Ruminating on a bad Gospel

St. Francis of Assisi from the Mary Chapel at All Souls

The lectionary readings are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10.

We have just proclaimed the Gospel. Since at least the fourth century, people have stood for the reading, the proclamation of the Gospel. [The Gospel is, of course, the reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. It is called “gospel,” from the Old English, god spell ; Germanic gut speil , or “good news.”

At least from the seventh century, the deacon (or other priest or bishop) who was to read the Gospel, would move through the building with some ceremony. The person would move to the appointed place (perhaps the pulpit, or ambo) accompanied by acolytes, with the Gospel book, and the singing of alleluias.

From the ninth century onward, there is evidence that people have made the sign of the cross as the Gospel is announced, make the sign three times and saying to themselves the prayer, “Lord, may your word be on my mind ( + sign on your forehead) on my lips (+ sign on your lips) and in my heart (+ sign on your heart). From the eleventh century, incense has been used, the Gospel is sometimes chanted, and responses and acclamations are sung or said, before and afterwards. A recent recording of the Gospel I’ve heard from the Crossing, a community that worships in the Cathedral in Boston, has the gospel being chanted in a contemporary way, with soft drumming going on underneath. The simple proclamation of the Gospel can be a grand, smokey, glorious affair—a little like a parade; a little like a party.

This is appropriate– the ceremony and celebrations are in order because the reading of the Gospel is a proclaiming that Christ is present. It’s like Easter morning. He is risen. He is in our midst. He is here for us, with us, helping us, encouraging us, taking us by the hand more deeply into the presence of God. Showing us how to love. Showing us how to live.

With all of this going for it, we can expect the Gospel to be filled with words of light and life, words that encourage and uplift, that enlarge us somehow, that make us more. But that doesn’t always happen.

What do we do with a Gospel like the one we just heard? The alleluias seem a little hasty. The incense perhaps better used to cover up some awkward words. Maybe we should have drumming underneath, just so we can celebrate the Good News, but ignore the uncomfortable parts. The first part of the Gospel is easy enough, it’s about having faith, even just a little bit. But perhaps we should have stopped there, before getting into the whole section about slaves and servants, obedience and blind servitude.

Some Christians would and do, stop with the nice words. Some Christians stop with the nice words. They skip over difficult texts, they ignore the violence in the psalms, they look the other way when Old Testament patriarchs abuse women and children. (It’s telling that many of these same Christians look the other way today, when preachers and patriarchs continue to abuse and misuse.)

My friend and former boss, Stephen Gerth, often says that the problem with biblical fundamentalists is not that they read scripture—it’s that they don’t read ENOUGH scripture. Because if one really reads scripture—if one follows the Daily Office at all, or listens to the psalms, or even pays attention the scriptures we read on Sunday—then one will be confronted with contradictions and dilemmas. One will be forced to use one’s mind and heart, to fall on one’s knees in the Spirit of God, asking and praying for truth, for revelation, for wisdom.

And yet…2 Timothy 3:16 suggests “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Scripture is inspired by God. It is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness, but it is also given to us for rumination.

Do you know that word, “ruminate?” it comes from the Latin word for “chewing the cud.” Rumination is what ruminants do (ruminants like cows and sheep and goats and giraffes and others). Ruminants have to chew things a second time in order to get them digested. That’s the way the church also comes to understand scripture—especially the parts that are hard to digest, that seem like waste someone has mistakenly gotten mixed up with the good stuff. We ruminate over scripture, if we’re faithful.

That, after all, is what Jesus did.

Jesus ruminated over the scriptures as the Pharisees brought him a woman caught in adultery. He ruminated over the scriptures when he felt moved to heal on the Sabbath. He ruminated (even) over his own calling as he was confronted with a non-Jewish woman.

We are encouraged to ruminate by the Catechism (in the back of the Book of Common Prayer). It reminds us that we call scriptures the Word of God because “God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” The Catechism goes further, saying, “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.”

And so, we have proclaimed the Gospel, the God-spell, the Good News, and yet, in today’s reading we come face-to-face with an all-too human side of Jesus, one who appears to be speaking and preaching from within the social context of the first century. It seems unusually brutal, remote, and removed. It’s a story that doesn’t really transcend the ages very well. And in fact, it sort of falls flat. When he uses the issue of slavery as a “given” in a story, in a very matter-of-fact way, it’s difficult for us to hear, maybe even impossible for us to hear, when we live in a church that has understood the Holy Spirit to have moved us to a new place.

Some of this is perhaps Luke’s doing. The Gospel of Luke often underscores the difficulty of following Jesus. Luke points to the cost involved in discipleship—that it won’t come easy, and that grace isn’t cheap. That’s some of what’s going on in today’s reading. Luke is suggesting that the job of a servant is to serve—not to look for honors, or benefits, or rewards. Just to serve.

In the first part of the Gospel, the disciples ask for more faith. “Increase our faith,” they ask.

They want more faith, or stronger faith. Maybe they’re having a hard time following Jesus, or maybe they’re having a hard time understanding what God wants of them. Maybe they’re going through some bad times, or maybe they’re just noticing the places of pain and hurt in their friends and in the world around them.

At first, Jesus seems to suggest that their question is misguided. The quantity of faith is not so important. What matters is that there’s at least a little faith. Any faith will do—just a smidgen, just a tad, faith that would fit on a gnat’s hair. What matters is if it’s faith that is ready to moved, ready to respond, ready to be used by God for whatever God wants to do. Faith even the size of a mustard seed, is enough, Jesus says… it is enough, so that, as Jesus says in another version of this saying, “Nothing will be impossible for you.”

We just need faith for today—each day for itself, one day at a time. This theme rings true throughout the scriptures. When the people of Israel wandered in the desert and were hungry, God sent manna. But it was just enough food for that day, not for the next. It meant that each new day required a little bit of faith. But just a little.

This same daily reliance upon God is what is meant in the Lord’s Prayer, when we ask, “Give us today, our daily bread.” The prayer can also be translated in such a way as to suggest we ask for our bread for tomorrow, and even for the end of ages, but in English, the prayer especially reminds us of our daily need to rely upon God—for food, for wisdom, for faith, itself.

As difficult as today’s Gospel might be, it’s appropriate that we hear it on the eve of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis, of course, REALLY went by faith. He left family and home and comfort, and moved with the Spirit of God. He served God in such a way that actually resulted in the kind of service mentioned in our Gospel, and yet, Francis did it with joy and excitement and what sounds like an almost infectious faith. He had faith for each day and didn’t worry too much about the next.

We celebrate the Word of God as it comes to us daily, in the proclamation, rumination and living out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also in the daily bread we bless, break, and share. Though we use just a little, just a hint of bread in the Communion Wafer, it is bread that sustains, it is bread-of-faith with power to move mountains, to change lives, and to bring us into the presence of God.

In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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