Ravens and Elves
Highlands Presbyterian Church
February 8, 2015
Last month Marcus Borg left this earth. Borg was a thoughtful and thought provoking teacher whose calling was to challenge age-old assumptions that Christians have been taught from pulpits all over the world. I was fortunate to have had a class from him at seminary. That quarter we studied his book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” The book gave us permission to see how far Christianity has strayed from its roots in Jesus by entangling itself in doctrine that came not from the teachings of Jesus but from those who sought to establish their religion as exclusive truth.
Borg asked us to think about issues like the resurrection. Did it have to be actual, he asked, or can you still follow Jesus if you see it as symbolic. Borg opened a new world of Biblical scholarship that many others have entered. He is gone but that path is opened for others to take. And it is a path where many will find a chance to reclaim the Bible from those who use it as a weapon to deny others their own beliefs.
I have come along one of those, a contemporary theologian whom I enjoy a great deal. Her unusual name drew me to her writings. Sea Raven. Dr. Sea Raven. Dr. Raven is a Unitarian Universalists preacher, a write, and musician. She lives in Maryland. Sea Raven Dr. Sea Raven is a member of a group of academics calling themselves the Westar Institute, a part of the Jesus Seminar.
The Jesus Seminar was organized in 1985 to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to the general public, rather than just to a handful of gospel specialists. Initially, the goal of the Seminar was to review each of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the gospels and determine which of them could be considered authentic.
When Dr. Robert W. Funk launched the Jesus Seminar in March 1985 in Berkeley, California, he said, “We are about to embark on a momentous enterprise. We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said. In this process, we will be asking questions that border on the sacred, that even abut up against blasphemy for many in our society. As a consequence, the course we shall follow may prove hazardous. We may well provoke hostility. But we will set out, in spite of the dangers, because we are professionals and because the issue of Jesus is there to be faced, much as Mt. Everest confronts the team of climbers.”
Sea Raven is one of those theologians who continue the bold search for who this Jesus we claim to follow really is. Dr. Raven asks those questions. She has written a series of texts following the lectionary. You get a sense of her willingness to challenge the old thinking when she refers to those, whoever they are, who dictate what scripture will be preached each Sunday on the pages of the lectionary. She calls them “the elves.”
Just who are these elves telling preachers what scripture they should preach each Sunday? The Revised Common Lectionary suggests readings for each Sunday. There is always a passage from the Old Testament, one of the Psalms, another from either the Epistles or the Book of Revelation; and finally a passage from one of the four Gospels. The lectionary runs in three-year cycles.
The idea is that through those three years, you will be able to hear most of the voices contained in the Bible. The task of the preacher is to take the four texts and figure out the relationship between them. The irreverent Reverend Raven says the four texts often appear to have been cobbled together, not just by elves, but by “drunken elves.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far but I am glad someone finally said it. There are so many Sundays when you just cannot figure out how the four relate to one another. I can almost hear the snickering of the elves as I struggle.
Let me give you an example of how people like Sea Raven and the Jesus Seminar give us an alternative view. The lectionary epistle reading this morning is from 1 Corinthians 9
Paul writes, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
Dr. Raven and I agree. How can you pair Paul’s argumentive letter to the Corinthians with either the verses Cathy read from Isaiah or the Psalm which we read together in the call to worship much less the Gospel reading from Mark which reads:
And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Mark talks about Jesus healing a mother-in-law and going off to pray and being called back. Isaiah is talking about the injustices of this earth and how the rich and powerful abuse the poor and powerless. He teaches that God will cause the unjust to wither while God strengthens their victims. God, writes the prophet, gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Paul then comes along and changes the subject. He says the he became all things to all people in order to save their souls.
Whoa! Now here it comes. Maybe this is what the elves are trying to do.
Dr. Raven wants to know what it is Paul is trying to save us from? This is the question that divides many Christians…the fundamentalists from the progressive churches. Paul says he needed to become all things to all people- “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
Paul, many churches will tell you, is speaking about saving souls…it’s about the life after this one. Isaiah, on the other hand is not willing to be all things to all people. He says the same thing to the unjust as he does to the victims of injustice. Isaiah is unconcerned with whether there is a hell in the next life. He is trying to save people from the hell in which they live in this life.
When the elves decided that 1st Corinthians 9:16-28 should be a part of today’s lectionary, they omitted earlier verses that might have helped correlate Paul with Isaiah. For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake?”
The elves aside…the afterlife will take care of itself if we focus on justice during this life.
Maybe Paul and Isaiah are saying the same thing. Consider how all of this changes if just by chance, they are. And then toss in Mark’s story. Looking at it that way gives us a new sense of what God is saying through the lectionary selections. Maybe the elves are saying the Bible is not a hitchhiker’s guide to Heaven but rather a “follower of Jesus’s guide through our own times and the needs of those around us.
You then have Paul’s concerns for others and Isaiah’s promise that God cares for the victims of injustice paired with a story of how Jesus, tired and in need of rest goes off to pray but is called away from a ritual back to the needs of the real and present world.
I have no idea what awaits me after death. But I do know what awaits us all during this lifetime and that doing justice here and now is what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray those words “thy Kingdom com, thy will be done, on EARTH as it is in Heaven.” AMEN.