Monday, January 30, 2012

Preaching & Teaching with Authority

“They were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.”

I have looked at a lot of Parish Profiles over the years. These are documents carefully researched and crafted by search committees in order to let perspective clergy applicants know what gifts and skills are being sought. None are the same, as no two faith communities are the same, but almost all share in common a desire that the new rector be able to relate the bible to everyday life. The people in the pews understandably hunger to learn how ancient texts from a very foreign culture apply to today’s world. They do not want, but often tolerate, preachers and teachers who babble on in academic language sermons better suited for dusty commentaries. We live in a dynamic world which requires an equally dynamic interpretation of the Scriptures if we are to make sense of God’s desire for the human family.

This, I think, is what was happening in the synagogue at Capernaum when Jesus was teaching. The narrative gives us no hint as to the content of what he presented, but we can surmise it was in keeping with what we find in the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes and various topics introduced with the phrase, “you have heard it said…, but I say to you.” In these teachings, Jesus addressed such current concerns as anger, lust, divorce, keeping promises, forgiveness as opposed to vengeance, praying for your enemy, the true purpose of devotional acts, and trusting God to provide for your needs. These were real, practical question to which Jesus did not simply parrot old interpretations. He added to each topic his own insight based on a critique of how current religious leaders failed to understand the deeper intent of the Scriptures.

When Jesus taught, it was not just novel nor was it innovative. It was authoritative. It was what the people in the pews longed to hear: the ancient word brought to life in today’s world giving guidance and understanding to those who listened.

It doesn’t always work this way, does it. It never has. I have been reading my way through the Old Testament Book of Job. It is a fascinating piece of literature that has several scholarly challenges; chief of which is the date it was written. Most place it somewhere around 200 years before the birth of Christ, give a generation or two. You may recall that Job was a good man who lost everything – family, health, and wealth. Three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to comfort him. Their speeches to Job and his replies are all cast in poetic language. The friends state that Job must have sinned in some way for such terrible things to have befallen him. Job insists throughout that he has not. What is fascinating in the account is how the three friends quote directly from the Psalms to make their attack. They confront Job with boilerplate theology – God prospers the way of the righteous and causes the wicked person to fall. They apply this theology, rooted in psalms written some 300-500 years earlier, without once questioning if it makes sense of the world in which they live. Job, on the other hand, brings one challenge after another to their conventional wisdom. This is just one of many instances where Scripture critiques Scripture.

There is within the very fabric of God’s written word an ongoing process of revelation, prophetic challenge, and new wisdom; what one theologian refers to as disclosure, disruption, and discernment. Take for example the early revelation that God commanded the Israelites to kill all their enemies. Prophets began to criticize this understanding and new thinking emerged on many fronts; including last week’s reading from Jonah where God embraces the people of Nineveh after they repent. The force and thrust of Scripture – of God’s will for this world – moves forward as the world moves forward. Applying Scripture in new ways to new situations is at the foundation of its authority.

Look at today’s New Testament reading. Taken at face value it is absolutely useless to us. When was the last time you were a guest at another’s home and were serve a steak while being told, “Before I grilled this, I offered it as a sacrifice to a pagan deity”? Probably… never. But within this particular, culturally obscure concern there is a treasure trove of godly principles that can and should be applied to our world which is very different from the one where Paul introduced them.

We in the Anglican Communion are inheritors of a faith always willing to engage the world as it moves forward with new innovations, insights, and ideas. We will never be the faith apologizing three hundred years after the fact for persecuting Galileo and his notion that the earth rotated around the sun. Earth-centric teaching was not authoritative in Galileo’s day. It was just old, out-dated, and stodgy. Still, it continued to be propagated by those who could not figure out how to revisit Scripture in order to hear God speak through it after the dawn of new understanding.

In just two weeks our diocese will launch a blogsite dealing with issues, questions, and concerns around the possibility of liturgies for blessing same-gender unions being approved for trial use after this summer’s General Convention. You will recall that the bishop asked me to chair the Task Force that is laying the groundwork for this electronic conversation. It is an emotional issue, to be sure. Some feel strongly it is time for the church to move forward, while others feel equally that blessing same-gender unions is wrong. Here is what is right about what we will do through the blogsite: We, the members of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, will take current questions and rethink Holy Scripture in light of the challenges they pose. Our project’s theme is simple: “One Diocese. Many Voices. Yours Matters.” Each week there will be a new, brief entry addressing a question being asked by many. At the end of each post there will be a question to which every reader will be invited to respond. This could be a rich, diverse, thought-provoking conversation engaged by many, many members of our diocese or it could be a total disaster. Only time will tell. What matters to me is not so much how this particular question gets resolved, but that people like you engage in the process, learn from the conversation, articulate your understanding, and – above all – reengage Scripture.

In the Catechism of the prayer book we find the question, “Why do we call the bible the word of God?” Its answer, “We call the bible the word of God because God inspired its human authors and because God still speaks through it today.” It takes courage to listen for God’s authoritative voice. When Jesus taught in his hometown’s synagogue the people were not amazed at his authority, they were infuriated; so much in fact that they wanted to put him to death by throwing him off a cliff. They preferred the old story told the old way about an old world that no body lived in any more. They wanted boilerplate theology to which they could all nod their heads or nod off and then go home. But Jesus would have none of that. He wanted to talk about here and now and what matters and what puzzles and what it all means. So when he taught, it was relevant and it was authoritative. What he said was risky, it was life-giving, and it changed the world. It is what most of us long to hear.