February 26, 2009

Psalms for the Journey

by Debra Dean Murphy
You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy . . . Psalm 16:11

It is fitting that we read, pray, and sing the Psalms during Lent—this season of the church year when we experience the full gamut of human emotions: sadness, doubt, confusion, rage, praise, thanksgiving, joy. The Psalms convey all of these emotions and more, and thus they place front and center something often lacking in our common discourse: honest speech. In their grappling with loss and abandonment, fear and pain, and in their ecstatic surrender to worship, praise, and adoration, the Psalms—the lamenting ones, the cursing ones, and the praising ones—help us to speak truthfully before God and one another.

Not for nothing, the Psalms have been called the hymnbook of the Bible. In their original setting—ancient Israel’s worship of Yahweh—the Psalms were sung by priest and people as a corporate act of devotion to the one true God. We have no way of knowing what the tunes sounded like, of course. And this many centuries hence, many people simply don’t know that the Psalms of the Bible were meant to be sung.

But when you read them attentively you can tell: these are poem-prayers with a musical lilt; they were created to be sung—and sung in a congregational setting.

EP endorser, Randy Cooper, a United Methodist pastor in west Tennessee, says that congregational singing is a primary means by which we are schooled theologically. He means that when we sing together we come to know the truth of who we are and who God is. We learn what we believe and how we are to live. We enter into a story and we learn how to live that story.

But of course, it matters what we’re singing!

Do the songs we sing tell the story of God’s grand cosmic purposes: creation; the calling of Israel; the incarnation; the resurrection; the calling of the church; the final consummation of all things? Or do our songs focus on ourselves, on personal “experience,” on individual salvation? Are we—as Lester Ruth has phrased the question—cosmic-story churches or personal-story churches? And how do the songs we sing together reflect the reality of who and what we are?

We do well to consider, says Randy, “that congregational singing is the highest and most beautiful musical act in the worship life of a congregation—more so than any other offering of music by choir, solo, or instrument.” In this way, singing is sacramental and relational; it is a gift from God and a means of grace.

But it is not an end in itself. Music should never be the “organizing principle” of worship. It should not be used to divide congregations generationally. But these are pitfalls hard to avoid—it’s rare for almost any church these days not to jump on the “music-as-a-matter-of-taste” bandwagon.

But when we return to the Psalms we find ourselves singing ancient words with startlingly fresh relevance. We find the story told in the Psalms to be one that points us beyond ourselves and our small lives toward God’s all-encompassing purposes for the creation that God called into being. We find a God who loves us individually but who calls us to be a cosmic-story people.

We are people who must sing you,
for the sake of our very lives.
You are a God who must be sung by us,
for the sake of your majesty and honor.
And so we thank you,
for lyrics that push us past our reasons,
for melodies that break open our givens,
for cadences that locate us home,
beyond all our safe places,
for tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control and our futures beyond despair.

We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers who have sung you deep and true;
We thank you for the good company of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments
that sing for us and with us, toward you.
We are witnesses to your mercy and splendor;
We will not keep silent . . . ever again. Amen.

“We Will Not Keep Silent,” by Walter Brueggemann


February 18, 2009

Light for the Journey

by Debra Dean Murphy
Mark 9:2-9 (Transfiguration Sunday)

The Gospel Lesson for Transfiguration Sunday suffers from something that lectionary texts often do: It begins in the middle of a longer narrative, the whole of which helps to situate and make sense of the lifted-out passage under consideration. The Mark reading begins with: "Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves." We then go on to get engrossed in the familiar story of how the appearance of Jesus changes; how Moses and Elijah suddenly show up; how Peter characteristically misreads the scene.

But what happened six days earlier? Could it have any bearing on the journey to the mountaintop and on what transpired there?

Most immediately Jesus had called "the crowd with his disciples" and had told them that if they wanted to become his followers they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. Those who wanted to save their life would lose it, he said, and those who were willing to lose their life for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel, would save it. What will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? he asked. Those who are ashamed of Jesus and of his words, of them Jesus will also be ashamed.

Hard sayings. Tough words: Denial. Cross. Loss. Shame. Death.

But here on the top of the mountain six days later we have what appears to be the antidote to, the opposite of such gloom. Jesus is changed into a figure of dazzling white brightness and two of Israel's superstars are on the scene! This looks like triumph, not defeat; splendor and success, not failure and loss.

So what could denial and death have to do with the glory of this mountaintop moment?

Everything, if we can take in the whole panoramic view, paying close attention to what Jesus said to the crowd and to the disciples those few days before going up the mountain. The glory of God, it turns out, is revealed in the cross. The exalted Lord is never separate from the suffering Christ. This mountain is not far from Golgotha's hill.

When Jesus is transfigured, when his outward appearance is altered in that moment to reveal the glory of God, he prefigures more transformation to come: his own body, now radiant, will soon be battered, beaten, and bruised; it will undergo death; it will become a resurrected body. And out of that broken, dead, resurrected body comes another: the church.

So perhaps the transfiguration story is as much about the church as it is about Jesus; as much about discipleship as it is about those three star-struck disciples.

In just a few days we will soon have our own appearances altered, our faces slightly transfigured: we will receive the mark of ashes on our foreheads and will hear the words: Remember you are earth and to earth you shall return. In that moment we will begin the Lenten journey with Jesus; a journey that takes him to the destiny that awaits him in Jerusalem.

Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of a succession of Sundays that began with Epiphany. Epiphany, we recall, began with light: the light of a star leading the magi to the Christ child; the light of Christ enlightening all the world. This week, as we mark the conclusion of this string of Sundays, we'll end, as we began, with light: the light of Jesus' radiant countenance on the mountaintop, a light that guides our path as we take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.

It will be dark where we're going. We'll need the light.


February 11, 2009

I Do Choose…

by Erin Martin
Mark 1:40-45 (Epiphany 6B)

The healing stories of Jesus are among my favorite stories of the gospels. There is something deeply honest about persons in considerable pain—a woman bent low, a man born blind, a father pleading on behalf of his ailing daughter—coming to Jesus in desperation and placing all their hopes upon Jesus’ willingness to make them well. Jesus never disappoints, either. He always meets their desperation with compassion, their suffering with relief, their isolation with restoration. In this week’s gospel lesson, the same is true for the leper who comes to Jesus kneeling at his feet begging, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Rather than be repulsed by the man’s potentially contagious condition, Jesus moves toward the leper reaching out to him and touching him saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
No wonder the leper can hardly contain his gratitude and praise. While healing stories are powerful personal encounters between individuals and Jesus, they are never meant to be simply private “Jesus moments.” The healing of individuals is always about more than the healing of individuals. Healings are about the kingdom of God.

Earlier in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes clear his mission. He announces, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus’ ministry is about manifesting the kingdom of God in our midst. Everything that follows is evidence of this message. The exorcisms confirm the kingdom of God come near. The healings reveal the kingdom of God come near. The miracles make true the kingdom of God come near. Sickness, disease, social isolation have no place God’s realm, and the restoration of the broken to wholeness is a part of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Jurgen Moltmann writes, “together with the proclamation of the gospel, the healing of the sick is Jesus’ most important testimony to the dawning of the kingdom of God… healings are signs of the new creation and the rebirth of life… The healings should be understood as foretokens of the resurrection and of eternal life. Just as eternal life quickens those who believe, so the eternal salvation heals those who trust it.” When Jesus heals the individual, creation is being restored.

Jesus suggests secrecy to the leper because of the incredible potential for this message to be distorted. Fred Craddock liked to say that Jesus’ healings created “audiences, no congregations.” Many will flock to Jesus for healing, but all will abandon him when he is handed over to suffer and die. Healings are not the only place that the kingdom is revealed. When Jesus hangs on the cross, creation is being restored. Only very few people want to hear that part of the message. Again, Craddock says, “all the way to the cross, Jesus will be trying to get those who think ‘where the messiah is, there is no misery’ to accept a new perspective—‘where there is misery, there is the messiah.” Individual healings are amazing, but they always serve more than the individual. They serve to help us choose to follow the messiah to places of human misery, even the most miserable place of all, the cross. I do choose…


February 04, 2009

Is Your World Shaped By the Gospel?

by Jesse Larkins
1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39 (Epiphany 5B)
Each of the New Testament lessons this week make reference to Jesus and Paul’s felt responsibility to proclaim the gospel message wherever they were. In the gospel, after healing Simon’s mother-in-law as well as many others who were brought to him, Jesus demands of the disciples that they move onto other towns so that he might “proclaim the message; for that is what [he] came to do” (vs. 38). Similarly, Paul speaks to the Corinthian Christians about the obligation he feels to proclaim the gospel to all people at all times. The question left for us, then, is “Do we also feel that obligation to proclaim the gospel in all times and places?”

For those of us who preach and teach on a regular basis, we can easily brush past this question without much thought. Of course we are proclaiming the gospel! The real question for us, as well as for each member of our churches, is whether or not gospel proclamation has so shaped the entirety of our lives that we could say of ourselves that we proclaim the gospel in all that we do and say. This is a slightly different take on the topic of evangelism than most folks in my church are comfortable with. Use that dreaded “e-word” and folks are suddenly filled with images of knocking on the doors in the hallways of their college dorms, handing out tracks on the street corners, recitation of the four spiritual laws, and a tally sheet of the number of folks with whom you have prayed the Jesus prayer. Ask folks in a lot of congregations what “living a gospel life” looks like and you would probably get answers that range from: be good and nice to “don’t smoke or chew or go with boys who do.” It is this narrow view of evangelism as well as an anemic understanding of the Christian life that has crippled the church’s witness and made us incomprehensible to the world.

Returning to the gospel passage gives some clue into how Jesus might respond to this question of proclamation-shaped living. For Jesus, proclamation of the gospel message was not just talk, it was an embodied way of life. He was the Good News after all! Yet, Jesus didn’t just talk about healing, liberation, or love. He showed the world what the gospel was about in the way he lived it. Similarly, our own gospel-proclamation needs to be embodied in a way of life that doesn’t just speak about words like forgiveness, love, reconciliation, praise, and service, but introduces them to the Christian life and message by modeling it in all times and places. This is not only a formational way of living but it is equally invitational, fulfilling our obligation to proclaim the gospel at all times. A great exploration of this notion embodied proclamation can be found in Brad Kallenberg’s (fairly) recent book, Live to Tell. Equally helpful for further reflection on this idea can be found through any of the recent Josey-Bass publications about Christian practices.