Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Kingdom is Now

In our Monday-morning co-ed bible study, we’ve been reading N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus. We’ve gotten to the part about what sort of kingdom Jesus is establishing, and Wright emphasizes that the parables show us what he had in mind. The question that keeps popping into my mind is, “What does the world look like when God is in charge?” The parables that Jesus tells aren’t descriptions of a heavenly realm. They are declarations of what happens when God establishes his reign on earth. In other words, these parables aren’t descriptions of the aftereffects. They put forward the mechanics of the kingdom itself.

In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 20:1-16), Jesus says that the kingdom is like a landowner who hired a series of workers—some for the whole day, others for most of the day, and some only for an hour—and then paid them all the same amount. The radical declaration here isn’t that God’s riches are bestowed equally upon all people once God’s kingdom is established. The message is that God’s kingdom is only established when everyone receives the same. God’s reign doesn’t come down from heaven in a powerful moment of triumph that then sets everything straight according to kingdom priorities. God’s reign only comes down through the radical reorientation of our entire lives as demonstrated in this frustratingly illogical parable.

If you are waiting for God to come back before you seek to live in the kingdom, you’ve mistaken the prerequisites for the syllabus. You can’t wait on it. It waits on us. Jesus came and established God’s kingdom here already. His death shows that it is time for rewards to be distributed according to God’s universal love and grace and not according to what we think is right. If you’re not already living according to the kingdom that Jesus established, then you’re actively opposed to it. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Faith or Works--Which Is Easier?

I grew up immersed in the gospel of Romans. Raised in a Protestant church by Sunday school teachers who knew Paul’s dictum of grace backwards and forwards, I knew how to answer the question “faith or works?” We are justified by faith—of course! The old system of works-based righteousness was broken and incomplete—so the teaching goes. You can’t get to heaven by works. Only faith will get you there.

But the lines between grace and faith got so blurred by an anti-works polemic, that I don’t think I ever appreciated what it means to have faith. That sounds easy. But it only sounds easy because it’s held out to me as the opposite of works. Ask a seven year old what he would rather do—carry a 50-pound sack of corn up a steep hill or just take my word for it that it’s heavy—and the answer is easy. Give me faith over works anytime. But faith isn’t easy. In fact, I think works are easier. Faith is hard.

Today’s epistle lesson (Romans 4:1-12) is the crown jewel of the grace vs. law dichotomy. Like Paul, many Protestant preachers (including me) have chosen Abraham as our preferred OT figure. Paul needed a patriarch in the Jewish tradition onto whom he could fasten his gospel of grace, and Abraham fit the description perfectly. Remarkable faith leads to justification. That he was the father of circumcision (the symbol of the old covenant) was quickly and resolutely addressed by Paul: “That came after he was justified; go back and read Genesis.” And Paul’s treatment of the Abraham story makes Romans 4 one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament.

But what Paul couldn’t have realized is that, by the time we get to the twenty-first century, Christianity has spread so far that “believing” in Jesus isn’t all that hard—at least on the surface. In fact, growing up in Alabama as an anything-but-Christian is probably much harder than professing the lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s the opposite of Paul’s world. Back when Paul was writing, believing that God’s promises had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ and staking one’s life to that claim was physically dangerous and culturally difficult. We have no idea.

Kathy Grieb’s 2002 book The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness helped me make the connection. Although she says it with scholarly integrity in way I cannot, for Paul being justified by faith meant having faith like Abraham. He was old and his wife was reproductively even older. She was unable to have children, yet, when God told Abraham that Sarah would conceive and bear a son, Abraham believed God, and his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. That’s the model of faith we are called to follow. If our faith is going to justify us, we have to have crazy, makes-no-sense, are-you-kidding-me faith.

Paul wrote in Romans 4:5, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” In other words, if you’re going to give up on works (and we do), then you must have the kind of faith that enables you to stand naked and sinful in front of almighty God and trust that he won’t condemn you. You have to put all of your heaven-bound eggs in one basket and trust that you’ve got it right. If not, you’re in big trouble. If God isn’t a God of grace, then you’re in for a rude and quite unpleasant surprise that will last for the rest of eternity. Even in those moments when God’s salvation seems so far away, you must cling to it with all you’ve got. It can be the only thing that matters. Anything less isn’t real faith, and half-hearted belief isn’t what gets reckoned as righteousness.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Making Jairus Wait

I know that Mark likes to sandwich stories together, and that this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 5:21-43) is a prime example--perhaps scholars' favorite. I've preached on this pair a few times, and I've taught on it a few more. Today, when I read these two miracles, I hear Jesus saying to Jairus, "You have to wait."

My phone rings pretty often. There's a slew of post-it notes on my desk with messages I need to return. Although I'm ashamed to admit it, I answer the ones I recognize before I return the ones I don't. When the phone rings, I'm willing to help the people who look like me, talk like me, and go to my church a lot more readily than I am to reach out to those who don't have a high-school education, don't speak properly, and have never set foot in church before. Maybe that's because I'm called to tend a specific flock, but I think that's ignoring the real truth.

I succumb to the needs of the elites before I attend to the needs of the world. In this story, Jesus allows a woman on the fringe of society to interrupt his ministry to the leader of the synagogue. He stops and ministers to her, risking the death of Jairus' daughter. In fact, she dies. But the message here is that, even though Jairus had to wait, Jesus was still able to minister to him.

I'm not advocating dereliction of duty. When the phone rings, answer it. When someone walks in the door, stand up and greet them. But I need to remember that sometimes people in coats and ties have to wait for people who wear rags.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Forgetting to Say Thanks

One of the lessons for the ordination of a priest is Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25—“omitting the final clause” (BCP p. 528). If we look at that snippet of the lesson, we are struck by the power of God’s spirit, which descends upon the elders Moses has appointed. Even the two who were left in the camp—Eldad and Medad—were filled with the spirit and began to prophesy. The ordination propers tell us to leave out the final clause because it reads, “But they did not continue doing it,” which, given the context of an ordination service, makes sense.

But the REAL beauty of this lesson comes when we read the whole thing, most of which we have in today’s OT reading from the Daily Office (Numbers 11:24-33). The lesson continues past Eldad and Medad. It goes beyond the fact that they stopped prophesying. It goes all the way to the quail that God brings in by a wind from the sea—and then it keeps going. My favorite line is the last verse of our lesson: “But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague.”

That’s not very nice, is it? While the people of Israel were sitting around their family tables eating the quail which God had given them—the first meat they had eaten in a while—God got angry and sent a plague upon them. Sounds like a mean-spirited prank. Actually, it has more to do with Israel’s faithlessness than with God’s presumed mercurial nature.

In the beginning of Numbers 11, we read that the people of God were tired of eating manna. They began to complain against God and against Moses, saying, “Back when we were in Egypt, we had meat to eat. We had leeks and fish and melons and garlic. All we have out here is this flaky bread substance. We wish we were back in Egypt.” At that point, they had crossed the line. The single greatest expression of God’s salvation was the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and now the very people God had saved were regretting his salvation. That was too much—for God and for Moses.

Moses comes to God and says, “Will you please just kill me now if I have found favor in your sight? These people are a burden too great to bear. Take me now so I don’t have to hear them anymore.” God had pity on Moses, so he did two things: he invited Moses to share the responsibility with the seventy elders and he sent the people quail so they would have meat to eat. But that was a gift to Moses—not to Israel. God was answering Moses’ prayer of desperation. The people of Israel needed to learn their lesson. And that’s why he sent a plague.

I choose not to read that as God’s intervening punishment for Israel’s faithless whining. Instead, I read it as the naturally expected outcome of their selfishness and shortsightedness. Because of their thanklessness, the true benefit of God’s blessings could never have been appreciated. Like a spoiled four-year-old, they stomped their feet and pitched a fit and, sure enough, got what they wanted. But that never ends well. It had to fall apart. They had to realize their mistake. So, even while the meat was still between their teeth, the plague came.

We are an ungrateful people. We demand luxuries and consume them with no regard for their real source. We credit ourselves as the source of our success, and we deny God any respect for his providence. How will that story end? I don’t think God reaches down from heaven and causes our fillet mignon to poison us because of our faithlessness, but I do believe that a life lived only for ourselves is bound to end in ruin. We cannot sustain ourselves. We must only subsist on God’s gift. Denying that is to deny our very lives. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Where's the Lectionary Headed?

This Sunday’s gospel is a short text about Jesus’ stilling the storm. Characteristically, Mark takes an abbreviated, simplistic approach to this phenomenal tale about Jesus exhibiting divine power over the created order. Who had power to control the weather? Only God. Unlike the disciples, we’re able to make the connection.

But that has me wondering… what happened to the season after Pentecost? I feel like I’m right back in the season after Epiphany. This gospel text is epiphanic in its nature—especially when it’s set aside by itself. Because this tiny passage is detached from its context, we don’t get to see how it fits in to the wider picture of Jesus’ ministry. This Sunday, we’re blind to the dramatic exorcism that happens as soon as he gets to the other side of the sea. Instead, we have only a tiny piece of the bigger picture, and, like a key hole through which we’re peering, this storm-calming gives us a glimpse into the nature of Jesus.

Maybe that’s the beauty of summer. The whole story doesn’t become clear until we’ve spent a few weeks in church together. Last week, we had two kingdom parables. And, in Mark’s account, this stormy voyage comes immediately afterward. And, although the RCL does skip over the exorcism in Mark 5:1-20, next week’s gospel (Mark 5:21-43) is the text immediately after that one—the sandwiched healings of Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman.

When I was preparing a sermon last week, I was kind of excited that we would get to spend time in parables this summer. But I’ve already looked ahead to all of the gospel lessons for Sundays between now and August and there aren’t any. Instead, last week’s one-shot at kingdom parables is supposed to set the foundation for everything that follows. The question for the preacher over the next two months is this: How are these stories from Mark 4 through Mark 6 evidence of the kingdom that Jesus was preaching? In other words, how do these stories illuminate not the person of Jesus (season after Epiphany) but the kingdom he came to establish (season after Pentecost)?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mistaken Identity

Sometimes lectionary mix-ups lead to theological insight. At least that’s the story I’m sticking to.

I have a confession to make. I’ve had my propers mixed up since the week after the Day of Pentecost. I’ve been off by a week, which has led to all sorts of liturgical, lectionary mishaps. For starters, I erroneously pointed a parishioner to the wrong week of the Daily Office. I hope she figured it out. Then, because I was out of town last week, I printed out the lessons for Wednesday’s midday service for someone else to read. Then, yesterday when I was preparing for the same service, I realized that the readings I was prepared to preach on were the same ones I printed out for last week, so I had to do a last-minute switch and read the previous week’s actual lessons. Because of that, today’s lesson has come alive in a whole new way.

Yesterday, I read Matthew 14:1-12—the story of Herod’s ordered decapitation of John the Baptist. That passage begins when Herod reflects on the rising popularity of Jesus, saying, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” Herod was racked with guilt and fear, which stemmed from the awkward means through which he ordered his prisoner’s execution. He was tricked by a seductive woman, who got Herod to promise her anything, to which she replied, “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Matthew tells us that Herod was sad by this, and, although this gospel account doesn’t let the tetrarch off the hook by making him overly sympathetic to JtheB (like Mark), it does retain the conflicted nature of the story’s end.

Fast-forward a week and a day today’s lesson—Matthew 16:13-20. Jesus says to his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And the disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” And so the link is made. Usually, I read this story as Peter’s great confession (a moment we commemorate in the church calendar). This time, though, I’m drawn to the mistaken identity—some say John the Baptist. Interesting.

What leads people to mistake Jesus for someone else? For Herod, it was superstitious, unresolved angst. For others, it might have been unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And for others, it might have been simple misunderstanding. Some say John the Baptist. Of course, that’s silly. They were contemporaries. How could they be the same person? Yet so strong is the human desire to make concrete relationships that we’ll convince ourselves of the strangest things.

Last night, I went to a minor league baseball game with our youth group. While there, I overheard a parent say to his son, “See that! When you stop paying attention to the game, bad things happen.” The opposing team had just scored two runs, and, although I think he was joking, the father attributed that unwanted success to his son’s lack of paying attention. That’s ridiculous. But, before any of us thinks a critical thought, consider this. When was the last time you thought about switching seats or walking out of the room or changing channels when your favorite team was down just in case that might help the situation?

We like to think of things in our terms. Who is Jesus? He’s the superhero I’ve made him out to be in my head. But the beauty of Peter’s confession is that Jesus is none of those things that people think he is. He’s not another JtheB or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He is the messiah. He is unique. He shatters our expectations and defies our attempts to relegate him to analogies we understand. Only God himself could have revealed that to Peter, and we must trust that only God can show us who Jesus really is.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Red in the Morning

Red in the morning—sailors’ warning; red at night—sailors’ delight. I remember marveling at that little ditty as a child. The first time I heard it felt like a new and wonderful revelation. I was probably seven or eight, and it seemed as if the mysteries of the universe had been opened up for me. Little did I know that Jesus had said that two-thousand years earlier (Matthew 16:1-12).

I suppose that was as familiar to Jesus’ contemporaries as it is to us—maybe even more so. In a time when there wasn’t a nightly forecast on the local news, signs like red skies caught the attention of the masses. Everyone knew to look at the sky and anticipate what tomorrow’s weather would bring. And that’s precisely why Jesus used that mini-prophecy to convict the Pharisees and Sadducees for their sightlessness.

Jesus said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” In other words, what he had been doing and saying should have been as plain to them as the sailor’s proverb, but they couldn’t tell. They wanted a sign, and I think they were genuine in their asking, but they wanted a sign that they could recognize. They wanted the sign-giver to conform to their mentality rather than allow their mindset to be shaped by the giver of signs. How true that still is today!

How many times have you asked God for a sign? Usually, those requests are not explicit. Instead, I’m just watching and waiting for God to show me something before I yield him my heart, my will, or my pocketbook. But sometimes I find myself in that silly place where I say half-jokingly, “God, if this is what you want, give me a sign.” Either way, the problem is the same: God has already given me a sign; if I can’t see it, it’s my fault.

Jesus came to show the world that God’s reign was already being established through him. The leaders of his day wanted political, religious, and social power to rule the day. They interpreted the prophecies of the Old Testament as anticipating an anointed leader to come in power and to share that power with God’s people. Jesus showed them that the prophets had a different sort of power in mind and that God’s might would always be expressed in ways that human beings found perplexing. The signs of God’s reign—the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor receive the good news—were unfolding before their eyes, but they couldn’t see them.

How is God showing up in our lives? Hint: he’s already here. We’re supposed to look for God’s power to be expressed in startlingly subtle though equally amazing ways. Those signs are here, and they are as plain as the color of the sky. But are we seeing them?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Looking Back or Looking Forward?

I am almost certain that I will preach on the Mark reading this Sunday. I love the parable of the one who scatters seed on the ground and knows not how it rises. But today, I’m writing about the lesson from the OT—Ezekiel17:22-24. It’s the underdog of the lessons this week, and I find that appealing.

Yesterday in a bible study, we talked about eschatology. That sounds more dangerous than it was. We’re reading N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, and we came to the part of the book in which he describes how Jesus’ arrival in first-Century Palestine represented a “perfect storm” of conflict between Rome, Jewish culture, and himself. In that book, Wright points out that Rome considered itself to be in the midst of its golden age—its heyday. The Caesars had established themselves as semi-gods who had been given the divine right to rule over the known world. Wright calls their approach “retrospective eschatology” because, after looking back on the last few years, they think they’ve made it to the pinnacle of their existence. Contrast that with the Jewish mindset, which focuses on “prospective eschatology” For Jews, tomorrow always promises to be better than today. The Cursillo-used phrase, “The best is yet to come!” takes on new meaning in that context. Wright sets up the conflict between Jerusalem and Rome in clear and convincing language that focuses on these contrasting views of eschatology.

Ezekiel, it seems, shares that perspective: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.” Imagine the image of the neighbor being pruned ever so slightly in order to plant a new tree for Israel. As the reading continues, we see that God’s tree is to provide a shady home for “winged creatures of every kind.” This is God’s tree with room in it for everyone.

At the time Ezekiel delivered that message, it would have been hard for God’s people to believe. They had been plundered by foreign armies and carted off in captivity to faraway lands. Yet in the midst of their trouble, God said, “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.” There’s a new day acomin’, God declares, and he’s going to take care of everything. That’s why the image isn’t of a mighty army coming to triumph over its enemies. That never makes for a good bible story or a good movie. No one except the fan cares if the favorite wins the contest. Our inherited eschatology is of the littlest being made great, while the powerful are brought low.

I think we underestimate the importance of the “tomorrow-will-be-better-than-today” mindset. Someone in our class pointed out that America shares the same “retrospective eschatology” that the Roman Empire adopted. As a nation, we have always thought that God has brought us to this moment because we were destined for it and for greatness. In our national mentality, today is always the destination—a point to stop and look back over our history and celebrate where we are. It’s hard, therefore, for us to stay focused on tomorrow, yet tomorrow is where God’s promises remain.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Naked in the Garden

I wonder if ancient Israelites ever had nightmares of showing up at the yeshiva naked.

I think Genesis is my favorite book of the bible because it brings the most raw, basic, earth-shaking human emotions and experiences into stories that we can tell our children and grandchildren. There’s a reason Genesis is the first book of the bible—and no, it’s not because it was written first. (Parts of it are some of the newest of the OT). Genesis captures what it means to be human and what it means to be in relationship with God.

This Sunday, I will have a hard time not preaching on Genesis 3. It’s the story of the consequence of the Fall. Adam and Eve hear the Lord God walking in the Garden, and they run and hide. Why? Because they were afraid. Why? Because they were naked. And so it begins.

You can take the story of the “apple” and the tempting serpent, but please give me Genesis 3. This part of the bible, of course, is written not as literal history but as existential history, and it’s supposed to capture not the sequence of events but the deeper narrative behind them. Did the snake convince Eve to eat the apple? Did Eve give the apple to Adam? Were their eyes suddenly opened? I have no idea. But what I do know is this: when they realized what they did, Adam and Eve went and hid. Of that, I have no doubt.

This is the fundamental, foundational, universal reaction to sin—go and hide. Toddler colors on the wall with a crayon? Runs and hides. Teenager caught in the bedroom with his girlfriend? Runs and hides. Executive loses important account? Ignores boss’ phone call. It’s what we do. And if we have a partner in the mix, we turn and point at her: she made me do it. It’s what it means to be human.

This story from Genesis 3 represents the brokenness of humanity’s relationship with God. Sin is that which forces us into hiding. Sin is the fact that we hide. Sin is the false, mistaken impulse that leads us to run away from God rather than to him. Our nakedness is our humanity. It is the realization that, although we might be made in God’s image, that image has been marred.

So where’s the grace in that? God didn’t start over. We’re still here to tell the story. Even though we ate the fruit, God didn’t wipe humanity off the face of the earth and begin anew. God chooses us even though we run away from him.