going in the wrong direction…one of their own making. Would Matthew’s community be left out of the festivities if they did not heed Jesus? Would they become self-righteous, forgetting that God has been gracious to them? Would they become stingy, barely even giving to the needy the scraps beneath the table? Would such behavior constitute a return to one’s own vomit?
The church today would do well to take heed of such warnings. How do we treat our neighbors? Does one spew gossip from the heart? Or, do you speak words of encouragement? Does one give with a tight fist, forcing the needy to tug until one finally relinquishes one’s time, talent, or resources, or do you give freely, with a wide-open hand? Does one look suspiciously at newcomers, demanding their histories before one will accept them as part of the community, or do you welcome the lost, frightened, and the lonely sinner as you would your own child?
All of us must eat. Will we choose to eat from the Lord’s table, glad to have even the scraps which go to the dogs, or will we return to our own vomit?
 Rabbinical commentary (Samuel T. Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 1987.) suggests that the disciples, far from asking Jesus to send the woman away, were actually asking him to send the demon away from the daughter. Otherwise, Lachs says, Jesus’ response to their saying, ‘get rid of her’, which was “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel,” is a non-sequitur. But this takes a slight emendation of the Greek auten to auton (send “it”, not “her”, away).
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