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.

The Thing about those chairs from The Voice

The Voice - Season 4

THE VOICE — “Blind Auditions” Episode 405 — Pictured: (l-r) Blake Shelton, Usher, Shakira, Adam Levine, Michelle Raitzin — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Preachers in our contemporary moment have used the rotating chairs on The Voice to convey the essence of the grace of God. The basic gist is this:

We are the singer on the stage; God is in the chair. We are trying to earn God’s love like the contestants are trying to sing well enough for one of the hosts to turn their chair around, to tell the singer that they are wanted.

“You don’t need to wait for the chair to turn around,” the preacher aptly says. “God already loves you. And not one of us can earn God’s love, to begin with.”

This is punctuated with a peculiar reading of Ephesians 2:8-10, which suggests that we cannot be saved by “works,” but by grace and faith (which one or both are gifts from God).

This rendering is pleasant and draws our attention to the love of God that we find in Jesus Christ.

My curiosity runs wild, though, while thinking on this, further. Particularly because, as a minister and practicing Christian, this proclamation (though true because it points to Jesus) struggles to carry the freight of transformation within the individual. To use the careful observation of James Bryan Smith, we seem to only become “stabilized” with this “gospel” instead of being healed.

Perhaps it’s because, behind it all, this narrative simply tries to “improve” a narrative that is troubling for us. The human person experiences rejection by his or her parents at some point, mostly out of necessity for the individual to develop a self, not always reliant upon his/her parents for everything. One day, we cry and are not picked up immediately, but are left there all alone.

This deep wound causes us to hustle for approval, whether it is from peers, employers, coaches, parents, etc.

In the proclamation above, however, God becomes a hyper-parent, one who exceeds the limitations of our familial parents, for the chair turns around before we try to earn it, we are rescued from even the attempt of trying to be approved. The initial phase of this new relationship may be pleasant, but the wound isn’t fully addressed. Us and our needs still dominant the center, leading the individual to seek God for what they can get, instead of simply falling in love with God. The individual can actually develop an interesting “humble-pride,” having found a better parent-child relationship than others who have not become Christians.

This salvation might be “therapeutic,” but it might not provoke repentance, in the long run.

What if we could change where everyone is sitting in this metaphor?

What if God is the One on the stage, appealing to God’s world that has walked away? Instead of bailing on the world, God enters its mess to win it back, with a song.

What if we are in the chairs and are exposed to different songs and invitations to experience the fullness of life?

What if, halfway through the show, we hear a peculiar voice, One who speaks of love, sacrifice, faith? The unique shape of the song doesn’t draw our eyes “back” to a distant ideal that existed before we messed up, but “forward” to a day that God is constructed with the ruins of a 1000 broken dreams and disappointments.

As we listen to the song, we can’t help but think that this is the reason why we exist and that, even though the song will help heal us, it also beckons us to sing the song into every broken part of God’s world.

If we reach out to press the button that moves the chair, we sense that it will cause everything to change within us and it will alter how we want to see the world around us.

I can imagine that this song would cause each of us to push the button to turn our chairs around to see the singer and to take in the song. As we do so, we might just say that the whole experience is good news.

 

Something More from the Sermon: Parity

fruit

Yesterday, I had a blast sharing about Daniel and his night in the Lion’s Den. It was the 2nd sermon in a series called “Great Nights of the Bible.”

One of the peculiar tasks for a preacher who shares about a familiar text is to not only confirm what the average hearer might already know about it, but to also suggest that there is something there that the hearer might not have seen, something hidden in plain sight. Preachers need to spook people, every now and again.

Yesterday, I suggested that Daniel is an important text in the late-Old Testament era because, as God’s people were in exile, away from home, they considered many options about their future. Generally speaking, despair or dreaming, were common.

Despair, because some struggled to find evidence that they were God’s people after the Babylon invasion. They were away from home, scattered all over God’s world. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple with it. What do they have left without those things? Psalm 137:1-4 is a lyrical expression of this despair:

1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept 
when we remembered Zion. 
2There on the poplars 
we hung our harps, 
3for there our captors asked us for songs, 
our tormentors demanded songs of joy; 
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 
4How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
The Punchline: we are away from Zion. All of God’s promises to us include our land, our temple, our law, and a king from David’s family forever. Without those, we have lost hope.
Dreaming– Daniel was miles from his zip code, his original expectation for life was intercepted by exile, but he didn’t give up. Daniel was a prominent leader in two different foreign empires: Babylon and Persia. He interpreted dreams, offered sound advice that changed world history. All while being an outsider, a faithful Jew, smuggled into the depths of the inner circle of the most influential people of the world.
So, alongside the despair sentiment in the Old Testament is a rival opinion, one that would suggest dreaming instead of despair.
These two are shouting at each other, right in the middle of our sacred texts.
This may seem like a peculiar trait of Scripture, after all, some are counting on the Bible being a rather easy, sanitized source for everything. Should Scripture have a shouting match with itself?
Remember the shape of this text, though. These are the sacred writings of God’s family over several centuries, people doing their best to walk with God through the complexities of life and through the tumultuous terrain of the development of cultures and civilizations. Yes, we affirm the peculiar nature of the Scriptures, as those inspired. But, let’s also be open to how inspiration happens.
For instance, if one were to read all of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in one sitting (and donated an entire afternoon in the effort) they’d feel a parity in their intents. Some have suggested that Proverbs is a good manual for the first half of life (if you do this… expect this to happen) while Ecclesiastes is a recovery program for dealing with the second half of life (“all is meaningless”).
And they are side-by-side one another in the text.
Perhaps the folks who wanted both of these in the Scriptures knew a secret about inspiration: listening to the shouting match between two sources shapes us into the people that God wants us to be.
The Reformers had this neat belief about the Scriptures called the Efficacy of Scripture. There is something peculiar about the effect that these Scriptures have upon individuals and upon communities who open themselves the the reading, studying, hearing, and enacting of the text… they become the people of God.
That might be the ultimate aim and hope of inspiration.

I (self) published an (e)book

skillen-ps

One of the work habits that I have been trying to develop is to do some creative writing on weeks that I do not preach. This allows me to keep the same creative, productive gear whether I am making and delivering a sermon that week, or not.

During one of those weeks, I developed an early idea from research, which led to a couple of blog posts, which led to a series of 4 talks for a Sunday School retreat this Spring, which turned into chapters of a short book.

Instead of tracking down an agent or finding a publisher to work with (all honorable ways to publish, of course), I decided to explore ways to get it published quicker. So, after my friend Ken Young designed me a sweet cover, I uploaded everything to Kindle Direct Publishing one evening and…

IMG_5975

It’s up! My mother-in-law posted about it early yesterday. So, the release was a bit of a sneak attack.

Here are a few details:

  • The book is short, only 11,500 words (39 pages). That’s an intentional move, knowing that the average reader only completes 25% of a book that they purchase. Keeping it short and crisp will (hopefully) allow a reader to finish it.
  • One has to have the Kindle app to read it. Sorry, no hard copies at this time.
  • It’s only $4.99. Amazon has this “give $5 of Amazon to someone, get $5 for yourself” campaign. If you give someone an Amazon gift card, you could get this book for free. Not a bad deal.
  • The book is about stories and how they work in forming our lives. I use 3 unique ways of reading the Prodigal Son parable to illustrate this story-formation idea.
  • The cover was done by a friend and church member, Kendall Young. He’s a great guy with a ton of good ideas.

 

 

 

 

Something More from the Sermon: Believing With Jesus

deal

We began a new series yesterday “Red Letter Jesus” where we’ll spend several weeks examining some of Jesus’ famous and intriguing sayings from the NT Gospels. Louis Klopsch (1899) is credited with the idea of putting the words of Jesus in red. He asked a mentor of his if he thought it would be a good idea. His mentor replied, “I can see no bad to come from it, only good.” Our goal is to hope that much good would be done in our lives as we meditate on the words of Jesus.

We examined Jesus’ question to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) Peter replied that Jesus was the “Messiah, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) This is a dangerous idea; Messiah’s were expected to lead the arrival of God’s new world. At this point, Rome was in charge and not Jesus. Peter makes this claim in Caesarea Philippi where Caesar Augustus, the one “formally” in charge, had a temple dedicated to him.

Peter’s claim that Jesus was Messiah was important. It re-configured Peter’s faith claim. He didn’t just hold belief statements about Jesus, but he wanted to participate in Jesus’ plan for the whole world.

Peter didn’t just believe in Jesus, he believed with Jesus.

This may be categorically unsettling, suggesting that Jesus as the Son of God would have faith in order for someone like Peter to believe with Him.

Paul plays with this idea in Galatians 2:20. It’s a hotly contested (and intriguing) verse. Most translations suggest that Paul is saying this:

“The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved for me and died for me.”

If you look closely (in most Bibles) there is a footnote that suggests another rendering of the verse:

“The life I now live, I live by the faithfulness (or the faith) of the Son of God…”

Paul’s whole life was not simply shaped by his own faith in the Messiah, but by the Messiah’s faith in Paul and the Messiah’s faith in the destiny of God’s world, a plan that announces that God is continuing to redeem from within its complexities and its mess.

The reason that this is important is because of how it shapes us. One can have faith in Jesus, stack those belief statements next to belief statements about other things, and only have those belief statements mean anything whenever they feel like it. It also suggests that Jesus can be “a long way off” and not involved within one’s world.

Vincent Miller rounds off this idea when writing about how religious activity (and ideas) has been re-shaped by consumerism in these recent days:

“It used to be that beliefs held people. Today, people hold religious beliefs.”

To believe with Jesus means that Jesus is present in our lives, present in our world and that we are being invited into his way of life, for the sake of the world.

May we be known as those who believe with Jesus.