Inheritance: Something More from the Sermon

xmas-sweater

Yesterday we began our Advent Sermon series: “Future Shock.” We intend to look at the four personal pronouns from Isaiah 9:6 (a prophecy anticipating Jesus of Nazareth), “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace,” throughout the next four weeks, leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Sunday. The topic of the morning yesterday was “Wonderful Counselor.”

I suggested that a Wonderful Counselor is one who is “wonderfully present and skillfully contradictory.” Because we are in relationship with God, we have to suggest that God could contradict us, from time to time. That might be a challenging idea, for we tend to want God to “rubber stamp” our perspectives and thoughts. But, part of the faithful life is inviting God to sift through our lives. We looked at John’s gospel for an example of Jesus being a wonderful counselor to Nicodemus and what his transformation might mean for us, too.

But, I’ve been dwelling on the idea of Advent for most of the week. Advent is meant to help us to anticipate and to wait. Initially, Advent helps us to join in the waiting that the people of God endured in ages past before the first coming of Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and has promised to return, we now engage in a new form of waiting for his re-appearing.

We think waiting is lame, however. We prefer to be first in line or to text in an order so we don’t have to wait in line. Waiting in line (literally and metaphorically) seems to be a shame, something subhuman. And if there is a season in which waiting in line should not exist, its Christmas, right? Christmas should be a light-hearted and upbeat. We try to sanitize the holiday season. The only thing disturbing might be our ugly, tacky Christmas sweaters. All else, however, needs to meet this high expectation of a perfect holiday, free of burdens, conflicts, setbacks, etc.

What is funny about the Christmas holiday season is that we find ourselves in more lines than in any other season of the year. People’s sadness seems to compound during this season, as well. If we were honest, we are a people in conflict (at least internally) and it comes to the surface during this season.

Perhaps the Christmas season is a way that history “rhymes.” We have more in common with Jesus’ community than we might initially think.

Advent, then, is more of an inheritance to live into rather than a history to reflect on. Once again (like all good liturgy) past, present, and future mingle together as we gather to pray and worship during this season.

Perhaps this waiting is the very means of transformation, the very wisdom of God. There is something admirable about a person who doesn’t have to have what they want all of the time. The most enjoyable person in your life is probably one who is content with what they have and is dedicated to meeting the needs of others, instead of their own needs.

Imagine a world where the average person isn’t so singularly focused on getting what they want, but are content on enjoying what they have. We might just expect that we’re living in the midst of the kingdom of heaven, which is want we are encouraged to enter into and to seek.

Start-Ups: Something More From the Sermon

startup

Yesterday we wrapped up our Fall parable series with a bang! I enjoyed sharing from Jesus’ parable of the 10 Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). This parable is unique to Matthew and is placed at the end for rhetorical purposes.

Robert Farrar Capon suggests that Matthew organizes the parables of Jesus into a progression of 3 phases:

  • Parables of the Kingdom (“Hey, look! A new Ruler is in charge and the rules have changed!”)
  • Parables of Grace (“You can only enter into this new kingdom by admitting that you cannot earn it, but it is only by the sheer grace of Jesus.”)
  • Parables of Judgment (“Hey, if you don’t want to enter into this kingdom and respond to this kind invitation, that’s on you. It’s time to make up your mind. Just know that you will be left out.”)

The way Matthew organizes the material and makes this appeal and warning of judgment is compelling. There’s a good chance that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience after Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in the war between 66-70AD. There’s a good chance, then, that the Jewish community had asked big questions about their future existence. Is Israel gone? Has God moved on after struggling with us for so long?

Matthew’s entire gospel can be boiled down into a single idea: the living God has not given up on Israel but has sent Jesus of Nazareth to fulfill Israel’s vocation and to bear the pain of it’s disobedience. God is re-seeding Israel from within it. This time, the faithful community will give Abraham what he was promised: a worldwide family. (Genesis 12, 17, 19, etc…)

What hope or evidence can Matthew provide to Israel in their time of searching?

This is just a thought. As we trace the themes of these closing parables, it seems that, after Jerusalem’s fall, the worship of Yahweh took more of a mobile, agile shape. Perhaps in a modern metaphor, God is likened to an investor Who is searching for start-up organizations to invigorate with wisdom and grace.

In Matthew 25:1-13, there are 10 wedding guests, 5 of which are wise and patient who are rewarded for their diligence. They haven’t earned it; they are only included because of the gift of invitation, but that invitation inspired them to endure.

In Matthew 25:31-46 (the infamous Sheep and Goats parable) we see a similar idea. God visits with two groups of people and rewards them on the basis of their work. The “Sheep” however, are unaware that they’ve been serving God all along. God has been in disguise as they carried out their selfless work. This group of people did not feel compelled to do these things because they knew God was watching; they did it “without a why.” Their work was, as philosophy would suggest, “unconditional.” Therefore, God sought them out and invested in their initiatives.

As that early, small, and courageous church faced its 1st century world, they had many questions and fears, I’m sure. What invigorated their work was the hope that God would empower them in spite of the lack of social or political power. And God did. Their start-ups changed the world.

Perhaps this could be encouragement for us, too. We are in a moment of profound complexity (even confusion) as to what the church should do in connection with the systems of power in our world. We have to be honest, the church’s dependence and collusion with power has short-circuited our ability to model the faithful life with it. Our political rhetoric is laughable, perhaps even a bit embarrassing.

Perhaps we’ll consider this early Galilean vision for our current day. Maybe the nameless, powerless start-up initiatives that we invest in during our slow, daily walks with God will be met by matchless grace and power.

 

Freaks: Something More From the Sermon

diy-skeleton-lawn-decorations

On Sunday we continued our Parables series and examined an interesting parable in Luke’s gospel: The Pharisee and the Tax-Collector in the Temple. I suggested that this parable was shared by Jesus as he and his followers journeyed through Samaria, where his Jewish friends would’ve felt morally superior to the host Samaritans. In an effort to challenge their supposed moral superiority, Jesus told a story about two people praying in a religious setting. This parable, by the way, is the only of Jesus’ parables situated in a religious environment. Perhaps our claims of moral superiority are more clearly seen in religious environments.

Jesus supplied his hearers with two characters: the moral and religious all-star Pharisee (with a stunning resume of religious exploits) and the Tax-Collector (with his out-of-place-ness). Both prayed their prayers in unique ways and went home. Jesus suggested, however, that the Tax-Collector was the one who went home justified, which would’ve started the original audience, for he was assumed to be the one outside of the realm of possibility of justification.

I used this “out-of-place-ness” idea to sketch the unlikely inclusion of the NT character Paul, who brought physical harm on the church in its early days, only to have had a transforming encounter with Jesus and developed the need/desire to join the very church he persecuted.

In some mysterious way, Paul was the right person for the task of sharing God’s good news to the ends of the earth. His out-of-place-ness was included within the loving embrace of God.

In one of Paul’s letters to Corinth, he refers to himself as one “abnormally born.” (1 Cor 15:8) This original word, ektroma, has perplexed readers and scholars for some time, for the word is rarely used in Greek literature. It’s related words point to the event of a traumatic birth. It is suggested that the word could be related to 1st century delivery practices where a baby was removed from the mother’s womb rather hastily. This procedure could have left lingering marks on the baby, causing it to be called a “freak,” for the remainder of its days.

One could suggest that Paul was called a “Freak” by many as he endured hardships in his commission as a apostle of Jesus. We’d expect no less from Paul to animate an insult with encouragement for his calling as a minister.

I made a statement towards the end of the message about the Church being a community of freaks: a people with scars that don’t embarrass us, but are used to tell a magnificent story of God’s goodness and mercy towards us and the idea that God might be merciful to all.

As we wind down the Halloween season, I’m sure Christians have a mixture of attitudes towards Halloween. Some resist it, others celebrate it. There has always been a stream of Christianity that celebrated Halloween because of a rich theological idea: that as Christian people, we don’t need to fear death because we belong to one who conquered it.

One of the most interesting things that I’ve seen this Halloween season is a couple of skeletons on lawn chairs next to a road that I take on my commute home from work. The street is full of large, impressive homes so the sight of skeletons on lawn chairs is quite startling, maybe even prophetic. As these skeletons bask in the sun around large, luxurious homes, they share this message: “We’re all going to die someday. We might try to delay it or avoid talking about it, but we’ll all face it.”

Perhaps this might be an appropriate posture for the church as a community of freaks: that we do not fear death, that we aren’t going to pretend that we can be exempt from it, and that we intend on making the most of this life that we have.

And we intend for that life to have an incredible depth, not merely an elongated length. Some might just call it “abundant life.”

Something More from the Sermon: Transformation

sg15-10761

Yesterday, we continued our Parables series and spent the morning examining the ramifications of Matthew’s “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1-16) Although much of the action revolves around the workers invited to work in a vineyard, my contention is that we should focus our attention on the vineyard owner character, too.

Many of us know the story: a vineyard owner went to the marketplace to hire day laborers, a common reality in Jesus’ day (and our own). Jesus shared that the owner went out several times the same day (6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and finally 5pm) to employ workers for the field. The vineyard owner seems stingy early in this story, employing as few workers as possible, perhaps to protect overhead costs and seeking to keep as much as he could for himself instead of employment costs.

We are surprised, then, when the vineyard owner decides to pay all workers the same wage at the end of the day, regardless of the amount of time the workers actually logged in the field. When the vineyard owner is critiqued by the 6am workers, who worked the entire day and received the same amount as the ones hired last at 5pm, he exclaims:

“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matthew 20:15)

We can see that the vineyard owner has been in control the whole time. Early in the parable, however, he seems stingy with his money, which actually was beneficially to this early, 6am labor force. Towards the end of the parable, however, his desire to be lavishly generous to all flattened the local labor force to include the stragglers in the market who had been excluded in the day’s work force (for obvious reasons).

Why the sudden change of heart?

My suggestion is that the vineyard owner was transformed when he engaged the forgotten and vulnerable workers in the marketplace at 5pm. Prior to this exchange, he’s following the art of exploitation: hire as few as possible, for as little time as possible. Be scrupulous in the amount you actually have to pay. Cut corners when needed, bend the rules in your favor.

When he actually looked into the eyes of other, vulnerable humans, though, his mind changed. His mind was opened. His wallet was opened, too. His desire to pay the vulnerable a super-abundant wage was an over-aching declaration: there are new rules in this vineyard; this will be a business for the sake of others.

This embrace of the vulnerable, however, includes an exclusion of others. Miroslav Volf has told us that every embrace has its implied exclusion, too. The 6am-ers, who benefited by the old rules are now victims of the new rules. The vineyard ruler suggests that their “envy” of his “generosity” is preventing them to see the greater vision. (Matthew 20:15)

What would be interesting would be to see the next scene in this story, perhaps “a morning after,” the parable. Imagine how the interaction between the vineyard owner and the 6am workers would go down the next day in the market. I wonder if the 6am-ers would resist the vineyard owner’s invitation to go work in his field on the day after? Would they resist the potential to earn their own day’s wage in his field because they could not handle the fact that someone might work less hours and receive the same wage?

We could conclude, then, that there is potential transformation in both the vineyard owner and in the 6am-ers, who sought to take advantage of the vineyard owner’s budding generosity. (compare the initial contract in Matthew 20:1-2 and their “opportunistic” expectation in Matthew 20:10)

Grace has the tendency to bring this type of transformation and clarity. Grace causes some of us to spend our lives for the sake of all others or the potential cause us to be utterly disgusted by its abundant “waste.”

I wonder if this might be a lingering issue for the Christian faith, too. Would we (like the 6am-ers) resist God’s offer of salvation for our lives as we consider that God also desires to forgive/restore/save those who we feel morally superior to?

The gospel is the grand invitation to consider that there is a new Ruler in our world and, because of that transfer of power, the rules of how the world runs has changed, too. May we respond to that invitation and be transformed by its profound work.

Something More from the Sermon: Launching Counter Confusion

confusion

Yesterday was a big day at Peachtree. At the 10am service, not only did we ordain a new class of Elders, but we also acted upon the recommendation from the Pastoral Nominating Committee’s motion to approve that Rev. Dr. Richard Kannwischer be welcomed as our next Senior Pastor.

In the midst of all of that, we also continued in a great series on Jesus’ parables. The one on tap yesterday was “The Parable of the Weeds” in Matthew 13:24-30. The gist of it is this: a farmer sowed good seed in a field and an enemy tampered with the field and sowed weeds among the wheat. When they came up together the farmer had a decision to make: to pull the weeds and try to salvage a harvest or to let everything grow up and separate them at the end.

The farmer chose the later and it may have been a shocking thing for Jesus’ audience to consider. Jesus’ parables had a way of doing that, it seems.

For whatever reason, this passage was so compelling to me as I studied and sought to create a message from it. I spent so much time meditating on the story, putting myself within it, and thinking about the ramifications of why the farmer chose this course of action.

The farmer showed great patience while under attack. An enemy of his did this and the attack from the enemy had the potential to cause confusion and to promote paranoia in the farmer’s life. Even if the farmer could take care of the weeds for that crop, nothing suggested that the enemy wouldn’t do it again the next planting season.

A more permanent solution would be to find out who the enemy was and take legal action. But the deed happened in the middle of the night and because of the nature of how seeds grow, no one would’ve been able to calculate what exact night it happened in order to gather key witnesses for a trial.

The enemy’s attack was flawless. How would the farmer respond? The expected solutions didn’t seem wise. On the one hand, pulling out the weeds could ruin his crop. On the other hand, taking up legal action would probably just cause the farmer to chase a ghost for a suspect, never having hard evidence for a conviction.

The enemy sought to confuse the farmer. The farmer’s response of letting the weeds grow out is also an attack of confusion, a counter-confusion, of sorts.

Imagine the enemy walking by the field to watch the farmer struggle under the uncertainty of his field, only to discover that the farmer is at leisure instead of plagued with anxiety. “The plan didn’t work… why didn’t it work?” the enemy might ask.

Perhaps the farmer’s refusal to pick the weeds or to take legal action is an act of grace, an act of patience against his enemy. Maybe the weeds were meant to whisper to the enemy, “This is beneath you… be forgiven, be healed.”

Indeed, if the farmer pulled the weeds he might of salvaged a crop, but he would not have healed his community.

After all, Jesus tells this parable in order to describe the kingdom of heaven, a realm in which God is in charge. What we gather from Jesus’ tale is that God is a patient God, who strives with a wayward world in our rebellion, and seeks to win us back with unexpected kindness.

The cross, then, is like  the weeds we’ve sown in God’s field, beckoning us to give up the ways in which we wreck God’s world… it tells us to be forgiven, to be healed.

As we think about that cross (and the empty tomb accompanying it) may we recognize how we might be tearing God’s world up, to be changed, and to live a transformed life.

Something More From the Sermon: Embarrassment

embarrassment

Yesterday, we did a soft launch for our parables sermon series, a string of messages that will stretch out over the next few months towards the advent season. I love parables and the Gospel texts so this series is going to be fun.

The soft launch sermon sought to address the idea of a parable. Specifically, “what is a parable,” and “why was it used,” specifically by Jesus and by the Gospel traditions that record them?

I suggested that Jesus used parables as a means to launch non-violent reactions (flash mobs) in his preaching/teaching ministry. Parables were episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” bending the minds of his hearers with uncommon conclusions to common realities. Jesus used parables to argue, to frustrate, and to disrupt. Parables were assaults upon the ego, provoking deep and undetected changes.

Matthew (writing a few decades later than the Jesus events) provided an interesting conclusion as to why Jesus used parables. Matthew 13:10-17 suggests that Jesus used the parables as a way to confuse his hearers, to throw them off, to leave them in a place of dissonance. Parables were told to outsiders while Jesus spoke plainly to insiders. Parables were a wall to divide two groups of people.

An obvious question: Why did Jesus (or at least Matthew’s account of Jesus) do this? I mean, doesn’t Jesus and Matthew want all to embrace Jesus? Why confuse and create dissonance?

Matthew, I suggest, created a powerful rhetorical device: embarrassment. Matthew’s Gospel has two big ideas: first, Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story and lastly, the Jews should have seen it all along, but refused it embrace it. Therefore, Jesus is “re-seeding Israel from within Israel and those who are participating in it were the characters that we’d expected God to pass over.”

So, Matthew suggests that parables were used to create a gap, to put a section of people outside (for the moment) in order to include them later on by their own volition, after embarrassment could do a deep work within them, to confront their pride and exclusivity, to want to be a part of the insiders as humble servants and guests.

There are two types of embarrassment: embarrassment that leads to seclusion and the embarrassment that leads to salvation.

Think about that time when you had an out-of-body experience, of sorts, which gave you a perspective about the gap that you had in your life.

Perhaps a time when you were seething with anger or reluctant to respond in a moment of crisis.

Think about that conversation with a friend when they explained that they didn’t feel that they could confide in you any longer because you let them down in the past.

Think about the time you expected a raise, an award, but it was given to someone else.

These gaps, these free falls, could lead to you or I hiding away, living with bitterness, or blaming others.

Or, they can be a means of grace to us. Because, all of life’s experiences belong. God’s kindness always leads us to repentance, even those lowly, embarrassing moments when we’ve blown it. Those moments provide the clarity that we need to make some changes and to keep going.

Something More From the Sermon: Strangeness

Stranger

Yesterday, we kicked off a series that I am looking forward to sharing more about: Storm Stories. We’ll enter the Bible’s most famous storm stories as stand with storm survivors.

We are shaped deeply by storms. We talk about them as we share our story.

Storms are scary, but we should learn from them, too.

Yesterday we examined Jonah’s storm. I suggested that Jonah’s storm was that Jonah was serving a God that was doing things Jonah would rather God not do.

Jonah is written for us to see a staggering truth: Jonah is God’s prophet, but he is deeply flawed. The people that Jonah encounters (swearing sailors on the sea and kings of wicked cities) are more faithful than Jonah. Outsiders are more insider than Jonah appears to be.

The irony of Jonah is this: Jonah was a messenger to Nineveh, but Nineveh ended up being a messenger to Jonah.

This reality is common in the Jewish and Christian traditions. As a wisdom tradition, Christianity suggests that we can know the right answers and still miss the point. One punchline of the Old Testament is that the Jewish people were God’s special people in order to appeal to the rest of the families of earth of follow God. At times, however, the Jews struggled with ethnocentricity, or believing that they were privileged as God’s unique people instead of serving the world. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was to welcome the outsider and outcast, to retrieve this lost vocation of Israel.

Indeed, in 3 main narrative points of Christianity, a stranger is a key character:

At Jesus’ birth, Magi (strangers from the East) are more eager to pay homage to the savior born in Israel. The religious teachers knew where the Messiah would be born, but showed no interest in joining the Magi to go honor him. Outsiders (with overwhelming devotion and underdeveloped theology, by the way) were more faithful than those who were expected to be.

At the Crucifixion, as Jesus is being sneered and mocked by Jewish insiders, a Roman Centurion confessed that Jesus was a righteous person.

At Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out upon the Church, a nameless, faceless crowd confessed that the early church was praising God in a plethora of languages, bearing witness to the scope and shape of where the message of Jesus would go. As a reminder, this event came after the disciples asked Jesus if he was going to restore Israel’s unique hope. Jesus seemed to respond, “you need to think outside of that box.” Isn’t interesting how Acts ends miles away (geographically and metaphorically) from where it begins?

In short, a faith without strangeness is an unChristian one. If we seem to only gather with people who are like us and if our “good news” is only good to people like us, our faith isn’t big enough.

So, may we embrace the stranger, who just might be the messenger of God to us.