My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.

My Dead End on the Highway of Holiness

night_road higway

Seventeen years of commitment to the Nazarene tradition has now come to an end.  I have arrived at the end of that theological road, that ministerial road, that road that at times seemed like a Mobius Strip suspended in its own infinity.

Comprehending the ending is not near as hard as experiencing the ending.

This past week I was notified that my District License in the Church of Nazarene would not be renewed.

In Nazarene polity, the District License is the affirmation of your District group of Churches that you are fit for ministry and it is the next to last step before a person is ordained.  Typically, this License is held for only a few years and our Manual states that this licensure is not to exceed a 10 year period on the way toward ordination, extenuating circumstances withstanding.

In short, the process works as such.

A person is affirmed by their local church.  The said local church then grants them a Local Ministers License.  A year later this same person applies for a District License.  This process includes a questioning, answering and discernment process that includes a ministerial advisory board and an education board comprised of various pastors on the District.  If a person passes the discernment process at the District Level, they are then guided into the proper education to fulfill their ministerial obligations.  This whole process can take as little as 5 years or as long as the District allows a person to travel this road.

This process is not set in stone, however.  A person can have 0 education, feel a calling to ministry, be assigned a Church and then work on education WHILE pastoring a church.  A person can choose to pursue their education absent a university and their education for ministry counts as much as a person with a university degree.  A person can attain a District License and choose to be a student, such as pursuing a Bachelor Arts in Religion or a Master of Divinity, the only caveat being that ANY ministry done during these student years doesn’t count toward ordination because this person is not directly employed by a church…so employed experience means more than real experience.

As you can see, there is some diversity to the iron clad process of ordination and discernment of ministers.  It is guided by the Manual but it is regulated by the subjective reality of human beings.

Enter my story.

I was called to preach (since that’s what we called it back in the day) in 1998.  I was granted a local license that same year at my local Nazarene Church.  I was then granted a District License the following year in 1999.  Since then I have had a District License every year, for 16 years, except 1.  I have been in the ministerial process of the Nazarene Church since I was 17.

Why you ask?  Certainly it is easy to become a pastor then become a brain surgeon?!  Well, one would think…but I have become the victim of red tape and circumstance.

From 1999-2003 I was as student at Trevecca Nazarene University.  I graduated with a 3.6 gpa as a Religion Major.  I did a lot of ministry in college…BUT I was a student so none of that counts toward ordination.  Only my education counted toward ordination but education doesn’t shave any time off your process to be ordained if aren’t on a church payroll.

After the University but before Seminary, 2003-2004, I did youth ministry at my local Nazarene Church and taught the adult Sunday School class with my father, who deferred to me and my newly minted education.  But my youth ministry and teaching (and I think I did some preaching that year also) did not count toward ordination because…you guessed it, I was not on a church payroll.

I had excelled enough at Trevecca that I knew I really wanted to go to Seminary and earn my Master of Divinity Degree.  I actually ended up taking that year off of school because after first telling Vanderbilt I would accept their 70% scholarship, and enter fall of 2003,’ I had to rescind that acceptance for familial reasons.  I then pursued Masters work at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, in Atlanta.  I was offered a full ride scholarship.  I accepted and studied theology there from 2004-2008.  I graduated with honors, 3.95 gpa, and was granted the Outstanding Scholars Award for my class…an award that had not before, nor since, been granted.  While in Atlanta I did some very good ministry at Harvest Community Church of the Nazarene…BUT NONE of that counted because I was a student.

So 6 years into the process and I am still not ordained but I have a lot of experience and have been doing ministry.

In 2005 my wife was pregnant with Twins.  I needed work.  I was willing to pastor a Nazarene Church and forgo my full ride at Mercer if some churchwould hire me.  My education would not have ended; I was just planning on doing distance learning through Nazarene Theological Seminary and pay for my education.  I wanted to pastor a church.  I wanted to fulfill my calling.  I was willing to sacrifice scholarship money to serve my people, the Nazarenes.  Well, you might be surprised that the prospects of a pastor finding a church at 24 years old is not good.  The Letter to Timothy encourages the church to not despise the youth of the church or its up and coming talent…In my case, the church never gave me a shot…I was despised and the Letter to Timothy sat in silence.

I called the Georgia District Superintendent.

There were four, 4!, churches within a 45 minute drive of seminary that were open.  The DS did not go to bat for me.  He hung me out to dry and could care less I was on his district.  I called my DS in East TN, asked him about work, he said he had nothing (75 churches at the time but nothing for me) and he wasn’t helpful when I asked him to please give a call on my behalf to Georgia or surrounding districts.  He didn’t do that for me.  I needed work, I contacted my leaders and they were not helpful.

I sent out 20 resumes to specific churches and to every Nazarene District in the Southeast, I even sent a resume to a church in Phoenix and Philadelphia!  I was willing to move.  I wanted to pastor.  I was Nazarene…but nothing.  I did not get ANY response from ANY Nazarene Church or District.  The only response I received was from a non-denominational church in South Carolina wanting to pursue my resume.  They sent me an initial candidates questionnaire.  I did not pursue it because a few weeks earlier I had accepted work at a local Papa John’s Pizza and a promotion with it.  I needed to work.  I had twins on the way.  The church didn’t step up, but I needed to work so I made a decision for my family.

You may be saying “well, you didn’t have a lot of experience, so maybe that’s why no one called you.”

That would be a false assumption.

By this time in my life, I had preached a lot.  I had been a supply pastor many times, I had done youth revivals, I had organized entire worship sequences, I had filled in countless of times for pastors.  I had done internships and taught/organized classes for the church.  The Easter before I applied for a church I had planned the entire Easter liturgy at my church in Atlanta, preached the sermon, broke bread and done it all in front of 272 people that Easter morning.  My resume was strong for a young pastor…and I had references to reinforce it.  Yet, I could get no help.  No one in my corner.  No leader to lend me a hand.

So I moved back to TN in 2006 and began work at my family’s business.  The good people at Mercer helped me with my education; I kept my scholarship and commuted for 2 years to Atlanta to finish.  I was determined; I was going to finish this degree.  I did not know how I would use it but I was going to be faithful.

Everything I did from 2005-2009, however, did not count.  I was a “student” and as such my ministry was education not experience, at least according to the Nazarene Manual.  Still not ordained…we are now in year 10.

I had plans of pursing Phd right after seminary, but by then I had 3 kids and it wasn’t in the books to move.  So I entered the family business (an opportunity that even 2 years prior was not a possibility due to finances…so this was not a failsafe I had in my back pocket while I pursued ministry opportunities), grew the business and did part time ministry during that time.  I would preach, teach district classes, teach Sunday school, etc.

2009-2014 I saw some of my most productive ministerial years.  Since I did not go straight into Phd I wrote papers for conferences, such as the Wesleyan Theological Society.  I published multiple academic book reviews for Review and Expositor.  I published 2 papers in theological journals, legitimate journals, with a solid reputation.  I contributed to online articles at ethicsdaily.  I taught more district classes for pastors in training.  I performed 5 marriages and a few funerals.  And, to attempt to finally meet ordination requirements, I got on staff at my local Nazarene church in 2010.  So from 09-14’ I did all that and was actively in ministry teaching weekly, and preaching monthly…not to mention I helped grow my family business from 1 store to 7 stores, while chasing 3 little boys (and a little girl that is now 4 months old) around my house.

In 2013 I thought I had finally gotten my Phd break.  I was a final candidate for Phd in historical theology at Emory.  I had my advisor chosen.  We had discussed how my work would begin and where it would go.  I had been faithful and now, finally, I was going to get a good break.  It didn’t happen.  I had done all I could to prepare for this opportunity.  I had been published and presented more papers and research than most folks IN a Phd program, let alone people just trying to get in one.  My efforts were not enough.  I was not extended an invitation.  With that declination, a little part of me died.  I’m still working on how to move past it.  Accept it.  And deal.  I maintained my relationship to the local church and was on staff but Emory had effectively taken the wind out of my sails…

I had no idea where my life was going.

I have been successful in business and have created many lasting friendships in business and in theological circles.  I knew I didn’t want to give up on theology or ministry so in 2014 I went to interview for my District License again…after much honest conversation and personal admittance of my own inner ambiguity, the District granted my license.  I had not done enough to be ordained but because of my disenfranchisement with the process I did not push for it either.  Back in 2010 the district told me to keep a log of my ministry work to earn credit for ordination.  I mean seriously?  That was not going to happen.  I had done a crap ton for the church and I wasn’t about to write done every minute of everything I had done toward ministry.  I didn’t know anyone that had done that, let alone do that for 8 years of part time ministry to get ordained as per the Manual.

I think this year, 2014-2015, was the year the district was looking for to finally ordain me…a process that was taking far too long and, for me personally, beginning to strain under its own incredulity…making it basically undesirable.  I mean, if there are people who know less, don’t have the experience, and yet still get through the process quicker because they weren’t a “student” or they didn’t participate in a demanding business…then it seemed to me the church was willing to take mediocrity, so long as it was mediocrity that they were managing.

That was the thing about me…I was unmanageable.  And through the years, while I had earned my supporters I had also earned few detractors.   I had become a little angry and silently frustrated that the District would affirm via ordination every Tom, Dick and Harry that said they loved Jesus…but for me I couldn’t catch a break.

Then 2014 happened.  That summer I had contributed to a book, Renovating Holiness, edited by two friends, Tom Oord and Joshua Broward.  They asked me to contribute a few months earlier and I sent them my final essay last summer.  It was a reminder that I was not done as a Nazarene.  There were people here that still valued me, even as I valued them, and we all sought to contribute to making our church better as we rethink old forms of faith.  The book was published and released Feb 2015.

Also that summer I had started a unique ministry at a local Nazarene Church.  I eventually ended up preaching at this church in June, a few times in October and November, and then most Sundays December to March.  When I first went to fill in for a pastoral colleague of mine, who was also moving on to another ministry in a few months, I had no intention of even seeking out this pastorate.  I was just trying to come good on my promise to the District that I would serve…and subsequently I love preaching.  By my second Sunday there in October I felt my heart changing…I felt like this may be the opportunity, the reason I have stayed Nazarene and continued on this process despite the discouragement along the way.  Myself, and the people, clicked, or so I thought.  My family liked the church.  We felt loved and we loved those folks in return.  It was one of the best ministry experiences I have had in my life.  It wasn’t a university job…but maybe this is what God had for me.  The church needs thoughtful people too and I thought this situation held a lot of promise.

This situation, however, never materialized.  I was willing to bend a lot to make this happen.  I was willing to reorganize work, family and my entire schedule to meet the needs of this church.  But I was never given that opportunity.  In my opinion, the District failed me.  The leadership failed me.  Here, once again, when I needed honesty, transparency and a good shake…it didn’t happen.  Thus, through the years when I most needed the church…the church let me down.  There is a lot to this situation and why it didn’t materialize, but I know that none of that was my doing.  It was totally out of my hands.

SOOOOO Enter the present.  After struggling with my calling and my place in this world (if I can quote Michael W. Smith) for nearly a year and a half, then seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, a real opportunity, only to have it snuffed out…and on the heels of Emory being snuffed out, I was spiritually and intellectually exhausted.  My creativity was zapped.

The hard thing about being one of the clergy in the “know” and seeing how everything works is that when you need a break, or you feel burned, or you’re just pissed off and asking God “what Next?” the last place a pastor, struggling or otherwise, wants to be  is church.  In all other professions you can leave that place and never see it again.  You can quit your job, tell them to shove it, and disappear…BUT when your job is church, you can’t do that without people being suspicious of your intentions and questioning your piety.  I have been working toward a common ambiguous goal since I was 17, a path that has taken many twists and turns.  But turn after turn I see what I once loved and what inspired me continually get stripped away…that place, the place that represents all that I am not at the moment or unrealized gifts that will never be, that place…that place is a place I don’t want to be around.  I needed  break, a rest.

So I took it and that was a mistake.

After Emory declined to offer me an invitation to study, I slowly began to shirk from the work I thought I was doing in preparation to be a liaison between church and academy.  A Liaison is what I had thought my call, my vocation, would become.  A scholar pastor or a pastor scholar, someone that bridges the gap between these seemingly two juxtaposed realities in current culture.   My dream job was to be the dean of a chapel, while also teaching classes at a university, and in the summers travel and preach at conferences or camp meetings.  I loved teaching, I loved preaching…I loved academics yet I loved the local church.

Then the invitation to contribute to Renovating Holiness happened.  The connection with a local Nazarene church happened.  Things were looking up…then they turned south again.  After I finished my interim work at this church I attended church much less frequently.   In 12 weeks I was probably at a half dozen services.  I came a few Sunday mornings, a couple Sunday nights and had stopped coming to Wednesday night’s altogether.  The Wednesday night fell by the way side due to work…I just couldn’t operate 7 stores, take care of my health, be a family man and be all things to all people at church at the same time, especially since it seemed lots of those doors were being shut in my face (past and present).

After careful consideration and counsel with some good friends, I decided to give ministry another year.

Here I was, a 34 year old man going through a process that is supposed to take 4-6 years and I am on year 17.  I was getting tired.  I was feeling a bit ridiculous.  It was obvious that the church had no desire to seriously engage with someone on a true bivocational level, as univocational pastors that were equivalent to the village idiot were making more headway than myself with degrees, tons o f experience, good homilies and academic standing.  BUT despite all this, I was going to be faithful and see what this year held.  Like 2014, I had no idea the opportunities or ways the Spirit would work; I was willing to do it again.

This year, however, I wanted a sabbatical.  I wanted the District to renew my license but I wanted to step back and evaluate.  I resigned at my local church as pastor of Christian Education.  I was not opposed to doing ministry, even teaching and preaching a little, but it’s very difficult to give an honest evaluation of something when you are still close to it.  I needed to step away and just be still.  Shut my mouth and listen.

The District did not grant me that.

I was notified this past week that my license was not renewed and on a board with at least half a dozen men who know me personally, and have known me since I was a teenager, none of them even motioned for my renewal.  Not ONE.  It was brought to the table and my name and license sat in the center…no one picked it up.  They said that my commitment to the local church was illustrated in my attendance, and of late, my attendance was not on point.  My work the past year, especially the work I did as an interim fill in, was not enough for the district.  Apparently I still had more to prove, since that is the basic point of the licensure process: to prove yourself.  But, really, there is nothing I else I have or can prove to anyone that doesn’t see.

I have many issues with how this was handled.  I wrote the District Superintendent, I made my complaints, but this entire situation stands as is.  After 17 years of ministry and being a Nazarene minister…that road has come to an end.

I will never again enter the Nazarene process of ordination.  That road has about as much promise as Secessionary Way in South Carolina.  I am done.

The most frustrating part of this entire process is the pretentious piety and sanctimonious posturing that took place all for the sake of a righteous roll calling.  It’s difficult to have the majority of a life’s work stand before people ( they can plainly see it and know that I have the abilities to do ministry and pedagogy) and yet they act hubristically and pass judgment on my abilities, or even worse, by not renewing my license tell me to “get lost…your services are no longer needed.”

I just hope that the folks that did not renew my license say a prayer of thanksgiving.

They should thank God they’ve never studied what I have studied, learned what I have learned , know what I know, or wrestled with career and calling as I have…living in ambiguity and ambivalence, traversing the reality of doubt and faith as those two remain interconnected.  They should say thanks they have never done so and rejoice in their spiritual uprigthness and theological absolutes…because if they had been me, not only would they have been out of the game years ago, they might have had some fine men on a board tell them what they told me, “No.”  No grace for you.  No time.

There is nothing new under the Sun here folks…carry on.

So where do I go from here?  What shape does my life take?

Well, immediately I will continue to run my business as best I know how.  I will continue to work hard to balance work, family, my vocation and perhaps in the future do some more ministry when the season arrives.  There are many places I could fit in and I have already begun to explore other traditions.  But for the time being, and probably over the next several months, I will be pondering what it means to move past my Nazareneness.  I cannot change my roots.  I cannot take back all that I have given to the church.  I can’t undo any of it, nor would I want to.   As Derrida reminds us all, our traditions can never be fully evacuated even if we evacuate them; they continue to structure our discourse.

I suppose I could stay and worship, but the sign out front will be a constant reminder that when I needed thoughtful people to give me grace and space, I was denied both…and I can’t support that sort of Institution.

So if you are Nazarene, reading this, and have been part of my ministry:  Thank you for allowing me to serve.  Thank you for the experience and for what you have taught me about ministry.  Thank you for being a blessing and encouragement to me when I needed it most.  I am who I am because of people in the local church.  This event, and my personal feelings, have never been the result of anyone in the local church.  My local Nazarene pastor is both my pastor, and my friend, and he has never done anything to make this happen.  He has always supported me, even when I gave him reason not to.  He knows who is he is and if you do, please support him, because he an outstanding minister who loves God and his people, the church.

This final releasing of me by my Church is the result of a journey that has taken years to mature.  So while my path with Nazarene ministry has come to an end, my path is not at an end.  This recent turn of events has inspired me.  It has reminded me who I am even as people have told me who I am not.  It has lit a fire under me and makes me want to be better, not bitter, as the cliché goes.

I do not know what the future holds…but I do know, thanks to folks like Ted Peters, that “God is the worlds future” and it is into that future where I will find myself and hopefully find some of you there with me.

Stealing Your Way Into Heaven

thou shalt not steal 1 edit

 

GOSPEL OF LUKE 16.1-13

 

Couched in between two of Jesus’ most famous parables, The Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus, we discover one of Jesus’ most unassuming and most difficult parables throughout the pages of the Gospel. I suppose this parable, the parable of the Unjust Steward…did you hear that…the parable of the UNJUST steward, not the good steward, but an UNJUST steward, gets squeezed from both sides of the text. This parable gets flattened beside its more famous friends.

Like the 3 three famous Kardashian sisters who constantly in the news: a famous one, a pretty one and an ugly one…this parable is the ugly sister that doesn’t get much attention. And rightfully so. It’s not a very helpful parable on our first reading.

Here Jesus’ 4 points in this parable:
1. Manage your money shrewdly like non-believers manager their money and Jesus will praise you for it. Jesus exact words, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
2. Make friends with others by means of unrighteous wealth, dishonest wealth.
3. If you can’t use dishonest wealth, how can you use true riches?
4. You can’t serve two masters. You can’t live to make money and also live to serve God.

Talk about a confusing sermon. Jesus just outdid himself here.

As I come to this parable, the entire scene makes sense to me…at first.
The characters in this parable are not far removed from the characters and narratives I have encountered in the business world these past 7 years.

For a business to be successful it must have managers that manage resources. It must have supervisors to oversee their management of those resources. And it must have people that the managers can manage to procure the good or product that is consistent with the mission of the business. When the managers or supervisor doesn’t do their part of the job…the LORD, the master of the house, is quick to hold them accountable as we see in this parable. Businesses and estates exist to make money and to solidify their status as deposits of wealth. This must be carefully guarded and the Lord in this parable is simply looking out for what best for his own business or estate. When he knew he was being cheated he cannot continue to support this Stewards behavior. This parable is a reflection of how the steward responded to that act accountability.

Several years ago, in our own business, we experimented with whether or not to include Asst. Managers in our bonus program. As a business, we felt that it was in the best interest of our customers, our future growth and our profit margins, to give the Asst. manager position a greater sense of ownership in how well the business does. Up until this point, the General Managers of our stores had been the principal beneficiaries of the profit of our business through means of a bonus program that we had structured around various goals. But we wanted to give the General Managers of our stores the benefit of a manager that would work hard at helping them accomplish store goals and really function as a 2 person team inside each local store.

To this end, we experimented with involving Asst. Managers in the bonus program.
We pulled our lone asst manager into our office, disclosed to her our plans and she was excited about the opportunity. She thanked us for the job, the potential earnings, and the sense of appreciation we had for her. We thought we had made a smart move and encouraged good stewardship with our business by extended an added benefit that wouldn’t really require much additional work.

We were wrong.

The next morning as I was going through our old school paperwork, the kind of paper work that is produced by type key registers and detail tape, I noticed we were short $450 from the night before. I was shocked. More than half this money, as I could tell, was missing from the shift that was run by our asst manager, the same one whom we had just included into our manager bonus program for performance. After we had announced to her our plans, she drove to our store, shook our hands and thanked us again for the opportunity…then she drove to work and over saw a major shortage for which she had no explanation.

You see, she had intentionally cancelled orders from our registers and taken the money for her own personal use…so the store didn’t even look like it was short because those funds had already been deducted from the day’s totals. I wouldn’t have found this out if I hadn’t actually dug through register transaction tape and seen canceled orders without justification. I called other ownership, told him finding, and he said he’d get back to me.

Needless to say, we eventually called her into our office, shook her hand and congratulated her on trying to trick us out of money. We knew she had been hard up for cash and was really struggling and she had figured out a loophole that would almost allow her to steal money without getting caught…and we saw the genius in her attempt and commended her for this shrewdness, we actually promoted her to a store manager and she went on to make huge bonus checks.

And that makes absolutely no sense, Right?

Well something similar is what Jesus is asking us to believe about this parable.

Jesus commends a dishonest manager, who after he is caught stealing, continues to be shrewd and outwit the Lord of the house, or business, in order to secure to him his own future after he is officially fired for stealing. The master of the house learns of this plan also, and rather than demanding he be thrown in jail, he praises his shrewdness, perhaps the same type of shrewdness that put him in hot water to begin with, and he commends him for what he was just firing him for…and then Jesus goes on to say…

“His Master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness so that when it fails, they will receive you into eternal dwellings.”

So we get Jesus’ first two points: Be shrewd managers when handling money. Don’t be gullible. And use dishonest money to make friends for yourself so that you will inherent heaven or eternal dwelling places.
What is going on here?

This parable is utterly ridiculous. It makes us as hearers of it want to recoil and argue with Jesus. Jesus stands up in the midst of his disciples, after just having told to us the parable of the Prodigal son…a parable that is the epitome of bad stewardship, and then tells us some nonsense about how being unjust and using dishonest money can be to our benefit and should offer us an example how we should relate to money and wealth.

If it sounds ridiculous to us, we are in good company. The early church wasn’t sure how to handle it either. Even St. Augustine, one of the churches greatest preachers and theologians, didn’t want a real piece of this parable as he interpreted it in a purely allegorical fashion.

The ancient church wasn’t much clearer on what to do with this parable. If you’ll notice verses 9-13…these are all answers by Jesus, to account for this difficult parable originally told by Jesus, answers or interpretations that had been remembered in the church. Luke gives us answer after answer beginning in v9 and then he concludes with v13 to basically summarize that regardless of the tensions in this parable, the end game, is that we cannot serve two masters.

Luke picks up on Matthew 6.24 where this saying is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is busy teaching his disciples about how they should relate to wealth and things.

But Luke’s summary statement still doesn’t help us resolve the tensions of this parable. It doesn’t help us make sense of its dense content and seemingly contradictory advice. It is precisely the tension that Luke wants to evoke in us…Luke is intentional in placing this parable here, right before one of the parables that commands our imaginations about death and how it relates to our relationship to wealth.

He wants us to stand up after hearing this parable, those of us who are disciples, and say, “No, Jesus! That’s not right!” He wants those of us who have made our livings working for banks and owning our own businesses to react against this parable and say “no”! Us, the group of disciples, are many and different. We have come from many different backgrounds and made our livings in many different ways…we can relate to this usual set of circumstances. What we can’t relate to is Jesus’ handling of these circumstances and his lessons from them.

It’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote regarding scripture. “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.”

And here we almost see too clearly what Jesus is doing and what Luke is doing by crafting this vision of Jesus through these parables.

One of the themes that Luke has been working on in this Gospel is wealth. Not just a proper use of wealth, but understanding our relationship to wealth. Luke hammers the theme of wealth, its proper place, our use of it and he condemns on multiple occasions visions of wealth offered by the world that are not consistent with the kingdom of God.

In Luke, Jesus hammers wealth over and over…one is left asking the question, “Is Jesus really opposed to wealth, is it evil, or is Jesus warning of its dangers for some other reason?” And in this particular parable, “Is Jesus telling us to obtain wealth dishonestly and makes friends with ill gotten means to save our own skin?”
What this parable epitomizes is the breakdown of social barriers and the construal of wealth as an object to be used as a part of God’s sovereign kingdom…it is a means, not an ends. Notice, Jesus does not praise the unjust steward for his relationship with God; Jesus praises him for his use of money and shrewdness…his relationship with God and the Master (who may be the same in this parable) is withstanding.

For Luke’s Jesus, wealth is a problem (the very immediate context of this passage being the prodigal that uses wealth for pleasure, and the rich man after this parable that dresses and lives in comfort while the world and people Like Lazarus suffer immeasurably) because “it presents itself as a temptation to prestige and security apart from God and for this reason it is suspect” (NTT, Joel Green, 113).

And if we will look at our world and ourselves…and be honest, it is surely the case that wealth does tempt us and it does estrange us from God and one another. Who needs the Kingdom of God when you have your own perfect kingdom on your acre of land, money in the bank and closets overflowing with stuff?
Our wealth determines our social customs and interactions.

In the ancient world, giving and sharing to the poor is not the same as writing a check to a non-profit or doing good works through Nazarene Compassionate Ministry. When you shared your wealth you were very literally engaging with those to whom it was being given, bringing them into your active social sphere. To share with someone, or to relieve someone of debt, was to treat them as family or kin. They were no longer an object from which you extracted wealth, they were partakers in it.

Now if we understand this parable from this lens, then what the unjust steward is doing is extremely shrewd and to be emulated.

Think of this manager as the tax collector Levi, aka Matthew, that we find in this Gospel chapter 5. He was hated and despised because of his job. Jesus was accused of being a sinner because he had an entourage of people like this around him. Levi was in a position of authority as a Roman tax collector because of what he could extract and give to Rome. He was given the assignment of collecting polls for an occupying military force and then given the freedom to expend more for his own use.

Do you suppose Levi ate with people whom owed him taxes? Do you suppose Levi ever cut their bill in half or told them to take half of it off? Well, if he did, he was a rare tax collector and that certainly wasn’t the reputation of tax collectors. It would have been a shock to the system, a vision of a new kind of kingdom or authority, if Levi had ever acted that way prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus.

Returning to this parable, the manager was being reprimanded because he had already shown that he was squandering resources from his master. He was being unjust. He was taking advantage of his position. As a manager in charge of collecting debts, he most likely did not have those whom were indebted to his master within his inner circles. They were debtors…he was a collector. The two didn’t mix, yet when the master finds out his sin, he has to act shrewdly and act kindly toward those from whom he usually collected dues and he needed to do so quickly. There was no time to waste.

So he frantically devises a plan to extend forgiveness to them, yes, his wiping away of their debt before he was fired was his way of forgiving them. It’s reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lord forgive us our trespasses , as we forgive those who trespass against us…”may also be translated “Lord forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”

He has now brought himself into a new kind of relationship with these debtors through his shrewd and even sinful activity. He has created a relationship where there was originally no relationship and rather than taking their money and squandering it…he has finally done something good with money. He has decided to not squander it, but to restore people to a sense of wholeness by forgiving them of that which kept them bound to their toils. He uses his shrewdness to forgive debt rather than squander its abundances and usury charges.

Yes, he stands to benefit from the forgiveness (just like those who received his forgiveness), but in so doing he is changing the shape of the world, especially the world of those who find themselves receiving forgiveness.

This time of crisis in his life evoked a radical response from this once complacent and deceitful manager…and rather than use his deceit for selfishness he uses it for restorative purposes, both to restore himself and those that were beneficiaries of his act.

And here is where Luke really reinforces a proper understanding of wealth. Wealth has the reputation of creating boundaries and separating people, yet in this parable, boundaries are broken down as the manager creates a new social class with his debtors and even Jesus advises us based on his actions to make friends with wealth of the world, to use unrighteous wealth for the benefit of becoming friends with others, so that when we are dead, we will be able to find entrance into the dwelling place of God, essentially saying we can steal our way into heaven.

But what is the crisis, the imminent crisis that evokes our radical response to the way we use money as a means rather than an ends? It is a means whereby we are shown to be faithful to God and his creation, rather than becoming an end for which we strive to give ourselves more things…things that we see will later put us on the side of the Rich Man who stares at Lazarus in paradise.

What is this crisis moment and why does the parable take place in this context of suddenness and light footed expectation?

For the steward, the crisis was his pending job loss and he needed to prepare for the result of that final judgment.

Luke has couched this parable, this ugly sister of the three, in the middle of parables that capture our imaginations about the end of the world and the kingdom of God.

The crisis moment for Luke and for Jesus is the pending expectation and threats that they will have to handle courageously, wisely and resolutely to prepare for the future. The Christian mission has fell on deaf ears at the time of Luke’s Gospel and now the mission is pushing into pagan Greek areas as resistance makes itself known in Jerusalem and from the people of the original promise. The future is breaking into our present; the Master has found creation wanting in its squandering of love and goodness. The Kingdom of God is upon Jesus, Luke and their hearers.

Jesus is preparing us for living in the shadow of the crises that is the image of the risen Jesus overtaking creation as he emerges from his earthen tomb…a crises that requires prudent action and the extension of forgiveness to those who have done nothing to deserve it…even if forgiving them is also beneficial for us…in other words, even if we make friends…cause at the end of the day, when the money is spent, it is the relationships we have built that will last beyond our own lives.

The ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the crises moment that requires we not sit idly back, but that we act prudently as sons and daughters of this world and begin extending forgiveness to others who will soon stand in the shadow of Jesus the resurrected one.

And for this reason, Jesus can say, the sons of this world are more prudent than the sons of light.
You see, as sons and daughters of light…we are complacent. We don’t always act prudently and for the future. We expect God to be the one that shapes the future and we’re just along for the ride. We want to be like John the Baptist or the Essenes at Qumran and await God’s final vindication as we remove ourselves from the fray, from being shrewd, from making friends with the wealth of unrighteousness.

That’s one way to go about it.

The other is to see our mundane daily activities with Money and others…as caught in the constant expectation that God is busy about recreating the world through us and to act with the same sense of urgency and haste that even unjust stewards possess.

In the end, it may not be the sons of light that offer us examples on how to live, it may be the ones that we’ve often called sinner that can teach us the greatest lessons about the kingdom…cause it’s the sinner who usually find themselves most closely standing in the shadow of one that has become sin for us all.

Advent Sermon: God Comes into the Lights of Evil

lantern

Did you see it?  Did you see them?

All around us, in the darkness, there are lanterns.  Lanterns in the darkness that surround us.

We peer into the darkness, squinting our eyes, attempting to make out a shape or hear a sound.  We peer into the darkness trying to see who’s there.  We peer into the darkness trying to see what is there.

We look and look…we seeing nothing, but specks of light in an ocean of darkness.

The walls of our lives are high…there are times we feel totally safe, as if the walls of our lives cannot be taken.  Yet, as we keep watch in the tower that rises above these walls, we can’t help but notice the lights in the distance, those lanterns, flickering outside the walls of our lives.  We are safe in here…yet out there, darkness creeps closer, and pressing against our lives…the darkness merges ever closer attempting to confuse the cities of our lives with the presence of the darkness.

We see the lanterns.  Still flickering.  Still burning.

In the darkness is the reminder that there is something pressing against us that we cannot make out, that we cannot see, that we cannot hear.  Yet, there is it…it’s presence of the ominous light of silence.  The lantern in the darkness letting us know all might not be well.

“Hear the Word of the Lord given to Isaiah the prophet, “Now it came about in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, the son of Judah, that Rezin the King of Aram and Pekah the son of Ramaliah, King of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it.  When it was reported to the House of David, saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim, his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.  The Lord said to Isaiah, say to Ahaz, Take care and be calm , have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands because they have said let us go against Judah and terrorize it, and make for ourselves a breach in its walls.  Thus says the Lord, “it shall not come to pass.”  Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, make it as low as hell and as high as heaven.  But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”  Then he said, “Listen now, of House of David, is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that will try the patience of God as well?  Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.  For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”  Isaiah 7.10-16

We did not come here today care free.  Not one of us came to this place with a perfect life, without problem, without deficiency.  Not one of us came here unaware that there is something, someone, some opposing and broken force, camped outside of our cities that seek to press against us and overcome us.  We’ve seen the light flickering in the darkness and it fills us with fear and anxiety because we know the lights will move closer and those things holding the lights will seek to breach the walls of ourselves and our homes as they seek to terrorize us and destroy us…

Some of us may already see ladders mounted on the walls and we can only imagine what is it at their bottom, attempting to make their way up and occupy our cities.

What is attempting to occupy you?  What is it that is attempting to overcome you?  What do those lanterns in the darkness mean to you as they move closer, and closer…ever closer to our presumed safety?  What is that makes you shake as a tree in the wind when you hear its marching, see its presence moving closer, maybe begin to hear the faint war songs of those things that seek to take away all hope, all future, and all attempts of salvation?  What are those realities in our lives that announce to each of us…let us go up and terrorize them!

Let us breach their walls and overcome them!

The absence of love.

In our families, between husbands and wives who have forgotten how to love, and have instead chosen to co-exist.

Between children and parents, who take one another for granted, ungrateful for the gift that they are to one another.

Relationships that are shipwrecked on selfishness and torn apart by stubbornness.  The absence of love…people who are so lost in each other’s presence that they are not even sure how to have a simple conversation anymore.

The absence of economic certainty.

Funny thing, in times of economic turmoil and strife, we often take our frustrations out on one another, when one another is all we have to make it through.  Do you have enough or is “not enough” threatening your family?  Is not enough the thing that keeps you from being happy?  Do our pursuits for economic certainty get in the way of us finding ourselves, seeing our loved ones, or cast a vision of the world that simply creates another version of, not enough?

The absence of contentment. 

Discontent seeks to overtake all of us.  Discontentment…it eats us alive and pushes us to create another future wherein we can ensure our contentment.  We are not satisfied with who we are, where we are, what we are and the reason we are here is because of everyone else around us…

The presence of temptation. 

What temptation haunts you?  What thing is it that no one else knows about, that is constantly there, whispering your name, whispering for you to enter?  What thing is that you have never been able to overcome and it has paralyzed you physically and spiritually so that you have even begun to question whether God can forgive you or that you can even resist this stranglehold it has one you?  What is it that seeks to press up against you, from out of the darkness…

What carries the lantern and reminds you that it is always there?

“And I will give you a sign, behold, a virgin, a son, Immanuel.”

invading army

As we stand here, in our cities, worried about what is drawing near and camping all around us, seeking to overtake us at any moment and throw our lives into the abyss, we hear a word of the Lord.  And the word of the Lord is…have patience.

Immanuel.

You may see these things lurking outside your walls.  You may be hearing them try to convince you that there is no deliverance…there is no hope…there is no answer to the problems that fill our lives and threaten to break our relationships.

The Good News of Immanuel, of the sign of God, is that these things do not have the final say.  They are not able to overcome you…they will not breach your walls, they will not have victory, they are nothing but smoldering firebrands whose days are numbered…and by the time the Son comes, by the time Immanuel is in our presence, they will be things of the past and would have given way to a future whose motto is no longer, “us all alone”, but “God with us!”

And here is the beautiful thing about Advent:  Advent happens in the midst of occupation; in the midst of a threat to our lives!

Advent is God’s statement that when the world seems bleak, when your life seems to be threatened, when you have more questions than you have answers, when brokenness and loneliness is attempting to fill your home, when temptation is seeking to become a permanent fixture in your daily existence…when it seems like the terror you’ve been living with has no end…just then, at that moment, when you are unsure about even asking God for a sign…God gives us one anyway and his name is Immanuel.

God.  With. Us.

God is coming to dwell with us Church.  When it would be easier for God to leave us alone to the mess we’ve made, our God makes himself known not as one that determines our lives in some far off place, but as a God that knows that only one answer will do: Immanuel.

In reflecting on the Immanuel passage in a sermon Saint Augustine writes:

“You must remember, brothers and sisters, what a tremendous desire possessed the Saints of old to see the Christ.  They knew he was going to come, and all those who were living devout and blameless lives would say, “Oh, if only that birth may find me still here!  Oh, if only I may see with my own eyes what I believe from God’s Scriptures!” The saints knew who from the Holy Scripture that a virgin was going to give birth as you heard when Isaiah was read: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”  What Emmanuel means the Gospel declares to us, saying, “which is interpreted God with us.”  So do not let it surprise you, unbelieving soul, whoever you are, do not let it strike you as impossible that a virgin should give birth and in giving birth remain a virgin.  Realize that it was God who was born, and you will not be surprised at a virgin giving birth.  So then, to prove to you how the saints and just men and women of old longed to see what was granted to this old man Simeon, our Lord Jesus Christ said, when speaking to his disciples , “Many just men and prophets have wished to see what you see and have not seen it; and to hear what you hear and have not heard it.”

I propose the words of Jesus to his disciples are not only to them, but to us also…and the words of Augustine are not merely for his church, but for us in the present…

For indeed, many just men, women and prophets have wished to see what we see and to hear what we have heard…lives spent in anticipation and expectation longing to see what we see and hear what we have heard and experience what we have, and are, going to experience.

The question this advent becomes for us all: when we see, will we believe?  When we hear will we listen? “Therefore, the Lord said to you Church, “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she will call his name Emmanuel…which translated means, God with us.”

As the lanterns burn around the camps of our lives: Emmanuel.  God with us.  Amen.

Christ of Chaos- a sermon in Luke

Is this really what Jesus was talking about?

Is this really what Jesus was talking about?

*A sermon on Jesus, judgment and some difficult words of The Christ in the recent Lectionary reading of Luke 12.49-53*

“When life has become old and the spirit faint, it is in the beginnings that we again find the living springs from which the vital energies flow” Jurgen Moltmann, “Hope and Reality: Contradiction and Correspondence,” in God Will be All in All

Life has become old, and the spirit of Luke’s readers has become faint, as the words of Jesus echo through the corridors of the churches and continue reverberating to our own. As Jesus speaks these shocking words into a ministry that is taking now itself toward Jerusalem, the roads along the hills and valleys of The Galilee that lead to the Holy City are filled with visible reminders of the imminent end, the end that Jesus feels pushing himself toward the ultimate hill upon a hill. Christ is moving toward the Pinnacle event in his life, an event that will end on a pinnacle for those of us who know where Luke is taking Jesus in his narrative. Why is Luke taking us to this place? Because it is from this place that the end of creation will occur and a new beginning be resurrected. And along the way, we get a view of the teaching of Jesus that seemed to frame his entire work within the paradigm of the pending end of time, the much feared last days. Jesus is not heading toward Jerusalem, leaving the comfort and serenity of The Galilee, in order to anticipate the coming vindication of the righteous through a final fiery judgment. Jesus is marching toward Jerusalem because the end is already here.

This is why along the way, in Luke, we get these familiar teachings we call parables merged so frequently within sayings that have to do with readiness, ending, approaching, consummation, and judgment. These are the primary means of Jesus’ teaching and also the primary content. Jesus is challenging us to embody a parabolic way of life because this is the way the world will look when the work of Christ is completed. He is not preparing us for the coming end; he is opening our eyes that the end is now. And with Luke’s hearers, we, like them, are able to recognize this because life has become old, our spirits have become faint. From this ending, we recognize that a new beginning is on the horizon…and as we peer into the land of the text, Luke’s narrative, that end is seen in the silhouette of the Christ that is walking toward Jerusalem…yet leaving behind some very troubling things, troubling words. With our brothers and sisters in Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus approaching but what is he bringing with him as his shadow moves closer to the middle of the earth, the hill to which Luke is taking us where the end will be a new beginning?

In a sudden breach of Jesus’ typical demeanor, Jesus uses some of his most difficult rhetoric to express his frustrations with Jerusalem, the known world. Jesus becomes negative, going a step further than rehashing his most beloved stories such as separating sheep’s from goats, bridesmaids and bridegrooms, thieves and masters. Here, Jesus gets as graphic as anywhere in the Gospels. His emerging from The Galilee has produced a fiery prophet with great intent and fire in his eyes…determined to counteract the expectations of the disciples, his own disciples, perceptions of what he desires for the world and what he has truly come to do to.

Jesus, in the middle of a long diatribe, quickly turns to his disciples specifically for this teaching. As he stands amidst the crowds, he finishes his final thought then swiftly turns to his disciples, to us, and says… as if with contempt In his voice…”you think I have come to bring peace, to make your life easy, you think I have come to give you purpose, to caste off your oppression without event…wrong”

“I have come to cast Fire upon the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo and how distressed I am until this is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, NO, but rather division. For from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in law against daughter in law and daughter in law against mother in law.”

The theme of Jesus and conflict starts early in Luke’s Gospel. While we may seem affronted with Jesus’ rhetoric in chapter 12, this is a theme that has been building throughout the Gospel of Luke and will very literally bleed into the second half of Luke’s Gospel, Acts.

The very beginning of Jesus starts with a prediction of conflict in Luke…The adult Jesus is simply fulfilling the plot line that has already been laid out by Luke. In Luke chapter 2 Jesus is presented to the temple, and an old man named Simeon, who was already filled with the Holy Spirit (which btw won’t happen in the narrative for many years to come in The Acts), is able to ascertain through the power of the Spirit that in this baby Jesus is the consolation of Israel. Simeon tells Mary, what must have been a very chilling prediction, “this child is appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel…a sword will even pierce your own soul.” At the time, we as readers are not sure how this will unfold but conflict quickly pursues Jesus in his first act of Public ministry in Luke 4 where Jesus fills the entire synagogue with rage because of his teachings. They tried to kill him before his ministry had even started…Jesus had already begun to wield his sword, but the sword will get more mighty and polarizing as Luke’s story continues.

And time would fail us to rehearse the polarity of the narrative of the Baptist, the public acts of choosing to call tax collectors over the proper house of Israel, breaking the Sabbath observances, and the much infamous Sermon on the Plain wherein Jesus corrects Moses on multiple occasions…and these to just name a few. By the time we get to chapter 12, Jesus has begun his ascent from the Galilee toward Jerusalem, his heart and head are weary, his spirit must be growing faint with lack of faith he finds…so at this point in the narrative Jesus states explicitly what has been unraveling throughout the narrative to this point. He is fed up with these people who are not understanding his message and continually perpetuating non-parabolic forms of life that revolve around their customs, power, positions, economics, …and if it would just begin happening right now, if fire would already be set ablaze then the purging of creation and a new beginning could occur.

So it’s not only the message of Jesus that is rote with conflict; it is his very presence. The presence of Jesus the Gospels call Christ is the entrance of conflict into the story of the world because he is the entrance of the end. His presence is the weighing of the scales of judgment. He is our beginning that has entered our end so that we can have a future beginning. And this is what is so disconcerting to these characters that oppose him in the story, to those families that are divided because of his teaching. Jesus has entered a narrative that begins with “loud Hosannas” and “glory to God on the highest”…his entrance is hailed by those that have no business recognizing the Baby Jesus whose notoriety is seen in the public announcements we see at Christmas time “Joy to the world, Peace on earth, Goodwill toward humanity”…remnants of a Gospel story that says Jesus came to bring peace rather than a sword. The unassuming announcement that is brought by none other than Gabriel in Luke 1 reminds us of Daniel wherein Gabriel seems to be a bearer of messages concerning the last things…the announcement of Jesus is the eschatological sign that the words Jesus echos in Luke 12 are also connected to his very life. Jesus is the end and he is speaking judgment and conflict not only to Luke’s hearers but also to us. The birth of the Christ, in ironic fashion, was the judgment of God into the world…and only thereby might peace be found on the other side of the life that Jesus must live…is living in our text.

If we grant the tension that the Gospel gives us a Christ that declares division while also proclaiming peace, yet his ministry somehow embodies both, causes both, what are we to presume this cryptic saying of Jesus is to mean? How do we make sense of this eschatological prophet whose story lead many of Luke’s hearers, and us, to proclaim that we are not only dealing with a unique prophet grounded in history but one that we must also confess as son of God, Christ, Messiah…and of what is he Christ, for what purpose is this derisive character known of Messiah entering the world of Luke’s Gospel, and our lives, with some words that subtly challenge the comfort of our seats and the peace with which we idealize our ideas of the world and creation?

The most striking thing about this passage is that it occurs prior to Jesus once again returning his gaze to the crowds. Jesus is still speaking in the absent presence of Peters words, “Lord, are you addressing this parable to us or to everyone else as well?” The tone of the texts indicates Jesus is speaking these words to the disciples…for after he tells them of this conflict and sword that he brings, then the text says, “he was also speaking to the crowds…saying.”

Jesus is addressing this difficult saying to Luke’s churches, to those who were then currently living the tensions of families broken up because of the gospel, to families that had lost their inheritances because of their allegiance to Christ, to families that we on different ideological sides of the role of the temple that had by the time of Luke’s Gospel been destroyed. Jesus is speaking this to disciples; people in the conflict…and the reminder that he comes to bring conflict is a reminder that Jesus has prepared them for this difficult time.

While the Gospel did seem to have a euphoric sense to it, a sense of ultimacy that if Jesus was followed then new creation would emerge in a way consistent with all of their prior conceptions, the stark words of Jesus here is that his ministry will divide the very homes his ministry will also unite…and if he could expedite the process even the Son of God wishes that fire would consume creation and hold the powers that be accountable for their evil and oppression. Luke is using this discourse of Christ to remind them that the division they are now experiencing is not unexpected…even Christ knew such would happen…and the message of Acts tells us what a life proclaiming the Gospel looks like for those bound to this very divisiveness…how do they survive such division? The power of the Holy Spirit.

But what makes Jesus direct this very strong verbiage to his disciples?? Why doesn’t he point out the superstructures of society that are suppressing his people and keeping Israel in occupied bondage? Why doesn’t he come right out and say to whom this judgment and division is going to be directed? Why not a call to social-action like the prophets of old here? Why not attack the overtly political actions that are necessitating the presence of a judgment and a coming Christ? Why not address this warning to people that are not followers of Jesus? What is Jesus doing here?

He wants his disciples to see and feel the role reversal that takes place in the pending judgment of God visa vi his death, resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit that will later unfold in Luke/Acts. The Kingdom of God, the coming God of whom Jesus is the living presence, has come, and is coming, into history to judge those very folks who think they are not subject to judgment…rather they think they provide and do the judging. The judgment of Christ comes about under the indictment of resurrection and victory and is purged by the fires of cleansing…fires that Jesus presumably believed would be quite literal.

Conflict and division is central to the Gospel of Jesus and the hell that Jesus wishes here upon the characters of the text, perhaps even us in the present, (remember he is responding to Peter) is a judgment upon our very ideas of judgment and role in preserving the status quo of the current system that is not enlivened by the parabolic vision of the Christ and the pending kingdom. Our judgment, even as disciples, establishes a foreign kingdom, one not beholden to God or divine purpose. In a world where Luke’s Gospel is very political, Jesus is seeing through the ideological powers that bring judgment and peace (ideologies we often support even as disciples)…yet these will in fact be proclaimed as garbage under the microscope of the Gospel…fit to be burned and destroyed as a part of God’s weighing of creation. Jesus is fed up with this complicity. He sees all this and he wishes it would go ahead and start raining sulfur…yet he knows that just as his ministry started with a baptism by John so too his purpose must end in another baptism into the earth. The effect of this baptism and the belief it has produced in Jesus will be a division amongst people that were already being lived by Luke’s churches…and has been lived historically throughout Christianity.

You see disciples often forget a very central point of Jesus’ messages. While the disciples of Jesus then, like us today, like to take the words of scripture and use it to indict those that are not faithful…if we keep with this text we find that Jesus is directing these words to his disciples because they are often confused about their own complicity in guilt, and therein, judgment. We like to direct this discourse to some ominous event in which “god is going to get them” and we are on the winning team…only problem is, Jesus is not using this as warning outside the community of faith. He is using it to warn his disciples…that they should understand the risky business of following the Christ. Following Jesus is difficult. It’s divisive. It may not lead us to the Purpose Driven life that looks like the American dream. It may not lead us to powerful positions within secularity…it may lead us up a hill we are not prepared to walk.

…Chances are…it will lead us into division with others, our family and even ourselves because it lays bare our thirst for the dominant configurations of power and narcissism that plague our lives…and what will judge those misplaced configurations of power? In Luke’s Gospel, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus has already done this. The presence of Jesus and his words is the arrival of judgment of the last days…We already stand under these words because God, who is the end of the world, has come into our presence. But Jesus has prepared us for this with these very words.

So while multitudes read Luke 12 and rehash fantastic scenarios in which this will happen at some grand event when all of time and eternity collide into the presence of an end times that is only given vision through the writers of facetious fiction…Luke’s is showing us his hand. It’s not about when. It’s about now…and the judgment of Christ is already finished. Despite our hardships or that divisiveness of the person of Jesus…the cost of following him, which in America is precious little, despite this…the jokes on us. Christ does bring a sword, but he swallows his own sword up when the garden spits him out of his earthy cage. While we await this judgment and its victory…Luke will later remind us…we are already judged on Calvary…and we’ve already had victory. Jesus is telling us about what will happen cast within Luke’s narrative of what has happened.

It’s a little thing we call Easter.

Sermon Pentecost 2013: Fire From the Tomb

Pentecost

This is a sermon I preached this past Sunday in my local Church of the Nazarene setting.  My tradition has a precarious and intimate relationship to this text, especially as it concerns ideas of the holy spirit, holiness and Christian experience.  As I began to look more carefully exegetically at this passage, particularly within its Luke-Acts literary corpus, I began to see and pick up on some motifs that I believe my tradition and many evangelical traditions are sadly overlooking…and that is: the Pentecostal descending of the Holy Spirit on the early Church is not a prescriptive event that serves to edify the walk of an individual believer.  Pentecost occurs, rather, in order that those witnesses that heretofore were unable to witness to the Resurrection of Jesus might now be able to do so.  Pentecost is not a “movement” or a “stage” that Christians traverse as they become more “holy,”…Instead it seems that Luke-Acts insists this happens so that those already sanctified in their following of Christ might now be able to proclaim the nonsense of a dead carpenter…who is now not so dead…is the Messiah of God.  Further, not only does Luke-Acts make this argument, it further goes on to nuance how this events is interpreted as a “last days” event within the prophetic text of Joel and therein reinterprets how we today MUST also rethink our idea of “last days,’…but you’re gonna have to read the sermon if you want to see how this works out.

As an aside, the first several paragraphs are a rehearsal of the Christian calendar as we have only recently started being very intentional about the Christian seasons in my ministry context.  I felt that since Pentecost is the climax of Easter celebration and beginning of ordinary time, or what I like to call life as usual, that this rehearsal was in order to help the congregation re-member where we have been.  Should you not need the reminder of the seasons please move to the paragraph that begins discussing Pentecost.

So…with this said, I hope this sermon on Pentecost is helpful as you continue in your pursuits to narrate your life around this resurrected one we call Jesus the Christ.

Title: “Fire from the Tomb”

Text: Acts 2.1-21

Theme: Pentecost as Fulfillment of Easter

Topic: Easter Resurrects the Christ, Pentecost ushers the Church into the Power of Resurrection Proclamation

                We have been busy following the journey of Christ this year, following the calendar that marks events in the life of Jesus and dares us to participate in those events.  It has been a journey that is now about to both end, and begin.  This day is marked by colors of red, faint sounds of whirlwinds and descriptions of fiery tongues that descend upon those who are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.   The journey of Jesus the Christ has brought us to this peculiarly strange place this Sunday known as Pentecost.  It has taken us a while to get here.

We started in that season of Great expectation, a season of awaiting the coming Messiah and his birth.  It was a season in which we anticipated not only the birth of Christ, but also the return of the living Christ again with great heavenly choruses’ to announce his entrance on the white horse, just as they announced his birth in Bethlehem.  It was the season of Advent.

From advent, we moved to Christmas…a 12 day period that began with Christmas day.  This is a 2 week long season in which we concentrate on the arrival of the Christ.  This season is then closely followed by what we call Epiphany.  The Season of Epiphany is that time when we cease simply knowing that Christ has been born amongst us, and we actually realize who he is and we trek to see him, offering gifts of adoration and praise just as the Wise-men demonstrate to us what it looks like to be those who have had the ultimate “aha” moment.

After these seasons of expectation, rejoicing and realization…we enter into a place that begins on Ash Wednesday…we journeyed with Christ into the desert during a time we call Lent.  During lent we wandered the desert with Christ, we faced our own mortality, we became aware of the ministry of Jesus that at times perhaps made him long for those lonely desert moments in Luke 4 over the trials and obstinacy of people who did not believe his message.  When Jesus left the desert he went and preached his first sermon in his hometown…and if you will remember, it was not warmly received.  We have followed Christ through those Lenten places that led him to that most precarious of all weeks in his life…the Week we now call Holy week.

We followed Jesus down the Hill of Mt Olives from the Garden of Gethsemane and ushered him into the city of Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover feast.  We went with him to the temple, we heard him exchange with beggars, we were there when he broke bread and gave us wine…and our hearts were broken and confused when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified during this week.  The events that we now call Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were events we wished hadn’t occurred, yet we find ourselves on this journey with Christ so we walk where he walks, even if we learn things about ourselves along the journey that we don’t particularly like.

But then, the journey takes us unexpectedly to a place known as Easter…Easter morning we arise still grieving the death of Jesus only to be awakened by women screaming at the top of their lungs that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that Christ is not there, that something strange has happened.  We stand shocked, worried, strangely happy…as we then entered Eastertide.  Eastertide was a 49 day period in which we focused on the reality of the Risen Christ, what that risenness is, what it looks likes, what it means…and we were there with Jesus when he appeared to us in the Gospel of John, when he made us breakfast on the seashore, when he appeared to the 500 and when he came and walked amongst us as we were leaving Jerusalem talking amongst ourselves about the strange things that have overtaken the city…the event of Easter has changed everything…but the journey is not over just yet.

We then remembered Jesus as he had a final farewell moment with his disciples.  We were there when we walked with us after his resurrection, longing for the continual presence of the resurrected Jesus…yet he was giving us his final last words.  He spoke to us, then he Ascended from our midst…he left us…standing there as we gazed intently into the sky.  But what might Christ have meant in Acts chapter 1 when he said, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem…and to the remotest part of the earth.”  This journey is not over…

The story of Jesus has not yet finished and we have not yet fully received what Jesus told us we will receive.  As we were walking along the road with him conversing on way to a place called Emmaus, Jesus who we now call the Christ because of his resurrection, gave us a hint of this day we would soon experience.  He was leading us to the place known as Pentecost with these words,

“Thus it is written  that he Messiah should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses to these things.  And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24.45-49)

But this is something we should have been expecting along this journey, for much earlier than these words of the resurrected Jesus, Luke tells us of the words of John the Baptist in Luke chapter 3, “As for me, I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is mightier than I and I am not even fit to untie his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Back in Luke chapter 3 the prophetic words of John the Baptist didnt’t make much sense…but now, as we are further along on this journey with Christ Luke is bringing his Gospel message full circle.  What Luke began in his Gospel he is bringing to completion in his telling of this story in Acts chapter 2…this story we call Pentecost…the place that the journey of Jesus has now brought us to.

But what is Pentecost?  Why has the journey brought us here and where do we go from here?  If we follow the life of Jesus this event marks its end.  After today, we enter to a place that we call Ordinary time.  It is a time where nothing special happens in the life of Christ: no hark the herald angels sings, no wisemen, no miracles, no resurrection, and no more Pentecost’s…what does this mean for us that our journey has ended here, today, in this way, with this story…yet this ending is also a new beginning of sorts.

If we follow the text closely and if we pay attention to what Luke is doing in his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, 2 works that are separated in our bibles but were composed wholes by Luke originally, we find that despite the fact that we celebrate the big three events in the life of Jesus separately.  Despite the fact that we celebrate Easter, then Ascension, then Pentecost…and we do so with a 50 day period in between them…despite all this Pentecost and the falling of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is not a singular event.  These are not a series of events that are to be understood separately…rather they are all three events that function together in order proclaim one singular message and that is the Resurrection of Jesus.  The Resurrection is the catalyst that gives birth to the Ascension and Events of Pentecost.  It is a singular event marked by three distinct moments in the life of Jesus.  What this means is that to try to understand Pentecost apart from Easter is misleading and to understand Easter without an empowering Spirit would be an empty proclamation.  But this needs to be understood because often we separate these events to such a degree that days like Pentecost become removed from their Easter context and Pentecost becomes a time about my experience with God rather than my experience for God.  In other words, Pentecost is not an event that happens so that the disciples can have a great personal spiritual experience.  Are you listening?  If we pay attention to Luke and his Gospel and his Book of Acts, the event of the Pentecostal empowering of the disciples is not about their own personal spirituality, conscience or assurance that they are right with God.   It is, however,  part of the journey that makes Easter proclamation possible.

I know this is how this event is taught and preached…we are encouraged to have a Pentecostal experience, to speak in tongues, to be ecstatic and that this is what defines the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Some of us may even remember with fondness that Nazarenes were often referred to as “noise-a-renes” since our tradition has been so influenced by Pentecostal fervor and forms of worship.  This chapter is used by all manner of folks to describe the type of experience we ought to have with God…all the while this event only happens here and nowhere else…it doesn’t even happen exactly like this again in the Book of Acts or in Paul…or any other book that might be in the Bible.

Our tradition has unfortunately linked this event to something we like to call sanctification.  We have taken Acts 2 as a paradigm or a model for what it means to be sanctified by God, set apart for his purpose and granted the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit…only us evangelical Baptist and Nazarene types like to leave out the speaking in tongues part that is strangely described as tongues of fire floating upon the disciples and filling up their very beings.  All the while, this passage says nothing of sanctification…the language that we find in other places of the NT to talk about sanctification is not in this passage even though we like to imagine that it is.   Not only does this passage not say anything about sanctification but it also says nothing about our personal spirituality as the goal of this event…the event that is described for many of us through the great hymn, “How the Fire Fell.”

Traditionally, all of these events: Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, were are all closely celebrated together because they are all movements of one unified narrative, one unified story that is not complete one without the other.  By separating them on the calendar, which is understandable since we can’t celebrate everything the same day or the same week, we have unfortunately lost what Luke is doing with the this text and what Acts is doing by positioning this story in Chapter 2.  Pentecost is not about giving us a new sort of experience with God and it’s not even about just empowering us in our own personal spiritual lives.  Pentecost is about Easter because Pentecostal power happens in order for Easter proclamation to take place.  Pentecost does not offer us a model of Christian experience that should be prayed for and replicated by others…if offers us the story of why the Spirit came, how it came and what it came for!  Pentecost came to fulfill the words of Jesus, “It is written that Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations…YOU ARE MY WITNESSES.”  We are witnesses of what??  We are resurrection witnesses!  Pentecost happens and the spirit falls upon those that are still left under the shadow of the clouds of the Ascension so that those that saw these things, those that have been witnesses will be able to proclaim the resurrection!

Pentecost is exists so that Resurrection proclamation can occur!  In the Gospels, we do not see mass spreading of the stories of Jesus after his resurrection.  The community of faith keeps this reality to itself.  It sounds crazy, it can’t be, its impossible, the Jewish and Roman authorities are already suspect of those that used to follow this dead carpenter from Nazareth.  The resurrection gospel of Jesus Christ that now he has been raised and so too will your dead body be raised from its dead state and the wages of sin that Kill us all have now been broken is not being shared after the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels!  Why?  Because they do not have the power, the unction, or the witnessing ability to do so.  They are stuck in fear, amazement, thankfulness, but lost about what to do now that the proof that Jesus is not dead has just ascended into the clouds.  Now who’s going to believe them?

Pentecost is the event that sets this faith in motion and empowers the disciples to take the Gospel to places it would have otherwise not reached.  Pentecost is an extension of Easter in that it is the event that enables the Easter proclamation to go forth into creation.  Its not about a new experience for me or you or the disciples, its about empowering our ability to proclaim what we have already experiencing by rushing into the tomb and finding it hollow and empty…the body of Jesus the Christ no longer there.  That’s why tongues of fire fall on us…so that we can proclaim nonsense with boldness!

If Pentecost is the power of God to proclaim the events of Easter to creation, then Pentecost is also marks the end of the world, the end times, the last days.  I know this is not a popular conception of what the last days is all about but if Pentecost is about proclaiming the resurrection of Christ…then it is about proclaiming this resurrection because the ends times is upon us..and there is nothing more ends times and eerie than the resurrection of Jesus.   That’s not normal and we need to quit making it normal.

Jesus came proclaiming that the KOG was about to break upon creation.  He came, along with John the Baptist, forgiving sins and telling people that his work was an extension of Gods signs that the end of the time and the renewal of creation were imminent.  Then, in a shocking turn of events Jesus is crucified and killed…yet something apocalyptic happens…Jesus is raised!  This was a common Jewish conception of the time that the last days would be marked by the resurrection of the dead and the church dared to proclaim that the last days had finally begun to occur in the very resurrection of Jesus, or what the Apostle Paul liked to proclaim as the “first fruits of the dead…” Jesus’ body being the first harvest of the pending collection of bodies that will be renewed…along with creation by God.  SO by virtue of Pentecostal tongues of fire falling on the disciples so that they might be witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost must then be interpreted by us as something that occurred in the last days…and so long as we continue to have faith in Jesus Christ we must believe and proclaim that we are living as an extension of those last days that began with the events of Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.

But our text goes further to argue that the message of Jesus is a message for the last days…the last days being those that exist from the Ascension of Jesus until his pending return…After the tongues of fire fall on the disciples and a scene that is reminiscent of a theophany in the Old Testament: A scene characterized by wind, noise and fire…the kinds of elements that God likes to use when his Spirit shows up on the scence…we see that Peter even changes the text of the Prophet Joel to interpret this event as an end times event.   That’s right, Peter in his sermon doesn’t just quote Joel, he changes the text to interpret this event as the event that Joel was talking about…so let’s see interesting twist.

The crowd hears the commotion of the men who have been baptized by fire as John the Baptist warned and as Jesus instructed them to wait for.  The disciples have obviously come out of the room or the place in which they were waiting and they are proclaiming this resurrection reality of Jesus to Jews from all the known nations.  Typical of folks who don’t understand those filled with the Holy Spirit, and also typical of the way many Christians act, the crowd thinks that these men are drunk…even though it is only 9am.  In a shocking turn of events, Peter gets up and proclaims the Prophet Joel to explain to the crowd what is occurring.  Peter declares in Pentecostal power,

“This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days, that I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind.  And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions and you old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women I will in those days pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.  And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth beneath, blood and fire and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon into blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord and everyone that calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Interestingly, Luke tells us that Peter has changed Joel in order to interpret these events as applicable to Jesus…this outpouring of God’s Spirit for Easter Proclamation is a mark of these last days…which means that the new creation has in some way begun in the fact that Jesus Body was made new and resurrected…the order of nature has been reversed and creation has begun to see newness and revival from the clutches of death!  In Joel, the passage does not start out “In the last days, it starts out… “And it will come about after this…”

What is the “after this” in Joel?  Well, if you go and read Joel 2 it’s a lot of destruction and judgment…only after all that will the last days enter…yet in Acts we see Luke interpreting Joel differently and the events of the Resurrection and Pentecostal proclamation are not something that are preceded or followed by destruction.  In fact, if you read Luke-Acts the opposite is the case…what lies ahead is not dreadful news of destruction but the good-news of forgiveness and repentance because Jesus has brought the end of time into our present through his resurrection and thereby extended forgiveness in which we too may also participate in this new creation!  (repeat) Now this is good news!  This is Gospel!  As one writer aptly stated it,

“In the context of Joel, this passage meant the salvation of Israel and the destruction of those nations that had oppressed it.  The surprise of Pentecost is that the eschatological last days do not bring destruction , but rather bring mission and redemption for the world!”

In Pentecost Jesus is coming good on his promise to empower them with speech that will allow them to be his witnesses and that when this event occurs it will simply be an extension of the last days that was already begun when God decided to resurrect Jesus from the place from which no one has ever returned before or since.  It is only the paranormal strange event of resurrection and the powerful falling of the Holy Spirit on silent disciples that can galvanize such bold and ridiculous proclamation to the world.  It is only by this power that Peter could get up and proclaim as he does to the crowd in Acts 2 this powerful prophetic utterance of Joel…because the last time we heard Peter speak in Luke-Acts he was busy denying Jesus to a servant girl!  Yes, I know Peter is the one that took the initiative to choose another disciple in Acts 1, but let’s not think for a minute that his urging of this is not to distract from his own failings of denying Jesus.  Only in comparison to Judas does Peter look good, and it is only the power of the Pentecostal spirit that can empower such a man to even think of proclaiming something he so easily dismissed just a few chapters back.

If Peter can experience Pentecost and tongues of fire that force him to speak that which he otherwise couldn’t  then I have goodnews for all of us!  Easter is not over…Easter is living!  Christ is risen and on this day we celebrate when the Spirit came to give us the ability to witness to the Christ event that has initiated those things we call the last days…that the last days actually take place in what most of us call ordinary time, ordinary life, life as usual!

So go and be witnesses!…leave this place with the same power of those tongues of fire…If Peter’s prophetic imagination can be reawakened…so can all of our denying of Jesus on this day be turned into a powerful witness of resurrection.  At Easter Jesus was resurrected from his tomb.  On Pentecost, we are , the Church is, resurrected from our/its tomb(s) with the power of Christ!

Go and witness to this power!   May the Spirit of Pentecostal Resurrection be with you all.  And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

 

 

 

 

Parables: Stories About the End of the World

Mark misunderstood gospel

The following is a sermon I preached in year B this past summer.  In my ministerial context, sermons are generally 20-30 minutes.  This one is on the 30 minute side due to the pedagogical material at the front of the sermon.  I hope this helps you wrestle with this very short Markan parable as much as it did me.

Text: Gospel of Mark 4.26-29

Of the many things that we think, and know, and believe about Jesus, one of the most certain realities of the nature of his ministry and life is that Jesus taught by means of parables.   This is a truth and illustration to which there is more testimony and evidence than many of the orthodox beliefs we have about Jesus such as: the virgin birth, the trip to Bethlehem, that Jesus had siblings, or that his father’s name is Joseph.  These are things we believe…but for some reason the authors of the NT and the early church felt that it was more important to preserve this form of teaching by Jesus than it was to verify and create a mountain of literary evidence supporting the very historical foundations of our faith.  Why is that?  Why does our faith tradition preserve the teachings and presentations of Jesus to a greater degree than the hardcore historical facts we think necessary to hold such faith?  Haven’t all people in all times been as hung up about history as we are today?  The most obvious response must be that there is something particularly special about parables…something that we better take note of if we are going to read the Gospels faithfully.  There must be something so special about parabolic expressions that the church knew it was not easily grasped, harnessed or interpreted, but it understood that if we’ll stick with it and hang on…perhaps the world at the end of the parable will be different than the one that existed prior to its utterance.

You see, Church, we often find ourselves to be like many of the people that surrounded Jesus during his ministry.  We’ve spent some time observing him, hearing him, and we think we know what he’s saying…yet Jesus keeps speaking to us in Parables.  Aren’t parables the expressions of children??  Stories of fancy meant to fill our imagination and just give us another entertaining way to learn?  Wasn’t Jesus just being a good teacher and implementing the method of teaching that best suited the learning style of those around him?

If we already know the answers than why does he keep teaching us like we’re idiots?  If we already know the parables than why does the world look like it did before Jesus told them?  Could it be that the parables we think we understand, we don’t really understand at all?  Could it be that we have taken the parabolic mystery and challenge out of the parable and reduced it to simple moralizing or spiritualization and in the process drained the parable of its power?  Do we read the parables of Jesus…see the easy answer and then think we have it?  Might I suggest, if we read the parables and the answer is easily configured and assimilated into our lives…well, we’ve probably missed the point of parable.

Alan Culpepper, my teacher at Mercer, described parables in this way:

Parables compel us as their hearers to see the world in a new way.  Whether used in debate or didactic settings, parables point to the improbable in the midst of the ordinary and force us to pause to consider it.  They shift our angle of vision…the parabler sees something no one else sees.  He or she conveys that vision metaphorically or paradoxically through the out of place in the midst of the common, inviting us to puzzle over the relationship between the two.  The parables, however, are so unstable, elusive, and revolutionary that the church has tirelessly found ways to resolve the parables tensiveness, reduce them to simple lessons, and beat the life out of them by making them familiar…Fortunately, Jesus’ parables resist this reduction and give us the ability to see the world as he sees it. (RE journal Spring 2012).

Parables are meant to use ordinary events, ordinary things, and create an unordinary reality.  They are meant to challenge our ideas of how the world works by using our very ideas of how the world works…Parables are mechanisms that are employed in very specific situations, at specific times, to challenge a specific notion or to interject an idea into a sea of ideas that are misguided and shallow.  In other words, a parable is the teaching device by which Jesus blows up our ideas, our opinions and our worlds.  The option to not have an opinion about the parable or to not come to some kind of conclusion regarding its meaning is not an option in the face of the challenge of Jesus telling the parable.

Jesus considered his ministry to be the very manifestation of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God…and this method of teaching, parables, is the method by which Jesus is confronting the world in various contexts to see what that kingdom is all about.  Parables are not simple lessons that we use in Sunday School to learn the basics of loving Jesus…parables are the very tools that Jesus uses to say this is the end of the world as you know it!  The Kingdom of God is near…its right here around the corner…listen to this parable as the world comes closer to its end!  I am teaching you this way because the future that is myself has broke into your present!

The context of the ministry of Jesus is apocalyptic expectation.  The time of Jesus is ripe with expectation and a multitude of religious groups and people that are anticipating some form of God breaking into their present…but what the Gospel of Mark tell us…is that this breaking, this tearing of reality occurs before Jesus even utters one word of a parable and in a way that is not expected or heard by anyone…other than as the sound of thunder.  Mark is so convinced of the utter ripping of reality, the tear of God into history, that he places this event of divine coming at the very early stages of his Gospel.

In Mark 1.9-13…we get the brief mention of the baptism of Jesus.  What is unique about this story is the word that Mark uses to describe the event of God’s spirit descending upon Jesus.  Mark 1.9-13 reads as follows:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening and the spirit like a dove descending upon him and a voice came out of the heavens: You are my beloved son, in You I am well pleased.  Immediately he was compelled to go into the wilderness by the Spirit”

The story tells us, very calm and collectively, that God “opened” the heavens and the spirit descended…but the Greek word does not connote a nice opening scene that fills some piece of Romantic literature as the dove of God wisps away onto the shoulder of Jesus.  What the Greek says is that God “RIPPED” “TORE” open the heavens…and that tearing of the heavens leaves a scar on creation that cannot be put back together.  The world will never be the same again!  And this apocalyptic event that takes place at the baptism of Jesus happens before Jesus does anything in ministry…and Mark wants to tell us as readers that from here on out…the world is different.  The end has come into the present…and Jesus will then teach in a way that is reflective of the end of the world and remind us of the pending Kingdom of God that is already at work.  Parables are a means of teaching in this new apocalypse…or this new revealing of who and what God is.  Parables have to do with taking the ordinary and placing them within the context of a heavens that have been torn apart by God and will never be fitted back together!

Understanding this, we come to our text, and we discover that this parable is something we already know.  Perhaps we give it a very shallow read or glance at it quickly…but since we are such stellar students of Jesus and already earned an “A” in his class…we think we don’t need this lesson…but lets her Mark anyhow.  Turn to our text…Mark 4.26-29.

At first glance, this scripture seems pretty easy to grasp.  We can read this parable and it seems pretty obvious what Jesus is saying right?  The kingdom of God is basically the small seed that is planted by the farmhand.  The seed is sown, as we saw very meticulously by Jesus in the lengthy parable of the Sower in first part of chapter 4, and it will produce a harvest that will be ripe.  In this parable, Jesus is clearly telling us that the Word is the seed, as he does in v13 on the first parable, and that the Word will produce a harvest.  We don’t know how, but it will be evident when we awaken after our slumber.  At first glance church, this parable is obviously part of what we remember Paul telling us is the milk of babes in Christ…where’s the meat of the Gospel?  We’ve already got this figured out…Next please.

But let’s pause here just a bit longer.  This first half of the parable is taking the ordinary practice of agriculture and noting its regular results.  This makes sense to any farmer or hired hand that plants seed.  They can relate.  But let’s ask a few questions.  What is the Kingdom of God here?  Jesus says the KOG is like a “man” who casts seed upon the soil.  Who or what is the soil here?  And how is the harvest produced?  The parable does not tell us of any extant causes of the harvest.  It does not mention managing the soil, or sunlight, or even water.  The parable doesn’t give any details as to how the spreading of seed in the soil produces a harvest, yet it does.  For many of us, we would walk through this field and we would be thinking of all the biological things occurring at a micro-biological level and we know WHY a harvest is produced by planting seed.  We can scientifically explain it.  But for someone hearing this parable for the first time, they walk through the same field and they have no idea how that happens.  They count the giving of the earth as a miracle, not a biological fact to be manipulated by farming techniques.

Many times this part of the parable is interpreted to easily.  But I can already here the objections, “Pastor Nathan, the Gospel is easy to understand…we shouldn’t have to think about them this hard to understand them.”  If we think that parables are supposed to be easy to understand, what do we make of Jesus when he says earlier in our chapter, “To you has been given the KOG, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”  Seems like in Mark Jesus speaks in parables precisely because he doesn’t want people to understand…  Moving back to interpretation, the man in the parable is often interpreted the one who preaches the Gospel.  The preacher’s throw the seed onto soil.  The soil is understood to be us or those people that hear the seed of the word and respond.  Our response is the harvest and then the one who proclaimed the Gospel initially can come along and reap the harvest of our response and those around us.  In other words, this is interpreted as a passage that reinforces our boring imagination as we think it’s about saving souls, even though Jesus has said nothing like this in this passage or to this point in the Gospel of Mark. In other words, we take this to mean, “Let’s spread the word to get people saved so that they can be the harvest.”  Anyone who has read the Left Behind books knows this to be true.

There are problems with this simple interpretation.  First, it’s not reading this parable as a parable.  It’s reading it as an analogy in which we correlate elements of the ordinary to elements of our preconceived ideas of salvation, which is a problem if a key to understanding parables is our initial worldview.  In other words, we are doing what Dr. Culpepper described as “tirelessly finding ways to resolve the tense nature of the parable.”  If the parable, no matter how many verses long, doesn’t shake us to the core, than we’ve already missed it.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.  Go back and try again please.

Second, every analogy fails.  Rather than trying to see the “spiritual” meaning in this parable, let’s just let it be.  Maybe this parable is simply saying that the KOG is about the mystery of the gift of the earth.  The KOG is not manipulated by human effort.  It is not the product of any specific ministerial paradigm or purpose driven model.  The KOG is not simply the man that preaches.  The KOG is not simply the place to which the seed is thrown.  And the soil cannot be the church or anyone who listens.  Soil is not active…it is acted upon.  The soil is a passive recipient of the seed…it doesn’t choose whether the seed will fall on it or not. The Kingdom of God is reflective of the process of our non-involvementIn other words, the Kingdom of God is thoroughly the work of God.  It is God’s gift to us.  And it is God’s gift to us through the smallest and most humbling beginnings…God walking amidst creation dropping seeds of revelation on the crust of the earth.  Does the KOG need someone to proclaim the Gospel?  Absolutely.  But is this parable telling us of the importance of the preacher or is it telling us of the mystery of the smallness of what is sown…and that such small revelations are not brought to harvest through the work of our hands…but through the mystery of the spirit of God working in the present to bring an end to the world in the form of Jesus? 

Within the context of Jesus’ pending expectation that the Kingdom of God was being manifested and displayed in his ministry, this parable is consistent with the covenant God made with the people as far back as Abraham.  The people did nothing to be chosen.  The people did nothing to make themselves grow.  The people did nothing to which they could take credit for being wrapped into the narrative of God that would give them hope of resurrection, yet, here is the shadow of the Temple, here is the shadow of the Commandments, here is the shadow of the Prophets, and here is Jesus calling us to the end result of the work that God began to do in the very beginning of creation.  The Kingdom of God is predicated on the Spirit of God that has entered the world and is tossing its seed of repentance into all of creation…and the harvest will come because of God…and God will harvest it.

The Kingdom of God is not the easily manipulated technique of planting whereby we get the crop to grow through preaching a few bible verses.  What this parable is trying to tell us is that the KOG is the mysterious Work of God that has very humble beginnings.  It is begun with simple planting, or a tearing into the soil by the seed…the tearing of God’s Spirit into the life of Jesus after his baptism, and the harvest is the mysterious production of a world that looks like God in Jesus Christ.

This is an important parable and message to note because by the time the Gospel is being composed surely not all people believe who Jesus is…Jesus has always had his share of critics.  The parables are often not merely mechanisms of teaching, but they are also challenges to critics in story form via familiar conceptions.  Can’t you see the world into which Jesus’ ministry happened?  After Easter, Jerusalem is still standing.  Romans are still in power.  Creation looks the same.  The “new creation” is not so new…to the average viewer of reality.  Thus, the Gospel writer feels the need to express and rehearse parables of Jesus that offer a response to the criticism of the lack of greatness that must have obviously been Jesus’ “kingdom.”  This parable is one such response.  The Gospel has small beginnings…and its maturation is mysterious…but one need not worry because God is taking care of what’s happening beneath the soil, which is the world, and God will ensure the harvest when we awaken the next morning.  The end of the seed is also the beginning of the harvest.  Death of the kernel must happen before life can occur…and how this happens, for people in Jesus’ context, is not known.  It isn’t us…it is the gift of God.

But let’s now allow this parable to simply stop there.  Remember, the Gospels are written after the affirmation and witness that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.  We have just celebrated a season in the church year in which we rehearsed and remembered the birth of Jesus, his ministry, his suffering, his death, his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church.  We ALL KNOW the story.  We, as a church in the 21st century, are the epitome of Monday Morning quarterback and we have an unfair vantage point because we KNOW where the narrator of Mark is taking us with all these stories.  We know how it ends…and how things are really going to turn out for Jesus.  And we believe our knowledge of the story to be the case…but the readers and hearers of MARK didn’t know the end.  When the reader or hearer gets to Mark chapter 4 they don’t know of Peters confession that Jesus is Lord or that Jesus’ tomb will be found empty.  And surely some of those encountering Marks Gospel have heard stories of what supposedly happened to Jesus, they don’t believe it, so they want to see what this Gospel has to say for itself.  Thus, into a context of very premature knowledge of Jesus, and probably a context of also heightened criticism about what really happened to Jesus, this parable not only offers a different look as to how the KOG is brought forth, and not only that the KOG has humble beginnings that are cultivated by God in mysterious ways beneath the earth…but this KOG is ultimately initiated, and cultivated by God in the very tomb of Christ…producing the harvest of his resurrection!

Using allegory as many of the early church fathers, it is easy to see that this parable might also be Mark’s way of saying that not only is a seed the humble beginnings of a harvest that sprang from the ground we know not how, but also the one whom you say is not the Christ…the one whom you say the disciples took away by night…the one whom you saw crucified by Romans…the one that has failed to make purported post-resurrection appearances to only those who believe in him…the one from the Podunk town of Galilee with an earthly family…this guy that went from town to town having to get food from others and live off the kindness of others…the ancient hippie of sorts that went around teaching in parables precisely because you didn’t understand…This one IS the HARVEST of the last days!

Jesus’ ministry is the seed.  His life and works are the seeds scattered in creation amongst us, yet this seed when it hit the soil of creation eventually died. The Christ was buried…but for three days God was doing something in the tomb.  God was busy preparing a gift for us.  We don’t know how it happened and we didn’t know how long it would take, but God was busy tending to the seed beneath the soil, sealed away in the tomb.  Then one morning, we were awakened only to find what the Apostle Paul describes as the first fruits of the new creation!  Hear 1 Corinthians 15.20-21, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.  For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.”  If there is anything that the Gospel of Mark proclaims, it is a proclamation that the life and presence of Jesus is the beginning of the end of the world and the beginning of the KOGThis kingdom doesn’t happen like we think it will and it doesn’t look like we want it to, but it will produce a harvest that is totally dependent on God’s cultivation and the very first fruit of the seeds of God’s spirit in the world will be the seed of the Christ that is made to grow from out of the earth so that a sickle may be taken to the rest of creation in anticipation of for the harvest that must happen in light of the resurrection of Jesus.

You see church, the fruit that is the KOG is not up to us to make grow.  And the fruit that is the Kingdom of God isn’t all our feeble attempts to preach to souls that are the harvest of our labor.  In this very short parable, a parable that only occurs here in Mark…we see that Jesus is radically challenging our notion of how the harvest works, what the harvest is and what our role in that process is not.  I’m sorry church, but this parable is not about us.  It’s not about me and it’s not about you…We are not the target here…and we’ve missed it because we want to offer simple interpretations that make us feel like we understand and that we feel are directed at our spiritual needs.  But this parable won’t allow it.  This parable, within an Easter context…as all the Gospels are, tells us that Christ is the harvest.  He is the first fruits of the work of God…the manifestation and fore-bearer of what the Kingdom looks like.  The small man from Galilee, who is a meager nuisance on the religious and political scene of ancient Judea…is the smallness from which God will save the world and harvest all of creation.  And because he is the first fruit of the harvest, we have a hope that there are other fruits that will spring up from the ground with him as the world continues to stubbornly continue into history.  But this is what the kingdom of God is…it is the remainder of creation after the first fruit of Christ…it is something we can’t expect, something we don’t understand, but something that will spring up among us in a very unexpected way from a very unexpected origin.

And Jesus said “With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it (as far as they were ABLE TO HEAR IT*) and he did not speak to them without a parable, but he was explaining everything privately to his own disciples.” (Mark 4.33-34)

What is Jesus privately explaining to you?