Saturday, February 6, 2010

Goodbye Mark . . . Hello Luke, Nov 15, 2009

Texts: 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (Hannah's Song), Mark 13:1-8 (destruction of the Temple foretold)

"Beware December 21st, 2012!" Now that is not the message of the apocalyptic passage Pat just read from Mark  -- at least, I don't think it is. Nor is it the message of this sermon. Rather it is a message conveyed as entertainment by the blockbuster disaster movie "2012," which opened in theaters everywhere on Friday. The movie is based on the  calendar of the ancient Mayan civilization of Central America, which supposedly predicts that on the Winter Solstice two years from now in 2012, humanity will be utterly destroyed by massive earthquakes.

I mention this not to spoil the plot of the movie, nor to scare you -- I don't take either the movie or the threat seriously! I mention it only because I, too, have been thinking about calendars and apocalyptic predictions in preparing this sermon. In particular, I have been thinking about the end of the 2008-9 Church Year and the start of the new 2009-10 Church Year, which begins with Advent 1 in two weeks.

The title, "Goodbye Mark . . . Hello Luke," refers to the fact that with the start of the new church year on Nov 29th, we and most other churches in North America shift the focus of our weekly worship from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of Luke. In fact, this morning is the last time that the weekly suggested Bible readings includes a passage from Mark until November 30, 2012. And like the first reading from Mark assigned for Advent 1 on November 30th 2008, the last one this morning comes from Mark's apocalyptic chapter, Mark 13. But more on the apocalypse later. For now, I want to focus on the church calendar.

I wonder how many people in our churches know about the three-year biblical reading cycle, which has been followed by most mainline churches, including United Church congregations, for the past 20 years or more? When I returned to regular church attendance almost 10 years ago, I was puzzled to notice that all the churches in the city seemed to be reading the same passages from the Bible each week. How did this come about? When I was a child, my father didn't follow such a regular cycle. He might choose a text to fit the time of year (Christmas and Easter being the most obvious) or the needs of the church or of the community in which we lived. But as I learned at school last year, churches like Knox United now often follow what is called "The Revised Common Lectionary" of 1994. I really like the Lectionary; and I hope that it might be useful to talk a bit about it this morning as we get ready to move to the next part of its cycle -- that is, as we prepare to move from the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St. Mark to the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St. Luke.

The Lectionary is a way of reading through much of the Bible over a repeating three-year cycle. Each year focuses on one of the first three Gospels: Year A covers Matthew; Year B, which we are just finishing, covers Mark; and Year C covers Luke. Selections from the fourth and final gospel, the Gospel of John, which is quite different from the first three, are read during Easter each year; and the rest of John is covered in Year B, the year of Mark. John is added to the Year of Mark since Mark is quite a bit shorter than either Matthew or Luke. In fact next week, which is the last Sunday of Year B, the suggested Gospel reading is from John.

The Lectionary doesn't only focus on the four gospels, of course. There are 23 other books in the New Testament and 39 books in the Old Testament; and the Lectionary tries to cover them as well. Each Sunday, the Lectionary suggests four readings: one from a Gospel, one from an Old Testament book, one from a New Testament letter, and one of the 150 Psalms. So far during my time here, I have usually only chosen two of those four readings, with a bias towards the Gospel selection, and I have taken a few liberties with the suggestions to fit other purposes. Nancy told me in an email this May that that she often does the same.

This three-year cycle leaves out some of the Bible -- small bits of the Gospels, a few passages from the letters of Paul and the other letters, and quite a bit of the Old Testament. But I like how it tries to be thorough, and how it weaves these readings around the yearly church calendar of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the long Season After Pentecost.

Suggested reading lists for Scripture have been around for as long as Judaism and Christianity have existed. The three-year Lectionary cycle which Knox and many other United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches now follow has its roots in the Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic church of the 1960s; and I think that the Lectionary is a wonderful example of inter-church cooperation. The widespread use of this list has led to a greater emphasis on the seasons and festivals of the church year, and I am excited by the challenge of trying to preach using this tool.

Two years ago this fall, the New Testament course I was taking also made a switch from Mark to Luke. In the first half of the course, we had focused on Matthew and then on Mark. When we returned from Reading Week, our professor began by saying three things: one, that we would now turn to Luke; two, that we would use a different method for studying it (namely the response the text evokes in the reader rather than an historical or scientific analysis of the text); and finally that he would start us off by giving his response to Luke. And he told us that he didn't much like it!

I was pretty shocked by his statement. How could a seminary professor, an ordained minister in the Lutheran church, and the teacher of future United Church ministers say something negative about one of the four Gospels upon which so much of our faith and tradition are based?

The professor surprised me, but I eventually came to understand his viewpoint. He saw places in Luke that seemed to smooth off some of the rough edges in the stories of Jesus, this in order to make the Christian community more acceptable to its Roman rulers. He would agree that Luke was a more sophisticated writer than Mark. And he would agree that Luke was very skilled as a storyteller. But perhaps some important things found in Mark might be missing in Luke?

Now this course on the Gospels did not lessen my own affection for Luke. But I appreciated our teacher's main point that there are differences between the four  gospels and that having four of them instead of one gives us a richer view of Jesus. So I will now offer a bit more about what we learned about the four gospels.

Over the last 200 years, biblical scholars have come to a general consensus about the writing of the gospels. The one thought to be the first written, probably during the year 70, is Mark. Matthew and Luke come about 10-20 years later, and both of them copy Mark, often word for word. But commentators make a big deal when Matthew and/or Luke make deletions or changes to Mark as they copy him. For instance, every place where Mark uses the phrase "Kingdom of God," Matthew changes it to "Kingdom of Heaven." Supposedly, Matthew's community was more traditional than Mark's community, and traditional Jews try to not say the word "God." Matthew and Luke also add to Mark some sayings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. And each one adds some material which is only found in either Matthew or Luke. John comes last, about the year 100, and while John may have had one or more of the first three gospels in front of him when he wrote, he tells a quite different story from the first three with a different tone and emphasis. For these reasons, John is known as the spiritual gospel.

This set of ideas about the gospels explains a lot: why so much of Mark is repeated in Matthew and Luke and why John is so different. It also allows us to see how different early Christians interpreted Jesus' life and message.

Take for instance, the differences between Mark and Luke on the stories of Jesus' death. Mark says that Jesus was greatly distressed and troubled before his arrest; and he quotes Jesus as saying in Gethsemane, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death." But Luke leaves all this out. Mark says that Jesus' last words on the cross were the cry, "My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?" Luke also takes this out, and instead he says that Jesus last words were, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."

Big differences . . .  Luke rewrites Mark's account to make it less painful. And perhaps this helps explain why my professor and other commentators suggest that we approach such stories with caution. It is not that we need to decide which Gospel is correct, or whether both are correct. Instead, the differences between the Gospel narratives give us a fuller picture of Jesus and show what a range of faithful responses to the Christ story could be.

There is much to love about Luke's portrayal of Jesus: the birth narrative with stable stall and shepherds, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Luke adds after the reading about love of God and love of neighbour that we read from Mark last week; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story about walking with the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, and so on. Because of all of this, I was not surprised when my supervisor Fran Hare said that, in contrast to my New Testament professor, Luke is her favourite Gospel. I am sure the same is true for many of us.

I look forward to trying to preach to the the needs of this community in relationship to the Gospel of Luke for the rest of my internship. It is not that I will never mention Mark again in a sermon, since the changes and additions Luke makes to Mark can sometimes show us important things. But as always, we rely on the Spirit's guidance when we read, interpret and act upon the sacred writings of our tradition.

And for someone like me who loves intellectual puzzles and arguments, it is helpful to remember that we don't worship the Bible. Instead, we worship God: the Sacred Ground in which live and move and have our being. Scripture readings, sermons, hymns and sacraments are only crude attempts to point us towards God and to remind us of the values of love and justice that we hold sacred. We rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us limp towards God as we sing, pray, preach, listen and carry out our work of loving service to our community.

Which brings me back briefly to our two readings from this morning -- Hannah's song, and Mark 13. Hannah's song from 1 Samuel also points us towards Luke because Mary's song of joy and liberation, the Magnificat, which she sings when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus, is found only in Luke; and we will read the Magnificat with great joy and thanksgiving this year on Advent 4, December 20th.

And Mark 13, with its warnings of wars, rumours of war and earthquakes probably does not point towards the end of world in December 2012. Instead, it probably betrays the dire times when Mark wrote down the stories of Jesus. As Mark was writing, the Roman-Jewish war of the late 60s was coming to a close. Jerusalem was burned to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And the Second Temple was utterly destroyed. Perhaps it is this context which gives the Gospel of Mark such relevance and immediacy today. Like Mark's community, we too live in an apocalyptic time of wars and rumours of war.

When Mark told the story of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem to face his death, his first hearers could relate to the horror of it all too well. But by the time Luke re-wrote these stories 15 or 20 years later, the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem was starting to fade in memory. Luke's community was trying to live inside a Roman Empire that did not seem as violent and hostile to Jews and Christians as it had in the time of Mark. So Luke emphasizes different things; and I believe that our Bible is richer because of this.

So . . . as we end one church year in two weeks and start a new one, may we approach the stories of Jesus as told by the Apostle Luke with our hearts open to their mystery and power. May we continue to rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide us in our worship, in our understanding, and in our work of service in this community. And with God's help, may we do all this as servants on the path of faith hope and love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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