Sunday, March 20, 2011

Third Sunday of Lent

John 3
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus* by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’* 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.* 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You* must be born from above.”* 8The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

St. Patrick didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland.

I know this will be difficult for some of you to hear, particularly those of you basking in the glow of Thursday night. He did many things, including giving Christianity her best foothold in a pagan land, but on the topic of snakes, it is definitely snakes 1, Patrick 0.

Snakes, you see, are not indigenous to the island. They were never there. But such is the stuff of myth, taking an obvious absence and making it into a good story. 1,600 years on, who’s to know, except those pesky scientists who figured it out. It does remain one of the better Patrick legends, pictured in a parade banner I saw this week, with a smiling snake and the caption “Saint Who?”

It seems that the mythmakers and the chroniclers knew what Nicodemus knew long ago: people desire a sign. Nicodemus, the religious leader and secret admirer of Jesus said as much when they met by night. “It is your signs that impress us most,” he said to Jesus, “it proves that you come from God.”

Never one for flattery, Jesus said this in return: “Truly? The only genuine sign of God’s reign is being born again.”

But poor Nicodemus doesn’t get the metaphor Jesus shares, he is painfully stuck in the literal, saying: “Grow old? And re-enter the womb? How is such a thing possible?” The dialogue continues, one of the longest in scripture, with Jesus introducing new metaphors and Nicodemus struggling to understand. Jesus finally tells Nicodemus that there are things of heaven and things of the earth, and some will simply not understand heavenly things. Then he says something about a snake and a pole, which helps me tie all of these things together.

Poor Nicodemus, he has trouble with metaphors, and clearly Jesus loves them, so we have a problem. When one participant in a conversation is busy weaving the finest metaphors and the other participant cannot hear them, there is really no conversation at all. Nicodemus came to Jesus as an admirer of signs, not a seeker of metaphor.

So what are these things that Jesus is continually crafting, and why does metaphor seem to be his preferred mode of communication?

Robbie Burns said “My love is like a red, red rose. “ I know I’m moved from Ireland to Scotland, but I’m trying to be inclusive in my examples. Burns gives us a simile, which a really just a primitive form of metaphor, comparing one beautiful thing to another. In other words, if you struggle to understand the depth and complexity of love, them look no further than a red, red rose.

Robbie Burns is masterful in metaphor too, my favourite found in the “Address to the Haggis.” If you have ever tasted it, I am sure you will agree with Burns that the haggis is the “Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!“ Or maybe you don’t. Whatever your opinion on what is little more than an overgrown sausage, you can still admire that among Scots it is considered the most important sausage of all.

But how is it metaphor? It is metaphor because to takes two seemingly unrelated things (a high rank among people and a type of meat pudding) and throws them together. It uses a poetic device to answer the question “how important is haggis?” It is the “great chieftain.” But wait, for Burns has added a bonus metaphor, hidden in the first metaphor. He calls the haggis the “great chieftain of the pudding race,” using a human form of classification (race) and applying it to meat pudding.

So how does it work? The theory is that our example, the haggis metaphor, creates tension in our mind by throwing together two things that seem in conflict. If you were entirely literal in hearing, you might say to the Bard, “wait a minute, you took a rank that only applies to humans and applied to baked sheep innards. That’s just not right.” Oh, but it is, because in the tensional theory two unrelated things thrown together have the potential to create an entirely new meaning. Two ideas, and all the associations we bring to each, thrown together, creates new associations and new meaning.


You might say that if you were looking for the favourite metaphor among conservative Christians, you would need to look no further than “born again.” They talk about it, they put it on billboards, they pass it out in little tracts, they make the “cost of admission” to truly join their fellowship. It is the theme of the traditional “alter-call,” where the invitation is made to come forward and give your life to Jesus once more, something some have been known to do week-by-week.

“Born again” is so familiar to our hearing that it has become what is known as a “dead metaphor.” We are so familiar with it, and we understand it in a very specific context, that it has lost it’s power to evoke anything. It is not a dead concept, which I will explain in a moment, but metaphors go, this one no longer teases the imagination, it is dead.

Another example would be “love is blind.” The first time someone said it, the people around said, ‘good one, because the experience of being in love causes you to overlook your lover’s obvious flaws, cool.’ But then it died, because “love is blind” was killed by a thousand pop songs and became so familiar that the tension simply went away.

Another example of a dead metaphor is the phrase “nation-state.” We use it to describe countries, such as ‘Canada is a nation-state,’ when, in fact, it is metaphorical concept. It brings together the idea of nationhood (common history, language, culture) and the idea of the state, a form of government. When we accepted the idea that people with a common history, language and culture should govern themselves together as a distinct entity, the metaphor lost its power and died. But if it remains a metaphor, that means we see it as an idea and not a fact, as some would have us believe. Col. Gadaffi would argue that his nation-state is sovereign and untouchable, while the UN prefers to use a variation on the idea (metaphor) of nation-state. If you attack your own people, the reasoning goes, you forgo the sovereignty you think you have, and thank God for that.


So “you must be born again” flies right over the head of Nicodemus and has become so central to a religious approach we tend not to share that it misses us too. So we have a teaching that is central to the Gospel and a fine metaphor and we have largely surrendered it to others and regard it as a source of embarrassment. Some of us try it on from time to time, but the fit is uncomfortable, and the fabric itches, and so we set it aside. Even the NRSV, the scholar’s Bible, sets it aside, choosing “born from above” as a way to breath some new life into the metaphor and make it more relevant to a mainline Christian audience.

Born from above is a good try. But we can see from Nicodemus’ response that the intended metaphor was “born again,” that Jesus did compare entering the Kingdom to exiting the womb once more, and that only by reclaiming the phrase can we possibly understand the conversation.

What Jesus is really asking is that we dwell in the land of metaphor. He does this primarily by describing what the land of metaphor is like:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

There is wind, there is wind direction and there is wind speed, but the wind itself is as mysterious as the land of new meaning made through metaphor. Yes, a scientist can tell you about the source of wind, the way wind interacts with the world around us, or even that the wind will come largely from one direction. But a scientist cannot tell me when the next gust will come or how long the gust will be sustained. In other words, there are limits to the scientific and the literal, and that is where the metaphorical and the symbolic come in.

Jesus says “you must be born again,” meaning something like reinventing yourself, restarting yourself, reimagining yourself, or any other “re” that fits your situation in life. The metaphor is no longer a dead metaphor if we hunger for change in ourselves. Now maybe you don’t think you hunger for change. I’m not sure Nicodemus did: he was looking for proof or some confirmation of divine authority. When you’re not looking for change, the metaphor doesn’t work, because ‘born again’ seems unnecessary. But when you’re hungry for change, for renewal, for a new life with God, the metaphor ‘born again’ can be alive once more.

I encourage you on your Lenten journey toward newness and rebirth. May we all be renewed, to live by the Spirit and see the Spirit in others, Amen.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

In Ben Hur (1959) the Romans have British accents and the Jews have American accents. The lone Arab accent comes from a Welsh actor.

In Gladiator (2000) everyone has British accent, despite the three stars of the movie being Australian, American and Danish.

In Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) the rebels have American accents and the evil empire actors have British accents.

In the series Rome (2005) and the film Caligula (1979) class divisions were identified by the type of British accents, from upper-class snob to working-class bloke.

In The Prince of Egypt (1998) all the Egyptians have British accents, and the Jews sound American. Moses, with the only American accent in Pharaoh's palace, should have figured out is ancestry a bit quicker.

Finally, “almost every single Christ movie in film history has given the title character an extremely thick British accent,” ( making the normally Jewish Jesus somehow Roman, Egyptian or an opponent of the Rebel Alliance.

With so many voices in Matthew 17—God, Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John—it would be nearly impossible to assign accents. There is also a flurry of movement: up the mountain, into the cloud, falling to the ground, and lifted up by Jesus. Through it all we hear described one of the most unusual events in scripture with strange appearances, a flood of divine light and a voice from the cloud.

Before we look in more detail, though, it is important to imagine the Bible as a storehouse of clues. It contains a vast web of interconnecting references, pointing to themes and stories that add meaning and flesh out the narrative. These clues, sometimes called intertextual links, add a secondary layer of meaning to the text. And sometimes they cause tension in the text, teasing us to ask why the link might appear in the first place.

Matthew 17, our example, contains two giant intertextual links in the persons of Moses and Elijah. Moses is the liberator of the Hebrew people from Egypt and Elijah is Israel’s greatest prophet (something I believe strongly, until my resident OT scholar tells me otherwise over lunch). The two add multiple layers of meaning to an already busy text and may even force us to decide, or at least cut through some of the layers to make some sense of the passage for today.

So, let’s get started. We have two paths to follow, Moses or Elijah, and the clues are in the story. They appear on the mountain with Jesus, and both come with mountain traditions: Moses on Mt. Sinai (receiving the law) and Elijah on Mt. Carmel (defeating the priests of Baal). They speak to Jesus, a parallel to the ongoing conversation both Moses and Elijah have with God. They enter a cloud, an echo of Mt. Sinai but perhaps an echo of the whirlwind from 2 Kings 2.

So here is the clue I like the best: At the very beginning of the passage, at the beginning of the chapter, we read these words:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

After six days of what? In the middle of the previous chapter Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi and he is quizzing them on his identity. The he predicts his death, rebukes Peter, and invites them to “pick up your cross and follow me.” There is not timeline, no geographic marker of any consequence and no introduction to the statement. Just three words: After six days.

More in that in a moment. At the end of the passage Taye read, the disciples only want to talk about Elijah. And there are a few reasons why. First, Elijah is associated with the advent of the Messiah, a top-of-mind topic for everyone in the story. Second, Elijah is more contemporary, and more human in the sense that the role of prophet is closer to the experience of the disciples than the far off Moses. Third, Elijah is cool, making a barbeque of the priests of Baal and defeating an evil queen and all that.

Okay, but after six days of what? It’s here that we discover that the passage is really about Moses. For you see, six days is the time that God makes Moses wait, six days he spends on Sinai waiting in a cloud:

On the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

They had a lot to talk about. God had a list of items to be custom made on his return to the people: ark of tokens, table of bread, golden lamp-stand, tabernacle, alter, vestments, another alter, and a bronze basin. God said “by the way, take these two tablets” and off Moses went. And what did he find when he returned, list under one arm and tablets under the other? A golden calf. Things went further downhill from there, no pun intended.

But let me back-up: Just before he left, God noticed the golden calf making and the partying and seems to have a change of heart:

“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

Moses is a little taken aback. ‘Lord,’ he says, ‘why kill the very people you just liberated from Egypt?’ And in a wonderful turn he says ‘why let the Egyptians mock you by saying “he liberated them only to kill them in the desert.”’ Moses begs God to turn from anger, and them the knock-out punch: ‘remember the covenant you made with Abraham and Isaac, that you would make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky?’ God relents.

After six days Jesus meets Moses and Elijah, but the primary message is from Moses, and the six days is the very same six days that Moses waited, and the message is this: You will intervene to save the people from themselves. Jesus is the new Moses, arguing with God to redeem the frail creatures that hardly deserve redemption.

The disciples witness the transfiguration and can only think about building three shelters. The Israelites see what appears to be devouring fire atop Mt. Sinai and all then can think about is making a golden calf. God gave us metallurgy and chemistry and mechanics and all we can think about is making the weapons of war. Our entire classification system for the ancient world—stone age, bronze age, iron age—is based on the ability to make better and better weapons, right up to the nuclear age, when we have the capacity to send ourselves right back to the stone age.

But after six days Jesus knew. He knew that his primary activity in eternity would be doing the very same thing Moses did so well: Forgive then, Father, for they know not what they do; forgive them their trespasses, that they may forgive those that trespass against them. I can’t even imagine that God is still angry, it’s just that God has seen it all, and Jesus remains ever patient.

“With sighs too deep for words” the Spirit intercedes for us, giving us the words to ask for help, the words that seek redemption, the words that bring new life, now and always, amen.