Proper 15, Year C

Isaiah 5:1-7 OR
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided

father against son
and son against father
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother.
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

(Luke 12:51-53)

This is one of those Sundays when parishioners are likely to hear either a sermon on the collect or a sermon of the genre to which I refer as "why Jesus didn't actually mean this," perhaps from the sub-genre of "exegesis according to fictitious quirks of ancient languages." Let's give this approach an acronym for convenience's sake: EAFQuAL.

An EAFQuaL approach to this Sunday's gospel would go something like this: "Yes, these words from Jesus sound really harsh to our ears -- not at all what you'd expect from someone whose message is in practically every way consonant with upper-middle-class respectability and good ol' 'family values.' But if you knew the original language of the gospels/that Jesus spoke -- as I do, having been to seminary and all [most preachers neglect to mention that they only took the language in question for a semester or two, if at all, and that they're depending on a dim recollection of someone or another saying something like they're about to say] -- you'd know that the word translated as 'hate' here really means something more like 'to love just slightly less than you love God, but still definitely to respect deeply, telephone frequently, and send flowers at least annually."

Some preachers taking an EAFQuAL approach to a difficult passage of the gospels will use Greek as their ancient language of recourse -- a sensible choice, since that's the language in which ALL of our earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels are written. Some will go for Hebrew or even Aramaic instead, on the grounds that Jesus was originally speaking one or the other. This is a more creative and gutsy option in some ways, and even more likely to be a bluff: since all of our earliest texts of the canonical gospels are in Greek, any hypothesized Hebrew or Aramaic "original version" is likely to be either someone's guess based entirely on the Greek but assuming (without any particular reason aside from finding the text as it is difficult) that whoever translated the 'original version' into Greek was doing a very, very bad job of it, or someone's citing a MUCH later text that's also much further from the best-attested streams of the manuscript tradition. On the whole, this kind of EAFQuaL is like a game you can play in which you go to an 'automatic translator' web page such as Babelfish, enter the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address in English, have the site translate it a few times into other languages, and then have Babelfish translate that repeatedly mangled text back into English. The results are sometimes hilarious, but they hardly reflect a more reliable 'original text' of the Gettysburg Address than a decent history textbook will give.

As you can gather, I'm not a fan of EAFQuAL, and one of the many reasons I'm grateful to have had opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew is that it helped me realize something that grates on an awful lot of Christians' sensibilities, particularly among the privileged and the prosperous:

Some of Jesus' sayings -- and some behaviors called for in Christian discipleship, in following Jesus -- really ARE difficult. Jesus was not a twenty-first-century, university-educated, landowning husband and father; small wonder, then, that he frequently doesn't talk or act like a twenty-first century, university-educated, landowning husband and father. It goes further than that, though -- I'm NOT saying that one just has to "translate" what was customary among first-century peasants in Palestine to what's customary for us, and that the result will be that Jesus' way of life won't ever prove particularly challenging.

I can't say that because it's not true. Jesus wasn't a very "good" son to Mary his mother, and wasn't even a "good man" in the reckoning of respectable people around him. A "good son" would have stayed home and worked at the family's trade to care for his mother until her death; he wouldn't have gone off galavanting around the countryside. A "good man" would defend the family name and honor if challenged or attacked; he wouldn't be talking about loving enemies, and he wouldn't be disclaiming his family name by saying "those who hear the word of God and do it are my mother and my sister and my brothers" (Mark 3:35 -- and this is how he responds when someone tries to compliment his mother, and him by extension!). And as if all of the above isn't bad enough in conventional terms, Jesus actually encourages other people to leave their homes and families, to allow their family name and honor to be dismantled by others rather than upheld by retaliation, to follow him and to follow his example.

Much as character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia say that Aslan, the Christ-figure in the series, is "not a tame lion," Jesus is NOT a "good guy" by conventional reckoning. Following Jesus won't make you a "good guy" or "good girl" by most conventional reckonings either. And thus we read a lot in the gospels about forgiving and praying for persecutors -- something you don't need to do if everyone thinks you're a "great guy" or "great gal" and therefore has no desire to oppose your manner of life. How it came to be that so many people would think of Christianity as a ticket to respectability and an affirmation of the "core values" of a society with an vast and growing gap between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, powerful and marginal, is one of history's most astonishing tricks to me; as with watching an illusionist making the Statue of Liberty 'disappear,' I've got to gasp and say, "I'm watching it, but I don't believe it. This is not the way the universe works, and no matter how much it seems that way, I can't believe it."

All of this may seem like a lengthy digression, and perhaps it is, but I hope at least that it's a useful one to undergo before directly tackling this Sunday's gospel, about which my advice to preachers is:

  • Don't try to explain away, apologize for, or do some fancy rhetorical footwork to distract people from just how counter-cultural and difficult this text is. Don't engage in EAFQuAL. Don't say something that boils down to "Jesus didn't really mean this" (or its homiletical cousin, "Jesus didn't really say this, so we can safely ignore it and claim to be better Christians for it" -- a rhetorical strategy that ignores the important but inconvenient point that all historically plausible reconstructions of what Jesus did or didn't say or do depend in the end on the very gospels we're dismissing as less reliable than a historian's paperback). A preacher's job is not to distract the congregation from a biblical text long or skillfully enough for everyone to get away without asking hard questions, and it's not necessarily to make people feel better about their choices (though sometimes a good sermon may have that effect for some or many). If I had to sum up the preacher's job in a sentence, it's to model engagement with biblical texts and current questions in a way that better informs people what discipleship might involve and inspire people to take another step or set of steps to follow Jesus. In my experience, sermons that boil down to "my gut says that Jesus didn't say or mean this; discipleship is pretty much doing what any sensible and decent person would, and not worrying too much about the rest" just don't accomplish much worth doing.
  • Do point toward and stay with what's difficult about the texts and about following Jesus long enough for people to really feel it. Remember the maxim -- it often works for teachers, psychotherapists, and preachers alike, I've found -- that "the work starts where the resistance starts." Pointing out how the biblical texts can be difficult to interpret and how discipleship involves facing very real and great challenges both functions as a "reality test" affirming the sanity of observations that intelligent and sensitive people know to be true, such as "there's a lot of beauty, joy, and love in this world, but I have to say that the world doesn't seem to be working as it should." Pausing regularly on Sunday mornings (ideally also in frequent study of scripture and times of prayer during the week, but at the very least starting with the Sunday sermon) to feel how challenging discipleship can be in many situations is a pastoral act that can build some emotional and spiritual muscles that will be very useful when (and it's 'when,' not 'if') the congregation encounters real, undeniable, and painful challenges.
  • And though your work isn't done with most texts until you've taken in what can be challenging about them, it also isn't done until you've done your level best to address the question of where the Good News of God's healing and redeeming the world comes in. Personally -- and contrary to what sources such as Left Behind might suggest -- I find eschatology (literally, 'study of the end') to be a great boon in this task. As those who have taken the Connect course (which, by the way, is distributed in an 'open source' manner over the Internet, and is therefore FREE to congregations who want to use it, much as we appreciate contributions of money and effort to improve it) have heard and thought about, our stories -- our pains and joys, our mistakes and what we've learned from them, our dreams and disappointments -- often look different when we see, tell, and listen to them in the context of the larger story of God's making a good world that God loves and is working constantly to heal of the wounds and free it the enslavement that results from our damaging choices in life and relationships. I find that most passages in the lectionary have something to say about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will eventually complete the redemption of God's children. When I'm looking for Good News to proclaim, the first questions I ask myself are usually along the lines of how the biblical texts I'm working with fit that pattern. You can see how it would be impossible to see how this step requires a good job with the previous one: you can't see redemption and healing if you don't acknowledge slavery and wounds. I hope that anyone who's heard me preach more than a couple of times would recognize in my work another way I might summarize the preacher's aim: tell a chapter from the story of God's healing the wounded world God loves, and don't stop until you've foreshadowed the end -- the telos for which Creation was intended -- in terms vivd enough to dream.

So that's the pattern I've found most often useful when preaching on particularly difficult texts. How would that pattern look with this Sunday's texts?

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his friends that following him will cause conflict and division -- even division between families. That's a descriptive statement, and shocking as it is, it's not hard to see the truth of it if you're familiar with what Jesus says and does in the gospels. Imagine for a moment the scene when Peter goes back to his mother-in-law and says, "Hey, mom ... I've got some important news. I'm not going fishing tomorrow morning. I don't know if I'll ever step in a boat or lift a net again. I'm glad that you were healed of that fever, and I hope you don't catch one again, because I have to tell you that I probably won't be around to take care of you or to bury you when you die. See, that man who healed you asked me to follow him as he travels around teaching and healing, and I'm going to do it. I really think that God's kingdom is breaking through in this guy's work, and that's just too important for me to stay here, even to take care of you."

How would you feel if it were your son who said that to you? There's no social security to fall back on if you're Peter's mother-in-law; Peter is the closest thing you've got to that, and he's leaving. I have some idea of what I'd probably feel if I were Peter's mother-in-law: Betrayed. Abandoned. Despised. Shamed. Perhaps even hopeless. I have some idea of the kinds of things I'd say if I were in her shoes too, and a lot of the language I'd be using wouldn't appear in any children's bible. When I found out that Peter AND Andrew were both going, my language would reflect even more anger, grief, fear, and straight-up, no-chaser, and very bitter pain. I think the same would be true of my language if Peter and Andrew had other brothers and I were one of them. I'd want to ask Peter and Andrew how they could do this to all of us, how they think we'll survive without their help with the fishing, and whose prophet would ask a man to walk out on his family. I'd ask Peter and Andrew if this is how they were going to follow God's command in holy writ to honor parents and care for widows (as Peter's mother-in-law most likely was, in my estimation).

Peter's family isn't the only one that would be asking pointed questions or even shouting curses after departing disciples in the wake of Jesus' ministry. It's not at all hard, upon a few close readings of the gospels, to come up with a lot of other people who would be feeling just as hurt, just as angry, and who might attack disciples, even or especially their kin who were following Jesus, with words or more than words. Peace? It's not hard to see how what Jesus brings to such families might be described as well or much better by saying that Jesus brings division and drawn sword. There is a world of hurt behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.

And yet that's not all that can or should be said about this Sunday's gospel. It's true that Jesus' ministry did and still does dislocate those who follow him from the ways of life and from the relationships they were in. It's true that being extricated from those patterns and those relationships can be painful to all concerned.

It's also true that sometimes, if not often, the only way to find freedom to live in new ways and to form new and healthier relationships is to be extricated or dislocated from the old ones. It's true that Jesus challenges fathers and mothers, and sisters and daughters, husbands and wives to allow Jesus' call to pull them out of those relationships, at least or especially as those relationships are defined by our less-than-healthy world. It's true that Jesus' call in a sense denies those relationships altogether: our mother and our sister and our brothers are NOT those who offer or share a womb or a bloodline, but those who hear the word of God and do it.

That is a circle that can, depending on the choices we make, exclude those who by blood or law are our kin. But that's not the only possible outcome of Jesus' call. It's not the only possible outcome because Peter and Andrew aren't the only ones who have choices. You and I aren't the only ones who have choices. And Peter and Andrew and you and I aren't the only ones whom God calls.

Here's another possible outcome: Peter and Andrew tell Jesus that no prophet of the God of Israel would ask people to ignore the Ten Commandments, and they tell Jesus that on that basis they know precisely what sort of a man Jesus is, and there is no way they'd follow him. They go home and tell their families about what kind of dangerous nutcase the wandering healer turned out to be, and how glad they are that they figured it out. The next morning, they go fishing.

That's not a story that inspires me as a follower of Jesus. Thank God it's not the only other possibility either. Here's another one:

Peter and Andrew tell their families more about Jesus, what he's saying, what he's doing, and what they think that means about what God is accomplishing right now for the world. They talk about the community of people following Jesus and how they care for one another, how their life together is a sign to all of how relationships could be in the world and what might come of it if we believed the kingdom of God was breaking through this world and therefore we could live as though God were king here and now. Peter's mother-in-law, his sisters and all his brothers, and the rest of the family face and go through the break that Jesus talks about in our former relationships. It's only natural for them to grieve sometimes at the passing of old ways of being and to chafe at or stumble in the new relationships that are forming, but they have a new joy, a new peace, a new freedom from anxiety in the living reality that if they have lost a mother-in-law, a son-in-law, a daughter, or a father, they have gained more sisters and brothers than they ever imagined they could have, and had joined a people who would come to fulfill the promise to Abraham of numbering more than the stars of the clear desert sky -- more to care for them and be supported by them, more to love and be loved by than any earthly family could offer. They follow Jesus together, sisters and brothers in Christ.

That's a story that inspires me. It makes me think that perhaps the wounds we suffer following Jesus can, in the context of God's redeeming work, be like the break of a badly healed bone that allows it to become whole again.

Breaking and being made whole. It's core to the story of God's people. We see it in Jeremiah's description of the faithful prophet of God, whose word may be a hammer that breaks but whose witness calls God's people to wholeness. We see it in Isaiah's vision of God's people as a vineyard made desolate by unrighteousness, in failing to recognize God's image in humanity by caring for the poor and in worshipping as gods images of our own wealth and skill. We may not see it by conventional reckonings, with worldly eyes, but we see it through faith, which reminds us of God's faithfulness in the past and of God's redeeming work, ongoing in the present and to be completed in God's time.

It's a story to read and tell over and over until we and our children and parents, sisters and brothers and friends know it by heart, a story that will strengthen us when we're grieving and feel weak, and that will guide us when we're feeling strong. It's a story of pain and tears and brokenness, but it's a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.

Thanks be to God!

August 14, 2007 in Apocalyptic, Community, Eschatology, Hebrews, Honor/Shame, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Righteousness, Scripture, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)

First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 - link to BCP text
Romans 10:8b-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

Over Advent and Christmas in 2004/2005, I was working in a parish where I was on the regular rota of preachers. On this particular year, I preached on December 19 -- the last Sunday of Advent -- and then again on January 2, in the season of Christmas. Had you asked me a month ahead of time what the thematic shift between those two sermons were going to be like, I probably would have talked about Advent as a time of tension between experiencing the world's brokenness and injustice and the hope we stake our lives on as Christians, that Jesus is coming to make all things new, and will complete what he has begun. When the Christmas sermon came around, I imagined would have been talking about Incarnation and celebration. When the time came, I was, in a manner of speaking, but in the meantime something had happened.

There was a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a devastating one, on December 26. 230,000 or more people swept away. Family members were torn from another before their eyes as they desperately tried to hold on to one another. It was a dark twist on some familiar texts:

For as the days of Noah were ... before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage ... and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away ... Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).

Dark texts about dark days. Advent texts.

What had I said in Advent? I'd tried to communicate a healthy awareness of the darkness in our world, the darkness that texts like Matthew 24 spoke from and to.

I talked about how the world's darkness sometimes seems relentless and inexorable if not impenetrable. And I talked about Advent hope. The sermon was called "Dancing at the World's End"; its central image was of the Berlin Wall -- a symbol when I was growing up of the Cold War that we all thought would end in nuclear war and winter, the end of the world. I talked about the day people started tearing that wall down -- when I lived in Scotland, close enough to join my fellow students who were streaming to Berlin in droves to dance on the wall's ruins. I didn't go -- I had classes, after all, a job waiting on tables, no time off and little money. And I talked about how little all of those seemingly important obstacles were in light of the change that was happening, the history I could have witnessed firsthand, the joy I could have shared with all those who were there. I asked myself and those in the church on that day what we might do if we were going to live in Advent hope -- seeing in the darkness the signs that the world -- the whole world of big and banal evils, of suffering and despair and death -- was crumbling before our eyes. If the Berlin Wall coming down was a change worth my skipping class and letting the waitressing take care of itself (and I believe with all my heart it was), what is it worth, what would we leave behind and what would we take up, to be present to dance on the ruins of sin and death itself?

Advent hope. That Advent, I spoke of it primarily as an antidote to what we wealthy Westerners sometimes call "the grind," which can feel oppressive enough. Hope can feel bold in the midst of that.

And then, the second day of Christmas, the waters came. The images and the stories of the tsunami itself were devastating; the reminder of just how many quieter but more devastating floods hit the most vulnerable:

About every six months, a tsunami's worth of women dying in entirely preventable ways while giving birth, and another tsunami's worth of people dying of HIV/AIDS.

Every week, just short of a tsunami's worth of children under five dying of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria.

The list goes on. We've heard about these things before, and most of us have wept about them before. And of course, I'm talking about things I've talked about before. The best thing I could think of to do in the pulpit in that dark Christmas season was to reclaim a familiar carol as a protest song:

No more let sin and sorrow grow
or thorns infest the ground
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.

"Far as the Curse Is Found." That's what I called the sermon.

I'm sorry to spend so much time rehearsing the past, but it's present in my mind once more this week. Our world is still troubled by much of what troubled us as I sang from the pulpit a little over two years ago. And I have many, many friends whose hearts are breaking this week. There are all the things I read about in the papers, of course, and more. Mothers worried about their sons and daughters at war, or wounded by war. Friends worried about friends who are addicts hurting themselves and others. People of all sorts and conditions who held out hopes for the meeting of our Anglican Primates (archbishops and other heads of churches) that were dashed in ways that felt deeply personal.

A world of grief. A world of anger. A world of hurt.

Where's our happy ending? Didn't God promise a land, an inheritance, freedom from slavery and from fear that would be celebrated with feasting? What of the psalmist's song?

There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For God shall give his angels charge over you
to keep you in all your ways.

What of the scriptures St. Paul quoted to the churches in Rome, that "No one who believes in him shall be put to shame" and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?" How can someone in real grief and real hurt open the bible and find anything helpful when real suffering comes on like a flood?

She can, I can, you can because the bible isn't that book that a lot of us heard about in Sunday School -- the one that says that we should be quiet, good, and cheerful in a world of smiling white guys who look a little like hippies patting the heads of fresh-faced children and snow-white cartoon sheep. It isn't a book that says that we should all be nice because everything is really OK. Read a book like Luke-Acts closely and you'll see a group of people grappling hard with hard questions, real oppression, serious pain.

Something stood out to me right away when I revisited the portion of Luke we'll be reading this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Full of the Holy Spirit -- led by the Spirit -- tempted by the devil. These aren't phrases linked naturally for a lot of us, I think. For a lot of us, when we're in a desolate place, we're likely to ask what we did wrong. How could we be led by the Holy Spirit and be in a place like this?

The people who wrote and read Luke-Acts asked questions like this too, I think. Some had left not only their homes, but their spouse, sisters and brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God's kingdom, and they were often met with persecution for it. Journey with these people and you've got company in your pain. They know what's wrong with the world -- enough to say even that the glory and authority of the world's kingdoms have been given to the devil. They know that sometimes -- too often -- the kingdoms of this world reward what Jesus called evil (and by the way, I'm not talking about homosexuality).

All of that is very, very real to the Christians we walk alongside as we read Luke-Acts. When we follow Jesus, we walk with and behind sisters and brothers who have known pain and oppression.

And let's not gloss over that, because without seeing that, we can't take in the full impact of the Good News they share with us:

That Jesus the Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, came to confront all the powers of sin and death, everything that separates us from one another, from God, and from the joyful, peaceful, loving life for which God made us -- and Jesus won.

Jesus won on the Cross, and we're going to talk a lot about that in the days to come, but let's not skip ahead. We don't need to. On this first Sunday in Lent, Luke shares with us the Good News that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, confronted the devil directly AND WON.

As Sue Garrett points out, the story of Jesus in the wilderness that we read this week is an early installment of the outcome her book's title points toward as a major theme in Luke's gospel: The Demise of the Devil. This isn't just the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, in which Jesus doesn't give in and a stalemate is declared. It belongs in an extensive tradition of stories in which Satan's or the devil's retreat in the face of the godly hero's strength isn't a coffee break, but a defeat, as in The Testament of Job (27:2-6):

And as he [Satan] stood, he wept, saying, "Look, Job, I am weary and I withdraw from you, even though you are flesh and I a spirit. You suffer a plague, but I am in deep distress. I became like one athlete wrestling another, and one pinned the other. The upper one silenced the lower one ... because he showed endurance and did not grow weary, at the end the upper one cried out in defeat. So you also, Job ... conquered my wrestling tactics which I brought on you. Then Satan, ashamed, left me for three years.
(Garrett, p. 42)

The language of Luke's gospel this Sunday echoes that of such stories -- this isn't a stalemate, but a victory.

And yet it's not the final victory. We (well, maybe I should speak for myself alone, but this does seem at least to be an American "prosperity gospel" tendency at least) accustomed to thinking of victory of evil as preventing pain, or at least ending it. In this Sunday's gospel, victory over evil involves a willingness to endure pain in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us. It's the devil, not God, who promises safety and success. But it's God, working in Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, who wins. This is, in the end, God's world -- as it was in the beginning. God's light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has never extinguished it.

We see and taste God's goodness and the wholeness for which God made Creation in countless small and breathtaking ways -- in sunrises and laughter, in an embrace or a shared tear, and even in chocolate (which I'm convinced is the single most underutilized argument for the existence of a gracious Creator). But chiefly we see it in the life and ministry among us of Jesus the Christ, who knew pain and desolation and betrayal as well as laughter and peace and love. Luke in particular promises glimpses of Jesus' final victory over the very real destructive forces at work in the world -- not just fleetingly and rare, but as regular nourishment for the journey.

If we are to start this journey with Jesus, or to enter more deeply and intentionally into it, or to better notice, know, and learn from our companions on that journey, I can think of no better time than this Lent. If your heart is breaking, so is mine; walk with me, and our stories and prayers will sustain us. If you're laughing, so do I; let's share it, and lighten the way. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into desolation and victory, and is company for us both in the full complexity of the winding path we're on together toward healing and reconciliation.

Thanks be to God!

February 23, 2007 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Deuteronomy, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Romans, Scripture, Temptation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Proper 10, Year A

Those of you who also read my sermons page may have noticed that, while I've preached in other congregations, I haven't preached in St. Martin's, the congregation where I work, since early April. When the rectors (senior pastors) left the parish on April 17, I was removed from the preaching and liturgical rotas to give the congregation to hear less familiar voices in the pulpit until the parish's interim rector arrived. That won't be happening until September, so it's clear that I won't be in St. Martin's pulpit again. St. Martin's has been so important to my developing my voice as a preacher, though, and I've so valued each chance to preach there as an opportunity with what's Good News for this particular community, that as a goodbye present, I wanted to offer one last sermon, though I won't be able to preach it outside of this corner of cyberspace. Since a cyberspace sermon doesn't make anyone's Sunday morning service longer, and since it's my last sermon for St. Martin's, I hope you'll indulge me in one that's longer than usual.

Thank you, St. Martin's, for letting me walk with you on this leg of your journey. I'll miss you!

– Dylan

God is a Foolish Farmer: A Farewell Sermon for St. Martin's

Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13 - link to NRSV text
Romans 8:9-17 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 - link to NRSV text

"Listen!" It's a word from this Sunday's gospel that stood out to me the moment I scanned the passage. It's a word meant to prick up your ears, a word meant to jolt us out of whatever else we're doing, whatever else we're thinking about or worrying about, and get us to pay attention.

Listen! In this parable, Jesus has a word for us today that feels particularly important, particularly urgent to get across. It's a word that's central to the gospel Jesus preached and lived out among us, and it's a word that I'm glad to leave as one last charge, one last encouragement, and one last blessing to you.

I'm glad that the text for this Sunday contains a parable, because Jesus' parables illustrate three things that I think are true about the Bible in general.

First, it's that the bible isn't always easy to interpret. Often, it's pretty hard. We're talking about texts written thousands of years ago by people who didn't speak our language and are from a completely different culture. Sometimes people say that Jesus' parables are simple truths put in simple language that anyone can easily understand, to which I say, have you read Jesus' parables lately, and closely? They say things like "therefore, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal tents" (Luke 16:9). I don't think that anyone's doing me a favor in telling me that this is easy to understand. If I believe them, when I come across something that I don't understand easily, I'm likely to feel like a particular dolt when it comes to the bible, and that's likely to make me want to avoid picking up the bible, like I want to avoid a gym when I feel like I'm the only person there who hasn't stepped right out of a fitness video.

So if you sometimes find the bible to interpret, take comfort: it IS hard to interpret sometimes. Often, actually.

Here’s a rule of thumb that I use for reading Jesus’ parables: if I interpret it in such a way that there is nothing surprising or even shocking about it, it’s time to go back and read it again. Jesus’ parables serve a purpose a little like that of a Zen koan – those ‘riddles’ like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The point of a koan isn't that there's a correct answer that springs instantly into mind. A koan isn't supposed to inform you; it isn't supposed to give you information that will increase your feeling of mastery. If anything, it's the opposite of that. It pulls our minds in to confound them, and that kind of dislocation from our usual ways of thinking helps us to open up and let go of our usual ways of thinking. A koan doesn't inform; it transforms you as you wrestle with it.

Jesus’ parables work kind of like that; each one ends in a shocking reversal of his listeners’ expectations. With that reversal, the story pulls us out of entrenched patterns of relationship and ways of being in the world; it dislocates us from what’s comfortable to free us to establish new kinds of relationship, new ways of being. If the first thing I want you to remember about the bible is that it's often not easy to interpret, then the second thing I want you to take away about it is that the hard work of wrestling with scripture is more than worthwhile. It's not a product of our culture, so I find there's nothing like it to challenge our cultural assumptions about who God is, what God wants, and what things like love and success and freedom really are. Anne Lamott likes to say that if what you get out of the bible is that God hates all the same people you do, you're in trouble. I'd put it more positively, in saying this: God calls each and every one of us to conversion, to amendment of life so that our life looks more like the wholeness of the life God offers. If I come away from the bible feeling that the problem with the world is that there aren't enough people like me in it, this is a good cue to keep reading, and to keep asking how God is calling me to conversion. And no, saying that God wants me to stand up more loudly and firmly against everybody else's sin doesn't count.

I am NOT saying that the point of reading the bible is so that you can feel bad. If your previous exposure to the bible and to how people use the bible makes you think of it as a book that's boring at best and oppressive at worst, then believe me -- I know exactly what you mean. I've seen people try to use the bible as a weapon more times than I can count, as I think many of you can imagine. I hope that knowing that lends even more power to what I have to say when I say that the bible is Good News for God's people -- news of justice, peace, of true freedom and abundant, joyful life. When I say that each one of us is called to conversion, what I'm saying is Good News: there is room in your life and in my life for God to work more deeply. There is room in your heart and in mine for more compassion, more peace, more freedom than we'd thought. I get that Good News in large part from all of the time and energy I put into studying, praying with, and reflecting on scripture, and I hope that in the midst of all my flaws and flubs, some of that Good News has come across. The Good News we experience as we wrestle with scripture in community is well worth the hard work we put into it. That's the second thing I want you to take away from this sermon about the bible.

And if you'll indulge me, I want to say a little about why. Wrestling with scripture intently, prayerfully, and together regularly throughout our lives is worthwhile because, while scripture isn't the only medium through which we find the transformation to which God calls us, I will say that it's one of the most important. When I read scripture, and especially when I come to the bible again and again alongside other people who want to read it carefully and prayerfully, I find myself called to decision. God calls to each one of us, and each one of us makes a decision about whether to respond and how. The choice that Jesus prescribes for us, the choice that Jesus promises will bring true freedom, real love, real peace, lasting justice, is a decision to follow Jesus, to make Jesus' version of "family" -- God as our father, and the only one who gets that title, and God's children as our sisters and brothers -- the source of our identity and our only permanent loyalty. Some people call that choice being "born again," and I want to take the liberty in this last sermon for St. Martin's to go on record as saying I'm entirely in favor of it. You and I need to be born again -- not once, but for every time that someone tries to tell us with words or actions that we're not God's child, for every time that we're tempted to substitute our culture's vision of respectability for God's dream of the mighty being brought low and the lowly raised up, for every time we forget that God's blessings, love, and justice are for ALL of God's children.

In other words, we need to be born again, and again, and again. In my case, several times a day. Maybe you're quicker on the uptake than I am. But for as many years I've spent intently studying the scriptures, and for as many times as God has, in communities like this and in my travels around the world, given me a glimpse of God's kingdom, I find all of the time that the richness of God's dreams for the world and for each one of us in it is so great and so profound that every further glimpse of it takes my breath away as it takes me by surprise.

A case in point: this Sunday's parable of a farmer who goes out to sow seed. What's so surprising about that? Farmers sow seed all the time. And anyone who knows anything at all about what a plant needs to grow won’t be surprised to hear that seed cast in the middle of a road, or on the rocks, or among thorns doesn’t grow. But this parable contains not one, but two surprises to jolt us into openness to the work of God’s Spirit among us and in our world.


It’s not at all surprising that most of the seed didn’t grow. What’s surprising is that the farmer chose to sow it there. This isn’t a rich man we’re talking about here: this is a poor farmer, a tenant farmer who can only eke out a living for himself and his family if he not only makes wise choices about where to sow, but also is blessed with good weather and a great deal of luck. Good seed is hard to come by; the wise farmer makes sure to entrust the precious grain he has to the best of soil. But this one tosses seed about while standing in the closest thing he can find to the parking lot at Wal-Mart, where the pigeons will eat it if thousands of feet and truck tires don’t grind it into the pavement first. In short, this farmer behaves as though that which were most precious was available in unlimited supply. What on earth is he thinking?

But here’s the real corker: God blesses a farmer like this beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Normally, the farmer who reaps a twofold harvest would be considered fortunate. A fivefold harvest would be a cause for celebration throughout the village, a bounty attributable only to God’s particular and rich blessing. But this foolish farmer who, in a world of scarcity, casts his seed on soil everyone knows is worthless is blessed by God in shocking abundance: a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what he sowed.

There's been a lot of talk at St. Martin's about scarcity, about guarding closely what's precious because it seems to be rare. Money is tight; time is hard to spare. Even when we're looking at less tangible and measurable  qualities we value, like love and blessing, there's sometimes a sense that the good things God has for us are in such limited supply that the only kind of good and responsible stewardship is to guard it very carefully, give it only to those we're sure are worthy, protect it like the last egg of the rarest endangered bird. Predictions of peril and doom provoke a great deal of anxiety, and living on a knife edge like that not only causes constant unrest, but also tends to shut down the kind of creative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live more deeply into God's dreams for us as individuals, in community, and for the world. That's not the Good News God has for us:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
-- Romans 8:15-17

Listen! What does this morning's gospel say to us, in a story that suggests that God is like a farmer who tosses seed into parking lots for the pigeons to eat, and in the surprising harvest that grows? It says that Isaiah's prophetic word is coming true:

Ho [in other words, Listen!], everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy? ...
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace ...
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
-- Isaiah 55:1-2, 10-13

The kingdom of God has come among us. God has blessed us richly, and God’s people have been entrusted with that which is most precious in the world. But ironically, these priceless commodities only gain value – the seed of God’s word only bears fruit – when God’s people scatter it absolutely heedless of who is worthy to receive it.

Listen! We are called to treat God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s blessing, precious as these are, as if they were absolutely limitless in supply for one simple reason:

They are. They really are. I believe that with all my heart, and I want to leave you with that as something to hold on to. Thank you for listening.

And thanks be to God!

July 6, 2005 in Inclusion, Isaiah, Matthew, Parables, Pastoral Concerns, Personal Notes, Romans, Scripture, Year A | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Proper 4, Year A

Would you like your parish to have an assistant who preaches and teaches like this? (And blog entries are just the first draft of my sermon on weeks when I preach!) I'm on the job market, and am also available for consulting, retreats, and guest preaching. My bio and C.V. are here.

Deuteronomy 11:18-21,26-28 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 7:21-27 - link to NRSV text

Our readings from both the Hebrew bible and the gospel for this Sunday are about something that is somewhere between unpopular and terrifying to hear about for a lot of people (well, for me, anyway):

Obedience. It was in our gospel for last week too, in the “Great Commission,” which commissions us not just to bring people to church, or to get them to say the “sinner's prayer.” We're not making converts. We're making disciples -- people who have not only experienced Baptism, but who also have experienced catechesis, having been taught what it means to follow Jesus in a way that is actually going make a difference in behavior. In other words, Jesus' followers actually do what Jesus taught people to do, as I blogged about last week. This week's readings have a lot to say about that.

Our reading from Deuteronomy for this Sunday also has a lot to say about family. And I've blogged about this before as well. When this subject has come up in the past, it's usually been in response to one of Jesus' consistently negative comments about what we usually mean when we say “family,” namely the group of people who are related to one another by blood or marriage.

People are often taken aback when they discover that Jesus didn't speak highly of that kind of family. When someone in the crowd called out, “blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nourished you” (Luke 11:27-28), Jesus' reply wasn't, “Blessed rather are ALL mothers, as there's no calling in a woman's life that could be more important.” It wasn't even, “No, for your blessing betrays some serious sexism. You should say, 'blessed are all PARENTS,' as fathers are just as important as mothers, and parenthood is the most important thing in the world for men as well as women.” Here's what Jesus said:

“Blessed rather is the one who hears the word of God and obeys it.”

It's very similar to what Jesus says when he's told that his mother, sisters, and brothers are outside waiting to see him: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3:31-34).

It isn't that all families are awful, in Jesus' eyes. It's just that they are wonderful or awful precisely to the extent that they do what Christian communities do, inviting all members to use their gifts to help the whole community move toward maturity in Christ. Parents are disciples first, second, and always. So are children. For Christians, families are groups of disciples who live together in community, and as very local gatherings of the Body of Christ, the Great Commission is for them as well.

Our reading from Deuteronomy for this Sunday points to one specific way in which families are called to live into the Great Commission: like all Christian communities, they are called to catechesis, to teach and equip one another for discipleship. This, by the way, is one of the reasons I'm such a great fan of Faith Inkubators, and especially their Faith Stepping Stones curriculum. Their motto is “every night in every home,” as that's where most formation for children and youth takes place -- for better or for worse.

It's just not possible to outsource this to Sunday School teachers or youth pastors. Here's what happens when a family tries this: for one to three hours (maybe as much as five, if the kids never miss a youth group meeting) each week, kids are exposed to one or two adults who at least pay lip service to the importance of formation (one would hope that it would be WAY more than lip service, but when churches pay those who work with children and youth least if they have a designated staff person for it at all, sometimes congregations end up with children's or youth minister who has a great heart but very little training, if any). And each week, the kids spend the rest of their waking hours either on their own, or with adults who don't talk with them about the faith and stories of God's people as we see them in the bible. Here's a pretty primitive visual aid representing the number of waking hours a young person has in a week:


Each red 'o' represents one hour of intentional Christian formation outsourced to church workers: five hours in a week, assuming a young person who goes to Sunday worship, Sunday School, and youth group every week without fail. Each blue 'X' represents one waking hour in which young people are being formed with mentoring from their teachers, SpongeBob (who's a great guy, as far as animated characters go -- and I'm glad he's received an unequivocal welcome from the United Church of Christ -- but I wouldn't say he's necessarily the best person to teach my kids about who God is), and by what they observe of their parents' priorities.

How much effect do you think that the 'X' hours have in comparison to the 'o'?

God is immeasurably gracious, and can work powerfully even in a climate least hospitable to the work of the Spirit, but let's face it -- we're seriously tempting fate if we expect that Sunday School and youth group will on their own provide sufficient catechesis for serious discipleship ...

Unless, that is, we take Deuteronomy 11 seriously. In the ancient world, people were seen as the sum of three 'zones': thought and feeling, listening and responding, and making and doing (once more, props to Malina and Rohrbaugh). By saying that we are to take God's word into our heart and soul and write it on our forehead and hand, Deuteronomy is telling us that God's word is to permeate our whole selves -- body and soul, at all times and in all places. When we do that, our children can see for themselves what's important to us. Nothing else could be a more powerful influence to form our children as disciples who love scripture. And when we treat our home and the set of those who live there as an intentional Christian community, every bit as much as any parish or monastery, we find that each member has gifts to build up the whole for mission; our children will teach us and minister to us as well.

Not everyone who cries, “Jesus is Lord of this family!” or plasters fish alongside the American flags on the minivan will experience the fullness of what God wants for us, the rich blessings of living in a community in which Jesus really is received as Lord. Blood relation, adoption papers, a seal of approval from the state, and the right combination of genders for parents don't make real family any more than hours of shuttling to soccer practices and SAT prep classes will. Jesus never said anything about “family values,” but he said a lot about what kind of community he values, whether it's a parents and some children, a set of roommates, a monastery, or a parish.

Real family, real community, is found wherever members hear Jesus' words and follow him. That's what's solid, no matter what state laws or genetic ties say. It's true what they say: love makes a family. And not just the love of members for one another, but the kind of love that Jesus showed, a Great Commission kind of love, that says that this group of people are members of one Body, given not just for their own joy, but for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.

That's Jesus' view of family. When we hear this word on this and put it into action, we will find and value our family whenever and wherever we meet sisters and brothers in Christ of any generation and whatever their genetic or legal relationships. And our children, having grown up steeped in God's word, Jesus' love, and Christian community will, like Abraham, be blessed so that they will be a blessing (Genesis 12:2) -- to us, to the world, and to the God who made and loves them.

Thanks be to God!

May 25, 2005 in Christian Formation, Deuteronomy, Kinship/Family, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Scripture, Year A | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

This passage, along with its parallel in Matthew, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against some ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the “Magic 8-Ball” method, in which we pick up a Bible, choose some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, and then try to read whatever comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Another is what I call the “Beautiful Mind” method, in which we selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents -- to read the combination of things that stand out as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will.  I believe 2 Timothy's statement that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- although it's also worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage says “scripture,” that doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point).  But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an infallible oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it.  It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted “correctly.”  Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it.  Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and taken his letter to the Galatians to Corinth, and the Corinthian Christians had received Paul's instruction as something written to and for them -- or, for that matter, if the Galatians had received Paul's letters to the Corinthians and received it as if it had been written to and for them.

That's one reason the Alpha Course, for all the positive experiences people and congregations have had with it, grates on me; Alpha counsels us to read scripture, no matter which scriptural document we're looking at, as a “love letter” written by God to us today.  It's just not that easy.  The devil can quote scripture for his purpose, and I have a hunch that each one of us has seen examples of scriptural interpretation in our communities that were about as helpful to the community as the devil's scripture-quoting is in Luke 4.

In a single blog entry, I can't deal anywhere fully with the subject of how scripture can be used helpfully in discernment; for much of what I'd want to say on the topic, I'll have to substitute a recommendation of Luke Timothy Johnson's excellent and readable book, Scripture and Discernment.

What I can and would like to do here is to offer a few observations about the nature of devilish uses of scripture and how Jesus' vocation draws him in a different direction; I hope these will spark some fruitful further thought about how we might avoid being misled as we seek insights from scripture to help us discern God's call.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with what the devil is telling Jesus in the desert:  The power of God to which Jesus has access can provide food for the hungry, and it will.  Jesus does indeed bear the name before which “every knee should bend, and every tongue confess” his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and they will.  God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy.  Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, “biblical.”  Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, “true.”

Thank God that Jesus is not the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” type!  Thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances!  Because while all of the devil's points are, in a sense, “true,” they are not helpful here.  Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds (over 5,000, in one famous story) together for an abundant feast, and we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for Jesus to use God's power to provide.  Similarly, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the full extent of Jesus' authority and status before God to be revealed.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast is revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness.  Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel. 

Pick up a newspaper any day this week, and it will probably be clear that there are still opportunities to make a killing from Jesus' death, to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the Bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it.  But Jesus showed us a different way.  Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ.  Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now.  Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).  Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 24, 2004 in Discernment, Lent, Luke, Scripture, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)