Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

12/20 2012

Faith: As The Waters Cover The Sea

Advent lectionary on the PCUSA website has Isaiah 11: 1-9 listed multiple times.  The narrative is titled “The Peaceful Kingdom” in my NRSV Bible. The narrative offers an image of peace:  wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion, cow and bear. The powerful shall be led by a little child. A child can play alongside the most poisonous of snakes. In this vision—it will be a promised reality because the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth—like the waters cover the sea.

This is the stuff of Christmas cards, Christmas pageants, and simple songs. It is not the logo for living life too much of the time; rather, it is an ideal, as a sometime far-off hope, a gentle political vision; a day in December with candlelight and soft songs; careful drawings of lion in protective embrace of the innocent-eyed lamb. These verses shaped my identity from the time I was a small child. It seems ordinary to imagine in my little girl mind a lion and a lamb—mostly.  It seems still that is the primary relationship between animals recalled this time of year, though here in this particular set of verses—it is a lion and a wolf. Not so much the adder and child intertwined, or the bear and the cow, the leopard and the goat. Intriguing though to consider in my adult imagination—even now—less possible perhaps given the graphic video narratives of snakes of the world or the great grizzlies to the North or the gray wolf packs making their way through blizzard conditions. There is a tension in this tri-part book of Isaiah.

One of a poetic vision, like this text, and another one of enemies which impede the reality of the vision requiring a resilient hope of a kind we are not accustomed to consider. Enemies of our own making and enemies who see us with fear. This tension weaves back and forth throughout the book. When all else fails there is a possible possibility for a future not yet experienced because after all we know really how lions, adders, wolves and bears are driven by instinct. We need to protect ourselves from the enemies which abound all around us.

I have learned to assume nothing in this biblical text or in any other part of scripture.  I cringe when preachers are so certain in the preaching of a text. I’d rather not hear it for they assume a certainty and a quickness which is not present in Isaiah. Those who know this text intimately, have studied it for all their adult lives, are keenly aware of its patient and careful construction aimed toward a particular set of present moments to evoke the patient promise of participating in renewal and restoration. It is as one scholarly author titled his book:  prophecy and propaganda.

In Advent, if it is to be purposive, is it not to challenge? Lay the groundwork for the courage to consider a shift from constant fear and what feeds it to faith and what fulfills it? To do so requires of us courage and patience and vulnerability and honesty. From whence does faith come? The point is not an idealized lion and lamb in warm embrace—the point is facing the abyss and the terror—understanding the waters and the sea as one.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susan Kendall, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

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12/6 2012

Advent, Polamalu, and Prolepsis

My wife Wendy is a huge Troy Polamalu fan.

She admires the classy way he shows love and respect for his wife and his understated but firm Christian confession—and then, of course, there is my own uncanny physical resemblance to Troy Polamalu.

Mostly, though, it is fun to watch Troy Polamalu play football! He hurls himself into the game, seeming to be everywhere at once. While other defenders try, with greater or lesser success, to follow where the ball is, Polamalu reads the line, intuits where the ball will be—and then does whatever he needs to do to put himself in that spot, to break up the pass, get the tackle, or make the interception. To use a theological expression, Polamalu plays proleptically.

Advent is a season of joyous expectation as we look forward not only to our imminent celebration of Christ’s birth, but also to Christ’s future coming, and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. But we miss the point if we think this is all about the future.  Far too much ink has been spilled and time wasted in the fruitless attempt to predict the future with the symbols and visions of Scripture, as though the Bible was a horoscope or Tarot deck rather than word of God for people of God.  Jesus himself firmly directs us away from that tack: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).

Instead, Advent invites us to live the way Troy Polamalu plays: proleptically, as though the promised future was already a reality. God calls and empowers us to live by the principles of God’s kingdom not someday, but here and now! So the prophet, speaking of Messiah’s future reign, declares, “In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jer 23:6)—not “The LORD will be our righteousness, someday,” but “The LORD is our righteousness, right now.” Future expectation transforms life in the present.  Paul too speaks of this proleptic life. While on the one hand, Christ’s reign and our salvation are part of the world to come (cf. 1 Cor 15), on the other, Paul can speak of that reality as though it had already arrived: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).

The certain triumph of God’s reign gives us hope, so that we can live confidently in the present. We can face whatever comes, because we know the end of the story.  We need not cynically yield to this world’s standards and expectations, because we know what God’s future holds. Like Troy Polamalu, we know where the ball will be!  Now, are we willing to do whatever it takes to put ourselves there, at the point of God’s inbreaking reign?

Written by the Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

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11/8 2012

Rethinking Stewardship

By David J. Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

Dear Working Preacher,

I’m going to level with you: I’m not sure what to do with this week’s reading from Mark. I wish I had better news, but there it is. I’m stuck. So I’ll put what I’ve got on the table and if you do the same maybe we can crack this nut together.

Okay, so the major challenge I’m facing is trying to figure out what Jesus really means with his observation about the widow and her two coins. A lot depends on how we imagine Jesus’ tone of voice and the impact of his words. As is often the case, we know what someone means by the impact of his or her words, and of course we have no access either to Jesus’ tone of voice or the reactions of those around him. So at least two possibilities present themselves.

First, and more traditionally, we may imagine that Jesus is praising the widow. He lifts her up as an example of profound generosity and faith. Indeed, Jesus says her two pennies equal far more than the much larger sums given by the wealthy. Why? Because while they have given out of their abundance – and so probably are hardly impacted by their gifts – she has given all that she has. Now that’s faith, Jesus seems to say, inviting us – especially during fall stewardship campaigns – to do the same.

The second, and less common, interpretation links these few verses about the widow to those that have come just before about the hypocrisy of the Scribes. The scribes were the educated class of religious leaders, professorial types, if you will. And while they love to appear pious and wise and expect to sit at the places of honor at a banquet, yet they not only do nothing for those who are poor and vulnerable but actually enrich themselves from their losses. This is part of a much larger critique Jesus levels at the Temple and its practices more generally, a critique that began with the clearing of the Temple in the previous chapter and continues in this one.

Given that we are in the middle of Jesus’ complaints about the Temple, I wonder if his emotional affect with regard to the widow is less a matter of praise than it is lament. I wonder, that is, if he says what he says not so much to praise the widow but to indict those who would accept all that she has. Is she one of those widows that the Scribes are devouring?

If so, then this doesn’t make a very good stewardship text after all. Indeed, it probably should give us cause for concern: are we wrongfully accepting the gifts of those who are giving too much of their income while we praise, and give influence to, those who give greater sums but hardly feel the impact of their gifts?

I don’t know for sure which interpretation is more accurate, although because Mark is so incredibly careful with the way he places stories side by side I suspect he wanted us to interpret the second story in light of the first.

But even if we decide the second interpretation seems the most likely, the question still remains: what do we do with this interpretation? Do we remind people that charitable giving as a percentage of income decreases as wealth increases (until you get to a place of considerable wealth, $500,000/yr. and above)? Do we ask what it means that over the last half century as individual wealth has increased personal giving has decreased? Or do we direct our gaze inward and ask whether we are using the gifts of our people well or devouring their livelihoods?

I don’t know. I do know it makes me nervous about using this text to talk about Christian stewardship.

And maybe that’s actually where my greatest challenge rests: if I think of stewardship primarily about giving money – to the church or some other cause – then maybe I greatly misunderstand and misrepresent God’s desire for us to be stewards of all that we have and are. The scribes’ problem, it seems to me, is that they are more concerned with what they have than with the needs of those around them. They have bought into the notion that the primary measure of their wellbeing is whether “they are better off than they were before.”

God didn’t set society up that way. Think, for a moment, of the 10 Commandments – these are rules that God gives in order that we take care of each other. For though they may at first seem burdensome when I think of what they require of me to do for my neighbors, when I recall that all my neighbors are doing the same for me, suddenly it all makes sense. We are not isolated individuals but rather are a community, a group of people gathered and bound together by mutual need and caring.

If this is the case, then maybe we should read this passage – the whole passage – first as a cautionary tale about how easy it is to cave into our insecurity and cultural messages of scarcity and be seduced to “look out for number one.” Then we might also read this passage as an invitation to remember the gift of community and fellowship we have been given in our households, communities, and congregations. We are here for each other – created and blessed with many abilities and assets and drawn together to care for each other and the world.

In this light, maybe we should use this Sunday to go over our congregational budget, asking whether it reflects the character of the congregation we believe ourselves called to be. Or maybe we should invite a food and clothes drive for those struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy or from any number of challenges in our own communities. Or maybe we should start planning now to stand with each other as we resist the urge to define ourselves through our shopping over the next six weeks. It is so hard, after all, not to give in to the cultural penchant to calculate our worth via our possessions and to measure Christmas in relation to the number of gifts we give and receive. But maybe, just maybe, if we remember that we are called to be stewards of each other – each member committed to the welfare and wellbeing of the rest of the community – maybe we can experience again and anew God’s blessing of us in and through the family of faith.

*Note about the Author: David J. Lose holds The Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching. He has several published books and blogs weekly. This blog and more like it can be found on this website: http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx

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