Monday, December 03, 2007

A Matthew Update

From time to time, I'll post updates on the Matthew discussion, often posting my "introductions" to a class session. In those introductions, I try for two things: First, I try to summarize what we've discussed, so that people who have participated in the past couple of weeks or so of discussions know what we've covered and thereby to set some context for the current discussion. I also try to influence the spiritual formation of the call members by attending to the homiletical (Bible study leaders can't and shouldn't help preaching, it seems to me) and theological dimensions of what we discuss. (As an aside: I'm excited by the Brazos Press enterprise of getting theologians to write commentaries on the books of the Bible. I think such a project is long overdue and desperately needed. And I'm having a wonderful time reading Stanley Hauerwas' on Matthew.)

I want people to get excited about reading the Bible, and I want to aid them in developing a more "catholic" exegesis. I'm influenced, of course, by my progressive roots to an almost knee-jerk reaction against "conservative" and fundamentalist misreading or distorting Scripture. That's not to say that I want to substitute a progressive hermeneutic (well, of course I do, but I work very hard to be honest about things and to let the Scriptures speak on their own terms). It's clear from the turn-out for this class that people really understand the importance of Scripture and want to read it in company with other Christians. And so I'm still excited about what's happening.

Here is a rough transcript of my introduction to the All Saints Sunday session. It makes reference to a sermon preached by our pastor the previous week, and you can check that sermon out here.

(In what follows, I've left out housekeeping details that prefaced the introduction.)

Last Sunday, in his sermon for the Feast of the Reformation, Pastor Heisley raised the question, most appropriate both to the Gospel text for the day and to the Reformation itself, of how shall we continue in the Word of the Lord. I must say that I was disappointed with his answer in one respect (and keep in mind that I always want to re-write preachers’ sermons for them): It seems to me that there is one obvious, but majorly neglected, counsel on how to continue in the Word of the Lord. And that is to continue in, to live in, to steep ourselves in the words of the Lord. God has seen fit to incarnate his Word, present with him at the creation, in flesh and blood at one point in history and in vowels and consonants throughout history.

And that’s part of what Matthew is about: He put into words and paragraphs and chapters (well, actually, those came later) a vehicle by which the Incarnated God continues his saving work, long after the Son of David and the Son of Abraham ascended to his Father. By means of Matthew’s words, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, we continue to enjoy the company of the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, sojourned in Egypt (and maybe Ethiopia) to avoid murder, and was raised by his mother and earthly guardian in Galilee.

And we are called to continue that company though Holy Writ – not by listening or reading once or twice and then discarding in favor of some other, “deeper” spiritual/theological works. Rather – and here, for the sake of quotation, I’ll change the reference, you are called, in the words of the Great Reformer himself, to meditate on scripture “not only in your heart but also outwardly,” word by work, “as oral speech and literal words.” Scripture is to be worked at and rubbed like an herb, read and re-read, and what the Holy Spirit is saying here is to be deeply pondered.

And that’s what we are doing here – working at this Gospel and rubbing it like an herb to release its fullest aroma, its tangiest bite, its most satisfying enhancement of this spiritual food. We have been guided by Matthew from his opening flourished, in which, by means of his “begats,’ he outlines his story – the life of the one who will (in one of his favorite words) “fulfill” the royal line of David and the covenantal line of Abraham.

We read and pondered the unusual conception and birth of this one – a virgin for a mother, the Holy Spirit for the generative moment. And we looked with respect and even awe (if we read properly) on Jospeh, who repeatedly was called to defy culture, history, geography, and politics to serve as guardian of this one, this “Jesus” – as he named him in obedience to the dream-messenger. We have had the first hints that “he who saves” raises alarms first with political authorities, who rule by the fear that their strength is necessary to fight off chaos.

And we accompanied our Lord to Egypt where were given the next hints of the meaning of the name “Jesus” – God saves:

After Egypt’s ancient, grave sin, after many blows had been divinely inflicted upon it, God the omnipotent Father, moved by devotion, sent his Son into Egypt. He did so that Egypt, which had long ago paid back the penalty of wickedness owed under Moses might now receive Christ, the hope of salvation. How great was God’s compassion as shown in the advent of Son! Egypt, which of old under Pharoah stood stubborn against God, now became a witness to and home for Christ. (Chromatius)

And Egypt was blessed just as will be “all nations” – according to the last verses of this Gospel.

Then we saw Jesus home to Galilee – a rough, diverse homeland, where crossed the crowded ways of life: home to Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans (which may have been worse than Gentiles for many pious Jews), Romans, Greeks; along the great trade route between Persia (home to the first seers to recognize the cosmic implications of Jesus’ birth) and Egypt.

And today we turn the clock forward some – what? – thirty years, perhaps. “In those days” – a biblical formula for two things: a transition from one part of the story to another; a sign that something significant is on the horizon. And that’s where we pick up today: Read Matthew 3:1-12.

(And we began the discussion after reading the pericope out loud.)

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