Sunday, August 16, 2009
Here is my sermon from Friday, my first preached at Sewanee.
Context is everything.
In biblical studies, we learn of the importance of context. What is the historical setting of the text? What are its cultural assumptions? What is the inter- and intra-textual organization of the entire work? Why did the writer put pen to paper in the first place? How did the original audience hear the text?
As we learn about scripture, or any communication for that matter, we learn that some messages are high context: messages that need unpacking. For example, the Old Testament is high context. It needs careful study and comparison and it helps a great deal if you can read biblical Hebrew: High context.
A smiley-face, by contrast is low context. No real explanation or special language required.
Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” by Junot Diaz is high context. If the reader is not highly conversant with the world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Doctor Who, Dungeons and Dragons, and Marvel Comics, much of the depth of that beautiful story is simply lost by the non-nerdy reader. High Context.
The Real House Wives of New Jersey is low context. Anyone watching that show quickly sees the meaning of it: That these people are horrible. Low Context.
Why was it written, what did it mean? What is the context?
But there is another context.Not just the context of the words spoken, but that of the words received. There is this context [book].There is our context [us]. And there is my context and yours, as individuals. Indeed, each individual is a veritable constellation of contexts, shaped by time, situation, genetics, and nutrition to name but a few. Did you ever wonder why it is that we are hear the same words and some are brought to tears, while others are brought to sleep? It’s our contexts.
One night, in 1965, many seminarians at the Episcopal Theological School, now the Episcopal Divinity School, went to evening prayer. Jonathan Daniels, one of many, followed the liturgy and chanted the Magnificat with everyone else. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Jonathan Daniels likely could have used his newly acquired Greek to parse out each declension of each word of Mary’s song. Or perhaps he, or one of his classmates, while chanting the words “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,” may have speculated on the historicity of the Magnificat. Even more likely, Jonathan Daniels and his classmates simply went to evening prayer. Perhaps they went out of piety, or a sense of duty, or perhaps coercion by the faculty. Or maybe, some of them harbored that old George Herbert inspired pastoral fantasy. Whatever the case, most of the students there at evening prayer just went; they went and said the words. No care or concern for the context, either their own or for the words they sang.
Just saying the words. This is a great hazard of life in the church, and it can hardly be overstated, but of course when we overstated something, it is no longer heard, which is the problem. For us in the church, we say history’s most astounding things…everyday. For example, today’s Epistle:Galatians 3:27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
“No longer male or female”? One with Christ? Really? No victims no boarders?
Maybe the problem is not the context of the words, but the context of where the words land.
But that night in 1965 at evening prayer as Jonathan Daniels heard the Magnificat, he heard its words. And those words entered a context, the subversive, apocalyptic, loving context of Christ at work in Jonathan Daniels that had only one response: Yes.
The context of Jonathan Daniels that night was subversive in Christ; subversive because Mary’s words described God’s reign, God’s way of doing business, bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly. Mary was talking about Selma, Alabama. Right there in evening prayer, Jonathan Daniels stood at the nexus of apartheid in Selma, and, it must be noted, the segregated Episcopal Church there; and God’s subversive upending of all that seems to be. Daniels said, “Yes,” and was resisted by sheriffs, mobs, priests, bishops, and ultimately a shotgun blast. Daniels was an “outside agitator” because he believed and acted as the subversive God, heralded into this world, this context, by the song of a virgin. God made man, to make good on God’s own promises.
The context of Jonathan Daniels that night at evening prayer, in 1965 when he sang the Magnificat, was apocalyptic. Apocalyptic is not a word we use to describe the Christian life very often, but you had better believe that apocalyptic is an exact definition of what we do up there at that table [point to altar].
Eugene Peterson writes:
In its dictionary meaning, apocalypse is simply “revelation,” the uncovering of what was covered up so that we can see what is there. But the context in which the word arrives adds color to the black-and-white dictionary meaning, colors bright and dark—crimson urgency and purple crisis. Under the crisis of persecution and under the urgency of an imminent end, reality is revealed suddenly for what it is. We had supposed our lives to be so utterly ordinary. Sin-habits dull our free faith into stodgy moralism and respectable boredom; then the crisis rips the veneer of cliché off everyday routines and reveals the side-by-side splendors and terrors of heaven and hell. Apocalypse is arson—it secretly sets a fire in the imagination that boils the fat out of an obese culture-religion and renders a clear gospel love, a pure gospel hope, a purged gospel faith.” (The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson)
That night in 1965 at evening prayer the context of God met the context of a brash, self-absorbed, 26 year old man. I have no romantic illusions about Jonathan Daniels. I don’t think he went happily to his death. I think he would rather have lived; and I know his beleaguered mother would have had him live. But the context of God’s word met the Christ prepared context of Jonathan Daniels and the world responded in the only way it knows how, with a cross.