Archive for Kingdom of God

Assessing Effectively

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 10:35-45

1.

Whenever I have a little extra time, I like to study congregational development. Congregational development is the term that’s in vogue today; twenty-five years ago it was church growth.

It’s the area of ecclesiology that wrestles with questions like: How can our congregation grow? What does it take for a congregation to attract more worshipers? What clues can we learn from local demographics? And—a question I was confronted with in Yuma—can a congregation of the Episcopal Church thrive in a geographic region where Trader Joe’s won’t open a franchise?

Trader Joe’s wouldn’t come to Yuma because there was not a high enough percentage of college-graduates there. I’d heard this rumor anyway; so I wrote to the company personally to ask if it was true. It was.

And yet the Episcopal Church’s demographic is high on education levels: How strong were an Episcopal parish’s chances for survival in a town whose education levels weren’t good enough for Trader Joe’s?

So you know, I’m not the only one concerned about congregational development. This area of ecclesiology has become a rather prominent focal point of not just the Episcopal Church but of most Christian denominations in the U. S. And not in just one segment, like Catholic, Protestant, mainstream, liberal, conservative, settled, or adaptable. But all of the above!

Numerous books have been published on the subject. If I wanted to attend workshops or other continuing education opportunities on this topic, well, there are so many available I don’t even know where to begin. It’s even a focus of doctoral study: I could go earn a Doctor of Ministry degree in Congregational Development if I were so inclined; I’m not.

Still, I take this area of ecclesiology seriously. In fact, the Bishop’s Committee and I have been working our way through a book this year on congregational development called Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter. We allot a chunk of time in each of our monthly meetings to discuss the ideas presented within.

2.

And today we’re confronted with this story.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask, “Teacher, will you give us whatever we ask?”

And already things are sounding suspicious! I mean, whenever someone approaches me and says something like, “Tim, will you do me a favor?” my defensive radar goes up.

What is this “favor,” exactly, I wonder? What is it that the asker is trying to get me to do? Why hasn’t this person just come out with it and asked me directly? Am being manipulated?

And so I find a way not to say, “Yeah, sure. What do you need? Name it.”

Maybe Jesus’ defensive radar went up too.

Whatever the case, he doesn’t say, “Sure, what do you need? Name it.” Instead, without answering their preemptive request, he asks for clarification: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Oh,” they say—I imagine a little sheepishly—“well, you know, nothing much; just that one of us gets to sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory. No big deal. Won’t you do this for us?”

James and John’s is a recognizably audacious request. We could even call it rash. And thus there’s a certain tension here.

These two brothers are arguing about who’s the best, about who deserves to be in a place of honor in the kingdom. And—as if they didn’t already know—for the third time in this Gospel Jesus tells them what they must do to inherit the kingdom of God: be servant of all; be like a little child.

Now—though we’ve heard it all before—many times!—aren’t we a lot like James and John? Aren’t we rather audacious and rash in our faith and practice? When we go about our daily routines, isn’t it all too easy to put ourselves first and consider others only as an afterthought, if at all?

And what should we make of congregational development—how St. Thomas might become bigger and better; how St. Thomas might become more known in and around Temecula and Murrieta; how St. Thomas might pay off its mortgage once and for all?

Isn’t this similar to what James and John are doing?

We want a kind of glory for ourselves. We like to be in places of honor. We crave accolades. These are natural parts of our human condition.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if St. Thomas became known as the best all-round parish in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego?

Heck yes!

Well, then, how are we gonna get there?

And so we think long and hard about congregational development.

But . . . as today’s Gospel shows us, we shouldn’t be self-absorbed, fighting for the top spot.

3.

This brings up two difficult questions. On the individual level, how do we combat self-absorption? On the corporate level, why should we concern ourselves with congregational development; isn’t it simply a self-serving exercise? (Spoiler alert: no, it’s not a self-serving exercise.)

Let’s take a step backwards, get our noses out of the details of the Gospel for a moment, and think about the bigger picture here.

Jesus rebuked James and John for striving to be on top; and yet, in the church history Hall of Fame, these two disciples in fact hold some of the top spots of all the saints. Jesus rebuked them for wanting to be the greatest; they nevertheless became some of the greatest.

As a parish, we shouldn’t be competitive about how well-known we are or might become because of our ministries; though St. Thomas may actually become a model parish in the Diocese of San Diego.

Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

And we nod our heads meaningfully, knowing this will in fact happen, though not as James and John envision it.

The bigger picture here is about effective self-assessment; which is different than self-absorption.

In today’s Gospel, James and John are good at being self-absorbed; but poor at self-assessment.

Like James and John, it’s natural for us to see the faults in other people; but not so easy to see our own. On the other hand, it’s very easy for us to see our own achievements and accomplishments, but much more difficult to see the achievements and accomplishments of others. It’s easy to criticize others and praise ourselves.

So, it’s only after James and John learn to deny themselves and assess themselves effectively that they are able to go out and accomplish Jesus’ mission—which makes them two of the greatest in the Faith Hall of Fame today.

What we should be after is effective self-assessment.

This is a skill that does not come naturally to us. It takes much effort; much practice.

For it to be effective, we look outward, putting others first; not inward, at our needs, wants, superiorities, entitlements, and biases. We don’t come to Jesus asking him to do something for us because, hey, we deserve it. Instead we come asking humbly, “How can I become a servant to all?” “How can I receive the kingdom as a child?”

4.

And this is precisely why I’m leading the Bishop’s Committee through Rebuilt: effective self-assessment! I don’t want St. Thomas to be self-focused; rather, I want the leadership to assess our congregation effectively.

But combatting self-absorption begins not with us as a congregation or even with the leadership but with all of us, you and me, as individuals.

Unless you and I learn to consider the needs of others as on par with our own needs; unless you and I rid ourselves of the senses of superiority and entitlement that tend to accompany our wealth, education, and ethnicity (I deserve to shop at Trader Joe’s); unless you and I see no distinction between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free as Christ sees no distinction—unless you and I, as individuals, see true equality between the faces seated around us and ourselves, we cannot move forward as the community God has called us to be in Christ Jesus.

Like James and John, it is only after we break free of self-absorption that we will be able to assess ourselves effectively—first as individuals and then as a community.

What is the purpose of the church? Is it not to go out into all the world and make disciples, teaching, baptizing, and healing? If I interpret this purpose correctly, then the church exists not for the benefit of its members but for those outside. It’s not about you and me; it’s about everybody else.

*****

How might we, St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School, accomplish this mission?

First, we rid ourselves of perceived entitlements and ways in which we feel superior to others; and thus receive the kingdom of God as a little child.

And, second, we seek to meet the true needs and hurts of those in the world around us; and thus become better servant-leaders.

These two actions are at the core of effective self-assessment. These two actions must be the focal point of every discussion we have about congregational development.

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Wealth Intervention

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on October 14, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 10:17-31

1.

Americans are wealthy.

Even if we don’t meet the Economic Policy Institute’s measure of the top 1% of America’s wealth—about $422K per year of household income in 2018 (minimum)[i]—we’re still wealthy.

We live in a wealthy country—one of the wealthiest in the modern world; and as for the history of humanity . . . well, most of us, even if we’re nowhere near that top 1%, live better than most royalty have lived in all of recorded history.

We hear about a widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States. While it may be true that the rich are getting richer, according to a Forbes article from June 1, 2013, the poorest people in our country are still richer than almost 70% of the world.[ii]

Eighteen countries were highlighted in this article. A bar graph shows a spectrum for each country: a red dot to the right on the bar indicates the top 10% wage mark; and a blue dot to the left indicates the lowest 10%. Everyone else—from 10% to 90%—falls somewhere on this spectrum.

When these 18 countries are compared, the U. S.’s red dot is the farthest to the right—but only just barely beating out Canada, Sweden, and Australia. Interestingly, the blue dots for these other three countries are to the right of our blue dot, meaning their poorest are better off than our poorest.

But that’s it! The poorest of the other fourteen countries are significantly poorer than our poorest; and—remarkably—the richest of seven of these countries are actually poorer than our poorest.

You heard me right: 90% of wage earners in Italy, Israel, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico earn less than our bottom 10% mark.

This gives us some perspective. We are wealthy.

Wealth is something like a drug, isn’t it? The more we have, the more we think we need it; and the more we take for granted what we already have.

Our social, emotional, and even spiritual lives become chemically dependent on our wealth.

It fundamentally alters us.

We are a nation of addicts.

2.

So, a question: how does this wealth affect our church?

It’s a difficult question to answer.

We know, on the one hand, that the Episcopal Church thinks a lot about money. We are required canonically to have an annual pledge drive—which, by the way, is coming up shortly. We encourage tithing, though we don’t require it. Most dioceses have schools and camp and conference centers—big budget items. We have the Church Pension Group, begun by J. P. Morgan himself (so I’ve heard), one of the strongest in the nation (also, so I’ve heard). There’s even an organization called the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.

All this points to wealth.

But, on the other hand, it’s no secret that the Episcopal Church—along with mainline Christianity in the U. S.—is in decline. Membership is waning. We can’t make our budgets. Properties have been sold. Parishes have closed.

How do these factor into the church’s wealth?

Pew Research offers one answer. A survey they conducted looks not at churches per se, but at the individuals who attend churches: at average household incomes and religious identification in the U. S.

And their results, published on Oct. 11, 2016, are telling.[iii]

44% of those who identify as Jews in the U. S. make more than $100K per year of household income.

In second place, those who identify as Hindus; with 36% making more than $100K.

And guess who comes in third: Episcopalians, with 35% making more than $100K.

To give some perspective, Presbyterians come in at 25%; Mormons at 20%; Catholics at 19%; and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 4%.

The American average comes in at 19%, same as Catholics.

So, Episcopalians place third out of 26 groups; first of all Christian groups.

What does this indicate?

We are a wealthy church.

In fact, as far as churches go, we’re in the top 10%.

And that can generate all kinds of attitudes to watch out for—attitudes Jesus cautions us against—attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

3.

Now, with this in mind, today we come to Jesus, kneeling before him, eager; and we ask him a question:

“Good Teacher, you’ve blessed us with so much—this building, beautiful liturgy and music, a vicar, friends, hospitality, a community! And we’re trying really hard.

“We’ve got a Stephen Ministries team together and LEVs to get Communion out to our shut-ins.

“We watch what we say about other people, trying to build them up and not to tear them down.

“All the leadership is fulfilling the diocesan Safeguarding requirements.

“We work as a team and give credit where it’s due, paying our bills and working towards becoming a full-fledged parish.

“And we try to be honest in all our dealings with each other.

“Good Teacher, what more can we do?”

I find it interesting that this story comes right on the heels of last week’s story.

Jesus just finished teaching his disciples that unless we receive the kingdom of God as a little child, we shall not enter it.

When a little child receives something life-giving—food, maybe, or clothing—what does that little child do? Nothing—except say, Thank you!

And now we come to Jesus with this rich man and ask, What must we do?

Don’t you find Jesus’ answer curious?

I mean, Jesus just finished telling his disciples—through a difficult discussion about divorce and remarriage—that the kingdom of God is about what’s possible more than about what’s permissible.

Jesus just finished demonstrating that we shouldn’t rankle over lists—this is how to get a Christian divorce and still be in good graces with the church, etc.

And still the rich man asks, What must I do? Tell me. Give me a list.

And Jesus does not say, “Don’t you get it? Receive it, that’s all, like a little child receives a parent’s love!”

Instead, Jesus says, “You know the commandments”; and he names them.

Well, the rich man says, “I’ve done all these things since my youth.”

And so have we.

And we have a darn good church to show for it!

But there’s still this, Jesus says: let go of your addiction to wealth.

4.

But how? It’s easy to say; difficult to do.

Well, as I mentioned earlier, we’re about to launch our annual pledge drive. . . .

More seriously, Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher, professor, and Christian layperson whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. He published 58 books, many of them exploring the intersection of technology and religion—still very relevant for today. He is credited for the slogan, “Think globally; act locally.”

So, in his book entitled Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, he has this to say:

How [do we] overcome the spiritual “power” of money? Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings. The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling. That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual “power” of money is to give our money away, thus desacralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control. . . . To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.[iv]

How do we let go of our addiction to wealth? We give it away.

And, yes, the church is a wonderful organization to which you can give your money. Pledge according to your conscience.

But even more than I care about the church, I care about you.

Wealth is an addiction. The more you acquire, the more you want to acquire more; and the more you take on attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

Think of today’s Gospel as an intervention.

Do you want to be free from the love of money? Give away all that you possibly can. And when you’ve done that, give away even more.

Does this sound impossible? But for God, all things are possible.

[i] See https://www.epi.org/.

[ii] Cf. https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/06/01/astonishing-numbers-americas-poor-still-live-better-than-most-of-the-rest-of-humanity/#29eee57e54ef

[iii] Cf. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/11/how-income-varies-among-u-s-religious-groups/

[iv] As quoted in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4, p. 169 (WJK, 2009).

The Kingdom of God and MeToo

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 10:2-16

1.

Today’s Gospel has it all, right? Marriage, divorce, remarriage, adultery, and little children! Sounds scandalous! We might say this passage is pregnant—tee he he—just waiting to give birth to all sorts of conflicting opinions and hasty judgments.

Not unlike modern politics!

So, to get us going today, here are some interesting recent statistics I looked up about divorce in the U. S. from the Pew Research Center:[I]

  • Every 13 seconds, someone files for a divorce.
  • 8 years is the average length of a first marriage.
  • The likelihood of a first marriage to end in divorce is 41%; of a second marriage, 60%; and of a third marriage, 73%.
  • 66% of divorces are filed by women.
  • 50% of children see their parents go through divorce.
  • 43% of children are living without their father’s involvement.
  • The number of divorces filed per year has decreased more or less steadily since 1995: about 1.2 million divorces were filed in 1995; in 2015, the number was about 800,000.
  • You’re more likely to get divorced if you:
    • Married before age 25;
    • Did not graduate high school;
    • Fight about money with your spouse;
    • Have a friend going through a divorce.
  • You’re less likely to get divorced if you:
    • Have a college degree;
    • Had happily married parents;
    • Are very religious;
    • Live in a blue state.

Divorce is Jesus’ starting point in today’s Gospel. Moses allowed divorce, Jesus says, because of humanity’s hardness of heart.

But from this springboard, Jesus moves on through the topics of remarriage, adultery, and children and comes around ultimately to the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God there will be no separating of what God has joined together; no divorce, remarriage, or adultery; no hardness of heart.

2.

Anyway, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and adultery are all related. But why does Jesus then bring little children into it? Why this juxtaposition? Is this some sort of mistake? Is the lectionary giving us too much: two separate and distinct topics?

It’s no mistake. Reading the text carefully, Jesus most definitely picks up the little children and blesses them in response to his disciples’ confusion about the kingdom of God; and the kingdom of God was where he took his divorce discussion.

These topics are definitely connected.

But how?

One thought has to do with children of divorce: in calling the little children to himself, maybe Jesus was saying that they are the real victims of divorce and remarriage, having no say in the matter and few if any rights.

Another thought, though, has to do with the connections between today’s Gospel and the one from two weeks ago. Just like in today’s Gospel, two weeks ago Jesus and his disciples entered a house where he then engaged them in discussion. And just like in today’s passage, two weeks ago Jesus welcomed a little child. These are some attention-grabbing connections.

So, do you recall what the discussion was about two weeks ago? The disciples had been arguing along the way about who among them was the greatest. Ego undergirded this discussion.

Today, the discussion revolves around divorce. Does ego play a part in divorce? (Does the bishop wear a funny hat?)

Yet, in both cases, the egos of little children—not to mention everything else about them—are often not factored into the equation at all.

So then, is Jesus giving us instructions here about how to live? Divorce may be a legal option, sure. But is it the most ethical option? What does a divorce—and, for that matter, remarriage and adultery—mean for children?

Maybe that’s it: instructions about how to live. Certainly, many churches want to go there. When is divorce acceptable, they ask; when is it not?

But we do ourselves a disservice if we stop here—if we think that today Jesus is merely offering wise counsel about divorce and remarriage.

Besides, in the end, when we make up rules and regulations about divorce and remarriage, aren’t we really just doing what Jesus’ opponents did? Aren’t we just asking what’s permissible?

Jesus’ response has little to do with what’s permissible. Instead, he turns the whole divorce discussion over on its head and tells his opponents and disciples—and his followers today—not what’s permissible but what’s possible.

Moses allowed divorce, he says, because of hard hearts. But in the kingdom of God, whatever God has joined together will not be separated. That beautiful, harmonious kingdom is possible in the here and now.

No, it’s not simply helpful instructions for living together that we see here today. This divorce discussion runs much deeper.

3.

How much deeper? Over the last year we’ve heard a lot about the so-called MeToo Movement. The discussion around this movement has become especially heated in the past few weeks surrounding the election of our newest Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

And I know, the pulpit is not an appropriate time or place to engage in the myriad details and opinions and emotions involved in current events.

Nevertheless, in the context of MeToo and SCOTUS, I exhort us to ponder, in the spirit of Jesus, not what is permissible but what is possible.

More specifically, let’s look at today’s Gospel again. Where does Jesus take us? What are his stopping points on his journey from divorce to little children?

Jesus’ opponents come to him to test him with a question. It is worded very specifically:

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Stop. Man? His wife?

Is it just me, or does this question sound patriarchal?

Jewish law—what Moses permitted—made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband. According to Jewish law, if a woman was unhappy or if her husband was abusive or unfaithful or whatever, she had no recourse except to hope and pray. In modern vernacular, she was trapped.

But am I being maybe a little anachronistic? Weren’t all laws of that day written only for “man”? And, if so, couldn’t that term be interpreted in a generic way, as in, “Is it lawful for a man or woman to divorce his wife or her husband?”

Well, that’s a nice thought. But the answer is, simply and clearly, no: Jewish law made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband.

This term, man—we know it refers to the male in a marriage precisely because of the contrast we find between Jewish law and contemporaneous Roman law; which did make provision for women wishing to divorce their husbands. A woman couldn’t vote in ancient Rome—or hold office or serve in the military—but she could divorce her husband.

So, look at what Jesus does! After he says that in God’s kingdom it’s not about what’s permissible but what’s possible, he targets this patriarchal mindset.

He says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her”—no surprise there.

But then—most surprising!—he continues, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (emphasis added).

Wait! Did Jesus really just go there? The law of Moses does not make provision for a woman to file a divorce; but the law of Rome does. Who does he think he is to come along and suggest that women ought to have equal rights? Has he sold out to Rome?

Jesus usurps the law of Moses. This surprises his disciples; and it should surprise us too, for in usurping the law of Moses he calls us out from what is permissible into what is possible.

A patriarchal mindset is permissible; true equality is possible.

It’s not just about what a man wants, or about a man’s career; it’s about MeToo.

4.

And as if right on cue, the disciples don’t get it: suddenly little children are all around; and the disciples shoo them away. Jesus, the text says, is indignant.

What does he have to do to get it through their thick skulls?

So, he calls the little children to himself, and says, Now do you understand? “For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”

And I do hope at this point the disciples said, “Aha!” It’s not in the text, so I can’t be sure; but I can hope. For here, everything Jesus has been getting at comes together.

Why this juxtaposition? Why do we find little children included in a tough passage about marriage, divorce, remarriage, and adultery?

In the ancient world, the only way a person could have all the rights was by being male. A female might get some rights, but she could never have all of them. And a little child—well, children were for shooing away and little else.

But the kingdom of God turns this patriarchal mentality on its head. The kingdom of God is about true equality—true liberty and justice for all.

So, whatever else we make of the MeToo Movement and SCOTUS, we cannot deny that a patriarchal mindset remains at work in our world. It may be only a shadow of what it once was, as some people argue; but a mere shadow contains far more darkness than the pure light of the kingdom of God.

Too often our debates revolve around what is permissible. But Jesus calls us to live into what is possible.

And what is possible, as the kingdom of God continues to break upon our shores, is true liberty and justice for all.

[i] As cited on https://www.divorcelawyersformen.com/blog/divorce-rate-us-2018/.

Not a Table Manners Manifesto

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

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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.

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.

The Greater Commission

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

At the conclusion of last week’s service, a parishioner asked me a question about my sermon.

To recall, in last week’s Gospel we heard that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  In other words, he was resolute about fulfilling his mission, about completing the task God had called him to do.

With this mindset, he sent some of his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village, in search of hospitality.  Foxes have holes, he said, and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to call home.  He and his disciples were dependent upon others for hospitality—for what they would eat and where they would sleep.

So, those disciples soon returned with bad news.  The Samaritans, it turned out, would not host Jesus and his disciples.

Now, these were Samaritans!  That is, they did not worship the same god as the Jews, but some kind of false amalgamation of a god, something kind of like the Jewish god but also kind of not.

This apparently reminded two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, of a story in their scriptures of a certain prophet of the Most High named Elijah; and how he once called fire down from heaven on four hundred priests of a god named Baal, you know, a god kind of like the god of the Jews but kind of not.

So James and John said, “Jesus, how could they?  Just give us the word, and we’ll call fire from heaven down upon these inhospitable Samaritans!”

But Jesus rebuked them.  They were simply to wipe the dust off their sandals and go on to the next village.

And so Jesus, I explained, had brought us a new plow.  This new plow was not like the old plow of Elijah’s era, one that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus’ new plow, rather, was a plow of love.

Love your enemies, Jesus said.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.

This is the new plow upon which Jesus has called us to set our hands and not look back.

Anyway, that was my message from last week in a nutshell.  And the question the parishioner brought forth went something like this:

So then, Father Tim, is Jesus saying we should wipe the dust off our feet regarding followers of other religions? that we should have nothing to do with them?

It’s a worthwhile question.  For we know we are called to love others.  This is the plow to which Jesus has called us.  And loving others often results in discomfort for us.  To seek hospitality from others requires a certain vulnerability on our part.  To put another person’s needs and wants ahead of our own requires an uncomfortable level of humility.  And if we’re rejected, it requires a certain amount of self-control merely to wipe the dust off our feet and walk away rather than calling fire or other curses upon them.

But what if we’re certain—or almost certain—ahead of time that it’s a fool’s errand?  What if we just know already that our vulnerability, humility, and self-control—our self-inflicted discomfort—will simply fall flat?  Can’t we just avoid such discomfort altogether?  I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to take Christ’s message of love somewhere else, where its objects are potentially more receptive?

Well, to cut to the chase, the answer is no.  Christ’s mission of love is for all, whether or not their minds are already made up against it—against us.

We infer this answer from last week’s text.  For Jesus in fact sent his disciples into a village he knew ahead of time to be Samaritan.

He knew ahead of time that these villagers worshiped a different god from his.  He knew ahead of time that Samaritans didn’t normally associate with Jews.  He knew ahead of time that racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was commonplace in Palestine.  He knew ahead of time, in other words, that his disciples would almost certainly be rejected.

And yet he sent them ahead anyway.  For his was (and is) a mission of love.

But this answer is made even clearer in today’s Gospel.

For promoting Jesus’ message and ministry required the disciples to allow themselves to become vulnerable; to humble themselves; and, facing almost certain rejection, to exercise seemingly superhuman self-control.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  The disciples were to go from place to place, preaching the Good News of Jesus, curing the sick, and accepting whatever hospitality they were offered.

And this was in Palestine, a half-forgotten province of the Roman Empire.

The religious context there went something like this: the Jews did their thing, the Samaritans did their thing, and those of a pagan bent did their thing.  Each group was content with its own religious identity, its own religious ideology.  As the woman at the well so eloquently put it, the Jews worship in their way and the Samaritans worship in their way.  One day all the differences will be cleared up.  But in the meantime, never the twain shall meet.

When it came to religion, there were established traditions and ideologies.  And these established ideologies conflicted with each other.

And now, in Jesus, something else, something new was happening.

His message and ministry seemed Jewish.  Mostly Jewish anyway.  Still, over and over Jesus had opposed the Jewish leaders—of both major parties: both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  His was a message of peace.  But, ironically, the peace he proclaimed was highly conflictive.

So Jesus’ message and ministry flew in the face of the established religious ideologies of his day.

It also flew in the face of political ideologies.

Politically, Rome was in charge.  This meant good things for the privileged classes.  If you were in an upper class, you fared well—as long as you were self-focused and pushy enough to keep yourself in your privileged position.

Rome’s way was thoroughly hierarchical.  This meant you could lose a privileged position.  This also meant others could climb social ladders, sure.  But for a place like Palestine, on the fringe of the Empire, most people were simply half-forgotten.  Most were economically challenged, i. e., lower class.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

Occasionally a messianic figure would come along and offer an uprising, a violent protest against the powers that be.  Judas Maccabeus is perhaps the most well-known example.

But Jesus came along and said, yes, there is in fact an oppressive hand over us all; but, no, we are not to protest violently.

Do you think that this crazy message of new religion and non-violence would have been received by anyone?  It wasn’t just those of a different religious persuasion who would reject Jesus’ disciples and his message.  The disciples also faced almost certain rejection from those most like them, namely, the poor, half-forgotten Jews of Palestine.

Jesus never said following him would be comfortable, simple, or easy.  If anyone is telling you this, don’t listen.  Rather, Jesus says following him will be uncomfortable, even difficult.

This was true for his disciples in Palestine under Roman rule; and it’s true for his disciples in Yuma today.  For, at its core, Jesus’ message and ministry—a message and ministry we carry on to this day—are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, now you’ve gone too far, Father Tim.  What do you mean that Jesus’ message and ministry “is about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world”?  Jesus’ message and ministry is a personal one, about love, peace, and salvation; it’s about saving my soul from sin and eternal damnation.  No one ever said this life would be easy, true.  But that’s just Jesus’ point.  There’s nothing he could do about it; and there’s nothing I can do about it—except to make sure that my walk with Jesus is on the straight and narrow.  That’s all anyone can ever do!

And then you stick your fingers in your ears and break into song:

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away . . .

To which I say, yes, in the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew Jesus commands his disciples to go out into the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, yes, there is in fact a very personal element to Jesus’ message and ministry.

But here, in Luke, we see another perspective in another commission.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve; but here, in Luke, he sends out seventy.  So, arguably, the commission here in Luke is an even Greater Commission than the so-called Great Commission of Matthew.

At any rate, here Jesus commands his disciples to accept whatever hospitality (or rejection) they’re shown, cure the sick, and (whether received or rejected) proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Do you see?  Doing works—i. .e, ministry—is first.  Preaching—i. e., message—is second.

And as for the message: what is it to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near but to proclaim that all that is now wrong is being made right?

Jesus’ ministry and message is to make wrongs right presently.  It has a personal element, sure.  But, maybe even more, it has a social element.

Jesus’ ministry and message are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Well then, this begs two questions.  First: Do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in our world today?  This is America, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And second: If so, are we able even to do anything about them?

As to whether oppressive or exclusive systems exist in our day, hindsight is a good place to begin, for, as they say, it’s 20/20.

In relatively recent history, we see now how wrong slavery was.  But did slave owners see slavery as oppressive or exclusive in their day?

As we know, our country was bitterly divided on this issue.  Did you know the Episcopal Church was divided over it too?  On the one hand, slave-owning Episcopal bishops argued from scripture that slavery was an acceptable institution for society’s greater good.  On the other hand, parishes such as the Church of the Transfiguration—still thriving today in Manhattan—were stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, can we learn anything from hindsight?  Our nation and Church were divided over slavery back in the day.  What divides our nation today?  What divides our Church?  This is our starting point.  Then ask: Are any of these divisions based on oppressive or exclusive systems?

An elephant in the room here is human sexuality and the present debates over issues stemming from it:

Does a county clerk have the religious right to protest a gay marriage?  What bathroom should or shouldn’t a trans-woman be able to use?  Is it contrary to the authority of scripture to ordain a homosexual person in a monogamous relationship?

Another elephant, of course, revolves around the second amendment (no pun intended).

And what of all our technological opiates, the healthcare crisis, and our economy, which is founded on credit—or should I say indebtedness?

So, do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in America today?  Sadly, they seem to be everywhere and inescapable.

Perhaps the most important questions in these debates should be about the dignity of all persons.  In our opinions, in our political and religious ideologies, in our constitution and amendments, in our judicatory proceedings, in our bills and laws—for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—we must fight against systems that enable one group of people to oppress or exclude another.

But, you ask, what can I do about it?  I’m simply one individual in an ocean of humanity.

True.  But so were Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus didn’t call them simply to throw up their hands in a helpless shrug.  Instead, he commissioned them to become vulnerable, to seek out the hospitality of others even though it meant almost certain rejection, to offer healing to others, and to proclaim that the kingdom has come near.

And you know what happened?  These few rag-tag, seemingly insignificant disciples went out and did what Jesus commissioned; and they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Beloved, it is the same with you.  Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!

Time for a New Plow

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by timtrue

old plow

Luke 9:51-62

There’s a curious interplay between two of today’s readings: the one from 1 Kings, involving Elijah and Elisha; and the one from the Gospel, the one involving Jesus and his disciples.

Now—scraping off our Old Testament rust here—recall that Elijah was a prophet of the Most High.  And he was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab.

Remember King Ahab?  1 Kings (21:25) sums up Ahab’s reign thusly: “Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel.”  Ahab was a terrible king in God’s sight.  And Elijah had been called by God to serve as a prophetic voice against this terrible king Ahab.

But what made Ahab so bad was, as the scriptures observe, his wife, Jezebel.  Remember her?  She was maybe the first person ever in the history of the world to claim Eminent Domain.

The story goes like this.  There was a man named Naboth who owned a small vineyard.  This vineyard was good, productive, and verdant.  And it happened to be right next door to Ahab’s palace.

So Ahab approaches Naboth one day and says, “Hey, Naboth, I really like your vineyard.  It’s so green!  And the grapes look delicious!”

“Yeah?” Naboth answers, warily enough, and says, “I like it too, as a matter of fact.  It’s been in my family for many a generation.”

“Well,” continues Ahab, clearing his throat, “um, er, well, um, so what it comes down to is, well, um, I want your vineyard for my own garden.  Sell it to me.  I’m your king, after all.  I’ll gladly pay you what it’s worth.”

And Naboth says, “But it’s not for sale.  For crying out loud, it’s my ancestral inheritance!”  And he walks away, turning his back on the king.

So Ahab goes home sullen and vexed.

And there, at home, sullen and vexed, Ahab grabs a glass of wine or whatever and sits down to brood.

And his wife Jezebel enters.

Now, to put it in context, old Israel was a patriarchal society.  Ahab’s the man.  He’s in charge.  He also happens to be the king.

So, have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  There’s a scene in this movie when the mother of the bride-to-be explains to her daughter how things really work.  “The husband is the head,” she says, “this is true.  But the wife—she’s the neck!  And the neck can turn the head any way she wants to!”

So Jezebel enters the room and sees her husband Ahab the king, the head of Israel, sitting there brooding, and she says, “What’s eating at you?”

And he explains the whole episode with Naboth and his verdant, productive vineyard; how he asked Naboth for it; and how Naboth said no.

And the neck Jezebel turns the head Ahab around.  “What!” she exclaims, “Aren’t you the king of all Israel?  I’ll go get that vineyard and give it to you myself!”

So she throws Naboth a birthday party.  But right during the middle of the festivities, two thugs—whom Jezebel had hired, by the way—stand up and loudly and falsely accuse Naboth of some crime worthy of death.  And the scheme works.  Without fair trail of any kind a crowd of people grabs Naboth, drags him away from his own party, and stones him to death.

And later that night Jezebel comes home to tell her beloved husband, “Guess what, Ahab, dear?”  And she hands Ahab the keys to Naboth’s vineyard and toasts her Eminent Domain victory.

By the way, Jezebel also convinced Ahab to employ several hundred priests of the Phoenician god Baal.  Yeah!  The state religion at the time was not Judaism!

Anyway, all this meant that Elijah had a very difficult job before him, one that required focus; or, to use a euphemism from the KJV, one that required him to set his face like flint.

Even so, when it comes time for him to pass on his mantle to a disciple, we read that he allows this disciple, Elisha, to tie up some loose ends first.

God tells the prophet Elijah, “Go and anoint Elisha as a prophet, to continue the ministry that you have begun against Jezebel and Ahab and their false god Baal and all those false priests.”

So Elijah goes and finds Elisha and explains.

Then Elisha answers, “Okay, but first let me go and kiss my mother and my father goodbye, and then I will follow you.”

And Elijah is like, “Sure, seems reasonable to me.”

But then we come to the Gospel.  And we read:

As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.”  And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  To another he said, “Follow me.”  But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And I’m left saying, “Wait a minute!”

Elijah just found Elisha plowing a field.  His hand was on the plow, in fact!  But before he commits to following his new leader, he looks back—even if but for only a short time—to kiss his mom and dad goodbye.  So, Elijah has no problem letting his disciple, Elisha, say farewell to those at his home.

But Jesus doesn’t allow it.  “No one,” he says, “who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  But wasn’t Elisha—of all people!—fit for the kingdom of God?  Yet his hand was to the plow.  Literally!

What is Jesus getting at?

Well, maybe if we go back and look a little more at the Elijah story we’ll begin to answer this question: what is Jesus getting at?

Before Elijah ever approached Elisha; before Elijah had received word from God to pass on his ministry to a disciple; and, in fact, before Jezebel had enacted her version of Eminent Domain on that poor soul Naboth, Elijah took on those several hundred priests whom had been hired by Ahab and Jezebel, in a fiery display of God’s absolute superiority.

Do you remember this story from Sunday school?

It was four hundred against one, bad odds by any stretch.  Except Elijah boldly took them all on, even mocking their god in front of them all.

“Where is your god now?” he taunted.  “Oh, perhaps he’s sleeping.”

So the four hundred priests of Baal danced and wailed and wept and cut themselves, all to get their god’s attention.  But nothing worked!  Their god Baal never came to bail them out.

So, “What?” Elijah mocks.  “Well, where is he?  Maybe he’s preoccupied with some other matter.  Maybe he’s using the bathroom.”

Yeah!  That’s part of the story.  Did your Sunday school teacher include that part?

Then, with one word, Elijah calls down fire from heaven—which consumes the water-logged sacrifice in one fell swoop, and all four hundred of the opposing priests of Baal—whom Ahab and Jezebel had hired; and which immediately put Elijah on the top of the list of Israel’s Most Wanted!

And now we understand today’s Gospel a little more clearly.

Jesus set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem.  This was his mission, how he would bring about salvation to the world.  He had to do it, and he knew it.  Like Elijah, he had received word from God the Father.

So, on his way to fulfilling his mission in Jerusalem, Jesus sends some disciples ahead of him, in search of hospitality, into a village of Samaritans.  But, because his face was set towards Jerusalem, the Samaritans refuse.

And here we can so easily picture James and John, can’t we?  After all, we get righteously angry too.

“What?” they exclaim.  “How dare they refuse you!  I mean, come on!  Don’t they realize who you are?  You’re Jesus!

“Oh, but that’s right.  They are Samaritans.  They don’t worship the same God as we do.  They’re infidels!  Well, then, just give us the word, Jesus.  We’ll call fire from heaven down upon them, just like Elijah called fire from heaven on those accursed false priests!”

(Sigh!)  Had James and John forgotten that so recently—earlier in this same chapter of Luke, in fact—Jesus told them merely to wipe the dust off their sandals and walk away when rejected?

Have we forgotten this?

Beloved, fellow followers of Christ, we live in crazy times.  I don’t have to mention even the events from this week to demonstrate just how frightening our times are.  Terrorism, racism, and vigilante violence are seeming to spread across the globe like some new black plague.  No doubt a significant motivator of the so-called Brexit is fear; and, more particularly, fear of foreigners, xenophobia.

We fear them: those who aren’t like us, those we don’t understand.  We fear those whose skin color is a different shade from ours.  We fear those whose sexual orientations or gender identities don’t align with our perspectives.  And, maybe most of all, we fear those who worship a different god from ours.

So, what then?  Are we to call fire from heaven down upon them?

Jesus came and showed a new way.  When others reject us, we don’t call fire down from heaven.  That’s an old plow, one that should be abandoned altogether in an old world, in Elijah’s world.

When others reject us, instead, we take the high road.  We turn the other cheek.  We wipe off the dust.

Do not be afraid, Jesus said.  Rather, love.  This is the new way.  This is Christ’s way.  This is the new plow to which we’ve put our hand.

For the sake of God and humanity, don’t look back.