Sermon for January 15, 2017

January 15, 2016
The Truth Will Make You Mad
Luke 4:14-30

This week we will be inaugurating a new president in this country.  Whatever we might think about the election, about who won and who lost, about what has been said or done or reported since November, the fact remains that we have a new president being inaugurated on Friday.  And while it isn’t completely germane to my subject for today, I just want us to remember that we all—whether we voted for him or not—have the responsibility to pray for our president and his administration, because their actions and their policies affect us all, not just in this country but throughout the world.

After taking the oath of office, our president generally gives a speech, his inaugural address, the first time he speaks publicly as president.  This has been tradition for many, many years.

One of our presidents actually gave an inaugural address that proved fatal.  That was William Henry Harrison, inaugurated on March 4, 1841.  Even though the weather that day was forecast to be cold and windy, President Harrison opted not to wear an overcoat, hat, or gloves at his inauguration.  His inaugural address went on for an hour and 45 minutes, the longest one any president has given.  That night he went to bed with a bad cold, which turned to pneumonia, and he died on April 4, after serving only 32 days in office.  His vice president, John Tyler, became president in his place.[1]

Every president of the United States gives an inaugural address, in which he (one day it may be she, but it hasn’t been yet) lays out his vision for his presidency, and perhaps names some specific policies he hopes to get enacted.  Oftentimes there is something in the address that everyone remembers, a memorable quote or, in today’s language, a sound bite:  President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”[2]  President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”[3]  In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln envisioned the healing of the nation after the Civil War ended, urging his fellow Americans to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”[4]

While all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) report Jesus’ return to Nazareth and the difficulties he had there, only Luke has it happen at the beginning of his ministry.  Our passage for today contains the very first public statement Jesus made, his inaugural address, if you will.

Luke does mention that Jesus has already done some teaching and healing in other parts of Galilee, and that word has reached Nazareth about him.  But in our reading this morning we hear Jesus’ actual words for the first time.

Last week we noticed that after he was baptized, the first thing Jesus did was to pray.  As we read through Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus frequently in prayer, and discover that it’s an essential part of his life.  Today we see that Jesus’ spiritual life is not just private, but also public.  It’s no accident that Jesus goes to the synagogue when he’s in Nazareth; it is his custom.  He attends Sabbath services at the synagogue regularly.

We don’t know a whole lot about how synagogue services were conducted in Jesus’ time, but a few things seem fairly clear.  One is that any Jewish man could be invited to read and comment on the Scripture readings for the day.  By Jesus’ day there was an assigned Torah reading for each Sabbath day—sort of like our lectionary—and there may have also been an assigned haftorah reading, from the Prophets or the Writings, as well.  So Jesus was called on to read from Isaiah and make some remarks.

The text he read was from chapter 61 of the book—although Luke has him include a line from chapter 58 as well.  The first words Jesus is quoted as speaking in his public ministry, according to Luke, are from the Scriptures.[5]

After that, Jesus’ very first word of public proclamation is “Today.”  It’s going to be a word we will hear a great deal from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end:  “Truly I tell you,” he will say to the one crucified beside him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  The scripture Jesus has just read is about an event anticipated by the Jews, an event that was commanded in Leviticus 25 to happen every fifty years, an event that, as far as we know, never actually took place:  the Year of Jubilee.

Nowadays we use the term jubilee as a generic term for a major celebration, so the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of a monarch’s reign, for instance, might be called her Golden Jubilee.  But in Leviticus, Jubilee was about much more than a party.  When the trumpet sounded on New Year’s Day of the Jubilee year, the people were to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.”[6]  The land got an additional year to lie fallow.  Property sold in times of hardship was returned to its original owner.  Those whose poverty had forced them into slavery were to be released in the year of Jubilee.  The point of all this seems to have been to give the economy a regular reboot, to keep all the wealth of the nation from being concentrated in a few hands, while everyone else lived in desperation.

But, as I mentioned, there is no evidence that the Jubilee year was ever observed.  It isn’t hard to imagine why.  Jubilee is very good news for the poor and the captive.  But it’s not good news for the wealthy or powerful; and in every human society, it is a fact that those who have wealth and power generally get their way when public policies are made and carried out.  Those who benefit from the land and property (which was the source of Israel’s wealth) being concentrated in the hands of the few are not going to be inclined to proclaim liberty and redistribute the nation’s wealth.

Over the years after the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon, when the Jewish people and their homeland were always subject to an empire—first Babylon, then Persia, then Syria, and Greece, and finally Rome—it became a common understanding that Jubilee would finally take place when the Messiah arrived.  He would remove the imperial oppressors, re-establish Israel as an independent nation, and he—as the Son of David—would take his place on the throne God had promised to his ancestor “forever.”  The land that had been taken from the Jewish people would be returned to them.  It would be the year of the Lord’s favor.

And Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

What the Nazarenes would have heard was this:  Today begins the Jubilee.  Today will see the end of Roman imperial rule of our land.  Today the Son of David will re-take the throne and usher in a new Golden Age for us.

For us.

We, God’s chosen people, will be shown God’s special favor.

The congregation at the Nazarene synagogue was astonished, and pleased.  One day, when all this has taken place, our synagogue will be memorialized as the very place where the Messiah announced our vindication.

But Jesus wasn’t done talking.  He had more to say; and as in Bill Engvall’s shtik, “That’s when the fight started.”

Jesus said, wait a minute:  I’m here with good news for all the people, not just you.  Remember how, back in Elijah’s day, yes, that Elijah, greatest of the prophets, when God sent a famine over the whole land, the one widow and her son that Elijah saved from starvation were foreigners?  Remember how Elijah’s successor, Elisha, even though there were lots of lepers in Israel, healed Naaman the Syrian—the foreigner?

If he had gotten the chance, maybe he’d have reminded his hometown folks that when God called Abraham and promised to make of him a great and blessed nation, the point wasn’t so Abraham and his descendants (including us, by the way, by adoption) could strut around crowing about how blessed they were.  No, right there in the midst of the first words God spoke to Abraham, God said Abraham and his descendants would be blessed “so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[7]  It’s not bragging rights; it’s an assignment.

The Nazarenes, so thrilled by Jesus’ announcement that Jubilee was fulfilled “Today,” became enraged when he tried to expand their understanding of Jubilee as “good news…for all the people.”  These folks who’d known him his entire life, decided that Jesus, who had just made his inaugural address, had to be stopped, had to be silenced, before he gives away all our blessings to all those others, who don’t deserve them.  Jesus may have been telling the truth, but the truth offended them.

 

The controversial “Jesus Seminar” is pretty much done now, I think.  Its founder has died, along with at least one former member; and many of the others have moved on to other pursuits.

At its height, the Jesus Seminar got some rather sensational press attention whenever they would publish their latest findings.  Their work was often trivialized as “voting on whether Jesus actually said the things he’s quoted as saying in the Gospels.”  Obviously their work was a great deal more complex than that.  And even if you don’t agree with what they were doing or with the conclusions they reached—and I don’t agree with all of them, myself—it’s worth looking into their methodology, how they reached their conclusions, what presuppositions they brought with them as they approached the Gospels, and so on.[8]

Whether or not you agree with the Jesus Seminar, one of their guiding principles is worth paying attention to, and maybe even incorporating into our own thinking as we learn more about and seek to follow Jesus.  “Beware,” the Jesus Seminar warned, “of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”

It is very easy—I’d suspect I’m guilty of it sometimes, along with just about everyone else who has spent any time at all with Jesus—to remake Jesus in our own image, to assume he wants what we want, shares the same opinions we share, has the same likes and dislikes we have.  But as Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes discovered, sometimes the truth—the good news—Jesus came proclaiming is going to make us mad.  It might well make us mad enough that we want to stop listening, want to turn away from Jesus, want to remove him from our lives altogether.

But yet it is the truth, and we dare not stop our ears because it has given offense.  Even if the truth makes us mad, there is something in it that we need to hear.

What might it be, for us, today?

[1] See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/harrison-dies-of-pneumonia for more information.  Some historians think Harrison may have had hepatitis as well as pneumonia.

[2] The Avalon Project at Yale Law School has collected great speeches and other documents and made them available online.  President Kennedy’s inaugural address may be found on their site at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/kennedy.asp.

[3] FDR’s first inaugural address may be read at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/froos1.asp.

[4] The entire address may be read at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp.

[5] Contrast this with Matthew (4:17) and Mark (1:15).

[6] Leviticus 25:10

[7] Genesis 12:2-3

[8] Most of this background information can be found in their seminal work, The Five Gospels.

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Sermon for December 18, 2016

December 18, 2016
Joy to the World!
Psalm 98; Luke 1:26-45

When my mom was growing up, she and her family attended a church that taught that a person has to be able to speak in tongues or they aren’t truly saved.  That’s not what the Bible says, emphatically not what Paul says, but it’s what this church taught.[1]  Since, as Paul clearly pointed out, not everyone has the gift of tongues—nor should everyone have it; remember that bit about if the whole body were made up of just ears?—that left folks in a bind in a church where people weren’t considered really saved if they couldn’t speak in tongues.  They were sort of viewed as “second-class” church members, so a lot of people faked speaking in tongues, to be accepted.

Christmas is sort of like that sometimes, I think.

This year somebody has put together a list of the worst Christmas songs, and one that made the list is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  Now, personally I like that song—largely because of singing an arrangement of it at a music reading years ago, directed by the arranger, Jerry Rubino, whose style is big and dramatic and generally fun, sort of like a music-theater version of “Q” from Star Trek.[2]  But I get the objections.

For some of us—I’d suspect it’s actually more than just some of us—this is emphatically not the most wonderful time of the year, at least not every year.  People who suffer from depression, or who are introverts and just plain can’t get into the endless round of parties and time spent in crowded shopping centers, have a hard time with the Christmas frenzy.  People who are grieving a big loss can’t necessarily just be merry on command.  People who are in a tight spot financially may not be able to celebrate as they have come to believe they should.  Watch the ads; now and then you’ll see one that literally ridicules attempts to give loved ones inexpensive or homemade gifts.

So people fake it, just like some people at my mom’s church years ago faked speaking in tongues, and go along with the expectations we place upon one another this season, even when we don’t feel like it.  Introverts force themselves to attend the parties, and stand awkwardly in a corner until they decide they’ve done their duty and can leave.  We drag ourselves to the shopping mall and brave the crowds, with a bottle of Tylenol in the car to counteract the tension headache we end up with.[3]  We paste on a fake smile and hide our broken hearts behind forced merriment.  We overspend, run up the balance on our credit cards, in the hopes that no one will notice we’re struggling.

It isn’t any wonder “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” makes the list of the least favorite Christmas carols.  For a lot of folks this season just isn’t wonderful, and having to pretend it is can make matters that much worse.

Our Advent theme for today is Joy.  I’ve just got done acknowledging that not everybody is happy during this season; but even so, is there any room for joy?

I think there is.

It may not be the same delirious joy we have at a wedding or the birth of our first grandchild, but joy can surprise us even when we’re down.  And that’s especially true, I think, at Christmas, even when we really don’t feel like celebrating.

Today’s reading from Luke comes a bit before the Christmas story that we’ll be hearing Saturday night, and then again next Sunday.  In this reading, joy breaks into life where it’s least expected.  You have to realize something about Mary, and about the culture in which she lived, to get why joy would be sort of unexpected here.

Mary was engaged, but not yet married, when the angel Gabriel came to her to ask her to be part of a new thing God was doing.  In Matthew’s version of the story, Joseph, her intended, found out she was pregnant and knew he wasn’t the father.  He’d have been within his rights under the Jewish Law to have had her stoned for adultery.  Most folks didn’t do that anymore in those days, but he was pretty much required to divorce her, at the very least, and he could make it into a public shaming.  This was hardly going to be a blessed event, according to the customs of the day.

But Gabriel greets Mary and calls her “favored one,” and tells her that God is with her.  After hearing the explanation of what God has in mind, Mary says yes to the proposal.  I think we sometimes see her as submissive, simply yielding to the plan; but I’m not sure that’s the best picture.  She isn’t simply saying, “Whatever you say, dear.”  She’s saying, yes, I will be part of this enormous thing God wants to do in this world, even though it’s dangerous.  And I think joy may be part of the reason.

Think about it:  Mary is nobody special, a young, unmarried, probably poor woman living in a tiny town in the rural areas of Galilee.  You might be aware that some Jewish men in those days said a daily prayer thanking God they had not been born a Gentile or a woman.  Women had very little status, very little power, very little identity beyond being someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and then someone’s mother.

But Gabriel greets Mary and says that she is favored by God.  Imagine hearing that from an angel, when everything around you says that you’re not favored.

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, tells of an experience she had while attending a Catholic girls’ school as a teen.[4]  She was a Lutheran preacher’s kid, but one day at school she had to attend a Mass celebrating the Annunciation—which is the first part of the story we’re looking at today.  Sitting in that sanctuary, surrounded by other girls, Gabriel’s words suddenly meant something to her.

“Favored by God.”

God has regarded Mary—God has noticed her and looked on her with love. God thinks so much of her that he has asked her to be the mother of the Savior.

And if we were to read further today, and hear Mary’s song after she goes to visit Elizabeth, we would hear about another reason Mary might be joyful.  The Savior who will be Mary’s son, she predicts in a song that could just as well have come from one of the Hebrew prophets that her baby would not just offer personal salvation, but turn the whole world upside down—taking the powerful off their thrones and lifting up the lowly, like Mary herself; filling the poor and hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty.

If you are one of the lowly, or the poor, or the hungry, this is very good, very joyful news indeed!

Joy breaks into the middle of Mary’s lowliness, perhaps her poverty, definitely her perplexity and maybe even anxiety over what is to come.  And it can happen for us, too, even when we’re certain this is not the most wonderful time of the year.

Joy can break into the middle of grief, into the middle of worry about the future, into the middle of loneliness or even guilt and regret.  It breaks in and says, “Greetings, favored one; the Lord is with you.”  It breaks in and we who walk in darkness see a light—not the light at the end of the tunnel, but a Light that comes right into the midst of the darkness and makes it perhaps just a tiny bit more bearable.

The Sunday when the pink candle on the Advent wreath is lit is, in Catholic tradition, called Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice.”  “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul said to his beloved Philippians.  Rejoice when things are good, and when life is hard.  Rejoice when we’re well, and when we’re sick.  Rejoice when we’re young, and when we’re old.  Rejoice when we’re free, and when we’re imprisoned—Paul knew quite a lot about that.  No matter what is going on, joy can break in, if we have eyes to see.

A decade ago a Jesuit priest wrote a little poem for Gaudete Sunday.

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Gaudete—Rejoice.

Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Gaudete

Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Gaudete

Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Gaudete

Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Gaudete

Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Gaudete

Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.[5]

[1] Paul downplays the importance of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, since it appears that the Corinthian church taught something very similar to what my mom’s childhood church taught.  My mom said if her preacher or Sunday school teacher was working through 1 Corinthians, they would usually skip from chapter 13 to chapter 15.

[2] If I were making a list, I’d be more likely to include songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” which we only hear at Christmas time but which have nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas.

[3] Almost all of my shopping this year has been done online, with the exception of a little bit done here in town and one gift ordered from a friend who owns a small business in Wichita.

[4] See http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1148.

[5] “Gaudete” by Brad Reynolds, S.J., reprinted in the 12-15-16 Renovaré blog, https://renovare.org/blog/gaudete.

Friday Five: Throwback Tunes

This week’s offering from RevGalBlogPals is right up my alley…

Which musical artist from your teen years would you love to see in concert?

I’ve actually seen quite a few…finally.  Saw Springsteen for the first time in 2000, a decade and a half after Born in the U.S.A. was released.  Saw Tom Petty a couple years before that.  I’d have loved to have seen U2, but they never came anywhere near where I lived, and if they did, I couldn’t get tickets.  Now I don’t know if it’d be worth it.  I hear Hall & Oates are going back out on tour.  Saw them twice in high school, and probably wouldn’t turn down another chance.

Which album was your favorite during high school?

Too many to list, really.  There was R.E.M.’s Reckoning, anything that U2 put out, The Principle of Moments from Robert Plant (with Phil Collins on drums), Haircut One Hundred’s Pelican West (they were a “one hit wonder,” but the whole album is really good), Rush’s Signals, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, Voices, Private Eyes, and H2O by Daryl Hall & John Oates, the aforementioned Born in the U.S.A., and last but definitely not least, The Crossing by Big Country.  I was also dipping pretty heavily into stuff I was actually too young for, like pre-Escape Journey, and the entire Led Zeppelin catalog.  It’s hard to pin down just one favorite.

If you could create a festival (like Woodstock, Lilith Fair or Lollapalooza) of your favorite bands from high school or college, which bands would you choose?

All of the above, plus Prince, who I always liked…but I had an image to maintain, so I didn’t own any albums by him and wouldn’t dream of being seen at his concert.  I’m sorry I set my image so high in my priority list.  Oh, and The Firm.  I’d put them on the bill, too.  And probably Elvis Costello, although I didn’t properly appreciate him until college.  I was probably in seventh grade or thereabouts when my cousin David dragged all of us–grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, anybody he could get–up to his room to listen to this new album he’d just gotten and was all excited about:  Get Happy!!  At the time I just thought it was noise, but he grew on me over the years.

What was the best concert you’ve attended in your life?

I’ve seen Springsteen three times now, but even he can’t hold a candle to Luciano Pavarotti, at the Portland Coliseum, on New Year’s Eve 1994.

What song from your childhood, teen years or adulthood means more to you now (because of lyrics or the power of memory)?

I’d have to say the entire Joshua Tree album from U2.  It was brand new when my entire family took a road trip out to the Oregon coast–three vehicles, twelve people, three days on the road.  In our house, anybody with a license took a turn driving, and the driver got to choose the music.  And if I wasn’t driving, I had my Walkman on.  Then we got to the beach house, and I would fall asleep with U2 in my headphones, not loud enough to drown out the sound of the ocean.  (I should post my account of that trip one of these days.)

Sermon for February 28, 2016

February 28, 2016
Another Vineyard Full of Stinkers
Mark 12:1-12

Before I get to today’s Scripture reading, I want to look back to last fall, to a text from the prophet Isaiah. I do this because, as is true in a lot of cases, today’s parable borrows and builds on imagery from the Hebrew Bible; so we need to hear from the prophet to understand fully what Jesus is trying to tell us. Here’s the passage from the fifth chapter of Isaiah, what is often called the Song of the Vineyard.

Let me sing for my loved one
a love song for his vineyard.
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it,
cleared away its stones,
planted it with excellent vines,
built a tower inside it,
and dug out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to grow good grapes—
but it grew rotten grapes.[1]

So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it?
When I expected it to grow good grapes,
why did it grow rotten grapes?
Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
it won’t be pruned or hoed,
and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.

The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
righteousness, but there was a cry of distress![2]

In Isaiah 5, the vineyard itself fails to live up to the owner’s expectation; instead of yielding good grapes, it produced only nasty, inedible stinkers. In Jesus’ parable in Mark 12, though, there’s nothing at all wrong with the vineyard or the grapes; but it’s still full of stinkers…

 

In the Roman Catholic Church and a great many Protestant churches, as well as in Jewish syngagogues, the weekly Scripture readings are assigned by a lectionary. Use of a lectionary actually goes back at least to Jesus’ time, and we can see it in action when Jesus teaches at his hometown synagogue in Luke 4.

It can make the preacher’s or the teacher’s job easier to have a lectionary—plus it can help keep us from riding our favorite hobbyhorses too often by forcing us to study passages we might not otherwise choose. Lectionaries are designed so that churches who use them read the majority of the Bible over a set period of time—three years for the Revised Common Lectionary, for instance, and four for the new Narrative Lectionary, which I’ve been using lately.[3]

Lectionaries are not without their problems, however. One of my main criticisms of the Revised Common Lectionary is that it tends to skip over troublesome texts. For instance, in the summer of Year B, the RCL takes us through the entire letter to the Ephesians—except that it skips from verse 20 of chapter 5 to verse 10 of chapter 6. That means that, if we faithfully follow the RCL, we never take up the troublesome passage that begins with 5:21, which has been misused to justify a second-class position—if not outright abuse—of women. If we don’t agree with that interpretation, and skip preaching or studying that text, we miss the opportunity to offer an alternative.[4]

The parable in today’s text is also left out of the Revised Common Lectionary altogether, and listed as optional in the Narrative Lectionary. Its parallel in Matthew 21 is included in the RCL, but it’s assigned on a day when the other readings include the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20; the 19th Psalm, which begins with “The heavens are telling the glory of God”; and the passage in Philippians 3 in which Paul sets aside as worthless all of his heritage and accomplishments, compared to what he gains by following Jesus. For those of us who are not in churches that require us to use all four assigned texts every Sunday, guess which one is virtually guaranteed to be left out? When we’re called upon to choose between “The heavens declare the glory of God” and a parable filled with greed, violence, and judgment, the Psalm wins every time, hands down.

Even the Ten Commandments are more attractive than this parable; and quite frankly, when I sat down yesterday to write my sermon, my first thought was, “What was I thinking?” Why on earth did I decide to preach this thing?

One big problem with this parable is that, like the passage I mentioned a moment ago from Ephesians 5, it has been misused. We went into this in a lot more detail in Sunday school today, but the upshot is that this is one passage Christians point to if they are trying to make the case that God has rejected the Jews and we Christians have taken their place as God’s chosen people. That argument has led to some horrific atrocities over the centuries—most recently in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s—and we do well to rethink it.

That’s probably why texts like this one get glossed over or ignored altogether whenever they turn up. But once we set aside this problematic interpretation, we can see this parable is not a condemnation of the Jewish people as a whole.

Remember that in Isaiah 5, the vineyard itself is meant to be understood as a metaphor for God’s people in Israel and Judah. And here in Mark 12 there is no indication that the vines themselves did not bear good fruit. The “stinkers” in Mark 12 are not the grapes, but the tenants, the ones who have been placed in charge of tending the vineyard.

 

The people who first heard Jesus tell this story knew exactly who the tenants were meant to represent: not the people, but their leaders. Powerful folks don’t generally like it much when a prophet shows up and tells them God is calling their stewardship of God’s people into question. Prophets who stand and speak truth to power run the very substantial risk of getting slapped down for it. The servants in Jesus’ parable represent the many prophets, beginning with Moses and Miriam, all the way up to John the Baptist, who spoke on God’s behalf and, in many cases, suffered for it—and perhaps they represent the prophetic voices who have come along after the Bible was in its final form, even modern voices like those of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed in Memphis three months before I was born; and Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated at the altar of his church 36 years ago this Good Friday.

It is no wonder that the call stories of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible tend to describe how the prophets try to talk God out of calling them.

But the last person the landowner sends to settle up with the tenants is his own beloved son. We are meant immediately to recognize that the son in the parable represents Jesus—because the way he’s described calls to mind what God’s own voice says about him at his baptism[5] and on the Mount of Transfiguration.[6] So this parable also functions as another Passion prediction, another time when Jesus predicts that he will soon be killed.

 

So what does this story mean for us?

If I were speaking to a group of pastors and political leaders, the answer would be obvious. But apart from myself and the elders and teachers who are here, and the few of us who have held, or might one day hold, elective office, does this story apply?

I think it does, and here’s why.

For most of our country’s history, Christians have held most of the cards, both politically and socially. Even though the separation of church and state, and the freedom of every person to practice their faith—or not practice any faith—as they see fit, are enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution, and even though the Constitution specifically says that no religious test may be imposed to determine whether someone is fit to run for public office, up until recently it’s been pretty much assumed that our leaders would be Christians—and not just Christians but, for the most part, Protestant Christians.

Some here remember the election of 1960, in which it was an issue that John F. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic. Even as recently as 2012, some people did at least comment on Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. Eyebrows went up when in 2007, Keith Ellison, a former Catholic who converted to Islam in college, was elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district. They went up even further when he declared that he intended to put his hand not on the Christian Bible but on the Qur’an for his swearing-in. (The Qur’an in question had actually once belonged to our third President, Thomas Jefferson.)

It probably depends on your point of view whether or not you consider it progress that there hasn’t been a whole lot said during this election cycle about one of our Presidential candidates being Jewish.

Up until recently, Christians in this country have held most of the cards. Most of our political leaders have been, at least nominally, Christian. Many people can remember a time when, especially in small communities, life centered around the church. Businesses closed on Sunday, and sports practices and games were never scheduled for Sundays or church night.

Growing up, I never had to ask any of my friends if they went to church; the question was always, “What church do you go to?”[7] There was only one family in Coffeyville that was not Christian—the Phillips family, who were Jewish. I do not know where, or whether, they attended synagogue; as far as I know the closest ones were in Tulsa.

There are a lot of reasons—far too many to go into right now—that this is changing in our country now. We don’t have the power we used to have. We have to fight a lot harder to make sure our kids are able to attend church and youth group without having to choose between those activities and other worthy ones, like sports or mentoring. The number of people who not only don’t go to or belong to any church is increasing every year.[8]

The Barna Group, a Christian research organization, released the results of a study a few years ago that revealed how Christians tend to be viewed nowadays by non-Christians. It isn’t pretty.

We’re losing our grip on the power and privilege we once enjoyed in this country. This is why I think this parable applies to all of us, not just those of us who can be called leaders. Even if we never held elective office or served in positions of leadership in our church or community, we’ve enjoyed quite a bit of power and influence in this country until fairly recently. And now things are changing.

 

Is God sending servants to collect his due from us, to see how well we have done as stewards of the people God has entrusted to our care? And if so, who are those servants, and how have we treated them?

Have we listened to them, or have we ignored, discredited, or silenced them? Do we take the opportunities they offer us to set things right when they aren’t quite right, or do we assume, like the people of Jeremiah’s time, that everything is fine simply because we are God’s people, and shut our eyes to any evidence that might present itself that everything is not fine? Do we remember that when God blesses his people, it’s usually so we can be a blessing to others?

 

The last question this parable asks us may be the toughest one to answer: If God’s beloved Son were to come again, come into our midst to see how well we have tended God’s vineyard, how would we treat him?

 

[1] Another possible translation of the Hebrew word here would be “stinkers,” or “stinkberries.”

[2] Isaiah 5:1-7, Common English Bible.

[3] With the RCL and the other lectionaries that assign more than one reading per Sunday, this only works if all of the assigned texts are read each week.

[4] The alternative interpretation of Ephesians 5:21ff is that the whole passage is governed by 5:21, which calls for voluntary, mutual submission within the Christian community. Everything that comes after is an example of that voluntary, mutual submission: wives to husbands and husbands to wives; servants to masters and masters to servants; children to parents and parents to children.

[5] Mark 1:11

[6] Mark 9:7

[7] My best friends belonged to the noninstrumental church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, a storefront Charismatic/Pentecostal church, and the African-American Sardis First Baptist Church. My very first “best friend,” at four years old, was Catholic.

[8] To be fair, the number of people who don’t profess any religion, not just Christianity, is what’s increasing.

Sermon for February 21, 2016

https://soundcloud.com/sharla-hulsey/the-hard-life-giving-way

February 21, 2016
The Hard, Life-Giving Way
Mark 10:32-52

“What do you want me to do for you?”

The question, with a very slight variation in wording, appears twice in our reading today. Once it’s addressed to James and John, who ask for something that demonstrates how very blind they are to who Jesus is and what he came to do. He has just finished saying, for the third time, that when they get to Jerusalem, things are going to get really scary and really bad. And their immediate response was to ask to sit on his right hand and his left, when he is in his glory and sitting on his eternal throne.

What part of “there isn’t going to be any glory until after there has been horrific suffering” did you not understand, boys? How long have you been following me on the way, that you still don’t see who I am and what I’m about? I’ve just told you—for the third time—what is going to happen: are you able to go through it like I’m going to go through it? I’m not even ready to drink this cup and go through this baptism; what makes you think you’ll be able to do it?

 

The way to Jerusalem leads through Jericho. We don’t know what they did there; maybe Jesus taught, maybe they spent the night; but the Gospel doesn’t tell us. They go through the city, and come out the other side, where they are accosted by the shouts of a beggar. That’s nothing unusual; given that there was no other way for someone who was disabled or chronically ill to earn a living, the streets going into and out of a city like Jericho were no doubt lined with beggars. But this one was different: his shouts were a statement of faith.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

In Mark, this is the only time anybody but the narrator calls Jesus by his name. And up until now, only Peter and a few demons have called Jesus by any kind of title—and they were all, Peter included, told to keep it quiet. Not this time; this time it’s the onlookers, not Jesus, who try to silence the man. Somehow the title, “Son of David,” seems right on the lips of a beggar, who’d been forced into poverty and panhandling by some kind of misfortune that left him without his sight.[1] And somehow this blind man, who’d presumably never encountered Jesus before, saw Jesus for who he was—unlike the Twelve, who continually misunderstood.

So Jesus asks the question for the second time: “What do you want me to do for you?”

The man’s request is simple, but includes something else that indicates he has the beginnings of faith: He addresses Jesus as Rabbouni, “My teacher”—the same word with which the Magdalene addresses the risen Jesus after she is able to recognize him standing before her. “My teacher, let me see again.”

“Son of David”… “My teacher”…

And Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well”—or, because the same word can mean both, “Your faith has saved you.”

 

“What is it you want me to do for you?”

The sons of Zebedee presumably had normal physical sight. They could see well enough to work as fishermen alongside their father. But they were blind in the ways that really matter in the kingdom of God. They could not see that the way of Christ is a way of service, a way of rejection by the powerful, a way of suffering, sometimes. They could not see that long before Jesus entered into his glory, he was going to have to drink a cup filled with torture and death, and be baptized by three days in a borrowed grave. They were blind to the reality that if they were going to share in Jesus’ glory, they also would have to drink a cup of suffering and be baptized into Jesus’ death. They thought they could see the way ahead, and it looked level and nice, with lots of pretty scenery to enjoy; but they were looking in the wrong direction, and their expectations blinded them to what the road before them actually looked like.

Bartimaeus, on the other hand, with no physical sight to interfere, saw very clearly who was before him, and he said so. “Son of David” is not just an expression of genealogy, like I might say that my eighth-great-grandfather was Baron Christopher de Graffenried, the founder of the town of New Bern, North Carolina.[2] Having a Swiss baron in my family tree doesn’t earn me any points in the here and now; but when Bartimaeus called Jesus “Son of David,” he was doing more than just saying he had a king in his family tree.

The Jewish people had come to expect that a “Son of David,” someone from David’s lineage, who was like David, was going to return to the throne from which David ruled, overthrow the Roman Empire, and bring the Kingdom of God into full realization on earth forever. The “Son of David” was the Messiah, the Christ.

Well, Peter knew that, and the demons knew that; but this blind man was the first and only human being outside Jesus’ inner circle who saw Jesus for who he was. And, without ever having seen him before, Bartimaeus was prepared to call Jesus “my teacher.”

So Jesus asked him the eternal question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Let me see again.”

And Jesus’ reply was, “By faith you already see more clearly than many others.” And Bartimaeus gets up, receives his physical sight, and becomes a disciple of Jesus.

Immediately.

No going home to think it over, to see one more time his hometown, the creek behind his house where he used to play, the park where he used to walk with his girlfriend, the shop where he worked before he lost his sight—immediately he gets up and follows Jesus.

 

The sons of Zebedee seem still, at this late hour, only a few miles from Jerusalem, to have seen the way of Christ as a way to gain power and prestige. “When you sit on your throne of glory, let us have thrones, too—oh, not as big as yours, of course, but only a little smaller, please—one on your right and one on your left.”

They could not—would not—see that the way ahead led into a gathering storm. They were blind to the reality that Jesus came not to rule but to serve, not to lord it over the world but to give his life to redeem it.

 

The Way of Christ, which Bartimaeus chose to follow, was a hard way. It was a way of suffering; a way of rejection, possibly; a hard way—but Bartimaeus followed, because he could see that it was also the only way that leads to life.

 

[1] One word tells us that Bartimaeus had lost his sight at some point, and had not been born blind: his request to Jesus is, “Let me see again.”

[2] I am Not Making This Up, as Dave Barry used to say.

Sermon for February 14, 2016

February 14, 2016
Is There Any Hope?
Mark 10:17-31

It’s not because of any details in this text, but based on details from Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the same story, that we call this man the “Rich Young Ruler.” In all three versions the man has many possessions, and thus it grieves him to hear Jesus tell him he must sell them all and give the money to the poor in order to follow him into eternal life. But only in Matthew’s version is he called a young man, and only in Luke is he called a ruler.

I wish we had a name for him, but we don’t. Oftentimes when people are named in the Gospels, it could be because the people who first read or heard them knew those people somehow. Later in Mark, when Simon of Cyrene is called on to carry Jesus’ cross for him, the names of his sons are given—Alexander and Rufus—leading some to believe that they were members of the early Christian community.[1] Similarly, when the blind man Bartimaeus[2] is healed in Jericho, he follows Jesus “on the way,” and “the Way” was an early name for the Christian faith;[3] so it’s likely Bartimaeus was a disciple of Jesus from that moment on, and people knew him, or knew of him. But we don’t know the name of the man in this text. In Luke, however, he’s called “a certain ruler,” which could mean Luke’s original readers knew who he was; but even there his name isn’t given. So we don’t know, and his name could just as easily be any of our names, because his stumbling block could very well be our stumbling block, too.

 

The man came to Jesus and knelt down, the right posture for someone seeking to learn something from a rabbi. His question was sincere: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man has kept the commandments his whole life; does he think there is something more he needs to do? Does he feel like there’s something missing in his life? We don’t know, but he does appear to be asking because he sincerely wants to know, not as a test or an attempt to entrap Jesus.

And Jesus looks at him—not just a sidelong glance, but seriously looks at him, sees who and what he is, maybe a little of what made him tick; some might say Jesus could see right into his soul. As he looked at him, it says Jesus loved him. Why does it tell us that?

Jesus and the man connected in some way, and Jesus understood that he was genuinely seeking to be part of the Kingdom of God (which is what is meant in Mark when anybody gets to talking about eternal life). Jesus probably also understood that what he was going to ask the man to do was going to be very hard. I think it would be very hard for most of us sitting here, myself included.

Some preachers have softened the blow for us—after all, in comparison with much of the rest of the world, even the poorest of us here are unimaginably wealthy—by saying that this was only one man, and he was the only person Jesus ever told to get rid of all his wealth; so we’re not necessarily called to give away all our money and possessions, but to identify the one thing that is hindering us from entering the Kingdom of God, and setting that aside.

But quite frankly, for a great many people in this country, I suspect that one thing would be exactly what it was for the man in our text today. It would be very hard for me, for instance, to give up my new kitchen and my Camaro in order to follow Jesus. And given that, I don’t think it’s right to say, “Well, thank God he isn’t going to ask me to do that; only that one man had to give up his fancy possessions.” Maybe he just hasn’t yet. But if he did, I wonder how I’d react.

Would Jesus be so very compelling that I’d gladly leave everything to follow him, even my kitchen and Camaro? Or would I go away shocked and grieving at the prospect? What about you?

 

What is it about wealth that makes it such a stumbling block for those who want to enter the Kingdom of God?

In Jesus’ day—and I think this is probably the case for us today, at least on some level—material prosperity was actually seen as a sign that a person was righteous, and as a result blessed by God. We can see it in the Psalms and Proverbs—the very first Psalm talks about how those who delight in God’s Law, and meditate on it day and night, will find that “in all that they do, they prosper.”[4] (Granted, there are a lot of places where the Psalms complain about the wicked prospering, and Proverbs 17:8 speaks of how a person who gives bribes will prosper at every turn. But the notion that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing became the prevailing understanding among Jesus’ people.)

There was also the reality that only those who had material wealth were able to perform all the religious rituals the Pharisees had determined were required in order to be considered righteous before God. For Jesus to tell this man that he had to give up all his wealth to enter the Kingdom of God ran counter to everything that was a given in his culture.

That one might not be the case for us, but it is true that money buys power and influence. This isn’t something new that’s just become part of American politics in the last few years, either, with the very broken campaign finance system we’re operating under. In this country back in the mid-1800s we had Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall machine controlling politics in New York; in the Renaissance the Medici family controlled not just politics but also religion in Europe.

(Of course, a person can use their wealth and power for good; we have heard quite a lot lately about Warren Buffett’s organization of billionaires, who must, as a condition of membership, pledge to give away a massive amount of their wealth to do good in the world. And one of the members of Buffett’s organization, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has been involved for many years in bringing technology into poorer schools, helping eradicate dangerous diseases in poverty-stricken parts of the world, and so on. It’s because he has that wealth, and the power and influence that come with it, that he’s able to get these things done.)

Once we have wealth, and the power and influence that come with it, it’s a very difficult thing to give that up. No wonder the man in our reading today was shocked and went away grieving.

 

The Kingdom of God doesn’t work like earthly kingdoms do. In the Kingdom of God, those who are used to throwing their weight around will be humbled, and those who are used to being ground into the dirt will come out on top. That man could well have been one of the former; he had many possessions, and maybe they bought him some power in the world he lived in—and Jesus was asking him to become like those who had nothing, no money, no power, no voice, no place to lay their heads. It’s a hard thing. It would be hard for us, even though we are here today because we are trying to follow Jesus and live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

But you know what? Nowhere does it say that the man, after going away shocked and grieving, didn’t come back. It doesn’t say this man couldn’t follow Jesus. We don’t know what happened to him after this. Maybe it wasn’t that day, maybe it wasn’t even the next, maybe it took years, but is it thoroughly impossible that the man could have taken what Jesus said to heart, and eventually was able to do what Jesus told him to do?

We just don’t know. But there’s one thing that gives us hope—gives hope for this man, and gives hope for all of us, as we sit here in the wealthiest country on earth, with material blessings some people in the world couldn’t even dream of having.

This man came to Jesus with a request: Tell me what I need to do in order to inherit eternal life (in other words, to be part of the Kingdom of God). And what Jesus told him he needed to do was shocking and left him sorrowful. And the disciples were bewildered: they were also a part of this culture that said wealth and power were signs of God’s blessing; so if Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, who could be saved? Who would be able to do what it takes to be a citizen of the Kingdom?

“For mortals, it is impossible,” he said. Rich or poor, powerful or vulnerable, we cannot do what needs to be done to be saved—not a single one of us, not the rich young ruler, not Peter, nobody. But for God, all things are possible.

Left to his own, the rich man would never be able to give up his wealth…but who’s to say the words Jesus spoke to him, the love Jesus had for him, didn’t continue to work in his heart and in his life even after he went away shocked and grieving? Who’s to say he never turned away from the things that held him back from following Jesus into the Kingdom of God? And if he could have, then who’s to say anyone can’t?

[1] Mark 15:21; see also Romans 16:13.

[2] Mark 10:46-52, which will be part of our reading for next Sunday.

[3] See Acts 9:2.

[4] Psalm 1:3.

Sermon for February 7, 2016

February 7, 2016
Simul Intelligentium et Stultum
Mark 8:27—9:10

Martin Luther, whose questions about the medieval church’s system of indulgences began the Protestant Reformation in 1517, used a Latin phrase to describe the condition of humanity in the face of God’s grace: Simul justus et peccator—at the same time justified and a sinner. In other words, we are justified, saved, by grace through faith in Christ (or the faith of Christ, in a rather compelling alternate translation); but at the same time, our own human nature—what Paul called the flesh—is still inclined toward sinfulness.

As I read today’s text and thought about Peter, something else came to my mind.

I never really studied Latin, but Mike and I are both sort of fascinated by it, so I tried to come up with a phrase for who Peter is that was similar to Luther’s simul justus et peccator. With some help from Google Translate (which sometimes gets things wrong, granted), my description of Peter came out in Latin as my sermon title for today: Simul intelligentium et stultum—at the same time smart and stupid.

That definitely describes Peter in our reading for today. First he says, “You are the Christ”—showing insight that, in other Gospels, Jesus says had to have come from the Holy Spirit. Then, when Jesus says, well, the Messiah—the Christ—is going to be rejected and killed, then rise again on the third day, Peter can’t get his mind around that. He pulls Jesus aside and says, “Teacher, don’t you know your Bible? The Scriptures are clear that the Messiah is going to overthrow the Romans and bring the kingdom of God fully into power on this earth. Messiah’s reign is to be eternal—if you’re the Messiah, you’re certainly not going to die!”

And then they go up the mountain, and Jesus is transfigured, and Moses and Elijah—who represent the Law and the Prophets, but are also both figures whose deaths were mysterious—appear to talk to him. And again Peter’s mouth starts running before his mind is engaged, and he starts babbling something about building booths, so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah can get some shelter from the hot sun, maybe? But I doubt that I’d have made much more sense in a situation like that.

 

Honestly, I think I have a lot in common with Peter.

If I’m really paying attention to Jesus, to what he taught and what he did, and I am genuinely and prayerfully trying to figure out how to follow him here and now, I may well say and do smart things. But as soon as I set my mind on the things of the earth, I’m not so smart.

I get to thinking that following Jesus is about the rules I need to follow or enforce on others, not remembering that the only rules Jesus imposed on us had to do with loving God and one another. Or I decide that Jesus would support one political party or candidate over another, forgetting that when Jesus was tempted with the chance to exert political power, he said no. Or maybe I baptize my own desires and preferences, and assume that Jesus just wants me to be happy, live a financially comfortable life and drive a fancy new car—ignoring, as Peter wanted to do, the reality that Jesus was rejected, arrested, tortured, and crucified, and told us that if we wanted to follow him we needed to be prepared to pick up our own crosses. Or maybe—and Peter did this, too—when the going gets tough I say, No, of course I don’t belong to Jesus; I don’t even know the man!

I’m a lot like Peter in a lot of ways. Are you?

 

Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God; but he didn’t understand what that meant. Peter knew that the way of Christ was the way that leads to Christ; but when a cross loomed large on the path they were walking, he pretended he had never stepped onto that path.

And yet, after Jesus rose from the dead, it was Peter who emerged as the leader of the community that came to be known as the church. It was Peter who spoke boldly and even in defiance of religious and political authorities who tried to silence him. Peter followed Jesus even into unknown territory, when he welcomed the Gentile Cornelius into the church that had, until then, been entirely made up of Jewish believers.

Eventually Peter was martyred, killed because he followed Jesus and refused to turn away.

 

Peter, whose Latin motto could well have been simul intelligentium et stultum—at the same time smart and stupid—eventually managed to be rid of the stultum part of his nature, the part that presumed to correct Jesus’ Christology, the part that babbled in the presence of the transfigured Jesus, the part that denied ever having known Jesus when things got scary. And so can we all, in the same way that Peter did.

It didn’t happen by force of will—Peter did not change himself by vowing to be better and then gritting his teeth and working hard at it. On his own, Peter was still very human, and often very clueless.

But something happened to Peter that had nothing to do with what he could do on his own. That same something happens to each of us, when we make the decision to follow Jesus, to die to ourselves and live for him. It happened to Peter on Pentecost, and it happens to us when we come up out of the waters of baptism: We receive the Holy Spirit, who lives and works within each of us and among us when we gather as a church; and the power of the Spirit is what makes it possible for us to understand who Jesus is, what he did for us, and how to follow him in our own lives today…if we pay attention.