Of all the positions which are still open, of all the job descriptions which have yet to be filled, of all the high-ranking and influential titles to which we may aspire—the role of the scribe seems pretty routine.   Who would like to grow up and be a scribe?   Are there any specific qualifications?  What are the prerequisites for becoming a scribe?  Is there a degree program from an accredited institution?   I have this vivid memory of sitting in a room of fellow second graders and learning the art of cursive writing.  We engaged in this process, it seems to me, by simply pointing that sharpened number two pencil between the lines of a copybook and then by tracing the swirls of consonants and vowels.  My favorite was the capital G… My nemesis was the lower-case m…    

But is that all it takes to be a scribe?  Are the scribes, referred to in the scriptures, merely known for their calligraphy?  Do they merely copy the words, jots and tittles on the page?  Is that why Jesus, on many occasions, takes them on as adversaries?  Is good penmanship at the root of all evil?   My operating assumption today is that, by their association with the Pharisees, scribes have received a bad rap, and that in fact, the scribes of the Hebrew tradition are much more than physical copyists.  They are interpreters, who make poetic decisions.  This at least is how Jesus understands them in Matthew 13:52.      “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (v.52). 

I’d like to tell you about a radio commercial that I scribed recently.  I sloppily wrote it in my notebook, re-typed it on my computer and sent it to KXLY.   It was essentially a one minute spot that depicted two twenty-something guys driving down Route 195 South of Spokane.  They used words, like dude and cool, which may already be out of date.  But what I am most proud of is the concept of spitting watermelon seeds.  I literally wrote the phonetic sound of one of these dudes spitting out watermelon seeds into the dialogue.  And at the end of the spot, I have this voice-over that says, “At Latah Valley, you can even spit out the seeds.”   So, did you catch the allusion?  Can you sense the intuitive connection with the parable of the seeds, not to mention the scene in which Jesus heals with his own saliva?   Let me just say—I love writing this stuff.  But here’s the dilemma.  When I submitted the radio spot to be played on 99.9 FM, The River, one of the advertizing Pharisees re-wrote the script entirely.   I don’t mean just a little tweak.  I mean she changed one of characters to a middle-aged female, who utters phrases like this:  “A tisket, a tasket, what’s in your picnic basket?”   Gone was the sound of spitting watermelon seeds, and gone was the edginess of the twenty-something dudes, amazed by a church who might welcome them without a sermon or a lecture.   

Well, needless to say, my version of the radio spot prevailed and you might hear it beginning next Saturday.  But even more critical than the radio gig is the idea that a scribe has the authority to interpret scripts and to favor one script over another.  And what if pastors and elders in the tradition of the Presbyterian Church now took it upon themselves to categorically reject what KXLY and other social forces want to impose upon us?   What if we scripted our congregations like scribes who are being trained for the kingdom of heaven?  Walter Brueggemann has commented on today’s passage, pointing out that the three-fold office of Christ—Christ as king, Christ as priest and Christ as prophet—may now require a new role model for us to imitate.   The poetic scribe, for instance, doesn’t dictate the rules like a king so much as receives the dictation.  The poetic scribe doesn’t mediate God’s presence like a priest, but he does invite people into the vowels and consonants of the biblical text.  The poetic scribe doesn’t take on the powers that be directly like a prophet, but she does offer an alternative imagination of how the world may be.  “New interpretations and old texts,” says Brueggemann.  The church leader who is trained for the kingdom of heaven is “like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”   And this is no copout.  It is, rather, a creative way of side-stepping the professional models of manager, therapist or technician, which Alan Roxburgh laments in The Church Between Gospel And Culture.  Back in the 1970’s Monty Python performed a great skit, involving a television show called, “How To Do It.”   Evidently the program in the
United Kingdom took pride in explaining how professionals in various specialized fields get things done.  In full dress, Eric Idol parodies the BBC hostess who says, “On today’s show we’re going to tell you how to cure all diseases on the face of the earth…”  Then, without blinking an eye, we cut to the resident expert who lays out the steps:  “First, you go to college and then medical school and become a doctor…  After practicing medicine for many years, you write a book, and become famous.   You then use your fame to get other doctors to cure all known diseases and even some of those that are unknown at the present time. That’s all we have time for tonight…  And so, until next time, that’s how to do it.”  
 This, of course, would be very funny if we weren’t haunted with our own How To Do It  scripts.  Are leaders in today’s institutional church nothing more than professional experts and volunteers?   Are we hired or installed to simply get things done? 

  • Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…
  • Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…
  • Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea…

You see, when Jesus slings these tangible images in the midst of Matthew 13, he doesn’t teach us how to do things.  He teaches us how to interpret what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell.  He teaches us how to read the culture as well as the tradition.  Consider, as examples, the scribes mentioned in 2 Kings 22:9 and Ezra 7:11.   These aren’t simply copy-cat writers or plagiarists.   In the case of “the book of the law” which is found in the temple, during the reign of King Josiah, scribes interpret what they read and “all the people joined in the covenant.”  In the same way, when King Cyrus of Persia allows the deportees to return to
Jerusalem, scribes like Ezra relate how everything they need to worship will be taken out of the king’s treasury.   Doesn’t that sound familiar?   Haven’t we also found a story that helps us re-interpret our lives?  Haven’t we also been allowed to borrow the passions of the postmodern crowd?
 

Life Is Beautiful  is a foreign film that received several Academy Award nominations back in 1998.  And if you haven’t seen the movie yet, let me recommend that you read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen carefully, and that you also pay attention to the interpretative moment in which the Nazi guard asks if there are any Italian Jews who speak German at the prison camp.  Guido, played by Roberto Benigni, volunteers to interpret the instructions even though he doesn’t speak a word of the language.  What he does instead is masterfully subversive.  In the midst of monstrous and demonic world events, Guido’s only concern is to shield the body and the spirit of his son, Joshua.   Joshua has been taken to the concentration camp with the rest of his relatives, but he has been led to believe that it’s all a game.  His father has in fact told him that the train on which he’s been transported has been especially arranged.   Teams are now competing to see who will win the grand prize.   And wouldn’t Joshua like to join in the fun?  The young child has his doubts until he witnesses jovial father interpreting the rules straight from the mouth of the Nazi official.  “If someone makes a mistake they get sent right home…”“You have to get 1,000 points.”“Everyday we’ll announce who is in the lead on that loudspeaker.”“We play the part of the really mean guys who yell…”“You lose points for three things.  One, if you cry.  Two, if you want to see your Mama.  Three, if you complain that you’re hungry for a snack.”  And the really mean guy, playing his part in the game, concludes his remarks by saying, Ist dis clar?   I cannot begin to tell you how excited we are to be living and leading again in the Inland Northwest.  When Sheryl and I came here almost eighteen years ago we had no one to translate for us, no one to translate the language of the seminary into the language of the local congregation.  We were intimidated by the really mean guys and didn’t understand the rules of the game.  Today, we understand better.  And we’d like to offer these images for your consideration: 

The kingdom of heaven is like a field along the banks of the Latah Creek.  Years ago, upon these banks, the United States Cavalry once hanged Chief Qualchan and other natives.  But, you see, someone found a treasure in the field, arranged for a huge mortgage and we’ve bought it.   The story ofLatah
Valley is about to change.  And you can help us write the script.  Amen.

Advertisements

Prior to our wedding in May of 1987, I worked with a travel agent in Princeton, New Jersey.  I told her that we wanted to go to the Bahamas for our Honeymoon.  I told her that we didn’t want to be around lots of tourists in touristy places.  And this comment led us to an obscure, bug-infested hotel on the beach of one of the most out-of-the-way, little, remote islands in the Caribbean.  And before I go any further with this story, I should confess that I had no idea what I was doing, and that the travel agent didn’t really temper my romantic idealism.  Why should she?  That wasn’t her job.  In fact that efficient woman in the cubicle with posters of exotic, far-off places did everything that I asked her to do.  She arranged our flights from Chicago to West Palm Beach to Nassau to whatever the name of that God-forsaken place was.   And yet, what she didn’t explain was the waiting.  The transition time.  The hours watching others fly away.   

I am not a big fan of waiting.  But it was during one of these lay-overs, while waiting for all the romance to begin,  that I first heard an unusual word.  The word was Postmodern, and from the very first time that I read it aloud, I became suspicious.  Think about it.  Nearly everything that follows the prefix, Post, is anti-climatic.  Postponed.  Postscript.  Postmortem.  Postpartum.  Post-tramatic.  Postnasal.  You see, the feeling I get from that single syllable is that it’s all over.  The credits are rolling.  And nothing special will ever happen again.  Literally, post means after—and who wants to venture anything new when the glory days have passed us by?

POSTMODERN MEANS ESSENTIALLY THE TIME AFTER WE HAD IMAGINED THAT TECHNOLOGY AND INFORMATION WOULD SAVE US…  THE TIME AFTER… WE HAD HOPED THAT IF WE JUST PROVIDED PEOPLE WITH MORE INFORMATION THEY WOULD MAKE BETTER DECISIONS…  THE TIME AFTER… WE HAD HOPED THAT IF WE JUST HAD BETTER TECHNOLOGY EVERYTHING WOULD WORK OUT…

 

 

Well, without postulating too much about the postmodern world, I’d like to suggest this morning that newness is still possible.  Newness is still possible in terms of our personal lives, in terms of the ministry of the church and even in terms of world history.   For example, once upon a time, the teacher of Ecclesiastes lamented, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9).   He made that remark, however, centuries AFTER the prophet Isaiah, speaks for God, saying, “I am about to do a new thing” (43:19).  And so, it stands to reason that God works this way quite often.  Each time we assume things to be over—only then—do we discover the seeds of a new event.  By the same token, each time we presume to know God’s new thing, we spend lots of time waiting, waiting and waiting for it.  This is the pattern in the first chapter of ACTS.     

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, AFTER giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  AFTER his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  WHILE staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” 

So, here’s the fascinating dynamic with the ascending Jesus.  He’s going to heaven.  As the Apostles Creed says, he’s going to sit at the right hand of the God the Father, from whence he shall come…  But, you see, his itinerary for the disciples, and for you and I, involves the transitions of waiting : 

 “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

In his book, More Ready Than You Realize, Brian McLaren describes a talented musician named Alice.  McLaren says that she was young, in her mid-twenties and very intelligent.  She played the harp professionally and had been hired to perform in the background during a book-signing event.  At the time, McLaren had just published Finding Faith, and during the evening
Alice paged through the text curiously.  She finished reading it the next morning.  But listen to what she had to say to the author AFTER:

 

“Do you mean all the stuff that you say in the book, or are you just trying to make Christianity sound good?” (p. 20). 

McLaren goes on to develop a friendship with
Alice, and his premise is that she and others like her are more ready than we realize.  But ready for what?  McLaren claims that the emerging generations are more eager for conversation and dialogue than they are for easy slogans and lectures.   The Four Spiritual Laws won’t cut it anymore.  The Five Steps to Peace with God won’t go anywhere without a willingness to wait for the Holy Spirit with a person in a place.
 

  • You will be my witnesses after the book is published.
  • You will be my witnesses after you’ve signed your name a thousand times.
  • You will be my witnesses after the argument is over.
  • You will be my witnesses after the music fades away.
  • You will be my witnesses after janitor comes by to clean up the tables.
  • You will be my witnesses after you’ve been insulted for the last time.
  • You will be my witnesses after you’ve spent the night in the hospital.
  • You will be my witnesses after your friend commits suicide.
  • You will be my witnesses after the last Session Meeting blows up in your face. 

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth…  That’s what verse eight says.  But I’d like to point out that “the ends of the earth” are a matter of perspective.  If you start off in Jerusalem, for example, Shadle Park may be the ends of the earth (and with all the roads closed around here, it seems that way).  Of course, to those who reside along High Drive in the South Hill, Latah Valley may be the ends of the earth.  You might even go to the edge of that cliff and shudder.  Who lives down there?  Well, go and find out.  God is about to do a new thing.   And if you don’t believe me—if you imagine there’s no new church under the sun—wait and see.   Wait here in Shadle Park and see if you’re not changed by what happens there.  The point is, no one can control these post-ascension travel plans.  No one can, no one should try. 

Since returning to Spokane after sixteen years, I’ve had several folks ask me about family.  The question usually comes up when they hear that we’ve moved from Pennsylvania, where we started Crossroads Presbyterian Church, and it goes like this:  Do you have any family here?   I tell them, No… that my mother and all of my siblings live back east, and that Sheryl’s family is scattered from North Carolina to Indiana to Canada, to Germany.  And then I try to explain how we don’t really have any control. We miss everybody of course.  But as far as family is concerned, Mark 10:29—30 makes sense:

 

“Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake…who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions…’”

And I would embellish this verse to include these words:  NO ONE WHO HAS LEFT THE COMFORT OF AN ALREADY ESTABLISHED CONGREGATION WILL NOT ALSO RECEIVE NOW IN THIS AGE NEW CONGREGATIONS…

 

In a movie called The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays a minister of a highfalutin suburban church, in which his wife, played by Farra Fawcett, is the leader of the praise band.  Duvall’s character makes a terrible mistake and has to run away.  He gets in his car and drives to a small town in Louisiana, where he preaches on the radio.  A community of faith develops around his loud, charismatic preaching—a church in which there are lots of poor, African American people.  Everything’s going well.  With a few dollars they buy an old, abandoned building and fix it up.   They refurbish a bus and pick people up in the outlying neighborhoods.  They host picnics and eat chicken casserole.  But watching the film we know that the apostle has personal problems that he’s going to have to face.  And so, when the police detectives come with handcuffs and an arrest warrant, it’s no surprise.  The apostle is hauled away, and that’s the end.  Or is it?  The final scene depicts him in orange overalls, working in a chain gang with other prison inmates.  As the sun goes down, he’s leading them in a rhythmic chant.“Who died for my sins that I might live?” “Jesus!” they chant.“Who was raised again in glory and ascended into heaven?”“Jesus!”  

This morning, I’d like to suggest to you the importance of the ascension of Jesus.   When Jesus goes away, the Honeymoon is over.   But the travel plans are just beginning.  Amen. 

Walking Bloomsday

May 7, 2007

On May 6th, I walked the Bloomsday course with Sheryl, Philip, our friend Sara Ferris and her son, Austin…  [Ian started earlier and ran well ahead of us.]  A 31-year-old man from Kenya started and finished well, well, well ahead of us.  Of the approximately 44,000 participants this lean African came in first place.  He was in fact so far ahead that we could only see him on the news at 6 p.m., when every bone and every muscle in my body seemed like one huge ACHE…

Anyway, as I offer these comments on the other bodies  that I witnessed on that spring morning, may the Lord Jesus receive them as my grateful prayers:  I saw a teenage girl without her right arm.  I saw a middle-aged man without his left leg.  I saw an angry, but aero-dynamic, person in a wheelchair speeding through the crowd.  Apparently he was upset because walkers of the course were supposed be to the right and runners to the left.  At a high rate of speed, compared to the rest of us, he had to dodge strollers, meandering toddlers and couples in animated conversations.   No one in our contingent really wanted to break away.   We were content  just to put one foot in front of the other and to appreciate the scenary moving by at three miles per hour.   No one wanted to get trampled in a rush of weekend warriors.  And no one wanted to lose sight of a stray child.

At various dips and slopes in the road, there were these amazingly eclectic bands and musicians in strange costumes.  My favorite was the elderly gentleman, wearing the Elvis wig and playing the accordian.  He sang, “It’s a small world afterall…”  And in our cramped walking space, that seemed like an appropriate caption.  

My goal now is to lose 30 pounds and RUN next year’s race with the boys.  I’ve set goals like this before–goals regarding diet and physical exercise–and haven’t been able to achieve them.  We’ll see what happens.   I can always walk.  Or perhaps roll like that competitive guy in the wheelchair.  I can always have someone push me.   And if I should fall, like I observed a few folks take a tumble on a curb, I hope that the crowd around me will become a beloved community and that I will be lifted up off the ground.  

At the end of the day, Isaiah 40:31 lingers like the smell of perspiration in Spokane, Washington.