A Sermon About A Sermon

I imagine there must have been some excitement in the air that morning as people entered the synagogue, dressed in their Saturday best.  Perhaps some of the regulars were shuffling to find a new place to sit, since their usual seats were taken by the folks who normally only show up at Yom Kippur and Passover.  But they came to synagogue that morning because they heard the news about the new guest preacher.  One of their own, a local son, was returning to Nazareth for the first time since he began to make a name for himself in the region of Galilee.

Many of them remembered Jesus as a small boy, running around and playing with his friends while the adults made small-talk after the service.  Now, at age thirty, he was beginning to garner a reputation as an itinerant rabbi, a teacher of the Torah.  There were even some astonishing reports of unexplained, mystical healings associated with his visits.  If even a few of these rumors were true, then surely he was about to save the best for them, the people of his hometown, the very ones with whom he had grown up and lived.

They were good-hearted, hard-working, small-town folk who came together Sabbath after Sabbath to honor their Jewish heritage and listen to the wisdom of the Torah.  They knew Jesus and he knew them.  They were the ones who taught Jesus those old stories of Moses and the prophets.  Now, Jesus was the one who would preserve that history and pass it on to yet another generation, as it had been passed down to them by their ancestors in that very same synagogue.  This was a very big day indeed.

The service itself, like every Shabbat service, featured the singing of the old psalms, praying prayers, and of course reciting the ancient Shema, Israel’s oldest creed: “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.”  This faith formed the core of their tradition, preserved and passed on from generation to generation.  And now, they were proud to welcome one of their own, Jesus, as the newest defender of the faith and guardian of the tradition.

After a reading from the Torah, there was usually another reading from one of the prophets.  That week, it came from the book of Isaiah.  Jesus read out loud: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Heads around the room were nodding in agreement as the old familiar words washed over them for the umpteenth time in their lives.  They knew the story behind the words as well:

The prophet was writing to a community of Jews who had just returned from multiple generations of slavery in Babylon and Persia.  It was in that place and time of tribulation that their religion had taken the shape it now held for them.  They had come to believe that their God, Adonai of Israel, was the one true deity and all others were mere pretenders to heaven’s throne.  In Babylon, alienated from the land of their ancestors and the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made daily, their Jewish ancestors had turned their attention to prayer and the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis.  As strangers in a strange land, their ancestors had proudly struggled under oppression to preserve their faith and culture.  The very existence of this synagogue in the small town of Nazareth was a testimony to their success.

Finally, after three generations of Jewish children had grown up under a Babylonian whip, the Persians invaded and conquered Babylon.  These more open-minded Persians allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild, so long as they promised to remain loyal and subservient to the Empire.  The prophet writing in this section of the book of Isaiah directed his words toward these newly returned exiles.  They were faced with the task of rebuilding their country from the ground up.  How would they even start?  What values and ideals would shape this new society?

This particular prophet, writing in the name of another ancient seer, Isaiah of Jerusalem, who had lived and died centuries before, reminded the people of the ancient tradition of the year of Jubilee, a special holiday that came only once every fifty years.  In this year, every debt would be forgiven and every slave set free.  The land and the people would rest and then emerge with a fresh start, a new lease on life.  The onset of this holiday was certainly “good news to the poor” for it brought release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and forgiveness to the debtors.  It was a fresh start.  The future was suddenly wide open.  Liberated by the pronouncement of divine forgiveness, a new generation of people was free to rebuild the world anew.  This is why they called it “the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It seemed to them like heaven itself was smiling.

Back in the Nazarene synagogue, the old men heard these ancient words with tears in their eyes and smiles under their beards.  God had been faithful, their people had survived, rebuilt, and passed on their heritage to another generation of Jews.  And now, here was Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the little kid who used to play in their streets, now grown up tall, ordained as a rabbi, and preaching his first sermon in his hometown.  The people survived.  Their tradition lived on.  God be praised!

Jesus finished his reading, rolled the scroll back up, and handed it back to the attendant.  Then he sat down in the rabbi’s chair, which is what they used back then instead of a pulpit, and began to preach.  He gave them the main point of his sermon with his opening remark: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wait… what did he just say?  Fulfilled?  Didn’t he mean to say Honored, or Remembered, or Preserved?  What does he mean by ‘Fulfilled’?  If those ancient words were being ‘fulfilled’ ‘today’, it would mean that the story of our people is not yet over.  It would mean that the journey home to freedom is not yet finished.  It would mean that the task of rebuilding a new community is up to us, not our ancestors.

Even more importantly, it would mean that the year of Jubilee is now.  All debts are off and all slaves are free.  A fresh start for us, not just a bunch of people who lived once upon a time.

Jesus brought their tradition to life by showing it to be unfinished.  A new world was being brought to birth by the age-old values of forgiveness and freedom.  The same Spirit that animated the ancient prophets like a fire shut up in their bones was ready to set hearts on fire in that synagogue.

By appealing to this passage, Jesus deftly drew from multiple layers of tradition in order to make his point.  Present, prophet, and Torah each represented different strands woven into a single tapestry in this sermon.  Jesus appealed to the very deepest parts of who they were and what they valued as loyal, faithful Jews.  He called them toward their higher calling through a fuller vision of who they were.  He opened their eyes to the presence of a dynamic reality that is still unfolding, still working in their lives in order to bring fulfillment to the prophet’s ancient vision.  Like any good preacher, Jesus brought the past into the present in order to shape the future.  He opened their minds to possibilities that boggled their imaginations.  He showed them a vision of what this world could be like if it were remade along the lines of these Jubilee values instead of the exacting cruelty of the loan shark and the slave driver.

Jesus introduced the people of his home synagogue to a living tradition, a prophetic tradition that reveres the memory of the past by trusting the promise of the future.  Jesus invited his neighbors to follow the trajectory of the prophets rather than standing by their writings.

I believe that same invitation is now extended to us, the people sitting in this church today.  We too can best honor the heritage left by our forebears by tracing the trajectory of their lives, rather than dogmatically hanging on their every word.  To quote the Buddhist poet Matsuo Basho: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

Like those members of the Nazarene synagogue, we have our own tradition that we would like to preserve.  Beginning with Jesus, we might follow our tradition through the likes of the apostle Paul, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, and Karl Barth.  Each of these voices (as well as many others) is worth paying attention to.  But it is always a dangerous thing to make an idol of history.  None of these voices carries the last word in matters of faith and ethics.  Every generation of believers is still responsible, as heirs of the tradition, for continuing to interpret spiritual truth (as we understand it) in its day.

Our church tradition has a slogan that reflects this conviction: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda.  “The church is reformed and always to be reformed.”

The Reformation never ends.  The story is not yet over.  The Christian faith begs to be interpreted and applied in our day, just as it was in Calvin’s and Paul’s.  Our interpretations will not match theirs exactly.  John Calvin, for example, would shudder to learn that we now ordain women to preach in the very churches he founded.

There are some who argue that we have departed from “the faith once delivered to the saints” because of these and others of our practices that differ from our forebears.  I say that we are not heretics but pioneers, reformers, maybe even prophets.  Our task is not to blindly adhere to the words written on a page, but to critically follow the trajectory of the values expressed in those words.  Following the image of the Jubilee that Jesus used: what does it mean to forgive debts and liberate slaves in 2013?  Following Paul and Calvin, what does it mean for us to be reformers of church and society today?

As we stretch our minds to answer these questions, we continue the living tradition that was handed down to us from our ancestors.  We honor our history by moving it forward, trusting in the guiding light of the Spirit to lead us home to the One from whom all blessings flow.

Journeying on by Stages

Abram's Altar

It’s no secret that I’ve been part of several different varieties of Protestant church: Baptist, Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, Presbyterian…

All this time, I’ve been longing for a tradition, something bigger than my little self, of which I can be a part.  Each time I land somewhere new, I think I’ve found it, that is, the place where I will finally put down roots and stay forever.  And each time, I end up leaving after a few years.  I’m beginning to think my ecclesiology is not as strong as I once thought.

I tend to leave each tradition with a keen (and perhaps overdeveloped) sense of what is wrong with it.  My most severe criticism has been reserved for the one tradition that, during my youngest years, shaped me more than any other: the Baptists.

I graduated from a private Christian high school in the Bible belt that was run by a Baptist church (watch the film Saved! for an idea of my high school experience).  I got to see the very worst of the Baptist tradition there.  Theologically, they were the sweaty-brow, pulpit-pounding, Bible-beating, hellfire-and-damnation preachers for which the American south has become famous.  Their commitment to ignorance was the foundation of their stupidity.

At no time was their hypocrisy more apparent than during my senior year when the pastor of that church sexually assaulted a student and the church covered it up.  Meanwhile, that student’s mother (who happened to be a teacher at the school) was fired from her job.  Later that year, another student was expelled from school because she was caught drinking at a party.  The administration defended their actions, citing “discipleship” and not “evangelism” as the institution’s raison d’être.

After that experience, the one variety of church that I intentionally avoided was Baptist.  To me, they represented the very worst of dogmatic and legalistic Christianity that was devoid of any mysticism, relationality, or intellectual integrity.

More recently, as I’ve been exploring what it means to believe and live as a self-identified liberal Christian, I have been basking in the light of several authors whose lives and words have touched me deeply.  Specifically, I am referring to Howard Thurman, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These icons of liberal Protestantism have touched me deeply with their commitment to everything I thought was lacking in my experience of the Baptist tradition.

And then it hit me: these four men had one thing in common that had eluded my consciousness until now.  They were all Baptist ministers.

Delving a little more deeply, I discovered a whole new perspective on the Baptist tradition that I hadn’t noticed until now.  Apart from the die-hard fundamentalists among them, Baptists are (and have been for four hundred years) committed to the power of freedom.

Walter Shurden has articulated the Baptist commitment to freedom in terms of four central values (I have lifted the following summary from Wikipedia):

Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body

Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)

Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual

Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; Separation of church and state is often called the “civil corollary” of religious freedom

Needless to say, this discovery has sparked a reconsideration of my theological roots, dare I say it, the tradition in which I was raised.  Upon further reflection and research, I came to another realization about my heritage:

Apart from the high school I attended, my experience of Baptist churches via the ones I attended as a child was an experience of very moderate to liberal Baptists.  My parents, who I would describe as moderate in most respects, brought us to two different Baptist churches during my youth: First Baptist Church of Melrose, Massachusetts and Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  First Baptist of Melrose is where I have my earliest memories of church.  Binkley Baptist is where I received my first Bible in the third grade.  Both of these churches are American Baptist, formerly known as Northern Baptist, a much more diverse and moderate denomination than its southern counterpart.  Binkley Baptist is also affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, a very liberal denomination that split off from the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-1980s.  That same church made waves decades ago by hiring an openly gay minister before it was popular, even among mainline Protestants.  Upon close re-examination, I would say that my perspective on my Baptist roots is shifting dramatically.

Having just completed my transition to the Presbyterian Church in the last twelve months, I’m not looking to make another switch.  However, if one were to ask me what I see God doing in my personal life right now, I would probably point to the way in which my relationship toward my Baptist heritage is being redeemed in my own memory.

For the last several years (before this process began in earnest), I’ve even had recurring dreams of returning to Binkley.  One involved making my way down a snowy path through the woods behind my childhood home and arriving at Binkley in order to talk with their pastor.  In another dream, I was worshiping in their sanctuary on a Sunday morning, but the internal arrangement of the church (pulpit, pews, etc.) was 180 degrees opposite to what it had been when I attended there.  Those are striking images, considering what I’ve been talking about here.  Could it be that this internal redemption of my denominational heritage was an unconscious work-in-progress for several ears?

All of this material came up in my mind yesterday during my personal devotions.  I was reading a passage from Genesis 12, where Abram is called away to an unknown land under divine guidance.  The voice said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  He had no idea of where he was going.  All Abram knew was that he would be blessed and would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

You would think that this would be the beginning of a long epic that ended years later with his arrival in the Promised Land.  However, such is not the case.  We read in the text that Abram arrived in the Canaan by the end of the next paragraph.  That seems rather anti-climactic and counter-intuitive to me.  Where was the author’s sense of story and adventure?  Odysseus took fourteen years to get where he was going, Abram took a paragraph.

But then I noticed something else: Abram’s journey did not end with his arrival in the Promised Land.  It was only beginning.  He continued to live as a nomad in Canaan, moving from place to place, “journeying on by stages,” as the text says.  And at each stage along the way, he set up an altar.  He acknowledged the sacredness of each patch of earth and gave thanks to the One who had called him in the beginning, guided him thus far, and promised to bless him until the end.

As it was with Abram, so I believe it is with me.  Perhaps I have been in the Promised Land all along, still living as a nomad, traveling from place to place and church to church.  Perhaps that sense of tradition and belonging for which I yearn has been with me the whole time.  Maybe it is only now, as I am being led to embrace the part of my heritage I have despised most, that I am finally able to see my real tradition.

I build an altar here, acknowledging the sacredness of this patch of earth called ‘Baptist’ and blessing the One who brought me to and through its territory.  I do likewise for the other theological provinces I have visited: Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, and Presbyterian.  I do not know where my journey will lead me from here, but I look forward to exploring the land that is being shown to me and experiencing the mutual interflow of blessing between myself and all the families of the earth.