America’s Bible

by Debra Dean Murphy
It’s a little surprising that it took this long but here it is, The American Patriot’s Bible, the latest in a long line of niche-marketed Bibles. (And one that really does take the cake in that literary sub-genre).

A mischievous review at amazon.com strikes just the right tone: incredulous irony. What else can you do but shake your head? Can we hope that the publication is about eight years too late?

Pruning Time

John 15:1-8
(Fifth Sunday of Easter)

My friends, Chuck and Mary, some years ago turned a Henry County, Kentucky, tobacco farm into a vineyard and winery. They grow hay, keep a large vegetable garden and busy themselves with other crops, but wine is the farm’s major product. Recently, my wife and I drove down to visit. The two of us talked with Mary and her mother in a shady spot near the old dairy shed, but Chuck was busy pruning vines. Sweaty and dirty, he called to us from a distance, but there wasn’t time to stop and chat.

Mary told how she used to help Chuck with the pruning, but Chuck’s a perfectionist and prefers to do it alone, his way. Cutting the vine in the right places is an exacting, necessary task. Unpruned, vines grow in wild, unruly ways, exploding with heavy new branches and leaf cascades, but little fruit. Read more

The Good Shepherd

Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-24; John 10:11-18
(Fourth Sunday of Easter)

One problem with the many references to sheep in the Bible is that so few of us have any real contact with these animals. The metaphor is simply lost on us. What does it mean to be compared to sheep? The little we’ve heard or read about them—that they’re not particularly bright—does not endear us to the metaphor.

But here’s the thing about Good Shepherd Sunday: it’s not about sheep at all. It is about a shepherd—the “Good Shepherd”—but even that designation is charged with meanings that can be lost on us.

“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

The life of a shepherd was anything but dreamy or picturesque. Taking care of sheep was dangerous, difficult, tedious work. Shepherds were, as one commentator has said, “rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, ‘I am the good shepherd,’would have been an affront to the religious elite. The claim had an edge to it. A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, ‘I am the good migrant worker.’”* Read more

Resurrection and Torture

Luke 24:36b-48
(Third Sunday of Easter)

Torture may be considered a kind of perverse liturgy, for in torture the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form.” – William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist

The government memos released last week, detailing acts of torture carried out by C.I.A. operatives in the Bush administration, make for interesting reading in light of the gospel narratives’ about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. That human bodies matter is a central truth of the Easter proclamation.

But this is less than obvious in an age when Christians more often associate Easter’s meaning with “the immortality of the soul” than with “the resurrection of the body.” When we spiritualize Easter—when we imagine disembodied souls reuniting with loved ones in heaven—we miss this point about bodies and we also, as Tom Wright has observed, “cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique.” Read more

World Out of Balance

“’Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.’ The Misfit continued, ‘and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.’” (Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)

I don’t understand Easter. I think I stand on firm theological ground saying this. Mysteries are necessarily beyond comprehension, a scandal and embarrassment in a scientific age. It’s far more satisfying to make of mystery a problem to be solved. In “mystery” novels, for instance, a criminal death is explained, ending (generally) with the restoration of justice and order, or at least the order we’ve come to expect in this world, from the things we rely on. Mercy and transformation, which might throw everything off balance, must wait for another day.

Attempts to smooth over the mystery of the Three Days have intellectual and emotional appeal. Liberal Protestantism and the Jesus Seminar restore balance by spiritualizing Easter. “Jesus rose in the disciples’ hearts,” we’re reassured, though his corpse, like any other, rots in the tomb. Orderly minds reject a God who breaks the rules. Read more

Spoilin’ for a Fight

Mark 11:1-11 (John 12:12-16); Psalm 118 (Palm Sunday/Liturgy of the Palms)

In her wonderful autobiography An American Childhood, Annie Dillard fondly recalls her Sunday School days in her parents’ mainline Protestant church. She notes of her introduction to the Bible, “The Bible’s was an unlikely, movie-set world alongside our world. Light-shot and translucent in the pallid Sunday-school watercolors on the walls, stormy and opaque in the dense and staggering texts they read us placidly, week after week, this world interleaved our waking world like a dream.” Read more

This Year in Jerusalem!

I’m back from the Holy Land; tired and exhausted yet inspired, challenged, and eager to share the stories with you. My experience of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was almost overwhelming. Every day, everywhere we went, there were biblical sites, holy sites, and historical sites, piled upon one another and impossible to see them all.

Galilee was beautiful. We were there during the rainy season and everything was green (green by Galilean standards). Standing on the top of the Cliffs of Arbela overlooking the western edge of the Sea of Galilee (which is no more than a modest-sized lake) one can see the very route from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee that Jesus walked. Furthermore, clustered along the lake’s coastline, all within view because they are no more than a few miles from one another are the remains of the villages of Magdala (the home place of Mary Magdalene) and Capernaum. Beyond that, up where the Jordan River runs into the Sea of Galilee, is Bethsaida. All of these villages are easily within walking distances of one another and most all of Jesus’ Galilean ministry happened within these few miles. Read more

Flunking Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-33 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

“I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year.”

Fleming Rutledge writes these words in one of her many fine Holy Week sermons. But they’re my words, too, this week, and perhaps yours also. We’ve flunked Lent. We always do.

But this is not the bad news it may at first appear to be.

When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray Psalm 51 together, asking for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will “create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us.”

And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines—a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need to ourselves and our trivial preoccupations. Read more

For God So Loved the World

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:13-21
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)

With a group of friends, I’m reading a new book entitled Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Written by a Roman Catholic priest–Dominican and Englishman Timothy Radcliffe–and commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his Lent Book for 2009, this text is interesting reading for us American Methodists in the suburban south.

In a chapter on preaching (the book takes in the whole of Word and Table), Radcliffe warns against taming the Bible’s strangeness in the Sunday sermon. “The beauty of the Bible,” he says, “is that it is not clear, simple and unambiguous. Its words are puzzling, intriguing and slippery.” Read more

Asleep at the Wheel

John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Exodus 20:1-17 (Lent 3B)

There is a joke that occasionally passes through pastors’ circles now and again with a bit of light-hearted commentary on the passion (or lack thereof) of worship in a particular pastor’s church. Says one pastor: “My congregation is so dead in worship that if someone were to have a heart attack, when the EMTs arrived they’d wonder to whom they should attend.” Those of us who worship regularly in congregations that bear any resemblance to that description chuckle uneasily at this joke. Yet truth be told, it hits a little too close to home. What has happened to our practice of worship that it has become yet another instance of a religious institution “going through the motions” rather than true, life-shaping (rather than sleep inducing) encounter with the living God? I don’t know about you, but a few cattle and sheep in the narthex of my church might be just the ticket to breaking our somnolence and accommodation to the “way things are” in congregational worship. Read more