Archive for August, 2016

Not a Table Manners Manifesto

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by timtrue

31012.dng_109_1_edited-2

Luke 14:1, 7-14

What’s the purpose of preaching?  Why do I stand before you, Sunday after Sunday, offering my reflections on and interpretation of the Word of God?  Is it simply to instruct?

So, here’s what happens when the purpose of preaching is simply to instruct.  The preacher generally gets to a point in the sermon where he or she says something like, “People, we’ve got problems.”

And our problems are whatever happens to have risen to the surface in the text.  We sin.  We despair.  We fear.  We don’t love our neighbor as we ought.  We don’t love God as we ought.  We hold grudges.  We aren’t as good in our discipleship as we should be.  We over-consume.  We ignore God’s mystery in our lives.  We condone injustice by allowing it to happen.  We whatever.  Are you with me?

And you sit there listening to the preacher go on and on about it all, and you think, “Yep, he’s nailed it.  That’s exactly what I do.”  And because we’ve read out of the Old Testament earlier in the service, you’re thinking, “And it’s exactly what people like me have been doing for thousands of years.”

And so the preacher goes on to explain how doing (or not doing) these ungodly actions harms you and all those around you and reinforces certain social conditions that end up harming all humanity.

And then, finally, the preacher provides answers, methods, or marching orders, telling you how then to live.  We preachers want to solve all the world’s problems and wrap up our solutions in nice, neat packages.

But here’s the problem.

You hear a preacher offer didactic instruction like this and you end up thinking, “Yep, she’s nailed it.  That’s what I do all right.  But, hey, I’m not Mother Theresa.  I’m just a guy like everyone else around me, kind of dysfunctional, just trying to live my life and have a little fun along the way.”

And your response to the preacher’s nice, neat package is something along the lines of, “Well, that sounds noble and all, but, c’mon, I can’t really do that”; or, “Hey, now, preacher, you’re taking it a little too far”; or, my favorite, “What in the world is he talking about?”

Now, have you noticed that Jesus very seldom offers instruction; that he rarely teaches didactically?  Instead, he tells parables, a kind of story laden with rich imagery; and he demonstrates life lessons through healings and miracles.

Rather than instruct, then, doesn’t Jesus instead disrupt?  He provokes his hearers to see things in new ways through imagery; and he evokes emotional responses.  He teaches not by instruction; but by disruption.

We preachers would do well to take note.

But then we come to today’s Gospel.  At our first hearing—and maybe at our second, third, fourth, and beyond—this reading sounds more like didactic instruction on table etiquette than it does a parable.  “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “do not sit down at the place of honor.”

Jesus is at a banquet.  People are entering and selfishly grabbing seats of honor.  Jesus seizes the moment and teaches.  “But when you are invited,” he continues, “go and sit down at the lowest place.”

This sure sounds like didactic instruction to me!

Yet, Luke tells us, his readers, that Jesus is telling a parable here—an image-laden story designed to provoke and evoke, not to instruct.

So could something more be going on here?  Is Jesus addressing something other than only the selfish manners he sees in front of him?  Could it be that he is seizing the moment at hand not to teach didactically but, rather, provocatively?

This was a meal on the Sabbath, the text tells us.  Yet Jesus says, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet.”

Hmm.  Not a Sabbath meal; but a wedding banquet.  This is a disconnection.

Does this disconnection provoke us?  Do Jesus’ words, which seem a little detached, evoke some kind of imagery for us?  Do we maybe come across wedding banquets elsewhere in the scriptures?

And so we begin to piece it together.  Jesus almost always teaches by disruption, not instruction.  Striking imagery is taking place right in front of Jesus’ face: at this Sabbath meal, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors are selfishly grabbing for the places of honor.  Noticeably absent from this Sabbath meal are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Also absent from this meal, we should note, as was the custom of the day, are women.

No: this doesn’t look anything like a wedding feast.  And besides, what kind of wedding feast in wealthy Palestine would include the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?  Or, perhaps a better question to ask is, where would we find a wedding feast that includes the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Contrary to what some scholars argue, Jesus is not offering here a table manners manifesto.  Rather, like he does seemingly everywhere else in the Gospels, Jesus is seizing the imagery right in front of him not to instruct but to disrupt; not to explain but to provoke.

In this particular case he paints a picture of his kingdom, the realm of God.  Except he uses the imagery in front of him to paint a picture of exactly what God’s realm is not.

There’s a lot of silliness going on before his face just now.  Brothers, relatives, friends, rich neighbors, business associates, maybe some patrons and clients, are all clamoring to grab for themselves a seat of honor.  They’re all clamoring to get ahead, to put themselves first.

And why, exactly?  So they will be noticed?  So they can sit next to someone who will be noticed?

We do this too.  It’s not just that crowd sitting around Jesus at that Sabbath meal.  And it’s not something found just in that day, time, and culture—something that those Romans struggled with but, hey, we’ve evolved.  No: self-centeredness, pushiness, greed, desire to be on top, getting ahead at someone else’s expense—these ambitions are part of the human condition.

We do these things all the time.  Just look around us!

How many CEOs got to their positions by acts of selflessness, or by being humble?

How many politicians can you name that exemplify the personality traits expressed in the beatitudes: blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers?

How many lawsuits, I wonder, are won by the people who actually deserve to win—from an ethical standpoint?

Nice guys finish last, the saying goes—for good reason.  We might as well just say, pushy people get their way.

And we shrug our shoulders and get on with life, saying to ourselves comforting aphorisms: “It is what it is.  It’s just the way things are.”

But why, exactly?  What is it in me that tells me I’m more important than any other person on the face of the planet?

I don’t know.  But it all seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Using provocative imagery, then, Jesus disrupts this Sabbath meal to make his point.  His kingdom isn’t anything like this silliness going on in front of his face.  In fact, his kingdom is the opposite.

In his realm, people don’t push and shove to be first, to grab honors for themselves, to get ahead of everyone else in the world.  In his realm it’s the forgotten people, the social outcasts, who sit in the places of honor at wedding banquets.

God’s realm is upside-down from the earthly realm.  Which leads me to wonder: maybe it’s the earthly realm that’s upside-down; and God’s realm is the one that’s right-side up.

So, let’s return now to my opening question: what’s the purpose of preaching?

Many people maintain that the purpose of preaching—why I stand up here before you Sunday after Sunday—is simply to instruct, or at least mostly to instruct.  Well, instruction happens, no doubt about it.  But it’s not the main purpose.  I hope I’ve effectively debunked this idea.

Jesus seldom instructed his hearers in a didactic way.  Rather, he most often disrupted them: their world, their common way of thinking.  We see this in today’s passage—and nearly everywhere else in the Gospels.

But is this the main purpose of preaching?  To disrupt?  Do I stand before you week after week mainly to call into question whatever I’ve seen you do or heard you say in the past week?  I don’t think so.  For that would make me a very contrary preacher.  And in short order I wouldn’t have many friends, let alone parishioners.

No, there’s more to it.  Why does Jesus teach by disruption?

His world wasn’t all too different from ours.  All around us, social conventions and institutions (yes, including religious institutions) prevent us from seeing things the way they really are.  Our earthly realm prevents us from seeing the greater reality of God’s realm.

And we get set in our ways.  We do things over and over the same way.  We get used to it all and say, “It is what it is.  This is just the way things are.”

And so, when you come to church and hear a preacher offer instruction about what’s wrong with your world and how you should fix it, you agree.  But you are also hardwired to go right back to the way you’ve always done things.  The preacher’s instruction doesn’t “stick.”

But disruption is more effective.  Disruption involves provocative imagery.  Disruption provokes you out of your comfort zone, your routine, much more effectively than straightforward didactic instruction.

But then what?  Once Jesus has effectively provoked his hearers; once Jesus has clapped them freshly awake out of their half-asleep stupor and they are suddenly aware of the greater reality of God’s realm, what does he do then?

He doesn’t give them a method or some kind of list for self-improvement.  He doesn’t give marching orders.  He doesn’t give them easy answers to be wrapped up in a nice, neat package.

Instead, Jesus most often leaves his hearers right where he’s taken them: to ponder his parables without any explanation at all.

Do you see?  Through disruption Jesus provokes his hearers out of a lesser reality into a greater reality, where he then leaves them to experience this greater reality; to draw their own conclusions; to wrap up their own not-so-nice, not-so-neat packages.  This is the preacher’s purpose.  Liberation!

Dear Christians, the lesser reality of this world holds you no longer.  You have been set free.  Experience the greater reality that is God’s realm.

Straightening Up

Posted in Homilies with tags on August 21, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 13:10-17

I don’t know about you, but when I hear this story from today’s Gospel—about a woman so crippled she can’t even stand up straight; about Jesus healing this woman; and about the synagogue leader’s response—whenever I hear this story, I immediately focus on the synagogue leader.  Is it the same for you?

In part, I’m sure, it’s because of my modern American sensitivities.  The synagogue leader is just plain mean.  She’s a crippled woman, for goodness’ sake!  Shouldn’t she be treated with at least the same dignity and respect as any other person—or at least with as much dignity and respect as a donkey?  Go Jesus!  You tell that bully a thing or two!

Also, my kneejerk focus on the synagogue leader probably has something to do with my American independence.  I mean, this guy’s opposing Jesus—Jesus, who is always the good guy, by default.  And Jesus helps the underdog, right?  So there’s that.  And also there’s this constraint the synagogue leader demonstrates: he’s bound by the rules of his tradition.  He’s legalistic.  And what good American wants the rules of some foreign tradition foisted upon him?

Then there’s my personal bias.  I was raised during the musical era that’s known today as “classic rock”; and—what can I say?—I’m a product of my culture.  We all are.  Anyway, the synagogue leader represents the establishment.  And as all good cynical classic rock-and-rollers know, the establishment is designed only to benefit those in charge, its leaders.  So, here’s this leader of the synagogue—the establishment!  Take him down, Jesus!

Are you with me?

But what if instead of focusing just on the synagogue leader we also focus our attention on the bent-over woman?

I have a good reason for asking: the context suggests it.

Immediately before this story Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree.  For three years it bore no fruit.  The owner of the farm tells his gardener to cut the tree down.  But the gardener talks him out of it, saying to give it just one more year; if it bears no fruit by that time, then he will cut it down.

Is today’s story, then, just about an unrepentant synagogue leader; and how God is patient with us when we act like that synagogue leader, giving us more time to repent?  Maybe.  But it feels like there should be more to it.

So we look at what follows.  Here, Jesus tells two more parables, now about the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed.  Though a very small seed, it grows into one of the largest plants in all of the Mediterranean region, so large that even the birds of the air come to roost in its branches.  And again, the kingdom of God is like yeast that spreads throughout a batch of dough until all the batch is leavened.

And so, aha!  Now we begin to see!

On the one hand there’s repentance; and on the other there’s the kingdom of God.  And wedged between these teachings we find today’s story.  Surely, it’s got to be about more than just a kneejerk response to the establishment.

You see, because of our cultural context—we’re independent, rock-and-roll Americans—we immediately turn our focus on the synagogue leader and say Boo! and try to learn lessons about what we shouldn’t do; how we shouldn’t behave.  But the biblical context suggests that we should focus not just on the synagogue leader but also on the bent-over woman.  And perhaps even mostly, or all, on her!  For she is the one in this story who experiences a change in direction—i. e., repentance—and is transformed into a citizen of the kingdom of God.

So, setting aside our desire to heckle and jeer the bad guy in this story, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?

First, here are a few observations:

  • She’s been crippled for eighteen years.  Where were you eighteen years ago?  What were you doing?  That’s a long time!
  • Her ailment—for the last eighteen years!—is being bent over.  So severe is her ailment that she is unable to straighten up.
  • In contrast to the earlier miracles in Luke’s Gospel, this crippled woman does not ask for healing.

These observations come from the text.  So, next, what might we infer from them?

Well, what would it mean to be bent over so that you couldn’t straighten up?  You’d be looking at the ground all the time.  Imagine that.  Dust.  Dirt.  Mud.  Rocks.  Feet.  (In cities, sewage.)  All the time!

You hear a bird chirping in a nearby tree and you can’t look up at it—not without a lot of trouble anyway.  You approach a group of people talking and laughing with one another and you can’t look in their faces, you can’t see the laughter in their eyes—at least not without turning sideways and twisting your neck awkwardly and painfully.

The sun, the moon, the stars, the tops of trees and mountains, the distant horizon, the up-close faces of friends and family—all of these are mostly inaccessible to you.  Imagine that!  For eighteen long, frustrating years!

To struggle to see only the path immediately at your feet!  To see only the dirt and dust immediately before you!  Imagine!

And what can we make of her not asking for healing?  Had she resigned herself to her condition?  Had she concluded, “Well, I guess this is simply the way things are and the way things are always gonna be”?

But then!  Ah, then!  Jesus breaks into her life.  He calls her to himself; and he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”; and he lays his hands on her; and immediately she stands up straight—straight!—and she sees the sun and the birds and the faces all around her, without difficulty; and she begins to praise God.

She begins.  That’s an interesting word, isn’t it?  For it suggests that she will continue doing so—that she will continue praising God for her new condition; that she has experienced a changed life (repentance), and that this transformation will continue (into the eternal kingdom of God).

So, what do we learn from this bent-over woman?  Just this: transformation.  This crippled, often overlooked, unnamed woman offers us a picture of transformation, a picture of the ongoing life we should be living in Christ.

Jesus has called each of us to himself—whether we’ve asked him for healing or not!  And he’s said to each of us, “Child, you are set free from your ailment.”

Consequently, have you begun to praise God for your new condition?  If so, are you continuing to praise God?  Or, to rephrase these questions: Have you begun to be transformed in Christ?  And, if so, are you continuing to live into this transformation?

Too often we end up spending our whole lives looking down at the dust and dirt and muck at our feet, unable to take in the larger world around us because of our great ailment—an ailment much greater than this woman’s—called sin.

And don’t think for a moment this ailment only applies to those outside of the church!

Jesus was standing right in front of this woman.  And no doubt she had heard about him already.  No doubt, by this time in his ministry, word had spread far and wide of his teachings and workings of miracles.

And yet, when the opportunity presented itself to her—right before her downward-angled face!—she did not approach him; she did not express her need for healing.

Have we resigned ourselves similarly?  Have we been a part of church—has church been a part of us—for so long now that despite hearing Jesus’ call we merely continue looking down at our own two dirty, dusty feet; at our own treacherous path of life upon which we walk?  Do we fail to look upward at Jesus and praise God?  Do we forget to continue praising God for our ongoing transformation in Christ?

Transformation in Christ is a continuous process.  We are being transformed more and more throughout our lives from our marred, sin-laden, fallen images into the perfect, sinless image of Christ.  Or at least we should be!

This is the Good News.  This is why we follow Christ in the first place.

Transforming Fear

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on August 7, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

Luke 12:32-40

Oh, that today’s Gospel could be read on stewardship Sunday!

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Thus, Jesus goes on (in conclusion, in other words) “Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Surely we’ve all got extra stuff.  After all, clutter is a part of our consumer culture.  Our economy is driven in large part by something in us telling us we need something new, something even more user-friendly, something shiny.

Never mind that I just bought something new, shiny, and user-friendly last month; and that it no longer appeals to me in the way it did.  Never mind that in hindsight it looks now like I wanted it more than I actually needed it—or that maybe I didn’t really need it at all.  Never mind any of that!  This new, shiny, and even more user-friendly thing speaks to me deeply.  I know I didn’t really need that last gizmo; but this one, well, there’s no question!

And so, as the impersonal marketing executives somewhere out there predicted, with help from their detached demographic tables and disconnected socioeconomic charts, we give in to the pleadings of our hearts and we go out and buy the latest and greatest thing, adding to our stockpile of stuff.

Yes, we’ve all got extra stuff.

And here, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to sell it and give alms.

And I’m left wondering, Why didn’t the compilers of the lectionary save this passage for later in the year, when St. Paul’s traditionally has its annual stewardship campaign?

It’s difficult to part with our money, isn’t it?  Giving to the church requires faith: belief that our monetary gifts—our cold, hard cash—will somehow enable and equip God’s ultimate mission to take place.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But—okay, I admit it—today’s Gospel is more about fear than giving; and fear, we all know, is much bigger than being afraid to part with our money.

Which brings us to the other passages we heard today.

I wonder, did Abram have anything to fear?

God came to Abram and told him to set out for a distant country.  God told Abram to pack up everything he owned, leave behind everything he’d ever known, and go to a place he knew nothing about at all.

I mean, how would you respond?  God comes to you in a dream.  And he says something like this to you: “Hey there, son/daughter of mine.  I’d like you to do me a favor.  I know that you love me.  So I just need you to trust me here.  What I want you to do is this: quit your job—you know, that one you’ve worked hard at for most of your adult life; pack up your entire household; sell whatever you don’t really need for the journey; kiss your aging parents goodbye, for you’ll never see them again; and leave behind everything you’ve ever known—people, places, reputation, everything!”

Well, if you’re like me, you’d probably ask, “So, um, God, where am I going?  What’s my destination?  Where will you lead me?”

And if you’re like me you’d probably not like God’s answer: “I’m not telling.  You’ll find out when you get there.”

“Oh,” God continues, “but I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.”

Um, okay.  I guess.

Anyway, do you think Abram had anything to fear then?

Or do you think Abraham had anything to fear several years later (after a name change) when he still didn’t have his promised son?  Or that he still didn’t know where this so-called Promised Land was?

He wanted to believe God, sure.  He tried to believe God.  But he also took matters into his own hands.  His wife Sarah wasn’t really young enough to bear children anymore, remember; so he had a son with Sarah’s servant Hagar, a son named Ishmael.  And we all know how that worked out!

Was Abraham afraid that what God had promised would not come true?  Was his fear overwhelming his faith?

Then, I wonder if the disciples had anything to fear.

Here they were, following a man who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life; a man who said that no one comes to the Father except through him.

That meant, in part, the Romans.  Jesus was proclaiming a message of defiance to the political rulers.  His was a new kingdom, meaning his was right where the Roman kingdom was wrong; meaning his provided for the hungry, the poor, and the destitute in ways the Roman kingdom could not.  Moreover, Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the king of kings and lord of lords, meaning he was putting himself in a position of authority higher even than Caesar himself.  Jesus was shaking his fist in the face of Rome—of temperamental, mighty, volatile Rome.

Did the disciples have anything to fear?

It wasn’t just Rome, but also Jerusalem and their own Jewish identity: Jesus was proclaiming a message that opposed many of the Jewish leaders of his day—a message that distanced him and his followers from their own traditions and identity.  When Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through him, he was dissociating himself from those who did not agree with his message, whether Roman or Jew (or anyone else).

From the disciples’ point of view, this must have looked like one man taking on the world—Jesus against all social, economic, political, and religious institutions.

Did the disciples have anything to be afraid of?  Were they in danger of their fear overwhelming their faith?

So: What about you?  What do you fear?  And here I don’t just mean things like fear of bugs, spiders, snakes, or the Seven-foot Man; but the fears that can overwhelm your faith.  What fears have the potential to eclipse your faith?

Do you fear letting go of your money?  We live in uncertain economic times, after all.  And you’ve worked hard to get where you are, or to get where you’d like to be.  To retire with a livable wage requires planning.  And you’d like to leave your kids something at least!

Or maybe you’re more like Abraham.  Maybe you’ve just embarked on a new journey—you’re recently single again or you’ve just graduated from college or you’re about to get married or you’ve just changed jobs—and the uncertainty of it all can be overwhelming.  Do you fear the path of life ahead, the unknown?

Or, maybe, like some clergy I know, and at times like me, are you afraid for the church and its decline?  Do you ever fear that we’re a part of the wrong movement, that Christ’s Church, whatever the denomination, is losing its influence and effectiveness in the surrounding culture?

Do you ever feel like it’s you against the world?

Does your fears overwhelm your faith?

Well, you’re in good company.  Abraham felt this way.  Jesus’ disciples felt this way too.

Here’s the thing: Faith in Jesus is risky.  Following Jesus is unpredictable.  It can stir us in our own hearts to act in ways we never could have imagined.  It connects us with a movement that, just by association, means others may hate and prejudge us.

Faith in Jesus is risky and unpredictable, yes.  It can cause us to be afraid in ways that overwhelm our faith—in ways that tempt us to renounce our belief in Jesus Christ as God.

But let’s hear Jesus’ words once more: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Little Flock, he calls us; a term of endearment.  He loves us; he cares for us; he protects us.

And, to throw a technicality at you from the Greek, in that part of the verse where Jesus says, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” the verb here is in a tense called the aorist.  This is a tense we don’t have in English.  And thus it doesn’t translate very well.

But here’s what it means: the action has already happened and is continuing to happen.  In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples—he’s telling us—“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, and in fact he has already given it to you.  It’s here.  It’s now.  And it will forever be.”

And thus, little flock, we have no reason to fear.

So, if you want to put your faith into practice—if you want to do something that will help you not be so afraid—let me suggest what Jesus does: sell your possessions and give all the money you make to St. Paul’s during our annual pledge drive.

We laugh.  But, seriously, can we look at stewardship not so much as something to help the church make its annual budget; but rather as a personal spiritual discipline—as a way to put your risky faith into practice?

And, of course, it’s not just about giving.  Wherever fear threatens to overwhelm your faith, transform it into a spiritual discipline: put your risky faith into practice.

You have no reason to fear.  Really!  For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Indeed, he already has.