There is an experience in seminary
I want to slice open
and so share its fruit with you.
But I doubt I can do it justice.
It has to do with the Bible –
with entering into the text for the first time
and feeling its utter ordinariness
as well as the power of the tide
surging beneath the surface.
In the ensuing thirty-some years
since I went to seminary,
much of our innocence has been peeled away
by wonderful folks like Marcus Borg,
John Dominic Crossan, Walter Brueggemann,
Amy-Jill Levine, and John Spong.
But even now, I am told, encountering the heartbeat
inside the bible remains an unnerving moment in seminary.
It is an unsettling encounter with the unexpected,
and at the same time,
with nagging implications
far beyond the moment.
First, like an archeologist, you learn
there are tools for digging.
Then, as you dig,
you discover there are layers and layers
of historical interpretation
that dramatically changed the shape and character
of whatever is buried down there in the original text.
Then you learn whatever is down there,
was also shaped and painted
by centuries and centuries
of what came before it.
Then, finally, you discover that between
the stratified debris below
and the stratums above
is an empty shell of an extinct moment –
that there is no “original” text to get back to.
In other words, whatever original text of the Gospel
there might have been,
we do not have it.
We have scraps and pieces of text
in a wide variety of languages,
none with a reliable time-stamp
but each with an estimate of how old it is.
The longest, most intact versions of the gospels we have,
are of course much younger
than the little scraps and pieces left to fit together
like a jigsaw puzzle.
So, as it turns out, we have no eyewitness account –
something written in “real-time” as we would say today –
by people who were there to report the details.
Instead, we have echoes across the earliest generations
of people who told people
who told other people
about what happened.
The Gospels themselves, are edited rather than authored
by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
But what that means, is that the Gospels
are collections of stories and sayings
gathered or received by people in four separate communities, decades and many miles apart.
Many of those stories were told without a context
so the editor, Matthew for example,
had to figure out the sequence of the stories,
and in what context Jesus actually said something.
So, they were editing,
stringing together sayings and events
and creating connections where there may not have been any.
All the time, they were interpreting
and building a narrative to reflect their own beliefs
about Jesus, God, Israel, Rome, and salvation.
The realization is that we only get to see Jesus in a mirror,
never do we get to look upon him directly;
and never do we know for certain, if it ishisvoice
we are listening to, or his voice
filtered through somebody else’s.
Then on top of that,
even to get to the mirror,
we have to dig and scrape through all that historical topsoil,
and sift through all the historical context
that came before the mirror.
So there comes a moment for many seminarians,
usually in the first or second semester,
when the surge of passion that delivered him or her
to seminary in the first place,
is suddenly quieted.
In the stillness comes an uncertainty
and confusion, and
questioning about what can we know.
And yet, con-current with that rattled insecurity,
is shock and awe about the heartbeat
that is nonetheless in the text.
When the innocence is shattering,
and the cheap confidence is becoming unglued,
there is also an encounter with the text.
are parallels, insights,
so eloquent and profound
that the seminarian’s grief over what has been lost
is buffeted by the presence and echoes
of things not yet understood.
The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.
“The Dove that Ventures Outside” by Rainer Maria Rilke
As Rainer Maria Rilke writes,
the ball that we dared to throw into infinite space
returns heavier by the weight of where it has been.
What I am unsuccessfully trying to describe is a loss
and the heart won-back from that loss.
So, for example, three kings.
It is the best story of Christmas, filled
with powerful images for the imagination.
It is so evocative that myths ancient and modern,
including the Star Wars saga,
are rooted in it.
But as an historical moment
it unravels when we begin to see that Matthew
has carefully constructed a narrative
in which Jesus is the new Moses.
Pharaoh slaughters the first-born boys of the Hebrews
and Herod slaughters the first-born of Judah.
Moses is saved from the slaughter and so is Jesus.
Moses brings the children of Israel out of Egypt,
and Joseph takes Jesus into Egypt
so that it can be said he came out of Egypt too.
There are five books of Moses,
and Matthew has the five discourses of Jesus.
When we dig into it, the parallel Matthew creates
between Moses and Jesus,
beginning with several details of the three king’s story,
makes it clear there is no coincidence about it.
Rather, Matthew has created a narrative
to convince his contemporaries
that Jesus is the new Moses.
It is all the more startling
when we compare how different Matthew’s narrative
is from Luke’s, Mark’s, and John’s.
Each editor constructed his story,
with the Jesus stories and sayings he had on hand,
to paint a bigger picture about Jesus
and to make his own theological point
the dominant one among his contemporaries.
As I said, at first this realization is disconcerting.
Even if one enters seminary with little knowledge of the bible –
which I confess was true for me –
the obvious narrative construction
and theological agendas
poking out of the Gospels
But then, so are the deep truths those narratives tell.
Take the three king’s story, again.
What are we to hear in it?
Well, in this beginning of the Jesus story
we hear a truth that echoes all the way to the cross:
Human beings resent God,
and we will seek to destroy any effort to limit our control
even if it means killing God.
Where the power of God
is its simple presence among us,
human power is wielded with coercion,
and we will attempt to coerce anyone
that threatens our hold on power.
We see that at the kingdom-level all the time,
from those who hold authority in government and business.
But tragically, we can also see it at the micro level
within our own households
from time to time.
The truth of the three king’s story
is that, while we sing and worship and proclaim
our love of God,
if given the chance,
we are more likely than not
to kill God.
It is right there in the three king’s story.
And it is right there in the Moses story.
And it is right there all the way through the text,
from Genesis to Matthew.
This horrible truth,
in which we lose innocence about who we are
as well as understand that God knows who we are,
is there in the text with unvarnished honesty.
When we encounter it,
and the many other astounding truths
which call to us from out of the text –
some of which we are much more pleased to receive –
it is unnerving
and ultimately, amazing
We lose innocence and magical thinking
as we encounter the text this way,
but our won-back hearts
with much more weight in return.
Part of the fear and trembling
that rises up within seminarians,
is what will happen
if we are honest about all this
with people like you?
The party line
and conventional wisdom
is that we should not preach with such honesty.
We should not de-mythologize the bible
for fear that the laity
will either lose their faith
or string us up.
I have had a different experience.
While there is loss and struggle,
grief and even anger,
there is also the possibility
of the won-back heart
that receives something in return
with much greater weight.
The secular culture
has already undercut the authority of the text,
and we have known for many years
that what we were taught as children…
well, it was for children.
So doing the work,
and creating a space in which we can be honest
with our questions and doubts,
and openly ponder new directions for our faith,
It is not for everyone,
but for those who find it liberating,
it can be powerful.
So, while I cannot stand up here
and tell you the three king’s story is historically accurate –
that it happened just that way –
I can tell you that it holds truth,
and the truth it holds will shake us to the core.
But all of what I have been saying about
this story in particular,
and the bible in general,
is a metaphor for the doves that dare
to fly the coop
and soar into the great adventures.
We’ve done that here, you know,
and are doing it
through our community at Trinity Place.
Yes, there is loss, but the won-back heart
that throws itself into infinite space,
returns with the weight of more wisdom and hope
than it left with.
Welcome to the season of Epiphany.