Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Superman or Jesus?

Superman was the creation of writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Siegel was an American and Shuster was a Canadian, born in Toronto. They were both children of Jewish immigrants. They were living in Cleveland, Ohio when they began to work together. Their character made its first appearance in Action Comics #1, published in 1938. Superman has been credited with inspiring the whole “super-hero” genre, and is arguably one of the most recognizable American icons.

In my sermon for Sunday, December 27 I spoke about the television series “Smallville”, which focuses on the coming of age of Clark Kent.

This image from “Smallville” vividly demonstrates that the producers are quite aware of parallels between the story of Jesus, and the story of Superman.

Tom Welling, the actor who plays Clark Kent is shown here in a photo from the first episode. Clark Kent has been subjected to a high school “hazing” called “The Scarecrow” that leaves him looking like he has been crucified.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

part two

As I mentioned in the last 5th page, there is no sermon for this week, as the Trinity choir is doing a very nice Christmas Cantata. In the last 5th page I recycled a piece I wrote for the Advent Alphabet letters series last year. Here is the piece that follows it:

On Christmas morning at our house we have a tradition of reading about the birth of Jesus from the Bible before we do anything else. At times it is enough to hear the story again, listen with the heart, and open our spirit to receive God’s gifts. (Then we move on to exploring our stockings, and tearing away at wrapping paper!)

I suggested that you take time to read from Matthew and Luke, and note any differences you saw between them, in their treatments of Jesus’ birth. While there are times to soak in the wonder of the biblical stories- there are also times to use our considerable intellectual gifts.

Both Gospels offer a “genealogy” for Jesus. (Matthew’s is in chapter one, Luke’s is in chapter three) These family trees are very different. One example is that Matthew says Jacob was Jesus’ grandfather, and Luke says it was Heli.

Matthew does not describe the birth of John the Baptist or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. Matthew does not describe Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, or Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat (which is almost certainly lifted straight from Hannah’s song in the Samuel story). Matthew makes no mention of the journey to Bethlehem. There is no Roman census. Jesus is not wrapped in bands of cloth or laid in a manger. There is no inn, no stable, and there are no shepherds or angels (except the angel that appears to Joseph in his dreams). In Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house.

Luke’s story does not include the Magi, or the star. There is no mention of Herod ordering the death of all Hebrew boys under the age of two, and Mary and Joseph do not flee to Egypt with Jesus.

Despite the efforts of pageant directors to “harmonize” these two stories, a close look suggests they are not complimentary tales that each fill in blanks left by the other.

There are some things about which these writers are in agreement. They both say that Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod. Bethlehem was his birthplace, but he grew up in Nazareth. They both present Joseph as the father of Jesus (in fact, the genealogies, though different in detail, demonstrate that as Joseph’s son, Jesus was of the line of King David.) They agree that Mary was the child’s mother, and that his name was Jesus. In both stories an angel announces that this child is destined to be a saviour. (In Luke the angel tells Mary, in Matthew, Joseph is told by an angel in his dream.)

Both gospels say that Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married at the time of Mary’s pregnancy, and that Jesus was born after they began to live together. Both suggest that Mary was a virgin, and that Joseph was not involved in Jesus’ conception- that it was by the Holy Spirit.

What do we do with all of this? Personally, my faith in God, and my passion for following the way of Jesus are not dependent on the reliability of the stories about his birth. If we read the rest of the stories about Jesus, as we have them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are many discrepancies and disagreements. As I have mentioned earlier, I don’t think they were writing history- they were telling stories to teach theology. I am drawn to the meaning of the stories, and the “rightness” of the way that Jesus taught.

Outside of the two Nativity stories, and the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) having a theological discussion with the Temple priests, the Gospel stories are all about Jesus as an adult. (There are fanciful tales about the boy Jesus as a trouble-maker and wonder-worker, but they are not found in the Bible. They are found in documents written much later, that are considered of doubtful authenticity.)

Until the moment that Jesus began his public ministry, and was gathering followers, why would anyone (outside of his family and neighbours) have known about his early life? He was the child of simple, probably illiterate people, from an obscure village in an unimportant province of a small territory of the Roman Empire. Who would have been there to write down the “real story”?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The most wonderful time of the year...

It is probably an indication of the busy-ness of the season, that I have not produced a 5th page for this week. I had an idea, but did not have the time to develop it. There will not be a 5th page next week either, because I am not preaching this Sunday. We are having a Christmas Cantata instead.

In lieu of a proper 5th page, I am going re-present a piece I wrote at this time last year, part of the "Advent Alphabet Letters" series:

S is for story. We love the Nativity stories. As my children love to point out every year in pageant rehearsals, there are two distinct Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke’s stories are often “conflated”. -That is the term scholars use when two stories are fused into one. (So that you end up with the shepherds from Luke and the Magi from Matthew all crowded on the same pageant stage.)

When I lead Bible studies on the nativity stories, people often find it hard to believe that there are significant factual differences in the two stories. The best way to sort that out is to read Matthew chapters one and two, and then read Luke chapter one, and chapter two up to verse 20. Before you do your reading, let me try to address why these two stories are so different.

Both Matthew and Luke were gospels, rather than historical accounts. They were doing theological, rather than journalistic work. Matthew wrote at least 50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke may have been written a little later. They were most likely 2nd generation followers of the Jesus movement- and not amongst the original disciples. (Scholars note that it was common in the ancient world to attach the name of an honoured figure to a religious document- this at the same time was a tribute, and a way to claim some of the stature of the person.)

Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe (perhaps trained in the Jewish religious system), who lived in Syria, and was a Jewish convert to Christianity. Scholars see hints that he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome in the year 70 C.E.

Luke was probably a Gentile who became a follower of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in the ancient greek that was the common language of government and trade in the Roman empire.

Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses to anything they wrote about, certainly and especially not the birth of Jesus. What they were witnesses to, was the effect that Jesus and his ministry had on the people whose lives were touched. They saw the movement of people that grew around the first disciples, and quickly began to spread. They were aware of God at work in human history- of God being with them through Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced the spiritual presence of “the risen Christ”, which they saw as the fulfillment of ancient promises about a Saviour. They were passionate about spreading the “Good News”- the Gospel.

Spreading the Good News is not the same thing as reporting on “the news”. When we try to talk about the reality of God, and the work of God in our midst, and our response to God, that happens within us, we rely on allegory, and metaphor, and images and concepts that are already part of religious vocabulary. Many scholars are convinced that in the ancient world, those listening to a “religious story” would not expect it to be factually true- they would be listening for truth more than for facts.

I think a gospel writer has more in common with a song-writer or poet than a reporter. They tried to use human language to transmit the meaning and power they saw in the Jesus movement to change lives. They used stories that had survived in the movement’s oral tradition, hymns and sermons that were collected, and other documents that were shared amongst the early churches. They wove them together, each writer with their own style, and agenda. Matthew and Luke were writing for specific audiences, and would have aimed to be accessible, and sensible to the people who would hear their words read aloud in worship.

Biblical scholars who specialize in “source criticism” believe that Matthew and Luke had access to materials that included an early version of Mark’s gospel, something called “M”, that only Matthew had, “L” that only Luke had, and something called “Q”, which was likely a list of “sayings” of Jesus that both Matthew and Luke had seen. (These names were made up by the scholars.)

My suggestion would be that you take some time and read from Matthew and Luke, and have a pad of paper handy to jot down the differences you notice. Next time I will offer you my list.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Peace be with you....

During the sermon this past Sunday I asked "What comes to mind when I say the word Peace?"

I was a little surprised when people in the congregation spoke up, and gave their answers. I was actually asking in a rhetorical way. But it was wonderful! The responses were heartfelt, and reflective, and varied.

It warms this preacher's heart when I feel like people are that engaged, that they will join in the "sermon event" by speaking out loud. (It might get a bit much if we did it every week!)

One of the ideas about preaching that I was exposed to in seminary was that the "sermon event" is something for which the preacher lays groundwork, but which is actually being created as the prepared text is preached and heard. God is in the midst of that speaking and listening, and in all the thoughts, feelings, memories, connections that get sparked. The idea, or hope, is that the sermon's effect is deeper and greater than the preacher knows.

When something good spontaneously happens during a sermon, I get the feeling that there is something to this "sermon event" notion.

I felt very blessed when people vocalized their ideas about peace.

There was another moment that was a blessing, and it was about a blessing. I had been talking about Peace, and Shalom, and Salaam, and Namaste'. A member of the congregation who was born and raised in India asked if she could talk about the use of "Namaste'" as a greeting and a farewell.

As she explained it, when people are parting they would be saying to each other, "Go and come back", and Namaste" would also carry the meaning, "After I leave, may you continue to be in peace."

This coming week I plan to talk about Joy.

I would like some help with this one. If you have a moment, after reading this, please send me an email, and tell me something about Joy in your life. Here are some questions to prime the pump:

What brings you Joy?
What is Joy for you?
How do you offer Joy to others?

You can click on to my email link, and drop me a line!


I look forward to hearing from you.

Peace (and Joy) be with you.