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.

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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: 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.

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.

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.