The Future of the Sermon: Wikipedia, Memento, and Hypertextuality

I recall a brief lecture I once attended from my preaching professor Dr. Long on the future of the sermon. Long suggested that the style of sermon and its fit in the Sunday service had changed drastically based on trends in society. The medieval church had preached above the congregation as the authority standing over all. The Reformers picked up there academic gowns and preached from the center of the congregation lecture style reflecting a ‘back to Bible’ faith. Indeed, Long joking said he made his career dancing on the grave of the three bullet points and a poem sermon for a more narrative-exploring style that empowered the modern individual to arrive at the sermon’s central focus and function. He then hypothesized that the future of the preacher might look like a sound engineer, mixing the various threads of the service with a more behind-the-scenes role. While that might be the case, I would like to explore what I think the future of the sermon looks like. In order to do this, I want to lay out three loosely connected observations.

First, Wikipedia. I (like many college students of my generation) have found that Wikipedia can be a quick and easy reference for words, idea, etc. that are on the tip of your tongue. While it isn’t 100% accurate, it usually gets the job done for a quick check on something. We even developed a game (which I am sure others have played), where two people race to move from one location in Wikipedia to another my only following links. So, connecting Captain Planet to Theodore Roosevelt as quick as possible. This is the perfect example of the ensnaring web that is the internet, how following links can lead to hours wasted. Let us hold on to that.

The second is the movie Momento, which is a crazy but brilliant film that is built around a man who suffers from short term memory loss. He has to leave himself notes in order to remember what he is doing as he seeks to uncover his wife’s killer. This disjointed narrative, complete with intrusions of stories about other similar bizarre cases, create a web-like story that flows not linearly  but requiring constant exploration to pull the pieces together. Much like Wikipedia.

Both of these point to my third observation, the pervasiveness of hypertextuality. Hypertextuality is a form of text that conceptually emerged from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Garden of Forking Paths which theorizes about an infinite book that contains within it every possible decision a reader could make with all of its outcomes, a concept not dissimilar to the ‘choose your own adventure’ books many of my generation read as children. The idea of hypertextuality is where text is linked, or embedded within text, allowing further exploration. With Wikipedia, it is every blue highlighted term that takes you to other pages. With Memento, it is the various pieces of evidence which link the scenes and stories together to create a cohesive whole.

This hypertextuality is seared into the brains of a generation growing up with the internet, who go to check Facebook only to find links to every possible friend, and their friends, and their friends’ friends, etc. We think in a hypertext way, whether or not we admit, and I believe it is already effecting the future of the sermon.

Indeed, I was recently at a megachurch that was seeking to be culturally relevant and (probably unbeknownst to itself) was preaching in a hypertext way. There was the pastor making a point from a text in Ephesians, mixed with a commercial for a ministry about learning the story of the Bible, linked with the testimony of a Christian recording artist, followed by a special music song. And this was all part of the sermon. The focus was not on a sole individual or text, it was on the web of connections and interchange of texts, idea, etc. It was hypertext to its core. This, it looks to me, might be the future of the sermon.

On the one hand, this raises some alarm for me. Sermons are no longer able to hold the attention of the congregation for the full time following a single train of thought. This is difficult, as sermons often are presenting a single text and exploring it to its conclusion. I’m sure that can still be done and will be done effectively, but perhaps with increasing loss of focus among parishioners. Another fear is the constant seeking of more and more clutter, more links to insert in a sermons such as commercials and movie clips, might distract and entertain rather than convict and transform a congregation.

On the other hand, this is a cause for great celebration as the lectionary has already generated an environment perfect for a hypertext generation. The interlacing of OT, NT, and gospel texts inherently creates a hyper text environment where the mutual interplay and exploration of all texts can grab the attention of the parishioner and lead them to a transforming experience  The interplay of these texts creates a web that traps there imagination and will keep them thinking even beyond the walls of the church. However, in order for church’s to use the lectionary to their advantage in transforming a hypertext generation, it will require pastors to move beyond the comfort of preaching only one text ever Sunday, beyond relying on the gospel text all the time. It will require a curious and exploring spirit, one with adequate time, to get lost in the lectionary texts every week, in order to present the beautiful web to the congregation.

The future of the sermon, if it is to be more interesting than the hypertextuality of the Facebook timeline or the interweaving of mashups found on a Girl-talk album, will have to wrestle with the Scriptures and present them in a way that is both honest to the interconnections found throughout reality and transformative for those who take the time to explore this web.

I add only as a side-note that this sort of textual play and interconnection was heartily and joyfully practiced among ancient Christian interpreters, whose 4 fold scripture method attests to the endless possibilities held in the Good Book. While we can (and probably should) change their method some, the Spirit that drove their exploration should be our own in this hypertext generation.

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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Christian Reflection


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Who do we read? Part 1: The Importance of Diversity

The other day I was walking out of my dorm book in hand to squeeze in chapter of some fiction between classes. Like most students, the pressing deadlines of papers and the constant yoke of required readings significantly limit the amount of ‘pleasure’ reading I can indulge in. As I was walking a classmate asked me what it was I was reading.

When I told him the title, he smirked and wittily replied, “Catching up on your tenth grade reading?”

As I held back a bit of frustration, I tried to explain to him why this book in particular was important to me now and why the practice of reading is more than simply gaining facts for class or being caught up on the latest scholarly trends. Reading is character forming, in perhaps the deepest ways. And if it is true that the ” the good person brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart” (Lk 6:45) what we read (just like what we listen to, watch, eat, mediate on, etc.) has a profound effect on our lives.

The book I was reading was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

You see, I had recently become aware that my readings for school and the growing list of reading for fun was dominated by certain homogeneity. White men.

I had always told myself this was just the nature of my study in disciplines once dominated by white men. Unfortunately, this is not a good excuse. Once I became aware of my narrow sliver of authorship in reading, it became a nagging question.

So for Lent this year I decided to make a point of seeking diversity in my reading. Of reading only female authors for fun in order to expand my horizons of understanding. Not that I want to dominate these authors and add them to the bag of my conquered books. But I want to learn and be changed by what I read in them. And having finished my first book, I am already learning lots about myself. Of the things that make me uncomfortable sometimes. Of the blinders I wear to the world around me. Of the narrow way I have of reading the world.

We read, you see, so that we can read the world more fully. Reading is a brief escape that transforms us so that when we approach the world again, we see it anew. Through new eyes. And the more eyes we see it through, the more beautiful the world becomes. It helps us empathize with others. It also awakens more of our imagination.

The authors we read become our traveling companions through life. Our partners on the way that offer us a variety of lens to make sense of our world. They are the company at our intellectual table, the storytellers on our camping trip. And the more diverse our crowd, the more exciting the trip. Just as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would have been boring if the only travelers were knights. Just as the early church condemned the harmonization of the 4 voices of the gospel into 1 monotone speaker in Tatian’s Diatessaron. So we must be aware of who we read and how they join us on this path of life. And we must consciously to honor the diversity God as created as we share this life with all humanity, living and dead, male and female, of any nationality or background.

Thank you, Maya. I look forward to reading more of you and many others not like me in the days ahead.

May God help us to expand our minds through the celebration of reading diversely. And may we put into our hearts all the good we see in the world, not just are narrow sliver, so that we can speak forth goodness. In Christ’s name. Amen.




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Meditating with Origen

Recently I have been reading Origen for a class here at St. Andrews and trying to follow him down the twisting roads of his exegesis of Romans, complete with all of its tangents based on catch words.

In my reading last week, I encountered this beautiful passage which I have been contemplating on and off the past few days. The imagery of cold and the stillness of the serpent lying in the heart of the wicked compared to the warmth and enlargement of the believer full of the “sun of righteousness  from Malachi 3:20 is wonderful. I thought I’d pass it along. May it warm your souls to a more fervent love in this cold and dreary winter season.

God not only dwells in this breadth of heart of the saints, he walks about in it. But in the hearts of sinners where there are anguished places, since they have given room to the devil to enter in, he does indeed enter, but not in order to indwell and walk about-for these are anguished places-but to lie hidden, as in a cave, for he is a serpent. In this way, then, the unfortunate soul, which has this evil serpent occupying it, grows stiff with a serpentine cold. It contracts and is compressed and is driven into extreme anguish. But that soul which complies with the truth is enlarged and spread out like the heavens. And, illuminated by the rays of the “sun of righteousness,” it becomes a palace of wisdom and truth.

-Origen’s Commentary on Romans, Book 2 Chapter 6.6


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Weeping Outside: Peter’s Denial of Christ and the Imagery of Judgment

This is just a short reflection on an interesting observation I recently. In both Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Peter’s denial of Christ, the result of this threefold confession is that Peter, having gone outside, wept bitterly. In the Greek of both Matt 26:75 and Lk 22:62, the phrasing is identical:

καὶ ἐξελθὼν ἔξω ἔκλαυσεν πικρῶς

What struck me about this is how the language of Peter’s denial and its resulting effects is so similar to the words of judgment often found in Jesus’ ministry. Being outside and the weeping or crying are almost stock phrases for the judgment of the wicked (gnashing of teeth and fire being the other stock images).

For instance, in Luke 13:28 Jesus pronounces that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Issaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves outside.” The outside here is the same word as above (ἔξω) and the weeping is a cognate (ὁ κλαυθμὸς). Similar imagery is found in Matthew 13:47-50 where a net catches both good and bad items. The good are kept, but the bad are thrown outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This uses the same pairing of outside (ἔξω) and weeping (ὁ κλαυθμὸς).

While I could provide for examples of the shared imagery, it looks to me as if the authors of Luke and Matthew are portraying the denial of Peter in such a way as it sends him into a hell-like judgment, one marked by the eschatological characteristics of being excluded from the kingdom. Sure, Peter later gets restored, but this little insight into his moment of denial speaks a powerful word about the psychological and theological impact of the denial. That moment of denying Christ and abandoning the path of discipleship is a moment of hell on earth, a moment that for Peter was marked by a palpable experience of the judgment that was reserved for the wicked.

My knee-jerk reaction is to quickly turn the corner here and talk about the visible and psychological hell that many experience, the iron chains of poverty or the constant battle with addiction. Indeed, Sherman seemed to echo a deep truth of the gospel when he proclaimed “war is hell.” Those are very real hell-like experiences, and I don’t mean to detract from the terrible atrocity of the evils that are perpetuated the world over. But the typologizing the many evils of the world into hell, while well meaning, doesn’t really correlate to what the gospels convey about Peter’s experience. It wasn’t the social injustice or the little habitual sins that cast him into weeping outside, it was primarily a failure of obedience to the Messiah, a denial of discipleship.

Perhaps it is in the individual decision to reject Christ each day that roots of hell on earth are nurtured. Is it not in the failure of humanity to be obedient to Christ that the grips of poverty, economic degradation, and war create hellish conditions over the earth? Can it really be boiled down so simply into that decision?


Or perhaps the textual repetition of ‘outside’ and ‘weeping’ are just a coincidence, a purposeless repetition of Matthew or Luke.

Regardless, may our prayer still be that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven, conquering the hell that arises in our failed obedience. For the gates of hell shall not prevail over the coming Kingdom. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.


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(Belated) Advent Sermon (Preached at my home church Dec 23)

It is always dark in Scotland. Seriously. I know you might not believe me because Every time you see pictures of Scotland, it is always beautiful green hills with castles on them. Beaches with golfers playing nearby. Highlands with fog. Well the pictures all lie to you. That might be what it’s like two months a year. The rest of the time it is dark. From about 3:30 pm to the next day around 10, you don’t see any sunlight. It’s so bad that many students will take Vitamin D or buy special lamps in order to emulate the sunlight they should be getting.

Advent, the four weeks we wait to celebrate Christ’s birth can feel a lot like those pitch black months of Scotland. For those of you who don’t know, Advent is the start of the Christian year. It is a four week season that culminates in Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and is to be understood as a time of preparation, of waiting in hope for the world to be restored and for all to be made right when God puts on flesh in the form of a child. It is a time that marks the longing in the darkness for the true light to come into the world. This is the reason we light candles, as they serve as a reminder of the coming light into this dark world. One of the texts of this time of year comes from the prophet Isaiah, who declares the birth of the Messiah.

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in the land of deep darkness-on them light has shined.”

Advent reminds us that there is light coming to those who sit in darkness. But the majesty of this approaching light doesn’t sink in the depth of our being. Why? It is because we don’t understand the depth of the darkness around us. For many of us, Advent is like commercials during our favorite show. They just get in the way of the main event, and we hope that we can work our TiVo well enough to avoid them and get on to the good stuff. We are so quick to rush into the birth of Christ, to celebrate, that we miss the longing, the hope, the desire, that marks this season; and even more importantly, we gloss over the darkness of the world and hide ourselves from the glory of the coming light. So today we are going to talk about Christmas, yes; but in order to talk about Christmas I want us to place ourselves in the darkness of a]Advent, the longing for God to return. For it is when we are deeply aware of this darkness that light can burst forth and transform us on Christmas. So before we dive in, let us pray:

He knows not Advent’s meaning who has never sat

By twilight in a dreary cell, its window dim;

Even by day comes little light into the narrow space.

Evening falls, slowly steals away the sun.

Night throws her gloomy mantle round the room

Terrifying, impenetrable.

These words were written by the Christian priest Jospef Metzger, as he sat in his cell at a Holocaust death camp, where he would lose his life for opposing the violent Nazi regime. These words come from a heart longing in the painful darkness that marks the waiting for the Messiah to be born. Indeed, these words seem to catch the darkness envisioned by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading today. God’s chosen people Israel have been driven out of their homes, forced to leave their whole lives exiled to a foreign land. They leave the land, their homes, owned by their families for generations. They are enslaved to those who spoke another language, breaking their back under oppression. It was the deepest darkness. When Isaiah declares that the people in darkness have seen a great light, he is offering them hope that God and his Messiah will soon free them from this oppression.

But this life of exile is not isolated to the prophet Isaiah. Again and again we see the darkness gripping the writers of the Old Testament, whether in exile or death, despair or longing. Consider the deep mourning of Psalm 13, the lament of the individual seen in our second reading, who longs for God to act.

“How long oh lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

It was within this deep darkness, and longing, that Israel hoped in expectation for God to come. This is the longing that Advent represents as it looks forward to the birth of Jesus.

In these recent days, we don’t need much reminding about how the world longs in darkness, longs for God to set all things right. Only a week or so ago, upon hearing the tragic news of the local elementary school, marked by the pictures of terrified children and parents who will spent Christmas without them, we are only too aware of the darkness in which the world sits. This senseless tragedy makes us all long for light, truth, and hope to break upon the world and set it to rights. To make things new. This world is darker than even the bleakest Scotland night. It is an Advent world, caught in the darkness of exile, crying out to God for something else. And we can join in the cry of the psalmist, ‘”How long, oh Lord?”

And as this senseless act of violence still reverberates in our ears and the images still scar our minds, there are still other darknesses that grip the world. We forget that for some, this Christmas season will be marked by an empty chair at the dinner table, by a missing family member, friend, or loved one. Christmas season is a reminder that the darkness of death still grips us. It reminds us that the world is still ensnared by darkness, over-shadowed by the suffocating cloud of death. We are trapped in the darkest prison cell, like the poet, longing for even a faint glimmer of hope. And we hear the faint cry of the psalmist, “How long, oh Lord?”

There are yet other darknesses-the darkness that is a hollow thud in our souls, a nagging emptiness that the festivities of Christmas never fill. It is the ache in our hearts that the present buying, the Christmas cheer, and the holiday parties do their best to mute, though never successfully. It is the feeling that life might be meaningless and empty. It is the reminder of hatred and unforgiveness toward family members that only resurface when one is forced to meet them around the dinner table. It is the realization that another year has past, and for some reason we still feel so unfulfilled. The promotion, activities, new indulgent hobbies haven’t provided the feeling of joy we so long for. We haven’t changed despite our best intentions last year. And even though bright lights decorate our houses which match the brightness of our pasted on smiles, they are a parody. We know the darkness around us and inside us. The world, and we ourselves are darker than every day spent in Scotland. We are an Advent people, even when we do our best to hide it. We are a people living in exile. We are the people who are crying out to God with the psalmist, waiting for God to act. Waiting for light to appear.

It is when we turn off the Christmas lights, it is when we slow down from the constant running around trying to buy presents and make everybody happy that we honestly begin to understand the Advent season. It is in the sober awareness of the world that we encounter the light. When we grasp the immensity of the darkness in the world, then we are prepared to traverse the Advent road, grasping desperately to the hope that will soon be revealed.

But…There was another group that sat in darkness an Advent season years ago. While the rest of the world was nestled in their beds, there were shepherds in the darkness.

            And it is among the shepherds that the angel appears declaring the birth of a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord himself. Now despite what all of our stained glass windows tell us about the life of David or Moses, it was not a calm and easy profession. They are not the middle class workers at the office from 9 to 5, who come home to 2.2 kids and an SUV. No, shepherds are the ones working all day and night, who are forced to spend the evening in the field sleeping on the cold wet grass while other are inside in a warm bed. They are not wealthy, they are not well off. They are those who understand the harsh reality of life, fighting to put food on the table. No doubt these shepherds also understand what it is like to be scorned and rejected by the world-as they were outcasts, forced to roam the wilderness. They lived in darkness and knew what it means to long for God to act to set the world aright Moreover, they toiled under the oppression of people life Caesar and Herod who want to take what little they have by crippling taxes derived from a census. They are homeless, poor, rejected. They are the janitors who work in silent, making minimum wage with barely enough to squeak by. They are the single moms working two jobs, never stopping, just to provide for the family. They are the immigrant workers, paid under the table but refused human dignity. They are the people in exile. The people in darkness-both metaphorically, and literally as those keeping sheep at night.

Note who the shepherds are not. They are not those who are snug in their beds in the inn, while the Son of God is born outdoors in a manger. They are not those who are sleeping soundly, thinking all is right with the world-deceiving themselves by failing to recognize the darkness. They are not the Caesar’s and the Herod’s of the world, who are spending the season stuffing their pockets on the wages of others in order to adorn their fancy palaces. The shepherds are an exile people, aware of the darkness. Honest to God about their desire for something else, a light that will change the world.

And it is to these people that good news are first proclaimed, they are the first to hear the birth announcement, they are the first who are given hope that the world will be different. They are the first to see Light break upon the world.

So, in Luke 2 we see the angels appear, declaring the Christmas message:

“Do not be afraid for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord.”

To a people sitting in darkness, LIGHT HAS SHONE. How long must we wait oh lord? No longer, for your salvation is HERE! It is to the shepherds that the good news is announced, that are the first recipients of the light that drives out the darkness. Those shepherds who are living in the darkness, honest to God about the world, that light is revealed. And the light wants to break forth to us this Christmas if we are willing to acknowledge the depth of the darkness we sleep in.

Receive the message the angels bring today, as they did that first Christmas, a message that drives out the deepest darkness. It contains the truth that we all so long for. It is a message of peace for the world, a peace that means no more violence tearing apart our schools, tearing apart the Middle east, tearing apart the world. It is a peace that gives meaning and purpose to our lives, a peace that helps heal the hatred we have for our neighbors and family. It is a peace which surpasses all understanding.

It is the good news of God’s glory, a glory that will not be put out by death, but which will overcome death. It is the glory that will cover the earth, as waters the sea, the glory that emerges in the hope of the resurrection of all our dead loved ones and the healing of a broken creation. It is glory of all things set to right. It is the glory of the God who has come upon the earth.

Most importantly, it is the good news of the Savior, the King who now lies in a manager. He will save all people from their hurts, their sin, their unforgiveness, from death. He is the one who will bring this peace and glory upon the earth. He is the LIGHT that drives out the darkness, the Light of Advent come into the world. He is the good news embodied, the return from exile, the defeat of death, the answer to our question ‘How long, oh Lord?’ This is the hope that world longs for and has now been revealed. He is the Christmas message.

And he is revealed to those who are sitting in darkness, us shepherds, longing for something different.

As I close today, I am aware that Christmas is a time of cheer and I have spent so much time talking about darkness. But I am convinced that Christmas is best celebrated only after we have grasped the darkness and been honest about our broken world. It is when we know-just like the shepherds-the death, the sadness, the losses in the present world, that we can begin to talk about the good news of Christmas. We need Advent to cultivate us in the deep ache of hope, four weeks of longing and desire. For it is in this hope that we can celebrate the immensity and the excitement of the light that dawns upon us, God made man, Christ himself coming to be King.

So let me urge you today, with the first words of the angels, so common in all of their appearance. Be not afraid!

For some, this morning is a chance to be honest about where you are, and to know that it is alright. It is ok to be sad, to be longing, to be in need of God this Christmas season. Do not be afraid of the truth. You are not a grinch, but you have touched on something deeply important in the Christmas faith. God recognizes your deep cry and wants to console you in your sadness and to plant deep seeds of hope, a hope that will bloom with the birth of Christ in you life. If this is you, if you are searching in darkness, do not be afraid. Light breaks forth in the darkness.

For others, you have been filling your life with a deceptive and fabricated light-which is actually the darkest corners of this dark world as it pretends to be true light. Perhaps you have been distracted this holiday season with busyness, with presents, with pleasing others, that you have forgotten how much in need you are, how empty this all is without the light of Christ. You have blotted out the light of Christ shining, you have supplemented the deep hope of Christmas with cheap plastic alternatives. If this is so, hear the words of the angel: be not afraid. God is calling to you as well. God loves you in your distraction and wants to open your eyes to the beauty of Christ this season, to drive out that deceptive darkness and give you the light of Christ.

For all gathered here, those who are in Christ as shepherds, waiting in the dark, I invite you all to come forward, to have your hearts prepared to receive the light, to be consoled by the grace of God in the knowledge that although there is darkness in the world, Light is coming and indeed has come. May we all have the light revealed to us, and be receptive to the good news of God in the days ahead, as we set our eyes on the manger, where we see Light dawning on the world. Dawn is breaking upon the world.

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Posted by on January 27, 2013 in Christian Reflection


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Wordplay in Galatians

As I have been daily working my way through Galatians for my Greek readings of Galatians class here at St Andrews, I have been struck with Paul’s sense of humor. This especially comes out in Galatians, prompted no doubt by his anger toward those who are leading his church astray by compelling them to be circumcised-ἠναγκάσθη περιτμηθῆναι (cf 2:3; 2:14).

So, Paul can pun on the nature of circumcision, sarcastically interjecting the wish that his opponents would castrate themselves in 5:12 (CEV): I wish that everyone who is upsetting you would not only get circumcised, but would cut off much more! Similarly, he puns on the ‘cutting’ of circumcision with the use of ἐνέκοψεν (to cut in) when he rhetorically asks the Galatians in 5:7: You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?

This wordplay is pretty obvious in translation, but other instances are a bit harder to render our of the Greek. So in Galatians 5:2-3 when Paul makes his explicit statement that seeking to be justified by circumcision will separate the Galatians from Christ and make them debtors to the whole law, he plays with the near homophones in Greek: 2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value (ὠφελήσει) to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated (ὀφειλέτης) to obey the whole law.

Another more complex wordplay situation arises from the repetition of persuasion language in Galatians 5:79 and the repetition of the verb ‘to strive or be jealous for’ (ζηλοῦσιν) Galatians 4:17-18. Most of this wordplay has been noted by one or more commentaries I’ve stumbled upon. But all of this wordplay and charged rhetoric can also help illumine one of the more difficult and vague concepts in Paul’s letter, the στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου. Commentators are divided on its meaning, whether it refers to elements, elemental spirits, astral deities, or even written rules. While I have no affirmative answer of any of these acceptable translations, one thing I want to point out is how Paul puns off this phrase to instruct his church in Galatia.

The στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου appear in 4:3 and again in 4:9 as something that is bad, and that the Galatians are no longer under the power of. Paul then offers the analogy of the two different children, the one of the slave woman clearly associated with the law and the one of the free woman associated with the Spirit (4:21-31). In this typology/allegory, Paul uses the same root of στοιχεῖα when aligning the current Jerusalem to this slave child with the verb συστοιχεῖ. In so doing, he further links the elemental spirits with the present order of slavery to the law preached by the opponents.

But Paul then further puns on the word when instructing his community to live by the Spirit in 5:25 and 6:16. Rather than live under these στοιχεῖα, Paul challenges them to live in the spirit:

5:25 (NIV): Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step (στοιχῶμεν) with the Spirit.

Then, in the powerful conclusion of the letter where he redefines the Israel of God around the single family of both Jews and Gentiles who live in the promise of the Spirit rather than practices of circumcision:

6:16 (NIV)Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule (στοιχήσουσιν) —even to the Israel of God.

In all three of the examples, I believe Paul has deliberately re-used the language of the στοιχεῖα in order to draw a clear contrast between the old way of life before Christ and the new one in Christ through the Spirit. In so doing, perhaps he is less concerned about the definition of the στοιχεῖα has the ability to use it as a rhetorical device to contrast two ways of life. Or if even he does have something clearly in mind for the στοιχεῖα, he plays off its meaning to draw more attention to his own moral instruction about living in the Spirit. Either way, there is clear evidence of intention wordplay. The same language is too densely packed for it to be an accident and appears only occasional outside of Galatians (cf. Rom 4:12; Phil 3:16; Col 2:8).

Just a thought.What do you think? Maybe with a little more development this could be an academic paper presented somewhere. Or maybe it will be pointed out in a commentary I am digging through later this semester. even so, I uncovered it on my own first.

Included is a gratuitous picture from St. Andrews:

October 8, 2012
So after typing up this post, I did some more research and it turns out several commentaries make a passing reference to the possible allusion of στοιχεία in the above mentioned verbs. However, most commentators think it is mostly an unconscious allusion and doesn’t carry the strong wordplay and rhetorical punch I suggested. Looks like there is still some room to explore.

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Posted by on October 7, 2012 in Scholarly Pursuits, St. Andrews


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University of St. Andrews: Theology as Agonizing Struggle

As many of you know, I was blessed with the opportunity to come to the University of St. Andrews to work on the intersection of systematic theology and biblical exegesis in a Masters program entitled Scripture and Theology. I arrived less than a week ago and have been doing orientation things as well as the necessary errands of getting a phone and a bank account. But I am hoping that the work here will generate new insights and allow me to explore some the questions I’ve been raising here.

I also want to share some of the details of what I’m up to over here across the pond, so this blog might have travel-esque posts at times. But ideally I will blend it all together.

Included are some of the pictures from my first few days here, to give you a sense of the beautiful atmosphere I will be studying in.

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But to contrast with that, I want to also leave this quote from Martin Luther, which was meditated on during our opening session, about being a theologian. Luther writes:

[a] theologian is one who, driven by agonizing struggle, enters with prayer into the Holy Scripture and interprets what is set forth within it, in order to give insight to others who are engaged in agonizing struggle, so that they in a like manner — with prayer — can enter into the Holy Scripture and interpret it

Such a sharp contrast-the beauty of St Andrews and the call to the agonizing struggle of the theologian. A symbolic sort of embodiment between cross and tomb, death and resurrection. May this paradox continue to challenge us to better know the death of Christ as well as console us in the participation of the resurrection.

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Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Christian Reflection, St. Andrews


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Preaching As Language Instruction: Thinking Narratively (Pt.2)

In the second part of this reflection, I want to speak briefly about the idea of preaching narratively. Now by this I don’t mean the ever-popular and appropriate use of stories as a way of conveying the message. That is the general use of stories in sermons. But what I want to suggest is that preaching must take seriously the fact that Christianity is grounded in the narrative of our faith: creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and resurrection. This is the narrative behind the creeds and the lens through which we read the Scriptures. That means that preaching, as far as it remains in the Christian tradition, is to be undergirded by this great story, much as a grammar undergirds the use of language.

What I am suggesting is that it is of central importance that every sermon be located within the great underlying story of the faith, just as every language is nestled within a governing grammar that helps us understand the relation of words to each other. Anyone who has taken a language recently knows how important is the repetition of the central grammatical ideas. In Latin and Greek, parsing and declining exercises were done repetitively in order to help us learn the key ideas. In learning to speak a language, there is the exercises of repeating stock phrases until they become second nature. Like this, sermons must be consciously practicing the grammar (i.e. story) that undergirds them.

While sometimes grammar is left unstated, in a world that has lost the underlying narrative arch and scope of our faith, it has become increasingly more important for the sermon to make explicit that controlling grammar and narrative. That means sermons should not deal with the Old Testament without dealing with Jesus (as well as the coming Kingdom). It also means that New Testament texts can not become simple moral tales, removed from the wider context of the call of God of a specific people-Israel, the promises of the prophets, and the corruption and fragmentation caused by sin. This is the controlling grammar underneath all preaching, the story serving as a foundation for all proclamation. And this story must be stated over and over again, regardless of what the key idea of the sermon is.

This is, I believe, what we see time and time again in the work of one of the first Christian preachers, Paul. Take Philippians 2 for instance, where the hymn of Christ, his descent, crucifixion, and exaltation (i.e. the controlling narrative) becomes the lynchpin for Paul’s ethical appeals to unity and proclamation. The sermon here is undergirded by the controlling narrative, which gives rise to the applicability. Now is unity and how to live in community necessarily related to this narrative? Yes, but only when the connections are fleshed out and the grammar is understood to apply to the current language being practiced. Paul’s sermon is built on the underlying narrative.

This focus on narrative accomplishes several important things for the Church. First, it helps educate the congregation (maybe even the ministers) in the grammar that shapes what it means to think Christianly. All is placed in relation to the story which the community shares. It is only within the larger framework of understanding the great story of our faith that the congregation can then begin to perceive the movement and language of its hymns and creeds. It is also within this great story that our parishioners better learn to read, interpret, and embody the Scriptures in their own lives. Learning the story is important, even in the most pedantic sense.

Secondly, it provides a foundation on which to build, where the story can fleshed out over time. The sermon can then speak to a diverse level of knowledge in the congregation, much has as been the case historically. So, preaching on the destruction of the Northern Kindgom can be plotted (most basically) in the line between creation/fall and incarnation, but it can also become a part of a growing narrative that includes the patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets. Thus the sermon can help appeal to members of different maturity while also serving as instruction for those less knowledgeable.

Third, it develops patterns of thinking that help the identity of the Church be formed over time. If the sermon is the most important place for theological formation among the average parishioner, then the constant reiteration of this greater story in the sermon will develop formative habits of thinking among the congregation, allowing them to move beyond ‘puppeting’ catch-phrases removed from Scripture into expressing the great story of God’s deeds in Jesus. It might even develop a missional attitude where ‘salvation’ is located in a story bigger than the individual’s destiny. It will also teach the congregation to see their own lives and stories within this great arc, placing them as actors on the stage of God’s coming kingdom.

So what are some practical ways to construct sermons narratively:

1)     Biblical/theological catchphrases (i.e. incarnation, resurrection) which become shorthand way so of locating a specific text in the wider scope. Often these will need unpacking, but they can also serve as great hooks on which to hang a text. But when you develop these ideas, STICK TO THEM. Don’t introduce a ton of new language, only enough to help develop a basic grammar.

2)     Don’t be afraid to retell the Great story. Actually do it every sermon, but experiment with different ways of expressing it or locating it. While the catchphrases can be quick and stay the same, variance in when and where will help the listeners build a more diverse set of connections between various texts and this larger narrative.

3)     Find ways of incorporating this greater narrative into the life of the congregation and  (particularly) Sunday worship. The formation of worship is equally as important to learning the story, but only if it is made EXPLICIT (especially in an imperceptive world).

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Posted by on July 17, 2012 in Christian Reflection


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Preaching as Language Instruction: Thinking Cumulatively (Pt.1)

During the past school year, I did a project where I was asked to interview members of a local church on matters of theology and healing. After several hours of straining over completed surveys from laity and ministers alike, I was shocked to find how the theology of the pastor had trickled into the answers offered by the rather diverse laity.

I am not talking just about offering the same answers, but I mean identical answers using the exact same language, references to bible verses, and theological concepts. It turns out that the sermons from the pulpit (the place of primary engagement for the parishioners; indeed, the only place of engagement for some) were shaping the very language, theology, and modes of thinking of the parishioners.

While this is a wonderful insight that illustrates the importance of preaching in the life of the church and the shaping of the community and individuals (not to mention the seriousness with which the task should be treated by clergy), it also surprised me and led me to rethink the notion of preaching.

In preaching class, the idea of preaching is taught as a one time event on Sunday. Sermons are seen as isolated pieces of exegesis and rhetoric that are to inspire a congregation to live faithfully. There might be some discussion on the long term practice of weekly preaching-for instance, using the lectionary to avoid favorite texts. But the cumulative effect of preaching seems neglected. If our congregations really are getting their primary Christian shaping on Sunday mornings, shouldn’t we be more intentional about  what we say, how often we say it, and what is central to the Christian identity? Shouldn’t we be instructing the congregation in how to read, how to think, and (most importantly) how to live Christian-ly? Is there a Christian language that must be learned and lived into like one’s native tongue, which shapes both how we think and how we relate and communicate in the tongue of the world?

It is not enough to avoid ‘theological’ language or ‘difficult biblical ideas/passages/books’ in order to offer the congregation something easy. It is not enough to reject creeds or other traditional elements because they are ‘old’ or ‘outdated.’ Rather, the sermons are just as much about teaching the community a new language-the language of faith, hope, and love centered on Christ-than about enabling them to translate that language in their everyday lives. As Christians, we become bi-lingual in the sense that we walk between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of God, with two ‘languages’ constantly in dialogue.

Yes, this dialogue takes place in the pulpit already, as Scripture is in dialogue with the ‘real’ world (to follow a somewhat problematic dichotomy).But if all the preacher is doing, week in and week out, is translating at the pulpit, the congregation will only know a translation and NEVER the language of the faith. They will never be able to translate between the two worlds themselves. They will never be bilingual ambassadors, but will be recording devices of a pastor’s sound-clips. How prevalent is this already, when the parishioner will mutter catchphrases and cliches removed from serious Christian reflection and engagement? “It’s ok, God is in control” “God is love.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Jesus just wants us to love one another.” “Love God, love people.” These reflect the parroting effect of a sincere congregation when a pastor has not taken seriously the role of preaching in faith formation.

This is the first of several different posts in which I want to explore the idea of preaching as language instruction, as teaching the community to think, speak, and act as those in the Kingdom of God while also in the world. I realize now it is a bit abstract, but hopefully I can bring it to a place of daily practice.

The big take away from this post, however, is that (whether you like it or not), preaching has a significant cumulative effect that is shaping congregations. We can either avoid it and leave the parishioners mute in the world or we can embrace it and develop the faculties of a bilingual community



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When is a delay not a delay? Rethinking waiting on the Parousia

The delay of the parousia, the return of Christ in glory and the resurrection of the dead   to salvation and judgment, is one of those white elephants in the Christian life. On the one hand, Christianity seems to have at its core this longing for Christ’s return (marana tha was one of the earliest Christian sayings cf. 1 Cor 16.21) and the idea that the earliest Christians thought it was going to happen in their lifetime (cf. the farewell discourses of Mk 13 and Lk 21). That imminence of the end was what (as has been argued by people like Albert Schweitzer) grounded the radical ethic of the community and was the driving force behind their missionary fervor.

However, we stand 2000 years away from those days and the parousia seems farther away than ever. Although some people will emphasize that we never know the ‘time of the end’ just as Jesus himself didn’t or that ‘a thousand years are like a day in the eyes of God’ following  the temporary answer of 2 Peter 3, these seem like smokescreens to the real issue at times. The fact that we are still waiting for Jesus, still waiting for the end, after 200 years is a pretty big deal. And those well meaning solutions offered by the pious are kiddy bandaids slapped on a wound we tend to overlook. Even as I sit in seminary, this question as been deflected time and again by professors when it is pressed that if the disciples (and possibly Jesus, depending on who you ask) thought the end was coming SOON and it didn’t, doesn’t that mean that Christianity is faulty?

While I’m not sure that the end was so fervently thought of and expected by the early Church in the way often painted by scholars or End Times speculators, I stumbled upon this quotation in Wolfgang Pannenberg’s Jesus-God and Man that is giving me a new way to conceive of the question. He explains, about the delay of the parousia and the possibility that the early Church was wrong:

“When we speak today of God’s revelation in Jesus and of his exaltation accomplished in the resurrection from the dead, our statements always contain a proleptic element. The fulfillment, which had begun for the disciples, which was almost in their grasp, in the appearance of the resurrected Lord, has become promise once again for us. The unique significance of the apostles’ witness for all subsequent church history, however, is connected with the fact that at that time Jesus’ resurrection and the end of the world could be seen together as a single event under the impression f the imminent expectation of the end. To that extent the eschatological future was nearer then than at any time since. All subsequent church history lives from that, even though the truth of seeing the resurrection and the end together has become more problematic again in the meantime than it was for the first community, and will be completely confirmed only in the future.” (108)

I gathered three insights from this that are helpful in negotiating the delay of the parousia.

First, the delay is difficult and frustrating, to be sure.  But this delay is grounded in the nature of the constantly unfolding future, of that which is still expected and has always been that way. Resurrection faith has always been proleptic, always waiting for fulfillment even after the firstfruits of Jesus. We are in no different place than the early Church in this respect. Or for that matter the generations of slaves in Egypt longing for freedom, the years Job spent longing for God to act, or the exiled Israelites scattered abroad. Longing is part of what we, as people of YHWH, do.

Secondly, the fervor in waiting for and expecting the end has no bearing on how soon it will come, but rather it is an expression of how we live and conceive of time. The early Christians lived expectantly because their conception of time had been relativized by Christ’s sudden resurrecton. In explaining his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein captures this notion of time in dialogue  when he explains, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours; that’s relativity.” For the early Church, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection was so vivid and recent that their conception of how you live in time was different, and the lifestyle followed. Jesus’ resurrection relativized time so the dawn of the new age was already anticipated and lived into in real, substantial ways with the practice of non-violent love of enemies, sharing of goods, and worship of the risen Lord. And as Pannenberg explains, this meant that the eschatological future for the early Church was nearer than it ever has been in church history, not because it was more likely to happen but because they lived into a lifestyle that knew it was happening.

Finally, following from the shifted view of time the early Church embodied and lived into due to the reality of the resurrection, we are left with a few questions that might clear up the fog of the delay, making it less of a delay. Do we believe in the reality of the resurrection in a substantial way? I ask this question because the fact that so many people write off the resurrection as unimportant nowadays is extremely problematic for the Christian faith, leaving it wholly un-grounded for any view of the future. All of our future is based on the new age inaugurated by that event.

But if we do cling to a resurrected Lord, does this not mean that we are already partially living in a new age? Instead of counting down years till the end of the old age, as if we are already disappointed by hope, should we and can we live as though time itself has changed substantially and we are already on tiptoe peering over the horizon of the new dawn? If we celebrate the resurrection, does this not mean that time is substantially different now, and the end is nearer than it ever has been? Rather than writing off the early Church as unrealistic prophets who misjudged the end, should we not emobdy their radical eschatological faith by recognizing that the time has now come?

As Paul would urge us in Rom 13:11-13a, whether after 10 years or 2000,

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day”


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