Rethinking the "There are No Stupid Questions" Rubric
2008-04-28 by Michael Usey
Just how demoralizing might it have been for Jesus when he heard the disciples’ final question in Act 1.6: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Here he is on the train platform, about to board, his hand on the handhold, and his closest friends in the world ask him one last question that shows they have understood little of what he’s said: So is now the time that you’re going to kick the Romans out of the promised land and restore the kingdom? No, actually, guys, this is when I leave, and the earthly kingdom is not the current plan. Luke doesn’t say he let out a heavy sigh, but it’s not hard to believe he did.
I’ve never thought that leaving the whole gospel thing in our hands was a good idea, that Jesus’ plan to have his disciples spread the gospel by being good news and telling it too, but there you have it. I wonder if it seemed like a good idea to Jesus right then.
One of things I like about the disciples is that they never seemed to know what Jesus was going to say or do next. And often, when he did say something, they totally misunderstood him. I can so identity with them trying to follow but still being confused and clueless. I didn’t mind the WWJD campaign years ago (built as it was on Shelton’s book In His Steps), but the fatal flaw of asking yourself what would Jesus do is that his own disciples would have never answered that question correctly. He was entirely unpredictable to them: they would shoo children away, and he would welcome them. Like Rebecca Manly Pippert has said, Jesus was both delightful and disturbing—and probably the most frustrating person who has ever lived. And Jesus seemed to go out of his way to make the religious of his day angry with him, calling them stinking tombs and such. His disciples never could predict what Jesus would say or do, at least not on that side of Pentecost. After Pentecost they would start to do and say some of the same things he did. Which of course is one of Luke’s points in Acts, that Jesus’ disciples start to sound and act like him, after they are filled with the spirit.
One time when Jesus was saying things the disciples don’t understand they asked Jesus, Who are you? And, in one of my favorite verses in our Bible, Jesus answered back, Why do I speak to you at all? (John 8.25). A really good question, actually, that echoes down through all of his followers through the ages.
Of course, his leaving was part of the plan, I think. No longer would he be in just one place, but now through the spirit he would everywhere at once. In this, he didn’t so much depart as he atomized and spread to be everywhere and in everyone who would have him.
Something more about Mary
2008-04-28 by Michael Usey
There is a Greek Orthodox Church a quarter of a mile away from my home named Dormition of the Theotokos. Dormition of course coming from the same Latin root as dormitory, a place to sleep, means “falling asleep,” hence as euphemism for death. Theotokos is, as most of you know, the wonderful term meaning “God-bearer,” the Orthodox honorific title for Mary. The church’s name, Dormition of the Theotokos means, the church of Mary falling asleep, or Mary’s Death church. While it’s a fine congregation, it may not be the name most church growth specialists would recommend (“Things are really hoppin’ this Easter at Mary’s Death church!” Or “You belong in Mary’s Death Church.”). However, I don’t think Mary’s death is not the best thing about her.
We preachers have not always known what to do with Mary, when we have thought about her at all. The text is this week gives us an excellent entry into the best thing about Mary. As a teenager, perhaps as young as 12 years old, she receives Gabriel’s incredible message. She bears the scorn of an unmarried pregnancy, and the whispers about whom Jesus’ father might be. Mary looks for him when he was lost at the temple, and takes note of his smart retort to Joseph when they find him; she prompts him at the wedding at Cana despite his protests. She is there at the cross, and her grief is our pieta.
But the best and last we know about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is that she becomes his disciple. The highest and best thing we can say about Mary is not that she gave birth and nurture to the messiah, but that she eventually came to understand that her son was the Christ, and chose to follow him (Acts 1.14). At one point in Mark’s story of Jesus, Mary and his brother are there, outside of the house in which Jesus is preaching, in order to take him home, presumably because they thought he was a few clowns short of a circus. But she (and his brothers) overcame her questions and became his follower. The best thing about Mary is that she becomes a follower of her son, the Christ. Not just Theotokos, but—even better—Theodoulos, God’s servant.
I Can See My House From Here
2008-04-28 by Michael Usey
Acts 1.6-14 is the first reading for Easter 7A. Not that anyone cares, but I am opposed to the RCL’s first readings in the season of Easter, since all of the Hebrew Bible lessons drop out (excepting the Psalms) and are replaced with lessons from Acts. This put the preacher in the untenable position of preaching from Acts during the Sundays of Easter, then having to circle back around to Acts 2 for Pentecost. It may work in some movies—Pulp Fiction and Memento come to mind in which the viewer does not know the beginning until the end. But it’s difficult to launch into Acts for seven weeks, then return to the beginning, to the supernova of the spirit than births the young church with a fiery spirit. It is this beginning, Pentecost, that makes sense of why these bumbling disciples finally are changed into persons of power, authority and insight.
Also, since the Hebrew Bible (in the Septuagint translation) was the Bible of the early church, it doesn’t make good sense to me that Old Testament readings would be dropped during the season devoted to Christ's resurrection. St. Luke would have certainly been against it, since one of his main purposes in writing was to show how what God was doing in Jesus was according to God’s purposes and congruent with what God had done before in Jewish history. So Jesus uses the (OT) scriptures to show the disciples on the way to Emmaus that it was necessary (Greek dei) for it all to come down that way (Luke 24.26).
That being said, the only place during Easter in which the first reading makes sense is the Sunday before Pentecost, Ascension Sunday, when we see the disciples pre-spirit. However, the reading doesn’t go far enough: for me the thought-unit runs 1.6-26, Jesus’ promise, and the disciples’ impatience. [Acts 1.15-26 is the reading for Easter 7B, btw.]
I say this because I think that one of Luke's main purposes in Acts is to show that Paul is the replacement disciple for Judas. An apostle is one chosen by Jesus himself. The risen Jesus Christ himself will choose Saul (aka Paul) in Acts 9. But in his final words to his disciples, Jesus tells them that they will receive power when the spirit comes upon them. Jesus says to them, in effect, “A power is coming. Wait for it.” But they do not wait. Before the arrival of the spirit in them, the eleven take it upon themselves to replace Judas. This they do by praying and casting lots—divination by shooting craps. They select Matthias, and he is never heard from again, not in scripture and almost never in church tradition. Luke subtly points to this truth when he says that “Matthias was added to the eleven apostles,” instead of saying something like “he became one of the twelve.” Even after his bingo election, he is still not an apostle. Like Voldermort at the end of Book 7, the disciples still don’t get it, and they will not until the spirit burns within them.
Guest preaching blogger: Michael Usey
2008-04-28 by CJ Teets
Michael Usey is senior pastor of College Park: An American Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC. Born in Boston and raised in San Diego, he much prefers the Chargers over the Patriots, the Padres (of course) over the Red Sox. He holds degrees from Baylor University, Southern Seminary in Louisville (before the fall), Emory University, and Baptist Theological in Richmond; none of these degrees were purchased online. He has 3 children: Nathan, Zachariah, and Hannah, all named for holy troublemakers of the Hebrew Bible, and who live up to their names. His wife, Ann, makes him look good and teaches English at the Quaker High School of New Garden Friends. His church loves God most of the time, works diligently at loving people, and tries hard not to embarrass Jesus. The best quality about Michael, his friends say, is that he has really good friends.
Caesar and Ascension
2008-04-28 by Tom Steagald
Perhaps I am the only one annoyed by the National Day of Prayer. Don't get me wrong: I am all in favor of prayer. It is just that I don't need Caesar telling me when to do it... and maybe Caesar isn't telling me to do it but it feels that way and so we get this unholy mixing of God and Country, syncretism and civil religion, and my folk (one of them) is really, really bent with me that I am not having a special service, etc.
Meanwhile, Thursday May 1 is also Ascension Day and I would bet (if our tradition allowed betting) that if my people take note of either "celebration" it will be the NDP and not AD. What is wrong with this picture?
I am thinking of setting up the distinction between the secular "holidays" and the liturgical "Holy Days" on Sunday. It is Eucharist for us, a time when we taste and see that the Lord is good, and as an appetizer the truth that the secular calendar is a celebration of "us" one way or the other while the liturgical calendar celebrates God. This may seem patently obvious, but I cannot iterate how many times I have been fussed at over the years for not giving due justice to the scouts, the veterans, even--and I am not making this up--the submarine crews who fought in WW II--but I do not know that I have ever been scolded for giving short shrift to Ascension Day or the Feast of St. Stephen.
This year the intersecting of "rival" calendars may be too much for me to ignore! I do not want to pick a fight or appear Quixotic...but it seems something fundamental is before us.
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