BUT DO IT PREACH? Reflections on the Lectionary
NOTE: This is an occasional Blog post dealing with the Orthodox Lectionary readings for the following day (date shown above; texts shown below).
The title for this Blog – “But Do It Preach?” – is a question we Protestant ministers (I used to be one) asked a lot in our lectionary study groups. We got together, shared our “exegesis” notes and observations (formal study of the texts). But after all of the homework stuff, the question still hung in our midst like the proverbial Ancient Near Eastern elephant in the room:
But does it preach? Can you, can I, preach it? Is there a sermon in these texts?
I no longer preach – one of the things, by the way, I still miss about parish ministry –but I come to Divine Liturgy with a lot of the same questions in mind.
Sometimes here I’ll have a sermon idea from these texts – it’ll preach, or more honestly, even a fool like me could preach it. The Blog will show that.
Sometimes it won’t preach, not for a spiritually constipated fool like me, in which case I’ll at least still have questions I’d like to ask of the texts … and which I hope my priest might “just happen” to address when he preaches it, as he invariably does, and does well.
Either way, here, occasionally, are my thoughts – or at least questions – on the eve of various services on the Orthodox liturgical calendar. Feedback always is welcome and encouraged, especially if the reader finds I have missed the Orthodox doctrinal boat from time to time, maybe lots, which no doubt will happen.
All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.
Romans 2:10-16 Matthew 4:18-23
Hebrews 11:33 – 12:2 (Saints) Matthew 4:25–5:12 (Saints)
The passage reminds us we all have the “image of God” as the core region of our basic (created) nature, even though the Fall has obscured it, clouded it.
So each of us lives in a fundamental contradiction (“conflicting thoughts,” 2:15b); and that contradiction – that Primordial Neurosis (my term)– is what messes each of us up, messes the world up, and makes the human story the infinitely complicated, fascinating and yet sorrowful drama it always is.
What “preaches” here, for me, is what I just called the Primordial Neurosis. And were I to preach this specific passage, rather than some complex combination of two, three or all four of Sunday’s texts, that is what I would focus on: our "Christic Conflicted State," with stories/examples; and what the Christ has done, and will continue to do, to recreate us from that.
HEBREWS 11:33 – 12:2
This is a classic definition of biblical faith (11:1, “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”). It runs through all of chapter 11 and at least mid-way through chapter 12, and along with the definition it catalogues faithful persons from the biblical narrative, up to and including Jesus Himself.
The surprising, and for me absolutely life-giving, verse in all of this is right at the end of the passage: “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (italics mine).
It is questionable exegesis in some circles to haul in other biblical texts from other books to help illumine a passage like the Hebrew text here. To some extent my own Reformed (Presbyterian) heritage gave its imprimatur to when John Calvin and others insisted Scripture can be interpreted only by Scripture. But the harshest critics in my own experience also were in the Reformed/Presbyterian “camp” – Hebrews, in this case, has to be taken on its own terms.
Two answers to that. First: Romans already is paired with Hebrews in today's Lectionary readings, so it is valid from the git-go to draw another passage from Romans to help illumine Hebrews. Furthermore, Paul commonly uses a Greek phrase that almost always get translated into English as "faith in Christ" when in fact the better translation almost always (probably always) is, "the faith of Christ." Galatians sparkles with verses that have this phrase. And that phrase just simply what is common to most if not all New Testament passages which seem to be talking about "faith in Christ," and clearly was an idea and a teaching at least as widespread in first century Palestine as St. Paul's own journeys.
What “preaches” for me here is precisely that. On a human level, the work of the biblical saints is overwhelming. I would run windmilling my arms and screaming my eyeballs out from most if not all of the situations described in Hebrews 11-12. But at the end of the day, it’s not me who “does it.” Synergy sets in at some point, unique to each of our spiritual journeys; but until we are ready, it’s monergy. God – Jesus – does it all. And even when I have to start shouldering my own part, He is still, now and forever, Emmanuel: God with us. I’m never alone.
MATTHEW 4:18 – 5:12
Maybe the affirmations in the Epistles are precisely what are needed to go into the calling of the Disciples, the phenomenal healing ministry of Jesus, and the opening words (the Beatitudes) of the Sermon on the Mount – the contents of the combined Gospel readings for this Sunday.
The Jesus who speaks to me in the calling, the healing and exorcisms, and in the crack-of-the-bat teachings in the Beatitudes … is calling, modeling, and then teaching what He just modeled, things that I cannot do in my own strength.
That “I” is the “small I,” the ordinary ego-self (the “flesh” in the New Testament) that grew up in response to inner DNA impulses and outer molding and shaping by parents, family, school, church, culture, history (the “world” in the New Testament, interlaced with the intelligently toxic and toxically active, purposive shadows of the Powers of Darkness). That small “I” is just fine as far as it goes – our ego is necessary for navigating this world – but, as the myth of Adam and Eve reminds us (nothing in creation is truer than myth), it too easily thinks of itself as a peachy replacement for God, and therein lies our trouble, and the first hideous emotional pain and behavioral dysfunction (putting it politely and awfully mildly) of our Primordial Neurosis.
When that happens, the self has to die. It has to take up its own cross and die. Daily (because it, too, has – and even offers – its own counterfeit resurrections).
The latent Image of God – the Image of Christ in me, which is my own true humanity, my original and authentic “self” – that Image now needs to be developed. And it is just as present in everyone who ever lived, is living, ever will live; and the same task of developing and fulfilling our humanity lies before us all.
The Beatitudes point the way to the disciple needs to be doing to find and live that completed humanity – to be fully alive, fully joyful, fully “happy” (often the way “Blessed” is translated from the Greek: “happy”).
It is risky business, this being happy is. It involves assuming poverty (“in spirit” only deepens the meanings of having no resources; it does not turn it into cotton-candy metaphors that even megachurch Entertainment Christianity can swallow) .. it involves mourning with a sorrowful suffering world … it involves meekness, gentleness in a world that prizes hardness, power, strength … it involves hungering and thirsting, not for hot dogs and beer, but for right-relatedness at every level of the world, social and political included … it involves mercy, unobscured hearts (core of our being, and all of the difficult work it takes to remove the things that obscure, which in turn are precisely what clouds and even narcoticize the Image of God in us) … it involves making peace … struggling for right-relatedness at every level of the world around us to the extent it invites and may even bring on persecution.
… well, for dear Life. And the One who is that Life. Our Life (Galatians 2:20, another of "those" verses with "that" phrase).
It preaches, oh it do preach, even for a fool like me.