Monday, December 23, 2013

On the economic debate raging behind a Christmas classic

Never mind that the author makes the common mistake of confusing the spelling of "etymologist" and "entomologist," this is a very salient angle on the economics underlying Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Would that the design of the RCL and the committee that designed it were more inclusive

In light of the comments Steve Thorngate's recent article in The Christian Century has generated from those defending the RCL, a couple of thoughts spring to mind: 

(1) The insistence that RCL has a specifically eucharistic aim does not square with a theology of Scripture that views the whole of the written revelation as nourishment for the people of God (which is the point I am driving at in Chapter 3 of Year D); in other words, we should ask, what makes a text sufficiently eucharistic? A proper answer should recognize the broader sense in which the word of God as such is life giving when it is preached in such a way that leads us to Christ, but the selectivity of RCL does not evince such an inclusive theology of the word.

(2) One wonders if the composition of the Consultation on Common Texts over the years is, or has been, part of the problem. From its own website, the consultation is described as: "an ecumenical consultation of liturgical scholars and denominational representatives from the United States and Canada, who produce liturgical texts for common use by North American Christian churches." My question is this: Where are the Bible scholars, the systematic theologians, the church historians (other than liturgical historians), the ethicists, the pastoral counselors, the evangelists, the missiologists, the Christian educators, and the homileticians? Would the broader church be satisfied with a calendar of readings designed by a committee composed of denominational leaders and a group of experts chosen solely from one of these other disciplines, say, Old Testament scholars? No. Why should they? So—I say this as one who teaches worship and produces liturgical texts—what the CCT can boast in terms of ecumenical inclusiveness does not seem to be matched by a corresponding inclusiveness where different fields of study are concerned. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Twenty-three-years ago today ...

I went in to the studio (Woodland West) to record this track, " … And They Were Given Seven Trumpets."

The rest of the album was recorded in two additional sessions, though I don't remember the exact dates. For more on this track, see the background comments at the link.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Friday, November 29, 2013

Second highest month of traffic

With another day and half to go in the month of November 2013, The Year D Project has registered the highest traffic figures for any month since its inception. (Now, if only the zombies, vampires, and other stat robots would bug off, the numbers might be more meaningful and worth sharing.) 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Micah 7:1–20

(vv. 1–7). Jesus quotes Micah's closing lament (7:1–20; see. v. 6) in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 10:21; Mark 13:12; Luke 12:53) to warn of a time when the most intimate and trusted family relationships will have broken down. In the context of the gospels, this constitutes a prophecy of division and persecution in apocalyptic times for Jesus' missionary followers. For Micah, it is a result of the total corruption of the people, the disappearance of the faithful (7:2), the refusal to bear the "summer fruit" of repentance (7:1), and the utter predation and perversion of justice by those in authority. The first four verses read like a dystopian nightmare (in the vein of Psalm 12) while the closing phrase of v. 4 — "now their confusion is at hand" — captions the imperatives of v. 5 and the reasons given for them in v. 6. In short, their confusion results from the fact that the corruption is now so pervasive it undermines even those relationships assumed to be most friendly and safe. The corrupt can trust no one, neither friend nor loved one, neither wife nor mistress (v. 5); their very households are full of enemies (v. 6).

In contrast to this thoroughgoing depravity, the prophet sets himself and the LORD apart: "But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me" (v. 7). It is a revolutionary resolution, a song of trust that, though brief, comes as no small relief and offers strong assurance: there is One who is still supremely and uniquely worthy of faith, sure to hear, and mighty to save!

(vv. 8–10). In setting himself apart from the depravity, violence, and injustice of his enemies, however, the prophet does not claim to be without sin. Rather, he confesses, "I must bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him" (v. 9a); nevertheless, he qualifies this, for he knows that his suffering will be temporary; that is, "until he takes my side, and executes judgment for me" (v. 9b). For this reason, the prophet cautions his enemy: "Do not rejoice over me" (v. 8a). But his confidence is no triumphant self-confidence; it is a testimony of faith in the LORD: "when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me" (v. 8b); "he will bring me out to the light; I shall see his vindication" (v. 9b). Clearly it is not the prophet's own vindication that is sought, but that of the LORD. The prophet's faith and hope is placed in the one—in the holy One—rather than in himself.

The fact that the LORD's vindication is at stake becomes even clearer in the next verse, where it is revealed that the last minute recognition and the shame of the enemy will come at the very moment of the enemy's downfall, who had taunted Micah: "Where is the LORD your God?" (v. 10) Who is this singular feminine enemy? One possible reading (e.g., NIV) suggests this whole portion is a song of Zion, thus, Micah's repentance vicariously embodies that of the city whose downfall he earlier predicted (3:12). In other words, "my enemy" is a conglomeration of other nations allied against Zion. If so, the singular representation of a plural entity goes unresolved, not only with respect to the enemy or enemies but also with respect to the repentant prophet who waits for the LORD on behalf of an unrepentant and pluralistic society.

On the other hand, it is possible that Micah is testifying, like Jeremiah, against the corruption of the city herself. It is just possible that corrupt Zion is the enemy, while the prophet speaks solely for a righteous remnant within. Neither interpretation conflicts with the rising hoped for here or the expansive restoration forecast in what follows (v. 11ff.). The former would signify more clearly the intercessory grace of Christ on behalf of those lost in darkness (cf. Isaiah 9), while the latter would serve to narrow the focus on the significance of Micah's ministry for Jeremiah and his time (Jeremiah 26:20). Either way, the focus takes on a particular acuity: on vicarious repentance and intercession, or on the singular uniqueness of true faithfulness; by either route, we are soon led to "the light" of the LORD (Micah 7:8, 9), Jesus Christ.

(vv. 11–13). With the defeat of the enemy, the prophet envisions a restoration that begins thus: "A day for the building of your walls!" (v. 11a) The image is not restrictive though, since the new walls will mark a vastly expanded territory that includes former enemies, Egypt and Assyria, and encompasses a busy, vibrant zone in which people travel freely "from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain" (v. 12). People shall be drawn to the large, safe, and prosperous nation from north and south, but the rest of the earth beyond its expanded walls "will be desolate;" and this desperate state will be the direct result, "the fruit," of the conduct of those—it would seem fair and even tautological to say, anti-Zionist—entities that are hostile to Israel.

(vv. 14–17). This section unfolds in two contrasting thoughts: an invocation of Israel's divine shepherd, and a prophecy of the response of the nations put to shame. First, the prophet appeals directly to the LORD, asking him to "shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you ..." (v. 14a). The setting for this pastorale is described nostalgically. The flock "lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land," suggesting a peaceful, intimate existence with her shepherd, where she may "feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old" (v. 14b). Yet, the prophet's pastoral vision is neither drowsy nor dull: "Show us marvelous things," he asks, such as the mighty things the LORD did when he led Israel "out of the land of Egypt" (v. 15). In other words, such prosperity and security as Israel will enjoy in the garden with her shepherd-king will not be without marvel, miracle, drama, or spectacle. But she will nevertheless be secure.

By contrast, "the nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might." This phrase suggests two things: (1) all their might, the totality of the worldly forces arrayed against Israel will have been imposing indeed, compared to Israel's physical and military means of defense, but this overwhelming force will itself appear shamefully minuscule and ineffectual compared to the incomparable rod and "staff" of the LORD (v. 14a; cf. Psalm 23:4); shamefully minuscule and shamefully cruel and corrupt, for "they shall lay their hands on their mouth; their ears shall be deaf" (v. 16). The roar of war will have cost them their hearing; its terrible toll will render them speechless; yet it is also clear from what has gone before (v. 13) that its deadly results will have been reflexive. The nations shall have unleashed this hell, directed at Israel, upon them themselves—the ultimate backfire. Therefore, when the nations "come trembling out of their fortresses" to "turn in dread to the LORD our God," they shall come groveling on their bellies, licking the "dust like a snake; like the crawling things of the earth" (v. 16).

The final word is directed once again to the LORD: "they shall stand in fear of you" (v. 17). We should notice not only the victorious certainty that the LORD shall be held in awe and reverence by those once hostile to him and his people, but also the change in the posture of these conquered and subdued enemies. They have slithered from their strongholds, senseless, at their defeat; but as they "turn" or "turn in fear" to the LORD—as they repent!—they find themselves no longer slithering, but standing! And in this redemptive situation, the stage is set for the final, climactic song of adoration and assurance, with which this chapter, and the book of Micah itself, closes.

(vv. 18–20). In the final song, the prophet expresses wonder to God at his forgiving nature (v. 18a); assures God's people (with third person reference to God) of God's merciful and compassionate intentions (vv. 18b–19a); and turns to address God (once again in the second person) with the conviction that God will act in faithfulness (in accordance with his sworn promise to the patriarchs) to finally separate the people from their sins (vv. 19a–20).

"Who is like you?" Micah asks. But the cause of the prophet's wonder is not, in this instance, the incomparable power of God, but his "pardoning iniquity, and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession" (v. 18a). Beneath and behind the very notion of iniquity and transgression is the assumption that such sinful and unholy things, in the presence of the holy God, inevitably invite a volatile confrontation, a clash of qualitative opposites that can only result in a destructive explosion of divine anger. But here it is God's restraint of his power, not his power itself, that the prophet finds astonishing.

Such anger as we might have expected, we are told, is only ever temporary: "he does not retain his anger forever" (v. 18b);) but even more wonderful is the reason given for this reminder of what the psalmists have sung for generations (see, e.g., Psalm 103:9): "because he delights in showing clemency" (v. 18b). God's is no begrudging, teeth-grinding, fist-clenching forgiveness. His compassion and mercy are wholehearted and utterly good-willed, and the prophet assures us we will know them in future when "he will tread our iniquities under foot." Such a trampling action is reserved for the iniquities, not the iniquitous, and while the cynical world often objects to hearing the formulaic claim that "God loves the sinner but hates the sin," here, in this clear dramatization of the truth that persists despite all protestations, we gain the sense that God's hatred of sin, and of the power of sin, derives from what it does to his beloved. His trampling of iniquities, and the promise that he shall "cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (v. 19b), suggests that God regards them with revulsion, not because they are part of our nature, but because they are contrary to the nature of Christ; they are enemy invaders, spoilers, perversions of our intended nature. We would not say, "God loves you and he loves your cancer, your addiction, your uncontrollable anger, too." If the cancer of sin, the self-destructive addiction, the murderous rage can be removed and life restored, then we can be sure God desires to cast out such enemies. Thus, there is a strong sense here that, as Paul, who identifies death as "the wages of sin" (Romans 6:23), will later say: "the last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1Corinthians 15:26). Of all the enemies that Micah has mentioned in the course of his prophetic service, sin and death are the archenemies and the last to be defeated; but defeated they will be, and most decisively. Such a victory is the sworn promise of God, from the beginning, to the patriarchs (Micah 7:20) who saw it from afar, and to us who know and welcome it in the faith of Jesus Christ, in whom there is no sin whatsoever.

"The Genesis and Purpose of Year D"

My aforementioned article on "The Genesis and Purpose of Year D" is available (in print only) in the new (Winter 2013) issue of The Lutheran Forum

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ezekiel 33:23–33

This is a bleak text that has nothing in particular to do with Christmas Eve, aside from perhaps its bleak setting. Ezekiel, in the twelfth year of Judah's exile in Babylon, has just had news of the fall of Jerusalem. On July 10, 586 BC, the wall was breached; on August 14, the temple was burned; on January 8, 585 BC, a refugee arrived with the news (33:21–22). Soon thereafter, the word of the LORD speaks to Ezekiel regarding the survivors, "the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel" who "keep saying, 'Abraham was one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given to us to possess" (v. 24). Their reasoning is classic collectivism. The individual as such is inferior and subordinate to the group and the needs thereof; therefore, if an individual associated with, or in this case, at the genealogical head of, the group receives some good, the group must therefore be entitled to at least the same, if not a better good. Such thinking is purely quantitative and numerical; its logic is that of the ruling majority or even the mob.

But the word of the LORD to them through Ezekiel introduces the essential qualitative distinction, i.e., holiness, that is entirely missing from their thinking, and the prophecy declared to them is not only that they shall not possess the land (vv. 25–26), but that their numbers shall be drastically reduced by the sword, wild animals, and pestilence, until the land and its mountains are "desolate" and "its proud might shall come to an end" (vv. 27–28).

This devastation has a purpose: "then they shall know that I am the LORD." And the sign that shall make this knowledge clear is the LORD's laying waste the land, owing to "all their abominations that they have committed" (v. 29). What abominations? Each one is an unholy violation of the covenant, of the people themselves, and of the land: eating (raw) meat with its blood; the exaltation and adoration of idols; bloodshed; violent self-rule; adultery; and other unspecified abominations (vv. 25–26).

It requires no great leap of the imagination to recognize that all of these, even in the popular cult of vampirism, are still with us today, some 2700 years later, each one a qualitative departure, from the holy faithfulness that we associate with the single individual Abraham, into the vileness of popular abandon. But the LORD will show the abominable mob what he thinks of their collective claim of their entitlement to the land he promised to Abraham.

But lest you think I have cast this in terms that are too political for one side of the aisle to bear, there is another word from the LORD for those—may we consider them a certain class of biblicists?—who profess to admire and even adore the words of the prophet—esthetically!— especially as his oracles impress with their form and poetic beauty. These are those who are near to the prophet, and even preoccupied with what he has to say; moreover, they even listen to him with the expectation that they shall hear a word "from the LORD" (v. 30). Churchy people, indeed. Yet their attention to his words is restricted to an appreciation of their artistry: "To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it" (v. 32). For them, hearing never turns to heeding; listening never leads to action. "For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain" (v. 31).

It is not entirely clear how they expect to gain from mere listening, but somehow they regard acting on the word as too costly to themselves. There is an innate selfishness about them, an ungenerous and stingy spirit of pretension and hypocrisy. They are connoisseurs and consumers of the word, rather than doers thereof (Romans 2:13; James 1:22–25).

In contrast to both the collectivist and the consumerist crowds, there remains the solitary figure of faithful Abraham to whom the promise of the land, and the promise of a son and heir,  a "seed," was given (Genesis 17:4–8; Galatians 3:15–18). While many attributes of Abraham and Jesus Christ his "seed" may present themselves for consideration at this point, the contrast, in light of this text, is best drawn in terms of the holy faith and the obedience of this unique individual.

To summarize, the aim of any sermon on this text should not be to preach individualism or the individual per se, but to narrow in on the holy obedience of the true heir of Abraham. Neither should it be an austere attack on beauty, form, or the art appreciation that always seems to emerge at Christmas, but a call to the active imitation of Christ the Word, which poetic "doing" is the very substance of discipleship. And that, after all is said and done, is certainly a fitting word for Christmas. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Companion volumes

Pastors, as you know, November is prime planning season for the coming liturgical year; so bear in mind that Year D and Greater Attention are companion volumes for the journey through the unexplored regions of the canon. (I know, Greater Attention was designed to match the Liturgical Elements series, so it may not look like a companion to Year D, but it is!) May the Spirit bless and inspire you as you undertake the study of fresh texts and offer these scriptural nutrients to the body of Christ.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Psalm 110

Christians know Psalm 110 as the psalm quoted in the New Testament more often than any other psalm, although those quotations continually draw on just three of its seven verses (Year D, 75). Of the various ways in which it is put to use, it is perhaps best known by way of the brain teaser with which Jesus finally silences the several parties in the Jerusalem temple complex who take turns challenging his authority with their own doctrinal litmus tests. Taking those several pericopes together as a series of huddles that only result in one failure after another, these encounters are really quite (divinely) comical. The psalm in question is "of David" (according to the superscription), who was inspired by the Holy Spirit (Mark 10:36); hence, Jesus posits that the psalm's authority is indisputable. Who then is the "Lord" who is to be seated in this psalm, the Lord who is clearly differentiated from the David himself (who calls him "my Lord"), and from the "LORD" Yahweh, who addresses this "Lord" and invites him to be seated?

In his question in the Gospels, Jesus associates this Lord with the Messiah; indeed, he well knows it is himself, but for now he keeps what Wm. Wrede termed "the Messianic secret;" he does not declare himself openly, even at this late juncture. What is most interesting about this verse is the sense in which this Messianic Lord is at once enthroned and placed in a passive posture, seated until Yahweh brings about the submission of his enemies. The passive seating and waiting is mentioned in the Gospels during Passion week, the words for inaction and suffering sharing a root, of course, and while this is a royal enthronement psalm, one that predicts a sure victory and vindication of the "Lord," we should never forget, not even at Christmas, what sort of King this suffering Lord is, or what the manner of his victory shall be.

The second verse clearly indicates the expansion of the Davidic King's reign into hostile territory: "Rule in the midst of your foes" (v. 2b), though again, it is the LORD Yahweh who is the active agent in sending out from Zion the royal scepter —"your mighty scepter" — that belongs to the newly enthroned Lord (v. 2a).

The third verse anticipates a future assault, actively led by the Messianic King, on "the holy mountains" (which here must refer to those surrounding Jerusalem or Zion, not Mount Zion itself). Moreover, this verse presupposes two assemblies that are friendly and allied with the King: first, his "forces" which he shall lead in battle, and second, his "people (who) will offer themselves willingly" on that future day (v. 3). The reference to the holy mountains is sufficiently terrestrial to make it clear that these willing people are on earth, anticipating the Lord's reign, but the word "forces" is sufficiently ambiguous and the reference to the seat at Yahweh's right hand is sufficiently heavenly that we have good reason to conclude these forces proceed from heaven itself, the sorts of forces of whom we catch but the barest glimpse or hear a scant whisper from time to time (2Samuel 5:24; 2Kings 6:17; Matthew 26:53).

The promise of "the dew of your youth" doubtless signals fresh energy, vitality, and vigor, and perhaps even a reversal of aging itself — think of the sign given to Hezekiah at his healing: the shadow on the sundial retreating several intervals; from a New Testament perspective, it is almost impossible not to associate the cavernous "womb of the morning" with the quintessential restorative event of Jesus' resurrection from the empty tomb.

The Messianic King is now declared a Priest as well (v. 4), which conflates these roles in a way that is only rarely seen in Scripture. King Saul's priestly act of offering a sacrifice was denounced as rash and cost him dearly; the favored King David was never deemed as priest as such, but his music, his psalms, and his dancing certainly verged on the priestly. More importantly, we see such a positive conflation of these roles in the mysterious character of Melchizedek, "King ... of Salem" and "priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). While the Epistle to the Hebrews bears the primary responsibility for exegeting and explaining the significance of this (at once new, ancient, and eternal) priesthood, here we should simply note the absolute, irreversible, and enduring character of Yahweh's oath: "The LORD has worn and will not change his mind; you are a priest forever ..." (v. 4).

Thus far (vv. 1–4), the use of the second person pronoun "you" has referred to the Messianic Priest-King, the "Lord" who is seated at the LORD's right hand. In what remains of the psalm, however, the Messianic Lord is mentioned solely in the third person. The reference is to "The Lord," followed by five nominative occurrences of the indefinite pronoun "he." Now that the Lord is discussed as "he," however, rather than addressed as "you," the first statement of this closing section begs the question: Who is now playing the role of the second person in this phrase: "The Lord is at your right hand"? The reference to "your right hand" would seem to suggest the Messianic Priest-King has taken the seat offered him by the LORD Yahweh, and thus it is now the LORD Yahweh who is being addressed. There is certainly nothing to prevent such an interpretation.

Another possibility, however, which is additive, not exclusive, is that "you," the reader or the listener or the gathered assembly — though the pronoun is in the singular — are being assured that the Lord (let us identify him clearly as the Christ) is at your right hand, in the same way that David the psalmist claims elsewhere of Yahweh: "I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved" (Psalm 16:8); or as the psalmist Asaph says to Elohim: "I am continually with you; you hold my right hand" (Psalm 73:23).

Such a reading, at once doxological and pastoral, would situate the Messianic Lord in between the LORD Yahweh and the individual, singular reader or listener, with the implication that all the fearsome actions he will in future undertake will be executed on behalf of both parties, namely, the Sovereign LORD (whose sovereignty is vindicated by the shattering of lesser kings and of "heads over the wide earth") and the adherent who stands hard by the Lord's right hand and keeps the Lord at his own. For in every respect, the right hand position indicates loyalty, allegiance, faith, and trust, in contrast to the "sinistral" left hand position, and in that (right) attitude, the adherent is assured of safety, unlike the enemies (v. 1), the "corpses," and the shattered heads (v. 6) that will pile up under the Lord's executive judgment.

The final verse is by most accounts obscure, but is nevertheless undeniably pastoral (especially in contrast to the head-knocking that has gone before). The image of the Lord drinking "from the stream by the path" suggests: (1) refreshment after the exertion of a hard fought victory; (2) a final satisfaction of the longing for the presence of the LORD—as that of a deer thirsting for flowing streams (Psalm 42:1); (3) that the clunking of principal, presidential, and prime ministerial heads will reflect the efficiency of Gideon's army, the three hundred who lapped like dogs and routed the entire Midianite army, and will therefore glorify the LORD for his decisive role in the victory; and finally, (4) that the dreadful image of the nations being filled with corpses will not so befoul this stream as to put the Lord off drinking from it. On the contrary, this refreshing image suggests an actual purifying of the environment by the means of the Lord's judgment, rather than its desolation or pollution.

"Therefore, he will lift up his head" (v. 7). In the New Testament, the Messiah directs his disciples to lift up their heads when they see the signs of his coming, "for your redemption draws near." The   is certainly suggested here in this erect and expectant posture, but clearly, if this phrase is to be read positively, it is the lifting up of the Lord's head—let us say, his coronation to complete his enthronement (v. 1)—that is in view. In short, it is from his exaltation, from his rest and refreshment, from his victory that ours shall arise. In preaching this psalm at Christmas, let us proclaim that very coronation!

On the other hand, a similar phrase is used in the Joseph narrative regarding both the happy restoration of Pharaoh's cupbearer to his position of honor (Gen 40:13) and of the terrible end that will meet Pharoah's baker (40:19). In the unlikely event the phrase used here at the conclusion of the psalm is to be read negatively, as an extension of the previous prophecies of the vanquishing of the Lord's enemies, then we may need to look even beyond the Reformed canon to that wonderful Psalm 151 that lies "outside the number" in the LXX and recall David's victory over the blaspheming Goliath, an episode that reads like a typological postscript to not only the Psalter but to revelation—and Revelation—itself.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Two theses for Reformation Day

For the record, I never campaigned or even discussed with the editors of The Presbyterian Outlook (October 31, 2011) or The Christian Century (October 30, 2013) the issue dates in which their respective articles discussing Year D were to appear, but since both saw fit independently to publish them on or about Reformation Day, let me inch out onto the limb provided, the limb being the barest suggestion that I am somehow more than a mere "dabbler in reform" — stepping very lightly, indeed — and venture, with due respect to Luther whose 95 theses we might round up to an even buck, my own two cents in the form of two (ecclesial) theses. Here they are:

(1) Jesus Christ, both incarnate and risen, is an ambidextrous biped. He lacked nothing anatomically in his earthly ministry; he walked along the road to Emmaus on both feet and used both hands to break the bread. By extension, the church as the body of Christ is also an ambidextrous biped. It has, and is meant to have, a fully functioning left and a fully functioning right. Therefore, the continual repudiation of one half by the other is completely out of place, completely lacking any basis in scripture, and should be curtailed. In other words, knock it off.

(2) While the heart, anatomically located on the port, larboard, or sinistral side of the body, is traditionally associated with love, thereby claiming a certain predominance when it comes to compassion—although the scriptural and etymological roots of the idea of compassion have less to do with left and right per se, and more to do with the lower, largely (though not entirely) symmetrical regions of the womb, bowels, and guts—wisdom, by contrast, is granted marginal predominance (again, in terms of the heart) by virtue of this much neglected saying from the Solomonic wisdom tradition: "The heart of the wise inclines to the right, the heart of the fool to the left" (Ecclesiastes 10:2). While that is not a verse to bring an end to all discussion, it should at least serve to give the leftist pause and invite him or her to a bit more humility. Therefore, much as one may mock a conservative situation in the body of Christ or a conservative orientation to the Christian life as "stupid," such mockery does not even begin to deal with the genuine wisdom to be perceived from that angle; on the contrary, it reveals the projection of one's own lack of wisdom. Likewise, much as one may be inclined to dismiss all liberality or social concern for the poor and oppressed as godlessly socialist, etc. (again, I am concerned here with the actual body of Christ, not that which is in reality beyond the bounds of the baptized, confessional, and practicing church of disciples), to do so is to clearly depart from that which Jesus both taught and did, as well as that which was unanimously affirmed by all of the apostles (Gal 2:10), those who on other matters famously disagreed (for a time), such as the role of circumcision (Acts 15); on this matter, however, they were of one accord, for the care for the poor is absolutely a distinctive and essential characteristic of the true body of Christ. Let us be governed by this (Year D) verse: "Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?" (Rom 14:4a). And let us agree that how to best care for the poor is the question, not whether to do so.

If I may attach a sub-thesis here, I would suggest we consider: (1) those who have suffered the trauma of amputation or the loss of the use of a limb due to stroke or injury, and (2) the neurological fact that the left side of the body is governed by the right brain, and the right by the left, and therefore give thanks to God for, and honor, those who dwell and function on the opposite side of the body of Christ from ourselves, those whose functioning and perspective reflect, match, and balance our own, lending co-ordination — now, there is a word for you! — to the whole.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Christian Century interviews Dr. Dan Mayes on Year D

This is a very instructive and illuminating interview. Thanks to Dan Mayes and Steve Thorngate of the Christian Century for publishing this helpful conversation. Great stuff!

Friday, October 18, 2013

A note on Year D's Old Testament and alternative gospel lections

I think a reply to Steve Thorngate may be in order where the Old Testament selections in Year D are concerned. By conceding that a greater degree of subjectivity may well be involved in making these selections, I simply meant that this is an inevitable result of having to work from a much broader field of possibilities as we find in the larger testament. I did not mean to suggest these were purely subjective selections. Readers should not overlook the textual evidence of literary and thematic connections between Old and New Testament passages that I have identified and enumerated in Chapter 4.

Perhaps I should also add that, in suggesting a fresh body of gospel texts, other than the familiar and well used narratives, for the high holy days, I am not suggesting the preacher neglect the story, but that these alternative texts can lend a new revelatory angle on the familiar story that, owing to the occasion, is (for many people) already in mind. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Year D featured in The Christian Century

Check out this substantial piece by Steve Thorngate over at The Christian Century on lectionary expansion proposals. He gives a good bit of space to Year D, the Narrative Lectionary, and the African American Lectionary. It's a major article that took a good bit of time and labor to pull together. I'm grateful to Steve for the write up (despite some of the finer points on which we may disagree).

UPDATE: I was sorry to see Steve's piece made no mention of David Ackerman's book, my review of which can be found here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: But now I see David's book is mentioned along with a number of related sources in the bibliography, "A Wealth of Lectionaries," that Steve attached to his article.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Psalm 41

The Psalm assigned for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time is Psalm 41, for its associations with the Last Supper, the gospel accounts of which are suggested for World Communion Sunday. The opening section of this psalm (vv. 1–3) asserts in general terms that the LORD blesses, delivers, protects, keeps, preserves, sustains, and heals "those who consider the poor." Such merciful people "are called happy in the land" (v. 2), for despite the many troubles from which the LORD preserves them, the assumption is that they will face them for a time — yes, they will have troubles, they will have enemies, they will fall ill on occasion — but the LORD will ultimately guard them and show them favor, and they will enjoy a good reputation as those who are so blessed.

With the phrase, "As for me ... " (v. 4), the psalm takes a decidedly specific and personal turn, and the focus remains on the psalmist and his circumstances until the final verse. What is remarkable in this section is the sense in which it is framed between, on the one hand, a plea for gracious healing, the rationale for which is a confession of sin against the LORD (v. 4), and on the other hand, a reiteration of the plea (with the expressed desire to "repay" the psalmist's enemies) attached to a word of self-assurance that the LORD must be "pleased with" the psalmist, and indeed has "upheld (him) because of (his) integrity" (vv. 10–12). The memory of the psalmist's confessed sin has receded entirely, and in fact the assurance is pregnant with eternal significance, for the LORD (sings the psalmist) has "set me in (his) presence forever" (v. 12).

In between the confession and assurance, an extended complaint (vv. 5–8) describes the conduct of the psalmist's enemies who visit him in his illness. What is startling about this description is the psalmist's characterization of the enemies' malice and their inwardly hostile motivations: "their hearts gather mischief" (v. 6), as compared to the description of the enemies' actions, which appear relatively benign and mundane. These enemies, unlike those in other psalms, do not ambush the psalmist or seek to murder him, but they simply wonder when he will die; their attempts at comforting words are "empty" and they go away gossiping. Their hostile actions consist of "thinking" the psalmist will soon expire (v. 8), of spreading the news of his condition "abroad" (v. 6) — no doubt in unduly pessimistic terms — and of whispering together: the kind of thing that occurs all the time in hospitals and nursing homes. It is even difficult to distinguish some of these actions, externally speaking, from the common practice of sharing concerns among the community of faith. Hence, in light of the sense in which the inward attitude is altogether decisive here, this psalm should stand as a cautionary tale for anyone who renders pastoral care or attends upon the sick.

One closing word of complaint escalates the psalmist's sense of betrayal, since he perceives the same conduct and hostility in his bosom friend who has "lifted his heel against me" (v. 9). This verse is taken up in the New Testament in association with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, as the phrase: "who ate of my bread" (v. 9b) is connected with Jesus' identification of the the one who "dipped his hand into the bowl with me" (Matthew 26:23; par.), an action that connotes a clear lack of respect and deference, or even a brashness akin to that of Esau who exchanges his birthright for some stew. The phrase "lifted the heel against me" clearly signals more than a mere departure, or a turning of one's tail (so to speak), but a traitorous turning away that amounts to permanent renunciation, an irreversible rupture of friendly companionship.

Nevertheless, from all this, the LORD delivers the psalmist such that his assurance is certain, his vindication is declared, his confession is (largely) forgotten, and the psalm ends with a doxological outburst (v. 13), blessing "the LORD, the God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting," and concluding with a double "Amen." Thus ends the first book of the Psalms.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Lutheran Forum

Just sent in an article on Year D to The Lutheran Forum, a print journal (where the current issue has a feature piece on "St. Søren Kierkegaard"). Thanks to Sarah Wilson for the invitation to contribute and place the prospect of lectionary expansion before our Lutheran brothers and sisters. I'll let you know when the article hits the press. Meanwhile, thanks be to God for each opportunity and each new denominational communion that is willing to consider including more of the written revelation in the preaching of the church, "that the Word of God may be fully known." 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Year D gains a hearing at a recent gathering of pastors of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

"Year D: An Adventurous Year in Preaching and Worship,” at the Christian Church in the Upper Midwest, School for Congregational Learning; West Des Moines Christian Church; September 7, 2013. (Thanks to UDTS alumnus the Rev. Dr. Dan Mayes for the invitation, the logistical arrangements, the hospitality, and the picture.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Barbara Holmes named President of UTSTC

I was glad to see this news from our friends in the UCC. Barbara Holmes is the new President of the United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities. In addition to her many administrative and scholarly gifts, she is a wonderful — and I mean wonderful — preacher.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Authoritarian vs. Libertarian

Matt Drudge's tweet seems to echo, albeit very briefly, this lengthy but immensely important essay by Angelo Codevilla from 2010.

Remember class, ...

"banning homeschooling teaches tolerance of diverse views.” From this analysis by Michael Leeden, the Orwellian brainwashing would seem to have reached the final spin cycle.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Phenomenal Llama

OK, this has nothing to do with Year D, but it does — in the end — have something to do with worship. No, the fantastical elements in this story will not be found in Year D, or even in the biblical canon, but if you can bear with a bit of absurdity in the spirit of Christmas, perhaps you will enjoy my new book, beautifully illustrated by artist Danielle Baudouin.

Available at CreateSpace:

A Phenomenal Llama: A Tall Christmas Tale for Children of All Ages

On Amazon:

and Kindle:


And make sure to visit, "like," and "share" Gregory's FB page. (It's time to put this reindeer thing to rest, isn't it?)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

First review of Greater Attention

Evidently as I was posting a review of David Ackerman's Beyond the Lectionary the other day (see below), David was busy reviewing Greater Attention over at Amazon

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Singing the Lectionary ... Year D!

Natalie Sims, the Lectionary Singer from down under, has linked to The Year D Project on her index, and as the slate is clean at this point, this would appear to be an opportune moment to chime in with your musical suggestions, either here, in the comments related to the Sunday in question, or by dropping her a line. Check out her website at the link (above and at the lower right).

Welcome, Natalie! And thanks for the link!

UPDATE: For those who may be interested in attacking the problem systematically, there is no better place to start than the Index of Lections. How many of these texts appear in the Scripture Indices of old hymnals and songbooks? Are any newer hymns, spirituals, "praise and worship" songs, or choral anthems rooted in these texts? Or if you are feeling really adventurous, how about setting yourself the challenge of writing and singing a new song to sing to the Lord based on these texts? Here is fresh inspiration for composers, arrangers, and songwriters. Go for it!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Beyond the Lectionary

In the front matter to Year D, I noted the evidence that the Spirit seems to be inspiring lectionary expansion on several fronts. Not long after Year D appeared, I learned of another one: David Ackerman's volume, Beyond the Lectionary, which was published earlier this summer on Circle Books.

Paperback:      On Kindle: 

There are a number of admirable attributes to Ackerman's proposal that bear mentioning. His appreciation for the strengths of the lectionary evinces a genuine fondness based on substantial experience with it over many years, indeed, many triennial cycles. One also admires his crisp and succinct case for moving beyond the lectionary's confines. Ackerman has done us the service of crunching the numbers and they are revealing: the RCL covers about a quarter of the Bible, but misses three-quarters. Yet, Ackerman's selection of texts, covering an additional seven percent or so, aims at qualitative precision, rather than quantitative coverage. While my aim in Year D is perhaps more suggestive, with a view to placing more possibilities on the desk and leaving the final cut to the preacher, Ackerman goes the extra mile, and draws the lines finely. 

Ackerman also shows, as I have tried to do, sensitivity to the liturgical season, and while his selections are arranged with a view to both "continuity" and (harmonious) "complementarity," one discerns a somewhat greater emphasis on the latter than the former. This perception is admittedly comparative; one does not, for instance, encounter such continuous arrangements of material as I have proposed for treating, e.g., Hebrews, the apocalyptic discourse, and the passion narratives. On the other hand, Ackerman's assignment of John 7–8 to Proper 14 through 23 leaps out as an example of both principles at work: continuity (despite the insoluble textual pickle of the woman caught in adultery) and thematic harmony (Ackerman's judgment in placing these chapters in closer seasonal proximity to the Festival of Booths than I have done is quite appropriate). One must further appreciate Ackerman's good sense solution to the problem presented by Christmas Eve, namely, what to read when all the nativity texts have been used. His wise answer: stick with Luke 2:1-20. 

Other dimensions of Ackerman's proposal are also inviting. His pairing of Daniel and Revelation in Advent and Reign of Christ, for example, shows a certain insistent and commendable pluck where the mainline seems to have almost washed its hands of this literature. Above all, however, is the devotional tone and structure of the book that renders it a welcome and pastoral source of nurture and inspiration for the lay reader and the preacher alike. 

As for points of critique, the main thing that Beyond the Lectionary lacks is a scripture index, which would add greatly to the utility of this helpful resource. While one appreciates the care with which Ackerman has targeted his selections, the quantitative question awaits a more comprehensive solution. How would he apply his careful, pastoral, devotional approach to the remaining two-thirds of the canon? The question should not detract from his worthwhile contribution, but simply clarify the fact that there remains much work to be done and ample material with which to do it. The canonical zone beyond the lectionary is a field of buried treasure, a promising source of spiritual and ecclesial renewal. It is both a delight and an encouragement to have David Ackerman as a co-laborer in this propitious field. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Heroes should be expelled from Sunday School

This article on what is wrong with Sunday school is getting a number of thumbs up (over in the FaceBook department) from a number of folks who should know.

As I understand it (leaning once again on Kierkegaard's stages of life) the category of the "hero(ine)" belongs to the lower spheres, primarily to (1) esthetics, where art, poetics, myth, etc., find a home; occasionally, making forays into (2) the ethical sphere where the hero's action imparts a "moral" example of good conduct; in the hands of blurry syncretists like Joseph Campbell, the heroic is inserted gratuitously into (3) the sphere of the (pagan) religious. But without question, the category of the heroic is altogether foreign to the paradoxical religious (i.e., Christianity) where one must die to be reborn, not just get up again after having one's lights punched out by the "villain," and then giving him what for; and where salvation comes by way of — not the "justice league" — but "a perversion of justice" (Is 53:8) which God willingly suffers in order to rectify and redeem a depraved human race and bring about a new creation in the God-man.

That's my take, anyway. Stick with Jesus.

Monday, July 22, 2013

If I were a distance student today ...

The Kindle Paperwhite is getting awfully good reviews, as both better for reading and less expensive than iPad.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Status Report and a Prayer of Dedication for 8th Ordinary/Proper 3 [Year A]

If Year D readers have noticed a lull of late, this is due to the fact that I am working on completing the final (but first) volume in the LERW series (for RCL, Year A), and have little time left in which to do it before the maelstrom of another school year is upon us. Once this series is complete, I hope to return to more commentary on Year D, but I admit am unlikely to do so in time to be of service to anyone plugging through the Apocalyptic discourse, etc.,  this time around. (One of the reasons I dubbed this a project is because I knew it would take a long time, and so it is!)

Meanwhile, here is a sample Prayer of Dedication for you, based on Matthew 6:25-34 (8th Ordinary/Proper 3; Year A). I realize it is out of sequence, but if perhaps you have some reason (in this Kierkegaard bicentennial year, perhaps?) to mention the lilies and the birds, you may find it useful. [And yes, the intended word is "glistering," not glistening. The phrase "glistering in our midst" had a familiar ring to it, but, lo and behold, Google has never heard of it, so for now I can only assume its familiarity has intersected my train of thought, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, from the future, not the past.]

Prayer of Dedication
Heavenly Father, what glory you show through your simple creatures! As you feed the birds of the air from your plentiful creation, as you nurture the lilies with water, soil, and sun, so we know that you care for us, and we trust in you wholeheartedly who are most to be trusted. Receive, therefore, what infidelity and anxiety would have us hoard, and reveal your righteous kingdom, glistering in our midst, wherein all of our needs are met in abundance.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Not since the 1870s has the NYT shown any serious interest in lectionaries

So I was thinking (stupidly), what are the odds that the religion section of the New York Times might review Year D or Greater Attention? (OK, I'll give you a few minutes to laugh and then stop. ... No, really, please stop.) Having searched their database going back to 1851, I found a whopping ten (10) articles in which the word "lectionary" appears, i.e., over the course of 162 years. Five (5) — a full half — of these articles date from the 1870s, four (4) from the early 1980s, and one (1) from 1970. In other words, not a single article ever mentions the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), though one will have mentioned the introduction of the Roman Lectionary, and a handful the Common Lectionary. The results from a search of the NYT Review of Books since 1981 is even more underwhelming. So, needless to say, when it comes to the likelihood they would be interested in reviewing a proposed expansion of the RCL and some attendant liturgical elements, ... I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Not giving in to The Peter Principle.

Sorry. I can't help it. When Heaven Stands Open, LERW, Year B, is currently #10 on Amazon's list of Worship titles in Kindle format. #12, please note, is a title by a guy who until recently was pope.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The church sees a greater one-year increase in trust than all but one other institution

And (according to Gallup), that one is ... banks? That's weird. Still a four-point bump for the church is not insignificant.

[As a side-note, I'm not really into all the headline-grabbing hating-on-Congress thing, since the body is virtually always split along partisan lines, there is often a power split between the two houses, and whether or not your political home team has the greater leverage at any given moment, the media are always encouraging you to direct your hatred toward someone. In short, that Congress is "the most hated" is one of those things that seems to be pretty much constant. No news there.]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Greater Attention (LERW-D) enters Amazon's airspace

Dear Year D Readers:

Greater Attention: Liturgical Elements for Reformed Worship, Year D, is now available for purchase on Amazon. This fourth volume in the LERW series (and the second to be released, with an official publication date of May 21, 2013) consists of the liturgical elements I have been posting (and reposting on a rotating basis) here since early 2010 or thereabouts to support the use of Year D texts in worship.

As is to be expected in the blog-to-book conversion process, one result of its availability in both print and e-book format (e-book will be available shortly) is that the material that has been freely available here for several years will now be taken down. For those of you who are currently using Year D from week to week, I will leave a few weeks' worth of material (and the occasional sample) up so as to allow for a reasonable shipping interval (which is of course immediate where e-book versions are concerned).

Many heartfelt thanks for your use of this liturgical material. Let me encourage you to add this latest volume to your worship resources, and keep spreading the word about Year D!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Discounts on Year D are available for bulk purchases

(BUMPED) By the way, a discount code is available for orders placed with the publisher on bulk purchases of 10 or more copies of Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement ...  If your lectionary study group, presbytery, conference, session, council, worship planning team, Sunday school class, reading group, or bookstore would like a discount on a large order, e-mail james (at) or tslemmons (at)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Maybe this is why I find the big law bloggers so interesting

One way to look at the criminalization of everything is that the media and the culture (at least as viewed through the lens of science fiction and the libertarian law bloggers) seem to be catching up to theology where the doctrine of total depravity is concerned. (And you thought the church was so hopelessly behind the curve!)  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

$9000 per speaker?

Gee, I don't know what those speakers at the IRS conferences were saying that made them so valuable, but I'd be willing to preach to the tax collectors the gospel of Jesus Christ — the best news of all! — for a lot less than that. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Support Gibson guitars

After you read this, perhaps you — and your praise band? — will be inspired to make your next guitar purchase a Gibson.


Monday, May 20, 2013

On the tax collectors OR Luke 19 can't get here soon enough!

I confess, the IRS scandal is only making it more and more amazing that Jesus was so gracious toward the IRS agents of his day. But we should remember that, in the instructive case of Zacchaeus (the "wee, little man"), Jesus said, "salvation has come to this house, for he too is a son of Abraham," in direct response to the tax man's repentant resolution: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8-9)

Meanwhile, if you need to catch up on this story, tax professor Paul Caron is serving as primary aggregator.

Another law prof, William Jacobson has collected key links (fewer to sort through) at Legal Insurrection.

Among them, Kim Strassel's article demonstrates how open and public has been the process of authorizing the ideological targeting of conservative groups and taxpayers for intimidation, audits, delays in granting tax-exempt status, etc. No smoking gun needed. Nevertheless, ... 

Jeffrey Lord at The American Spectator appears to have detected the smoking gun itself. Read the whole thing, but here is the rub:
"... it will be a curious sight indeed to see the efforts the media will go to ignore/dismiss the tight, on-the-record connection between the President personally and a vociferously anti-Tea Party union. A union that has the literal run of the IRS — and whose union chief is recorded as having met with the President in the White House the day before the IRS launched “a Sensitive Case Report on the Tea Party cases.”
It not only looks bad, it is bad, coming or going, covert or overt, before and after the election, which ever way you slice it. Time for the tax collectors — and the chief executive who "sets the tone" — to take a page from Zacchaeus, the wee, little man.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Think Progress: Media need to take courses in theology

Here is a helpful article in which the author suggests members of the media should take a few courses in theology. I would only add that we who teach in seminaries normally recommend  — as we have done since before Schleiermacher — starting with survey courses on the Bible.

Meanwhile, the admissions page for Dubuque Seminary would be a good place to start.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kierkegaard's Bicentennial OR May the Fifth see you put down Lucas and pick up the great Dane

A friend asked me the other day how best to observe the 200th anniversary of Kierkegaard's birth on May 5, 2013, and my reply was to refer him to the "The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Devotional Discourses." These can be found in Vol. XVIII of Kierkegaard's Writings, entitled Without Authority.

The text (Matthew 6) was a source of endless inspiration for Kierkegaard. So the first series of Christian Discourses, KW, Vol. XVII, is also to be enthusiastically recommended: 

More generally, if you want to know: Will the real Kierkegaard please stand up?  ... the discourses of his second (post-1846) authorship (Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Works of Love, For Self-Examination, Judge For Yourself, etc.), along with his (also late) higher pseudonymous works (Practice in Christianity, and Sickness Unto Death) are by far his most important works. 


And if you don't believe me, read his autobiographical explanation of his authorial/publication strategy in Point of View, and the highly revealing, if not prophetic, footnote, in which he expresses his (necessarily postponed) desire to write on the distinction between Socrates and Jesus Christ, in The Concept of Irony.


The point is simply, as I argued in my dissertation, don't get bedazzled by the early pseudonymous (primarily Socratic) works that have become for so many readers and for most of Kierkegaard scholarship, a sort of philosophical cul-de-sac. Read instead what he wrote when he resolved to pick up his pen once again in order to try and "win men, if possible," (and women, too, of course — many of his most avid readers were women) to Christian faith.

Meanwhile, in the interest of avoiding a similar beguilement, see Chapter 2 in my Groans of the Spirit (not my dissertation, but consisting of some dissertation outtakes) in which I argue by way of a discussion of Kierkegaard and Gadamer for giving pneumatology the priority over hermeneutics in any discussion of biblical interpretation for preaching.