Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Exchanging Our Cities for the City of God

49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Luke 12:49-56

"...peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled." Hark the Herald Angels Sing

I know it's August, but man o' man does the text of Hark the Herald Angels Sing come roaring back into my brain with texts like these! I'm confronted with the little baby in the manger on one hand with the Son of Man on clouds raining fire and death on the world! Well, which one is it? Is it God and sinner reconciled or is it Wagnerian death from above; chaos and imminent doom?

Well, let's take the text piece by piece shall we? And just to calm it all down a bit, let's take a look at the last verses first. "You know how to interpret the earth and the sky, but why don't you know how to interpret the present time?" The human inability to recognize situations for what they are as they are right in front of them is legendary. Think about the story of Marie Antoinette who in the face of colossal human suffering and starvation told her servants to let the starving people eat cake. Or what about Nero who as the Eternal City burned pulled out the old fiddle and played along to accompany the dancing flames? When confronted with ultimate realities like these, human beings tend to lose their bearings. We can't see the signs even when they're bright and burning.

And maybe that's what Jesus' lament here is all about. He hasn't come to bring peace, not because he doesn't want to bring peace, but because he understands that in the face of an ultimate reality some people will reject it no matter how patently obvious the situation becomes. And maybe this is the source of his great lament. When Jesus arrives some people hear angels and understand that the division of God and sinner is reconciled, on the other hand, some see his arrival as a portend of doom that must be rejected and even brought to an end.

Therein lies a major theme of all four gospels; the message and mission of Jesus are a new ultimate reality which some will embrace and others will reject. Jesus' message of the Kingdom of God, the true business of God, entering the world and being available to the whole of the creation, is a disruptive thing. When we've built our whole lives on certain 'truths' about the world and our fellow human beings is it any wonder that the people of Jesus' time couldn't see the signs for what they were? Is it any wonder that they were willing to reject him if the questions that he was asking put in jeopardy the worlds and lives they had created for themselves?

We've all built worlds for ourselves; their walls are made of values and the gates are made of rules and exceptions. And we build and expand these cities we've built for ourselves. Within them we raise children, maintain friendships, establish policies and procedures, and live our lives. We've invested time in building these cities, these worlds of ours. They are built on foundations of isolating self-interest and occasional altruism. Within the walls of these cities the world makes sense, chaos is cast out and relative tranquility reigns. But what happens when some great and grand reorganizing event strikes the walls of our city. Is it seen as an invading army or is it seen as the bright hope for our self-made city. No wonder Jesus believed his message and mission would divide, "...father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

What was that message then, and what was that mission? Nothing less that God with us...Emmanuel. That like the great hymn of Philippians 2 tells us, Jesus humbled himself, became one of us, and suffered the indignation of crucifixion, and enjoyed the resurrection of God. All of this because God desired to be the builder of our cities; the breaker of our walls. God desires now to break down the dividing walls of fear and hatred, and we can find in the death and resurrection of Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. In him a new model and more than that, a new ruler for the city that is the human heart. A ruler who desires our lives to grow more and more into his likeness everyday. A ruler who rules by selfless sacrifice of himself, and asks us to experience the new city of God.

Is it any wonder that this message and mission divide? Is it any wonder that the signs of its coming would go unheeded falling on deaf ears? Will we be like those first hearers? Will we fail to see the signs of God's coming or even worse fortify the walls and gates of our hearts from it?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Some Sermon Notes for Sunday, August 8 2010

"Be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." Luke 12:40"

Be ready...the Son of Man...an unexpected hour

These are the three notions from Sunday's gospel lesson that have stuck in my craw after thinking about it a bit. Be ready...Son of Man...unexpected hour. So without further ado let's jump right into some good ole fashioned commentary reading.

L.T. Johnson, Luke: Sacra Pagina

First things first. The Lectionary stinks. Yeah I said it...there. The Lectionary STINKS. Sure it's generally a great tool for reading the bible in the context of worship, but man the divisions that committee came up with are the pits. I didn't need Johnson to tell me that either.

Johnson takes the Lectionary text (Luke 12:32-40) and has it divided between two sections (Luke 12:13-34 and Luke 12:35-48). Why is this important? Well, basically it's because we read this week what we should have read last week, "Where your treasure is their your heart shall be." You see Jesus was trying to use that chestnut on the man who asks Jesus to arbitrate in the family inheritance dispute that started in Luke 12:13. SO that unfortunately, we have a great little retort from Jesus that feels more like a fortune cookie than a "get your act together buddy" smackdown. Our Sunday text really belongs in a section that's about...wait for it...wait for it...READINESS. Our text for this Sunday is really about what it means to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. Ready for what you may ask? Nothing really, JUST THE END OF THE WORLD! (Cue Dum-Dum-DUUUUM music)

You see that whole section before with the guy who wants Jesus to arbitrate in a disagreement over inheritance is a chance for Jesus to tell his disciples not to worry about the mundane stuff of human existence. This is proverbial chicken feed compared to what you should be worried about and that is the stuff that God is worried about namely the Kingdom of God. That's how Johnson sees it anyway; the mundane stuff isn't comparable to God stuff.

Here's the kicker: there are two kinds of servants; the ones who have faithfully tended the house while the master was away and the ones who acted like they were the master. But on Sunday we're only gonna hear about the first kind...so how do you preach a sermon about the coming of the Son of Man without the fuller context of the whole of the 12th chapter of Luke? I have no idea...darn lectionary and it's crazy editors!

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone

Bah! Same divisions of the text for Wright and L.T. Johnson!?!?!! You're no help Tom! No help at all! (Just kidding Professor Wright. Yes, I would love to come to Aberdeen or wherever and study New Testament with you. You're paying for my full tuition and giving me a stipend of 20,000 pounds a year? That's fantastic!)

Wright focuses his commentary on preparedness of the disciples and the inherit failure of those who have tended the religious life of Israel. The disciples are the good servants and the Temple tenders are the bad servants. But that would be too easy for Wright and far too easy for Luke. Wright goes on to say that the issue is that whoever is tending the Temple and the religious life of Israel holds the remarkable responsibility of caring for the Kingdom of God while the King is away. (Those in the gender neutral camp and the post-colonial liberation theology camp will give me just a bit of linguistic wiggle room here I'll be happy...and thanks.) Those responsible for God's work in the world are tasked with a great and mighty work that requires the reordering of their priorities and a deep sense of the weight of office. No matter if you're a disciple, one of the twelve, called to represent the New Israel for the life of the world, or the keeper of the keys of the Temple and her precincts YOU BETTER BE READY AND FAITHFUL STEWARDS. (Man I'm using a lot of caps aren't I?)

Jesus is Coming...Look Busy

Next to the "I've Found Jesus...He was behind the Sofa the Whole Time" bumper sticker the "Jesus is Coming...Look Busy" works better here. Our text is a text of promise and warning all tied together. God brings judgement against those who claim to be God's servants. This judgement is sometimes a happy thing (when you're a prepared and faithful servant) and other times its a terrifying one (if despite your servant status you decided to act like the master).

(Whether you are a disciple or a pharisee you're going to get what's coming to you.)

I think Sunday's passage means that God's call is to be ever vigilant that the work we are doing on God's behalf is motivated properly, carried out properly and constantly under review regarding motivation and activity. We don't just get to look busy and say we're about God's business. Our business isn't always God's business and God will bring God's business into being whether we are properly involved or not. In order to be a part of God's business, we need to lay hold of Christ and his work. He makes it possible to take part in God's business through the power of the Holy Spirit, and at the same time calls us to keep tabs on our motivations and activities by patterning our motivations and activities on his. We don't get to look busy and worst of all we don't get to think we're untouchable because we're the Church (especially because we're the church). Instead we're called to trust the Holy Spirit sent to guide and comfort, and look to the example of Christ's life, death and resurrection for the reality of God's business.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Good Leaven and Bad Leaven

So, today at our Wednesday Bible Study we were looking at the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Now, there are a couple of really great stories in this chapter of Luke, but there's an interesting moment after the feeding of the four thousand when Jesus fresh off of making enough bread for the crowd tells the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Beware of leaven? Beware of yeast? Really? Yeast makes bread rise right? Why in the world would yeast be a bad thing? Doesn't it all make bread rise? This is one of those moments when our modern notions of food and Jesus's notion of metaphor don't connect. As was said by the guard in Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Now I'm not an avid baker, but I am/was an avid homebrewer. Bread and beer share most of the same ingredients. So...while I'm not a 100% sure of what I'm about to write, let me say that I'm pretty sure that I have a good hold on Jesus' leaven metaphor. So here goes.

In the modern world laboratory science has made accessing yeast easy. Go to the store, head to the baking aisle, and pick up three sealed foil packets of dry yeast from teh good people of Fleischmann's for a relatively small amount of money. The same is true for homebrewing. BEer yeasts are produced in small sealed containers that hold millions of tiny critters waiting to turn sugar into alcohol and CO2. In bread the CO2 makes bubbles and the alcohol...well that makes us happy.

In the ancient world yeast was a random act of God. In fact before Louis Pasteur, the German government created the Reinheitsgebot (German beer purity law of 1516) that said beer is water, barley, and hops. There's no mention of yeast until the 19th Century! Pre-industrial peoples literally relied on wild airborn yeast to make the magic of fermentation possible. The Vikings used to pass down disgusting unwashed mead stirring sticks from generation to generation because those "magical" sticks contained colonies of good yeast that made mead magic possible. Yeast lives in the air. To get it to work, significant numbers of "good" yeast need to outnumber and out grow "bad" yeasts in order for humans to benefit from beer or bread.

So what does this have to do with Jesus and the leaven of the Pharisees? Well, (and again this is my conjecture) leaven bread in the ancient world was probably a bit of a proverbial crapshoot. Ancient leaven methods relied on the wild airborn yeast to make bread rise. In competition with these good airborn yeasts were also the bad wild yeasts that would make the dough rancid and useless for human consumption. And that I think is the point of the "bad" leaven. The leaven of the religious leaders was destroying the souls of the people in Jesus' mind. Their "bad" leaven might make the dough rise, but it also imparted nasty off flavors and potentially harmful critters. Bad leaven makes bad bread. And that's the point. Jesus is offering the people good bread made from good leaven; the leaven of God. What Jesus is offering is healthy and life giving, not to mention tasty. Just as good and bad yeasts are battling for supremacy in a lump of dough (or vessel of wort) so Jesus is in a battle for the souls of the people of God. He's offering us his vision of God, his knowledge of God's love, and God's hope for the world.

Lots of leavens are fighting for our attention...the leaven of "success," materialism and a myriad of other "isms" and distractions. If we're honest those leavens may already have a foothold in our souls. What Jesus hopes for is that we'll see those leavens for what they are, and take on the leaven of God. It's a leaven that looks to the work and love of Christ as the source and model for a new way of living. Empowered by the Holy Spirit this good leaven can make its way into every part of our life and make us into the "loaves" we are meant to be. Our lives can be the proverbial loaves that feed the world the Bread of Life that is Christ.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On Building Barns

Barn envy. Now there are a lot of different types of envy in the world, but there is none stronger in me than barn envy. I hadn't heard the term before it was brought to my attention by Chris Simoneau, a member of our vestry, here at St. Paul's. When he said it I finally had a name for that covetousness I feel when I drive by a barn with a motorcycle or woodshop behind those giant doors. I have barn envy. I want a giant space to fill with projects, hobbies, and an old antique car that I can work on on weekends. I want a barn. I have barn envy.

When I read our passage for this coming Sunday, it makes me wonder if my barn envy is anything like THAT guy's barn envy. If I'm honest with myself, then the answer is probably 'yes' and 'no'. Jesus' terrifying parable in Luke 12:13-21 (and it is pretty darn scary) is about a man who has a conversation with himself about his financial security. He figures he's got nothing to do with himself other than build a bigger barn to house all of his abundant produce. Just as he's filled to the brim with smug self-satisfaction (and corn apparently) God shows up and demands the guy's life! (See article on Mean Jesus! ;) )

“Luke 12:16 - 21 "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

First, let me say that this is not God's punishment for building barns, sheds or outdoor storage in general. Second, it's a PARABLE. The point of the story after this first pass isn't the sin of barn envy as much as it's an issue of barn myopia. The story is a warning about the danger of the splendid isolation that's possible when we are convinced that our needs are the only needs in the world that matter. This man had a great harvest and probably adequate barn space to handle a harvest big enough to suit his personal needs. But instead of contemplating the greater community or even his abutters, he tears down the old barn, builds a bigger one, and sets up to never worry about HIS material necessities ever again. And there's the problem.

Is it wrong to build barns? No. Is it wrong to build barns without considering the needs of those around you? Yes. If a barn (read company, family, house, church, organization or whatever) isolates you from God and your neighbor, then the "barn" you are building is dangerous for your soul. Remember the conversation that lead to the parable in the first place! A man asks Jesus to arbitrate between he and his brother about their father's inheritance. They have a broken relationship! Money (the barn) has isolated them from one another to the point they need a non-family member to come in and arbitrate! God doesn't want us to build barns if the barn means broken relationship. Barn envy isn't a fatal disorder, but if we're not careful barn envy can and will distract us from God and the ones we love.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mean Jesus

I have fifteen minutes to spend on this post, and while I don't having anything ground breaking or particularly mad to offer my readers I would like to offer an observation from our bible study this morning on the Gospel of Mark. It's a very simple yet profound notion that one of our small band brought forward: Jesus was mean. I laughed. It's true. He was mean. And by 'mean' they meant he was human. He was pointed and direct; at times offensive and impatient or better...exasperated. (This is especially true of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.)

The portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is not of a man who lives in the serene calm of otherworldliness. Jesus is rough, he's tumble. He's got something important to say and he's going to say it. He has something important to do and he's going to do it. He's driven. He's unapologetic. He's never diplomatic. (Except with the give unto Caesar thing. ;) )

He offended sensibilities and he does the same now. It's hard to appropriate this 'mean' Jesus. We like nice Jesus or pleasant Jesus. We like play with the dog and kick the soccer ball around Jesus. We like Jesus when he's on our side. We like him when he agrees with us or fits our mold. We don't like mean people and we don't like Mean Jesus. Problem is that the Gospels give us a really much more interesting portrait of Jesus of Nazareth than Godspell or The Greatest Story Ever Told. What does Mean Jesus mean?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Problem of Preaching and Good News

What does Gospel actually mean? For those of you with some background in Greek you know that the word itself literally means "good news" but the Gospel of Luke never technically calls itself a Gospel. Only the Gospel of Mark uses the term gospel to describe itself in its opening verses. If we look a little deeper we'll notice that a simple word search shows that the word gospel only shows up twice in Luke 9:6 and Luke 20:1. (The Book of Acts will more than triple the number of uses to a whopping 7 times! [note sarcasm])

What I find interesting in the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts is that 'gospel' is almost always something preached. You don't get this good news from the mouth of Jesus or even the disciples without it being preached. And therein lies the modern irony of the Christian gospel. Twenty-first century North Americans don't associate the word or act of preaching with anything good at all. Preaching is synonymous with moralizing and moralizing means that the preacher is pronouncing judgement. There's nothing 'good' about the news preaching brings to the minds of most non-Christians because preaching is by definition an act of self-righteous judgement.

What a distance between the message of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and the modern 'flinch' reflex where preaching is involved or mentioned! In the Gospel of Luke (especially the 10th chapter I've been studying) Jesus is speaking about a reorientation of the human heart toward a deeper love of God and a deeper love of neighbor. Maybe the 'good news' of this message is that there is a different way to live and act in the world with one another without standing in judgement of whether our fellow human beings hit the mark or don't. Deeper love of God and deeper love of neighbor seem so far from modern preaching. How can we preach 'gospel' without becoming the judgmental moralists that preaching presupposes?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mary Has Chosen the Better Part

The big idea of the 10th chapter of Luke up and until this point has been the nature of true discipleship. The chapter begins with the sending of the 70 out into the places where Jesus desired to go. The disciples go and find that like Jesus they are able to cast out demons and cure diseases. They come back understandably astounded by these miraculous things. Jesus then tells them not to stay too focused on these things, but to be aware that the most important thing is to be written into the book of heaven.

The next section of chapter 10 includes the story of the lawyer and the Good Samaritan. Here it would seem that the while the lawyer understands the surface requirements of the law “Love God and love neighbor” he doesn’t understand that, in the eyes of Jesus, the love of neighbor entails a core sense of mercy and compassion among all of the people...even those who should be hated, despised, and ultimately rejected.
Then we arrive at this very interesting little bit about Jesus coming into the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Jesus is invited into the house (Much like the 70 are invited into houses and seemingly the household is eager to hear about the kingdom of God. He won’t be scraping off any dust any time soon.) Then there appears to be a domestic disagreement between Mary and Martha (at least from Martha’s point of view.) Mary is not helping out in the preparations of hospitality as she should.
Luke Timothy Johnson writes in Sacra Pagina: Luke that this is a great breech of etiquette on the part of Martha. Martha has enlisted the help of a stranger to settle a family dispute. Thus Martha ironically has violated the very same domestic hospitality that she blames Mary of having violated herself.
The question then here is, "Is this the point?" Is Jesus pointing out that the more important work of the disciple is not to worry about the surface obligations or the product of the work at hand, but rather to engage the guest who has come into the house? The important thing is not the hospitality being provided, but the guest being feted. This would seem interesting in the notion of discipleship that seems to be playing out in the course of the 10th chapter of Luke. Discipleship is about a climate of interiority that stays focused on the foundational notion of God’s love for the disciple over and against the works that defeat Satan (Luke 10:17-20), an inner sense of mercy that transcends soci-political-racial and class division to see in the “other” in need the identity of the neighbor that allows one to fulfill the law (Luke 10:36&37), and here finally a reprioritization of daily living to notice the one necessary thing which is the good portion that Mary has chosen. (Luke 10:42)
N.T. Wright in Luke for Everyone writes some interesting notes on this passage. He points to the fact that there is a great transgression going on on Mary’s part. In her world to sit at the feet of a teacher was the place of men only. Therefore, for her to do this would be scandalous in Martha’s sense of right and wrong. Wright focuses in on the fact that Luke has a propensity for breaking down the boundaries that exist between men and women; Jew and Greek; slave and free. Mary has taken the equal place of a man at the feet of Jesus and thus recast the notions that Martha knows too well and by which Martha is ultimately circumscribed. For Wright this passage isn’t about the "active vs. spiritual" Christian as many interpreters have thought. Instead it’s about the abundant love of God flowing in and through all people giving everyone access to the kingdom of God.
I.H. Marshall in NIGTC: The Gospel of Luke includes this passage in a grouping entitled “The Characteristics of Discipleship.”
- (40) The interest shifts back to Martha. The verb PERISPAOMAI means in the passive ‘to be pulled, dragged away’, hence ‘to becomedistracted, busy, overburdened’...The implication is that Martha wished to hear Jesus but was prevented from doing so by the pressure of providing hospitality.” p.452
[The implication of this gospel story for parishes is just astounding. How often are parishes so concerned about getting the work of ministry done that they forget to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen and learn? Distracted by Ministry would be a great title for a book! ;) Ministry and hospitality can become a distraction from choosing the better part.]
I wonder if this story isn’t all that unlike the Good Samaritan...Martha and the lawyer occupying the same basic role with Mary as the Samaritan. The lawyer asked Jesus a question about the law. In doing this he was trying to affirm that Jesus believed the way that he did. He was looking for Jesus to give the same answer. “How do I inherit eternal life? Love God and love neighbor. At question in that story was the character of the love of God and the love of neighbor not the outward action.
Was it love for those who are my neighbors in the sense of first century Jewish religious and purity expectations or was it in terms of a spirit of mercy that sees all suffering as a moment to demonstrate love? Love of God and love of neighbor for the Lawyer and Martha is the satisfaction of the encoded obligation. The lawyer fulfills the letter of the Law of Moses, while Martha fulfills the letter of the Law of the Matriarch. Like the lawyer Martha believes she is doing the righteous thing, but in reality (like the lawyer) she’s missing the deeper notion of the Kingdom of God. She has completed the obligation of the “law” but in so doing she’s missed the grace of loving her neighbor in this case it's Jesus himself and he's sitting in her kitchen.

Mary's better part (and by extension the Good Samaritan's too) is to reject the righteous obligations that distract us from our God. Whether he's teaching about the Kingdom in the living room or lying by the side of the road rejected by those who had righteous reasons for leaving him there we can choose the better part.