Wednesday, July 25, 2012

To be or not to be... a lectionary preacher?

OK, so for a long time I've had beef with the lectionary. I've tried to express this to my friends in the past, and have never got too exercised about it (at least, I don't think I have), but the lectionary over the last couple of weeks has really got my goat.

So this is the problem. Last Sunday (22 July 2012) the lectionary gospel was Mark 6.30-34, 53-56. I have a problem with the lectionary filleting texts at the best of times, but this was a particularly egregious example. Mark 6.30-34 is the introduction to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (note, the miracle itself is rather clumsily excised from the lectionary for the day). After the feeding miracle, Jesus makes his disciples get into the boat so he can pray by himself. The next morning, Jesus walks towards the disciples who are struggling on the lake. Jesus gets into the boat, the storm stops and they pass safely to Ganessaret, which is where we pick up the reading with 6.53-56 with Jesus healing the sick. So to make the reading shorter the lectionary compilers (a) rip out the really interesting stuff (feeding miracle and walking on water) and make it a reading just about Jesus' compassion and healing people. (b) splice two lake journeys into one. Journey one (6.32) leads to the feeding of the five thousand. Journey two (6.45) leads to the walking on the water and only then to the healings at Ganessaret. It might sound like I am being pedantic, but this does real violence to the story! The upshot of all this was that I decided to preach on Ephesians 2 instead.

This week matters are made much, much worse. For those who don't know, this year of the three year lectionary cycle (year B) is 'The Year of Mark'. You would be forgiven for not knowing this because, at every available opportunity the lectionary compilers ditch Mark and go for John. Admittedly John doesn't have a year of his own (which in itself makes the basic premise of the lectionary problematic), but why on earth would the lectionary compilers choose to substitute a Johanine for a Markan text this week? The text from John which they choose is John 6.1-21, which is... the feeding of the five thousand! They pick the account of a miracle which every evangelist, including Mark, records and to add insult to injury, this is part of the material they removed from the previous week's reading from Mark! Come on! Presumably they think John tells it better. I can kind of forgive (though I don't understand or condone) the wholesale abandonment of Mark's gospel over the easter season. But the last couple of weeks take the biscuit. The lectionary really makes a dog's dinner of biblical narrative.

So that is my particular beef with the lectionary at the moment. But there are also more systemic problems:
  • The lectionary is inherently lop-sided. The format prescribes three readings. One from a collection of 39 books, another from a collection of 23 books, and a third from a collection of 4 books. It should be pretty obvious how this is naturally going to lead to a lack of balance. Is it any wonder that there are so many latter day marcionites in the church given that we give 30% of reading time to over 70% (by word count) of the bible? This is particularly glaring when the preacher has got it in their head that one should only really ever preach from the gospel reading (something I hear rather too often). I don't know where this idea came from. I'm pretty sure that it doesn't lead to a happy place.

  • Because the lectionary is lop-sided in the way described above, it has to leave out large swathes of the Old Testament, just take a look at the big master lectionary for the CofE (for this comparison I am referring to the 'Semi-Continuous' track one). Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Joel, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai and Malachi all appear only once each in the three year lectionary cycle. 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Ecclesiasties, Daniel, Obadiah, Nahum and Zechariah don't appear at all. All in all, Isaiah does the best out of all Old Testament writings, making an appearance on 31 Sundays. Genesis is next with 20 appearances, followed by Jeremiah with 14 and Exodus with 13. Every other book appears less than ten times over the three year cycle. I just find this breathtaking. If, as I suspect, large numbers of Christians are only really reading the Bible in the context of the Sunday liturgy, they are getting a tiny fraction of the Old Testament simply because the lectionary arbitrarily allocated 30% of reading time to it. I've heard people extolling the virtues of the lectionary because it takes you through the bible in three years... it doesn't.

  • Yes, there is the gospel related 'track two' as an option for the Old Testament reading for Sundays after Pentecost, but this just plays with a solution to the problem. Of the underrepresented books, in year A, Amos, Zechariah, Jonah, Micah and Zephaniah get a single look in, the bulk of the readings are from Isaiah. In year B, Job appears twice as does Numbers, Joshua gets one reading Daniel gets his only two appearances and Amos is read another couple of times. In year C, Ecclesiastes gets another reading, as do Habakkuk and Malachi, Amos gets another two readings. The bulk of the gospel related Old Testament readings come from already well represented books. Even so, to get through the thematic and semi-continuous tracks turns the three year lectionary into a six year lectionary. The imbalance still remains. 

  • The readings are often completely unrelated. Trying to discern a common theme within the readings for a given Sunday more often than not leads to a major headache. Besides, if you do manage to hold the readings together with chewing gum and rubber bands, don't you kind of end up preaching the thoughts of the lectionary compilers? The response made by some preachers is to not preach on any of the texts, opting to preach on their favourite topic, you know, the one they have preached on a thousand times before. The response which most sane preachers make to this is to just preach one of the texts. The obvious question which this approach poses is, 'why on earth do we have the other two readings!?' If they are in no way related to each other, and consequently in no way related to the theme of the liturgy (and we should all try and discern a theme in good liturgy planning, right?) then why have them? Don't they just clutter the liturgy. Why not just have one?

My fear is that for those whose reading of scripture is almost entirely on a Sunday through the lectionary, the bible becomes at best a collection of wise vignettes, at worst a confusing jumble of incoherent stories. In fact the worst possible result of this fruit salad approach to bible reading is that scripture becomes completely irrelevant both to the liturgy and to the people of God. Don't get me wrong, In principle I love the idea of the whole church, as much as possible, reading the bible together. A common calendar is a great way to achieve this. But, seriously, is this our best attempt? Rant over.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Mystery of Yourselves

I was asked to write a short article on the eucharist/spirituality/embodiment for a local christian spirituality magazine. Here is my attempt.

We talk about Christ’s body a great deal in church. ‘The church is the body of Christ’ we say. At Christmas we talk about the divine person of God the Son, assuming to himself a whole and complete (body and soul) human nature. The word became flesh – the bodiless was embodied. In holy week we talk about the psychological, emotional and physical anguish and ultimately the death which the embodied God underwent on behalf of sinful humanity. And on Easter day, we tell of the glorious body, revivified in the most extraordinary way, giving life and hope to all. Our talk of ‘the body of Christ’ of course, is not limited to the great festivals of the church year; every week we talk endlessly about Christ’s body and blood in the eucharist. However you look at it, christianity is and always has been a religion which is obsessed, in a good way, with bodies. So why is it that, when we speak of ‘spirituality’ (itself a concept which doesn’t sit easily within the christian interest in embodiment), our thinking and practice in relation to the body takes a radical turn for the worse? We start talking about ‘detachment’, silence and the god within, in ways which sounds more platonic than christian.

Now I’m not one to underplay, or for that matter to undervalue the significance of platonism (particularly neoplatonism) on the development of Christian theology. Some of the most creative and enduring attempts at proclaiming the Christian gospel have come about through an innovative appropriation of some platonic ideas. There are, however, limits beyond which such assimilation begins to erode basic christian belief, and therefore should be resisted.

The negative effects of platonic anti-materialism on christianity aren’t merely theoretical; they are deeply rooted in the psyche of most parishes, and they are most clearly seen when ‘church’ (however that is conceived) is turned into a form of escape from the ‘world’. How many times have you walked into a church building and seen a notice advising you to leave the world behind and enter into the beautiful, spiritual peace which the building affords? I am not surprised that many christians tend to think of spirituality as a kind of escapism; the way we ‘perform’ the liturgy in churches is largely responsible for this. Despite the best efforts of the liturgical movement, worship in most churches remains something which is done on behalf of the people, a sacred moment which we observe and to a certain extent are drawn into, but which has scant reference or relevance to the lives we live outside of the church building, and relatively little effect on them. Too often we go to church on Sunday to leave the world behind us, to get a glimpse of a world beyond, and then to go back home to wait for next weeks spiritual shot in the arm.

It is a great pity that for many christians, religious escapism finds its apex in the celebration of the eucharist. Yves Congar once noted that the Roman church (and I think it would be fair to make a similar observation of the Church of England, particularly in its more Roman instantiations) has attempted over many centuries to re-create within the eucharistic liturgy a ritual somewhat alike that performed by the Levitical priesthood [Congar, Y., ‘Where Does “Sacred” Fit into a Christian Worldview’ At the Heart of Christian Worship, Liturgical Press, 2010]. We make a certain class of people (the priests) ‘holy’ and give them special titles and clothes to wear; the priests perform a mysterious rite in which they conjure the presence of God out of material elements, the supernatural annihilating the natural; we make certain buildings ‘sacred spaces’, and whisper pious words in them; we even make certain parts of those special buildings more sacred than others. Like the Levitical code, the church is constantly trying to isolate the pure from the impure, the sacred from the profane.

In the same article Congar notes how the revolutionary teaching of Jesus removed the sacred/profane distinction by making all things sacred: so all days are to be Sabbaths to the Lord, on which good is done, people are healed and the oppressed are liberated; all places (not just Jerusalem or Mount Gerazim) are sacred, and worthy sites for worship. Jesus resisted every attempt to localise holiness in shrines by declaring all things holy. To use Rob Bell’s phrase, ‘everything is spiritual’. For a follower of Jesus, ‘sanctity’ or ‘spirituality’ cannot be achieved by withdrawal from the world. To remain true to the Genius of its founder Christianity should never be a religion where certain things or places are made holier than others; it must be a religion where the entirety of life is understood as holy and, therefore, is a fitting offering to the God of all creation.

In the story the eucharist tells, and in the manner of its telling we should hear a constant reminder of the holiness of all things. In the eucharist we proclaim the holiness of the ordinary, bread and wine, symbols of our lives presented to God as a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. As St Augustine said,

"If you are the body of Christ and His members, it is the mystery of yourselves that is laid upon the altar. It is the mystery of yourselves that you receive. It is to what you are that you say ‘Amen’. For you will hear ‘The body of Christ’, and you will reply ‘Amen’" (Sermon 272)

The eucharist rejoices in materiality and sees it as a fitting vehicle for the divine. The eucharist tells us that ‘spirituality’ is something that shouldn’t be confined to the ‘holy moments’ we manufacture to escape from a threatening world. You could almost say that the radical gospel proclaimed in the eucharist calls into question the entire category of ‘spirituality’ as something distinct from the rest of life.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Revelation 3.1-6: Hear What what the Spirit says to the church

A sermon preached at Exeter College, Oxford 6 May 2012.

“At Helms Gate, before the mouth of the Deep, there was a heel of rock thrust outward by the   
northern cliff. There upon it’s spur stood high walls of ancient stone, and within them was a lofty 
tower. Men said that in far-off days of the glory of Gondor the sea kings had built here this fastness 
with the hands of giants. The Hornburg it was called, for a trumpet sounded upon the tower echoed    
in the Deep behind, as if armies long-forgotten were issuing to war from the caves beneath the hills.    
A wall, too, the men of old had made from the Hornburg to the southern cliff, barring the entrance to 
the gorge. Beneath it, by a wide culvert the Deeping-stream passed out.”

The Hornburg at Helm’s Deep was impregnable. Everyone knew it. Helm Hammerhand made the fastness famous, and according to Theoden, it would “never fall while men defended it”. There would be no safer place for the people of Rohan to face the onslought of Saruman’s Uruk Hai hordes. Theodan trusted the history of Helm’s Deep so much that he was oblivious to the culvert.

“Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and 
smoke. The waters of the Deeping-stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no 
longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall, a host of dark shapes poured in. ‘The devilry of 
Saruman!’ cried Aragorn. ‘They have crept in the culvert again, while we talked, and they have lit 
the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet.”

Confidence in former glory never exempts us from vigilance. Had Theoden realised this, the Deeping wall might not have been breached. Had the city of Sardis realised this, they wouldn’t have had their supposedly invincible fortress with walls rising seamlessly from a thousand foot precipice scaled by enemy troops who opened the city gates to the armies of Cyrus. And had the church of Sardis realised this, they may not have had this rather scathing letter written to them.

The church of Sardis looked alive, it had a good reputation in the city, their religion was respectable, they faced no outward preassure like the other churches you read of in the second and third chapters of Revelation. We don’t read about any heresy. No specifics of immoral behaviour. No persecution, only good will and friendliness from their fellow Sardisians. To the casual observer, the church of Sardis was a picture of good health. 

Throughout the history of the Christianity, theologians have tried to define what the essential observable characteristics of the true church are: Being in communion with a particular bishop; Apostolic Succession; The true preaching of the word, rightly administering the sacraments and the faithful exercise of discipline. All of these have been advanced as observable, objective indicators of being part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’. We play the same sort of games today. I’m sure you’ve heard people judge a church on the basis of its music, or whether they prophecy and speak in tongues. You may have heard people judge whether a minister is a ‘proper’ priest on the basis of the clothes she wears, which direction she faces when presiding at the eucharist or whether she holds her hands at the correct angle during the eucharistic prayer. I don’t doubt that all of these things are important, at least to some people. But when we consider the words of the risen Christ to the church of Sardis, we don’t find a criticism of the lack of reverence and order in worship, or a failure to use the charismatic gifts, or even a failure in doctrinal standards.

The church of Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but really only had the vestiges of living religion. There was a conflict between the impression they made and the spirit at their heart. The Sardisian church gives us the archetype of nominal christianity. Exterior correctness and respectability, but inside, the church was dying fast.

It is easy to see how The Church of England is particularly susceptible to the threat of nominal religion. We are the established church. We have a dignified, ancient and rich tradition of worship. Our theologians have a reputation for being subtle, nuanced and intellectually rigorous. Our bishops are part of the national legislature. The Church of England epitomizes respectability. If Professor Dawkins were to go to a Christmas Carol service at any church, I’m sure it would be CofE… probably an Oxford college Chapel. The Christianity of the establishment is particularly prone to death from respectability, to mistaking heritage and reputation for health, but is by no means unique in this. We aren’t the only church which has this culvert in the Deeping wall. Any church which prides itself on its spiritual inheritance or its present achievements  whilst simultaneously failing to pay attention to its inner life runs the same risk. 

The nineteenth-century Danish priest and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was well aware of this and wrote about it at length. You can read his thoughts in The Attack Upon Christendom. He looked at his own church, where the crowd and the congregation, the state and the church had become almost indistinguishable and was filled with rage. He felt that the only correct response was to attack ‘Christendom’ for what it had done to the church. It had robbed her of her vitality, of her inward life, of the sense of holy scandal that he felt the Christian gospel ought elicit from the world. “The human race”, he writes, “in the course of time has taken the liberty of softening and softening Christianity until at last we have contrived to make it exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament” (Fatherland  39). To some, Kierkegaard seemed to be anti-church, but he was only motivated by love for the church. He he wasn’t particularly interested in changing the specifics of church practice, rather, he wanted to change the spirit in which the church practiced its religion. All the observable features of the church were sound, but there was something missing, something lackluster about its practice of religion.

But there was still hope for Sardis. There were some for whom faith was still alive and not a matter of mere formality. Whilst something remained, there was hope that this something could be strengthened. Whilst there is still life there is time for the church to wake up, still time for it to repent. The letter to the Church of Sardis opens with a reminder of the Church’s true nature – it is like a light held in the had of Christ. The church is sustained by Jesus Christ, the living one, our life depends on him. Perhaps above all, the urgent need is to listen and discern. This is the advice given in each of the seven letters we read in the first part of the book of Revelation: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” The church always must be a listening community, a community which deliberately listens for what the Spirit says, and deliberately places itself under the Lord’s training. The call the church receives in every generation is to reform, not so much by tinkering with the externals of church life, even though the externals will need reformation, but by recovering its inner vitality.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

1 Corinthians 11.17–34: Discerning the Body

About a month ago, Caroline and I went on holiday to Sorrento. We had a wonderful time and, rather predictably, we spent much our holiday working our way around Roman archaeological sites. We did the obvious trips to Pompei and Herculaneum, and spent hours wandering around their streets. But we also went to some less well known places: the Villa di Poppaea in Oplontis, rumoured to have been the house of Nero’s infamous second wife, Poppaea Sabina. We went to a large farmhouse in the middle of a housing estate in Boscoreal, and we went to two beautiful villas in Stabia, which were a lot further away from the train station than the guide book had led us to believe! As we wandered round the remarkably preserved ruins of homes, destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, you could almost feel what life would have been like to live in a Roman villa in the first century.

Now why on earth am I telling you about my holiday this year? I’m telling you because it is to these domestic settings that we are transported when we read Paul’s account of how the Corinthian church celebrated the Eucharist. It’s important to remember that in the very earliest days of the church, there were no church buildings in which people worshipped. All christians would have worshipped in the private homes of the wealthier members of the church. Another thing to remember is that, whilst we are used to receiving the eucharist as a tiny amount of bread (which looks and tastes nothing like bread) and a tiny sip of wine, in the first century the eucharist would have taken place within a dinner party. It would have been a complete meal.

Now when you remember these two things, the domestic setting and the dinner party, it becomes easier to understand why Paul was so unhappy with what was happening in the eucharist at the Corinthian Churches. The homes of the wealthy Corinthian christians would have had a dining room called a triclinium in which about nine to twelve people could have comfortably reclined around a table. It seems the wealthy Corinthian christians were inviting their well-off friends to sit and eat with them in the triclinium, where they were eating lots of sumptuous food and drinking lots of wine. But the poorer people, who weren’t as popular with the wealthy, were being left to eat in the atrium, a large entrance lobby which could seat about thirty to forty people. The rich were gorging themselves, while the poor were getting a few scraps of food and drink, scarcely enough to stave off their hunger. Imagine something a bit like the divide between first and second class on a transatlantic flight. In one: champagne, smoked salmon and other delicacies, something resmbling a bed rather than a chair, and a foot massage (you can tell I’ve never travelled first class). In the other, a soggy sandwich and a warm glass of orange juice and three inches of leg room, if you’re lucky. The poor Christians were being treated as the scum of the earth, as second class, by people who were supposed to be their brothers and sisters.

Paul’s problem with the Corinthian eucharist wasn’t that they weren’t getting the ritual or the liturgy right, or that they didn’t believe in the ‘real presence’. Yes, Paul does say that ‘all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement on themselves’ (v. 29), but this cannot mean ‘perceiving the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine’, that would run against everything Paul has been saying to this point. He’s been talking about how christians treat each other, not about eucharistic theology. For Paul, discerning the body means recognising the church as the body of christ (as he often calls it, cf. 1Cor. 10.16–17, 12.12–31). His problem was that by humiliating the poorer members of the community, the richer members had both failed to understand what the eucharist was really all about, and had desecrated Christ’s body, the church. All the liturgy and ritual, and reverencing the real presence in the world can’t make up for this basic failure! 

So what is the eucharist all about? Paul reminds them by retelling the story of the Last supper, so that they could see through the current situation back to foundation of the eucharist, to the Lord of the Supper himself. Paul reminds them of the magnitude of the gift which Jesus gives: a new covenant, a new community, created at the greatest cost by Christ’s death for us. The old order was one in which people were divided, where the walls separating one group from another stood firm and high. But in the community of the new covenant, the walls have been torn down, ‘Jews and gentiles, slaves and free’ (12.13) are all part of the same body. So sharing the common meal is for Paul a kind of acted parable, declaring the unity and equality of all the members Christ’s body, the church. ‘Although we are many’, he says earlier in 1 Corinthians ‘we are one body, because we all share one bread’ (1Cor. 10.17). Just as baptism makes us part of the one body of Christ, the eucharist sustains us in the unity of that one body.

So, as we finish, what can we learn from the problems Paul addresses here? We don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper like this any more, in someone’s home at a dinner party, and it doesn’t feel like there are class ranks in this church. So can we learn anything? Well, it would be a terrible sermon if we couldn’t, so I’m going to say, ‘yes we can’.

If the eucharist is about sustaining the unity of the body of Christ – unity with Jesus, the churches head, and unity between us, the members of the body –  if the eucharist broadcasts to the world the radical equality of God’s new community, in which the barriers between human beings have been torn down, we should really make sure that we don’t start erecting those barriers again! Whatever background someone comes from, the church should be the place where all stand as equals in God’s family, united in the life of Christ which we share. Absolutely no one should be excluded. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves regularly is this: ‘who are the people we would rather didn’t come to our eucharist? Who are the people we would like to keep away?’ The noisy? The smelly? The ignorant? The bigoted? The liberals? The Trendies? The ‘happy-clappies’? The ‘moldy oldies’? Do we only want a church where we find ‘people like us’? Or do we want one that welcomes everyone who God is calling? The new covenant was established by the infinitely wealthy one, pouring out his own life for his lowly, grubby, ignorant, bigoted, loudmouthed, unpleasant, dearly beloved friends. If that is what we’re really remembering in the eucharist, what should our church look like? If the all-holy one invites us to his table, who are we to exclude people from ours?