Episode 13

March 07, 2024


B213 Lent 5

B213 Lent 5
By the Well
B213 Lent 5

Mar 07 2024 | 00:29:03


Show Notes

Monica and Stephen Burns discuss Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12 and Hebrews 5:5-10. 

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:05] Speaker A: You're listening to by the well electionary based podcast preachers recorded on the land of the Warunderi people. Greetings, everyone. I'm Monica Malangton, and today my conversation partner is Reverend Professor Stephen Learns, who is coordinator of studies in liturgical and practical theology here at Pilgrim Theological College. He also oversees the formation of candidates for ministry, and he has done a fair bit of research and writing at the intersections of feminist, post colonial, and liturgical theologies and liturgical spirituality and renewal. So I am really honored that you are here with us, Stephen, and are willing to share your insights on these lectionary readings. [00:00:59] Speaker B: Well, thank you, Monica. I'm very intimidated because, of course, you gave a long list there, but amongst them is not biblical scholar. I find myself in the presence of a biblical scholar. [00:01:10] Speaker A: Oh, well, we are all readers of the Bible and interpreters of the Bible, and therefore, I'm sure what you have to say has a lot of significance. [00:01:20] Speaker B: Let's see. Thank you. [00:01:21] Speaker A: Yeah. So today we are going to be focusing on the readings for the fifth Sunday in Lent. And the readings are Jeremiah 31 31 to 34, psalm 51, verses one to twelve, and Hebrews five, verses five to ten. Very, very interesting readings. So we begin with Jeremiah 31, which is an oracle, and by Jeremiah the prophet. And so among the many oracles of grief, lament, anger, doubt, reproach, woe and pain by Jeremiah, who is also known as the weeping prophet. Here we have some words of hope, hope founded not only on the repentance of the people, but also rooted in the bountiful mercy and grace of God. This is a very iconic passage. Jeremiah is reporting or declaring or proclaiming this oracle on the basis of what he has observed, the plight of the exile and the devastating effects of the exile or the destruction of Jerusalem on the people and all the established structures of the society, temple, monarchy, land, everything is in waste. And all that one could sense was dislocation, desolation, suffering, abandonment and pain. And I guess the ensuing bedlam can only be imagined by those who have experienced war and conflict. And I'm thinking here now of all the images coming out of Gaza, for example. Yeah. And the situation was very, very similar. People were despondent, perhaps hungry, but also angry with God and doubtful about the power of their God. They were grief stricken by the loss of family, of homes, of their know and all this. And therefore, in this context, Jeremiah is proclaiming a word of hope. So, as you can see, the pericopy begins with hopeful pragmatism, indicative of the prophet's acknowledgement of the suffering of the community. And this word of hope states that the community will endure the exile and will come out of it to experience the redeeming justice of God. The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, and the land will no longer be wasted, but will be populated both with human beings and with animals. So the prophet is assuring his hearers that they are being watched, and God is watching over the city, and a new life is guaranteed. So, as you can see, Stephen here, this new life, when this new life will begin, is not precisely identified. It will be in the Days. But they are surely coming. And Yahweh here assures them that this day is coming with the establishment of a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. So the hopeful and inclusive nature and vision of this new covenant cannot be lost, because it includes the house of Israel as well. And this new covenant is not replacing the old. It is a reiteration of the old, but it is new, because now it will be written on the hearts of people. So that is something about what the text is about. And I just wondered what struck you in this passage. [00:05:26] Speaker B: Okay, thanks, Monica. I mean, that background's helpful to me. I guess I want to step back from the content in the first place. I mean, I think that most of the places where I go to church, I see people baffled by the lectionary, and I see people very confused where four tiny fragments are used alongside each other. And I think that understanding the dynamics of electionary can be really, really helpful. But unless you've got background, like the background you've just given, it's just bamboozling to many people. So I'm not an advocate for using four readings on Sunday mornings. I think always more than one. But four is overload in the real world. I find, though, studying the portions in Bible study behind the scenes of the liturgy, I guess, I think, is a fruitful practice. But this would be a text I'd be tempted to give amiss on Sunday morning. I think that the amount of background it requires to understand it. [00:06:34] Speaker A: Okay. [00:06:35] Speaker B: Is just too confusing for most worshippers. [00:06:41] Speaker A: Okay. [00:06:42] Speaker B: And I am curious about the use of this text at one other point in the lectionary sequence. For those who observe reformation Sunday, this text appears again on that day. [00:06:56] Speaker A: Okay. [00:06:57] Speaker B: Where I think its use is really, really curious and probably questionable. [00:07:03] Speaker A: Okay. [00:07:03] Speaker B: Because even if we understand background to why this text may have been chosen in association with the reformation, the kind of surface readings, it kind of lends itself to that what was before is somehow external and what's going to be given now is within the heart, internalized. More appropriately, it just coalesces with all kinds of prejudice. [00:07:31] Speaker A: Okay. [00:07:31] Speaker B: And so I'd be curious to hear a sermon on ideas about the heart, both pre and post reformation, searching for kind of alliance and allegiances. But there's a kind of supercessionism that it's just too vulnerable to that kind of interpretation unless you have a huge amount of background. [00:07:58] Speaker A: Okay. Yeah. And I guess the preacher is challenged by the text. Definitely. But I'm hoping that he or she will wrestle with it and try to find ways in which the text can become meaningful for the audience. But in response to why it might appear on Reformation Sunday, my guess is that this pericopy is also about a new beginning. It's a new beginning after the exile. It's not that the old is forgotten or lost or peripheralized or marginalized. The past is important because the present depends on it. But it's a new beginning, and it's a new beginning that is going to be ushered in with the covenant now written in the hearts. Now, yes, the heart issue is something that we can perhaps talk about, or people can wrestle with it. But basically, I understand it to be one where this is risky for preachers and for theologians like ourselves. And that is the fact that the covenant is something that is written on the hearts of people and therefore doesn't require the mediation of experts. So you and I, as an ordinary reader, can try to understand what it is that God requires of us. It doesn't need to be explained. Now, even that can be questioned. Is everyone capable of doing that? But in any case, I think that is what it means in a way. [00:09:42] Speaker B: So let's hope that sermons on this text have that kind of subtlety, rather than all kinds of unexamined prejudices folded into the reading. [00:09:52] Speaker A: Okay. Yeah. So I think for me, it's important to emphasize this new beginning, because this new beginning also is something that the psalm 51, verses one to twelve, seems to be ushering in. Okay. And so we will move on to the psalm 51 again, a very, very popular psalm used a fair bit within our liturgical. Within our liturgical traditions. And this psalm, as you can see, is one that has been placed on the lips of David. And it is traditionally believed that David recited this psalm after he raped bathsheba. As a form of contrition and repentance, the psalm is popularly identified as a psalm of lament. But what is interesting is that there is a confession instead of a petition. There is a request for healing yeah. So the psalm is one in which David is confessing his sin. There's a fair bit of emphasis on sin, but anyway, I will say more perhaps, but let you speak in terms of what the psalm says to you. [00:11:43] Speaker B: Thank you, Monica. So again, I think this is probably the wrong thing to say to a Hebrew Bible scholar, but this is definitely a sermon. I would be giving a rest. It appears a lot. It's one of the most popular psalms in the lectionary cycle, so it appears again in companion with some of the continuous reading options later in the year. But its main use is on Ash Wednesday. So it appears in lots of liturgies every year on Ash Wednesday, and then it becomes the kind of default psalm through lots of orders for daily prayer and things the whole way through Lent. So it's something that some christians might read every day for a whole season of the year. And I just think its liturgical use, it's curious. I'd love to see a moratorium on this for maybe a decade or 25 years just to sort of rethink careless use of it in liturgy. I mean, some of my questions about its use in a lot of liturgy, where, again, fragments of it appear every Friday in certain kind of orders for daily prayer and so on. One of the questions from the third quest for the historical Jesus, if I've understood anything about that, is that isn't it the case that Jesus announces God's forgiveness of sin before repentance is expressed? How do we reflect that reality in our liturgies? I'm not sure this psalm is going to help us very much until we've let it go quiet for long enough to rethought some things. And I think my main questions about it would be this sense of it just echoing all the way through Lent leads to the end of Lent. And for those folks who were involved in Good Friday services, where there may be the reproaches, where all kinds of things are imagined on Jesus lips, telling people off for this, that, and the other faults all round, using kind of fragments of lamentations and so on. And this just kind of sets the tone, starts the movement towards that Good Friday liturgy, which seems to me to get everything wrong. Where I think an interesting book for me to read many years ago was Jacques Pohier's God in fragments. He was a french Dominican. He was kicked out of his order for kind of expressing his thoughts and reflections on the gospel passion narratives, where he points out that they're just full of silence from Jesus, whereas what the church's liturgies do are fill Jesus'mouth with accusation against people, and this psalm plays its part in that liturgical distortion. So I'd really love to give this a rest for quite a long time. [00:14:59] Speaker A: Yeah, well, I'm not sure I fully agree, because I'm afraid of weeding out passages that we don't like or are difficult. I think the psalm perhaps is used in varied contexts because of the fact that the actual distress of the individual is not described, and therefore the psalm becomes one that can be used in different kinds of distress. I do agree that there's a very strong emphasis on sin and forgiveness. And as we know, Origen developed his theory of original sin based on this psalm. And Luther, of course, justification by faith on this psalm as well. But forgiveness is, of course, a very, very forgiveness. Confession of sin is a very strong component when you look at the language of the psalm with the use of terminology. But as I've said, like, wash me, cleanse me, blot out, these are very significant words that I used asking God for forgiveness. A controversial verse, of course, is verse five, which says, indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. I mean, these kinds of notions with this emphasis on sin reminds me of some preachers banging the pulpit and making everyone leave church with a burden of guilt. [00:16:44] Speaker B: Rather than the joy of the gospel. [00:16:47] Speaker A: Yes, the joy of the gospel. So I can see that it can be a problem. But what do you say to the suggestion that confession or an overemphasis on confession is also a means of evasion? Okay, I have confessed my sin, and I can move on and continue to do it again and come back and confess again. So as a means of evasion, of denial, and perhaps even a form of self obsession. [00:17:16] Speaker B: Yeah, confessions moved in and out of historic liturgies. It was not a big part of liturgies in the early churches, so far as we know. And, of course, we don't know very much, but the picture we do have doesn't lead us to think confession was a big part of things. It took on a lot of significance in protestant liturgies after the Reformation because it was moved into public worship as an attempt to sort of break the power of the priest hearing individual confessions. So it's developed this kind of trajectory in protestant worship, which I think it's now time to ask some questions. [00:17:59] Speaker A: But at the same time, Luther was responding to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was misusing this practice of confession with its sale of indulgences and so on. So wouldn't you say it's a better use of confession than what that Luther is advocating for. [00:18:22] Speaker B: I think lots of us live in societies now where the language really doesn't have a lot of experience to hook onto. So you need quite a lot of christian formation to understand some of the basic concepts here. So whether it's helpful to be using on Sunday mornings if we expect to be engaging with the wider society, isn't at all obvious to me. [00:18:50] Speaker A: Yeah. Okay, well, we'll leave it there, and hopefully it will trigger some thoughts for people who are listening to us, and we'll move on to the epistle lesson in hebrews five, and I'll let you take the lead on this one. [00:19:03] Speaker B: Okay, thank you, Monica. This is the text that I probably found more interesting or alluring or appealing. Again, some of the theological ideas are complex, but what drew me was the kind of picture within it of Jesus's tears. And if I were to be preaching on this selection of texts, it would probably be that theme I would choose to pick up. I think it's the case that this is one of three references to Jesus'tears from memory in the New Testament. So one is in the famous passage about Lazarus in John eleven. And then there's a really interesting one in Luke, where only in Luke, not in the synoptic parallels, Jesus is crying as he enters into Jerusalem. And I think it's the case that that could be regarded as the end of the travel narrative that's sometimes identified in Luke that runs all the way from verse nine, where Jesus is said to set his face towards the city at the beginning of the journey. Setting his face would appear to be a kind of an allusion back to some of the suffering servant narratives in Isaiah, where the suffering servant sets his face like flint. So what we see on this journey towards Jerusalem is this determination and resolve reduced to tears at the arrival. And in Luke's context, we get these pictures of the women of Jerusalem and other people crying and Jesus'own lament over the city and so on. So I think the tears of Jesus would be an interesting theme to pick up in a sermon this week. And as I was thinking more about this, I recalled something that theologian Donald McKinnon talks about. He refers to, I think, the Duke of Wellington, some battlesguard warrior who apparently said something like, a victory is the worst thing in the world, except only for a defeat. [00:21:37] Speaker A: Okay. [00:21:38] Speaker B: The idea being that even things that we describe as victories are immensely costly, and maybe we get some sort of glimpse, or we can imagine something of this in the change on Jesus'face in the journey towards the cross as the gospels depicted. [00:22:00] Speaker A: Yeah. [00:22:01] Speaker B: And that that might help us to temper and be much more cautious about or reverent towards kind of some of the glib talk about the cross and about the death of Jesus. So for me, as a potential preacher this week, I would find some fruitful meditation, I think, on tears of mean. [00:22:28] Speaker A: The thing is, the text, of course, begins with who Jesus Christ is similar to, and then all these high priestly traditions are cited. So in a way, he models all of them, or perhaps is better than them. And that is then contrasted with this obedient Jesus who becomes vulnerable and who sheds tears. And I think for some people, they might overemphasize one and ignore the other. But what the text is perhaps calling for is a balance. But I would, of course, think from, depending on what kind of an ideological stance you hold, the vulnerability of Jesus, the tear shedding Jesus, who is unafraid of showing his dependence on God and his weaknesses or fears, in fact, maybe at that particular time, is a very, very powerful model for. [00:23:34] Speaker B: And one way to link it back to perhaps the first two readings with their different kind of emphasis on the heart, would be somewhere in the documents of Vatican II, there's an emphasis on the incarnate son loving with a human heart. So Christ's love with a human heart would be. I wouldn't mind hearing an evangelistic sermon about that. [00:24:03] Speaker A: Yeah. So therefore. Yeah, all the three texts are, in a way, complement. They complement one another with this emphasis on they might. Yeah. It takes a creative person to make those connections, but to emphasize what the heart means and new beginnings and the issue of obedience, vulnerability to God's dictates, I guess. Yeah. What else would you have? Any closing thoughts? [00:24:40] Speaker B: Well, one thing we didn't mention around psalm 51 is the language of whiteness, which I find highly problematic. [00:24:48] Speaker A: Okay. [00:24:49] Speaker B: And I think that, again, liturgies are often vulnerable to unthinking repetition of correlations between light and goodness. And partly that's funded by ideas. In the Bible, God is light. Apparently God's also darkness, depending on which chapters and verses you choose to read. But the correlation of light and darkness is often paired in liturgies. Sorry. With light, and goodness is often paired in liturgies with correlations between darkness and sin. And this is just folded into all kinds of liturgies, not least around confession. And I think it's hugely problematic and it's time that those liturgies were deleted. [00:25:36] Speaker A: I see. [00:25:36] Speaker B: And we need to rethink the language of light and darkness in worship. It's at least as problematic as binaries about women and men. There are several, but there hasn't been a lot of attention to the liturgical problems of this language around colours. So the talk in the psalm about being washed whiter than snow needs a footnote. That scripture elsewhere talks about skin disease being white, the antichrist being white, and that the biblical tropes do not simply correlate whiteness with goodness. Yeah, there's a whole other. [00:26:19] Speaker A: Well, there's a similar regarding to the color of the skin is mentioned in the Naman story, and there was an interesting interpretation, given that the whiteness, actually, if you have a skin ailment, desensitizes the skin, that particular patch can lose sensation, and therefore you can play around with how maybe whiteness is not always good because it can desensitize you to the realities of the world. [00:26:55] Speaker B: And it translates into liturgy by use of white things to denote purity, apparently. So there's this problematic trajectory, which is funded from texts like this in psalm 51. And it's time it was kicked into touch. [00:27:11] Speaker A: Okay. Yeah. Thank you. There's a lot of material in these lectionary readings, some disturbing, some controversial, some more ambiguous, which the preacher needs to identify, perhaps, and wrestle with them. But there are also some good things that can. Words of hope, vulnerability and openness to the sufferings in the world. The ability to actually own up to your own faults and to be cognizant of the fact that your wrongdoing has implications for people around you and for the society and for the church. So, yeah, lots of good things, but. [00:28:06] Speaker B: Also, I think, just kind of the need for a critical awareness so that you're not repeating a liturgy or reading the Bible while your brains fall. [00:28:16] Speaker A: Yeah. Okay. With those words, we'll end here. Thank you. Stephen, when I invited you to this session, I didn't realize. I hadn't looked at the text really carefully, and I didn't realize how much of what they're saying has implications for liturgical theology. And it's great that you have been able to share some of your expertise and insights on this text. Thank you. Thank you. By the well is brought to you by pilgrim Theological College and the Uniting Church in Australia. It's produced by Adrian Jackson. Thanks for listening.

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