Archive for the ‘Church in America’ Category
“There was hardly anything I did that did not involve language: the Word of God provided not information but revelation. Jesus told stories and taught and prayed, not to entertain us or inspire us but to draw us into a participating, believing, listening, loving way of life that was, above all, local and personal: prayerful. I wanted to do that too. A way of using language in which God, whether implicitly or explicitly, had the first word.”–from The Pastor, 239
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Maybe a large part of the problem with christians in general is that when we approach the bible, what we call ‘the word of God’ or the ‘scripture’ (and rightfully so), we do so with the idea that it is a prescription. That is, we have a problem so let’s head to the Physicians Desk Reference and find the cure or something silly like that. Maybe we do not take enough time to consider genre.
That the Bible is made up of different genres was eye-opening for me the first time I heard a professor explain it. Well, of course, I knew there were letters and apocalypses and gospels and suchlike, but even though I knew that, my interpretive skills were not at a level where it mattered. All I was reading was the Bible. I was not reading a ‘letter from Paul to the Colossians’ or a ‘gospel written to the Gentiles in Rome.’ Genre, and thus context, mattered little and I suspect for many christians this holds true.
The standard practice of preachers linking God’s work so closely to church programs and priorities had a devastating effect on Christians who gave up on the church. For them, leaving the church meant leaving Jesus behind in the church. God was so closely linked to the building that it seemed he was the property of the congregation. The church acted as if it had God on salary, with him keeping regular office hours and even being on called whenever he might be needed.
“The claim on God and his activities, ironically, helps explain the empty pews in most of our churches.” (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 16)
Today’s readings are from Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22, and Psalm 106:1-18.
Moab needed an ally and their king, Balak son of Zippor, evidently thought that words mattered. Thus he summon Balaam.
This is a curious story. It echoes thoughts from Genesis 12 where God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who curse you and I will curse those who curse you” (Genesis 12:3). Balaam was setting himself up for something terrible as was Balak. Balak says to Balaam, through his emissaries, “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” This is terribly problematic because it must be somehow true.
So we will have a conflict here where God, who promised to bless and curse on behalf of Abraham, will be up against a man who also blesses and curses—in this case, on behalf of Balak to Moabite. Strange this conflict that must ensue. God spares Balaam the trouble, “You must not put a curse on these people because they are blessed.” (22:12) It kind of makes me wonder how there can be such a conflict.
Clearly Balaam was bargaining for more cash. Greed is a powerful ally (I’m fairly certain I heard this from a Jedi Knight.) And if it is greed versus God…well, clearly in this case Greed wins hands down.
NT Wright on Romans 6:
All this helps us, too, to understand the exhortation in chapter 6 to ‘reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (6.11). This is calling for an act, not of guesswork, nor of fantasy or speculative imagination, but of mental deduction: you are in the Messiah; the Messiah has died and been raised; therefore, you have died and been raised; therefore sin has no right to hold sway over you. That mental framework, and that alone, is the basis for the appeal which follows instantly: ‘So don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its desires’ (6.12). All of this—and much more, actually, but at least all of this—stands now behind Paul’s deceptively brief instruction at the start of chapter 12: don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (After You Believe, 154-155)
To use a quaint christian metaphor: there can only be one king reigning in my body and it must not be sin. Yet all of this is couched in grace language: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (6:14) I am not governed by sin, law, or anything else that engages in a coup; I belong to Christ.
Frankly, I think that all too often I simply forget that and get caught up in the moment. Not one single part of me belongs to sin and therefore I should not feel compelled to offer one single part of myself to sin—as if I have an obligation to sin.
We learned a ‘pattern of teaching’ and we are to obey from the heart. We have come to obey it. It takes practice to be obedient, it takes time. We are not masters over night. And we do not gain so much from indulgence as we might be led to believe. Freedom consists not in the offering of ourselves to sin, but in the bondage of Christ.
The so-called ‘temple incident’ is one that Christians often use to justify their ‘righteous indignation.’ But if we were truthful about this I would say that it has nothing to do with us at all. Frankly Jesus would probably come in to many of our own temples and turn over many of our tables too, and whip us, and drive us out, and remind us what the Scripture says—and how we have made a mockery of Scripture by doing the things we do.
What Jesus did—and, let’s be honest, this is somewhat embarrassing—is strange. I mean, he had been alive for at least thirty some years and had seen this many times over during those thirty years. Why now did it suddenly offend him? Why now did he get bent out of shape about what was going on in the temple? Did it really take him that long to get angry about it? Had he not seen it a thousand times before?
And if that were not enough, after he turns over all the money-changing tables and drives everyone out, he sets up his own shop: the blind and the lame came to him at the temple. The implication is clear: the temple is a place of healing and restoration and some had taken over the temple space for their own objectives. How can the church be a place of healing and restoration when the church has been ransacked by those whose only objective is to secure their money?
There is a lot going on in the temple that day: Jesus driving out the capitalists, Jesus preaching a sermon, Jesus healing people, and children shouting in the temple. I love that: children were shouting in the temple and Jesus didn’t rebuke them but justified them. It was the curmudgeons who did the rebuking.
This scene must have appeared strange to all who saw it and heard it and, in some way, participated in it.
Concerning verses 18-22 I have scratched in the margin of my Bible: the appearance of fruitfulness is not the same as fruitfulness.
Praise the LORD.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are they who maintain justice,
who constantly do what is right.
A little ways down in this Psalm it says this, “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (21-22).
Forgetting is not easy yet sometimes it is easier to forget God than it is to forget those who have wronged us—or at least the wrongs they did to us. I have a suspicion that this is a large part of what is wrong with the world today.
Maybe, too, we have to practice remembering. Maybe we need to daily remember all that God has done, his faithfulness. Then in lean times when he seems strangely absent we will not be so quick to forget and lapse into the ways of Egypt he redeemed us from. Maybe I should start today making a list of all his ways of faithfulness, start remembering all his mighty deeds.
Maybe if we thought more of God, remembered more of his deeds, we would think less and remember less of all that humans manage to accomplish—whether evil or good.
The readings for June 22, 2010 are as follows: Numbers 16.20-35, Romans 4.1-12, Psalm 94, Matthew 19.23-20.
What I hope to do is provide a thought or two on the daily readings as a means of keeping myself accountable to the daily practice of reading from the Scripture.
In the early days of the church, God still dealt with people this way. Remember Annanias and Sapphira? Paul wrote in Corinthians that some people even died because they at the Lord’s Supper with contempt for the Body of Christ.
I wonder if the Lord still deals with people in the church this way? I wonder if there are still people like Moses who will intercede on behalf of the people? Still, who knows exactly how the Lord works in the church that is the Body of Christ?
Yet somehow or other in this strange act of God’s vengeance Moses, God’s servant, was also justified and vetted. Strange.
I like that Paul speaks of the ‘promise with value.’ He does so backhandedly when he writes, “For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless.” That means what God has promised us has value to those who pursue it by faith.
Frankly, I like that God has made promises to us and that all of the effort is on Him and not us.
We are blessed! It’s a wonderful thought to know that our blessedness comes not from achievement or abundance on our own part but from being forgiven by One who holds the power to forgive.
O LORD, the God who avenges,
O God who avenges, shine forth.
Rise up, O Judge of the earth;
pay back to the proud what they deserve.
How long will the wicked, O LORD,
how long will the wicked be jubilant?
There’s another beatitude in today’s reading in verse 12: “Blessed are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach from your law.” So two readings and, so far, two beatitudes. This Psalm is packed full and I want to note simply that the Psalmist has his eyes upon the Lord his fortress, his Rock.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Peter answered him, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?"
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
What we find impossible, God does not. What we see as a massive chicane, God sees as an open road. What we cannot handle, God can. He’s talking here about rich and poor. The rich, he says, do not have a shot according to man’s ways and means and thoughts. Kingdom values are upside down: last are first, first are last. Who can make sense of it?
I suppose it is logical to ask, as Peter did when pointing out that they had in fact left all to follow Jesus: “What will there be for us?”
I suppose it is also logical to ask, as an American who has much and hasn’t been asked to give up much: “What about us? Are we too rich to enter the Kingdom? Are we mere fat men stuck in a needle’s eye waiting for judgment? What about us?”
What hope is there for even the poorest of Americans who live well above the standard of living of most of the poor in the world? Does anyone in America have a shot?
Well, who can be saved?
Like many people right now, I am reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity, which was recently published by Waterbrook Press. I’m only two chapters in, but already I know the reason I bought the book and why I visited the late Spencer’s blog Internet Monk so frequently.
He tells his readers in the introduction exactly to whom he is writing and why:
Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can’t entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I’m talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.
And I’m writing to the outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren’t for Christians.” (5)
I am one of those people to whom Spencer is writing. It’s a sad thing, really, that I am an ordained minister, have a Bible college education, earned my living from the church for the better part of fifteen years, and have been a Christian since I was at least thirteen, maybe sooner, and have very little interest, right now, in the church—and precisely because of the people who make up the church. I know it is a strange thing since I too am part of that problem, part of the church.
I’m not that far gone though. I still worship with the church on Sundays and when I am asked I am still willing to step to the pulpit and speak the word of God to God’s people. Truth be told, I love the church which is the main reason why it is so terribly painful to be living in this borderlands place that I am living right now. I know Jesus loves the church—ugly as the church is—and that he will never quit on the church no matter how far away the church wanders from or quits him. I know that I have no right to despise the body of Christ.
Yet I suppose that is the very temptation I have had to struggle with so much over the last eleven months of this pilgrimage: how can I not despise the very place where I have been so despised while serving as a pastor/preacher? Oh, it’s that grace thing I suppose and I’d rather not think of that; it’s much easier to keep provoking and nursing those needling thoughts about all I would like to say. The first time I was treated poorly by a church I went right back to the pulpit and took out a lot of frustrations on unsuspecting congregants. This time, the Lord is not so quick to allow me that opportunity again. So I have been wandering for nearly a year.
William Willimon wrote a smart little book he titled Sinning Like a Christian wherein he explores the so-called seven deadly sins. I was minding my own business tonight when my wife grabbed the book, opened to a random page, and began reading:
Maybe that’s why the Scripture tells us, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ Vengeance, once of the most popular motivations for indignation, righteous or otherwise, is not a gift God gives to us. Vengeance, the ultimate, final righting of what’s wrong with the world, is God’s business, not ours. Because our anger can be so self-deceptive and delusional, so very dangerous to ourselves and others, the church has called Anger a sin, and a deadly one at that. We are to guard against it, fight it with all our might, repress it and stuff it in because, not being wise or as loving as God, we are not to be trusted with Anger.” (76)
Well, I wasn’t too happy with my wife after she read that ‘random’ passage of Willimon to me. I would have been much happier if she had read me a love-letter or a birthday card or the menu from our favorite local Chinese restaurant. Truth is, it hit me hard.
In about five minutes, on June 23, I will turn forty. I don’t care any more. I had my mid-life crisis when I turned thirty ten years ago and celebrated with folks from the church who, nine years after that fact, terminated my employment and sent me into a tailspin of anger, church homelessness, and depression. Forty? Pshaw! I can do forty standing on my head in the snow.
But forty is a special day because it also marks the first day of the rest of my life and the beginning of another change I need to make. I haven’t been on good terms with my Lord for the last year; he is so patient. He gave me a year or so to sort it out or, rather, to wrestle with all the emotions that come from such a drastic change as I have had to make. July 12 is the real anniversary, but June 23 marks my fortieth birthday and it is also the day I have decided to open up my Bible again and begin to read it and pray it.
I needed a break from it. I needed to know that I still hungered for it. I needed to know that it was still the Word of the Living God. I needed to know that despite everything that had changed about me, the Word was still capable of changing me even more. Frankly, I had to know that I still believed what was written in the book. So I am breaking my fast (it hasn’t been as complete as I make it sound) from the Bible and beginning all over again again because I believe that the Bible was also written to misfits like myself—people who are on the brink of walking away—people like those to whom Michael Spencer wrote. And Spencer did not write to justify their walking away, or thinking of walking away, but rather to show there is a reason to continue loving the church.
The Bible too.
I will be reading the Bible afresh, with fresh eyes, with new perspective, and with a new confidence—not confidence that it has ‘all the answers’ to my questions or that God will all of a sudden reward my diligence with new sermons or jobs or ideas or anything of that sort. No, nothing like that at all. Rather I will be reading the Bible just to see what it says about God and his way of dealing with rebels like me.
I have known my anger. I have known my bitterness. I have known my disgust. I have known hatred and a desire for revenge. I have known rebellion, distance, and blasphemy. I have known cursing. I’m tired of all that. I’m tired of the exhaustion that comes from living apart from a real living faith and conversation with the Living God.
I want to know Jesus. Better, He still wants to know me. And maybe together, Jesus and me, I will learn how to love the church again like I used to; like he never stopped doing, the way He always does.
Today’s readings: Numbers 16:20-35. Romans 4:1-12. Matthew 19_23-30. Psalm 94.
The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by JK Rowling
Children’s High Level Group, 2008
I don’t know if JK Rowling is a Christian or not. There’s a part of me that really doesn’t care if she is or not. Neither would prevent me from reading her books. But, no, it’s not like that. Of course I hope she knows the wonders of salvation and the grace of Jesus, but, well, whatever. There’s not really a way I can explain what I mean by that without being proverbially damned if I do and damned if I do not. How about I say it this way: I am one Christian man who is overjoyed that JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books and and even more overjoyed at the lesser acclaimed The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
I know some people who would have never hired me to preach at their church if they had known about my cache of Harry Potter volumes that I so prominently displayed—after reading—on the bookshelves in my study or if they knew that I attended not one but two midnight release parties! It could be, perhaps, that it was those same volumes that caused some in my former church to cast a suspicious eye my way and, eventually, call for, and receive, my termination. I doubt it. I know what was in their houses too. (*Smile*)
Many who belong to the uber-conservative christian caste of the church are terribly critical of anything Harry Potter. The bible writer called James wrote that, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing” (James 3:9-10). And so, to paraphrase: “Out of the same mouth comes praise for Narnia and cursing for Hogwarts.” Eh. That’s all it is. No one likes magic if it comes from the pen of someone who hasn’t stood up on an altar and declared their allegiance to Jesus.
Frankly, I think that some were simply unhappy that children were actually, gasp, reading. Or maybe they were jealous that JK Rowling sold more books with hidden christian ideas than did Max Lucado with blatantly obvious christian ideas. After all, Rowling dared to talk about things like love, friendship, self-sacrifice, justice, righteousness, and, well, you get the idea. And kids ate it up by the book-ful as did many, many adults.
But this has all been hashed and rehashed a million times over on blogs and in books. This short post is about Beedle and the short collection of wizard fairy tales ascribed to his pen and in this particular volume translated by the esteemed Hermione Granger. The book contains five such tales and is a scant 107 pages and can literally be read in under an hour. The five tales are wonderfully written in Rowling’s ironic and cheerful voice, but they are not her voice either. They are told in the voice of Beedle the Bard. Interspersed between each tale is commentary written by Albus Dumbledore. Rowling herself has written some footnotes explaining to us Muggles some of the more complex wizarding history and practices.
It was in the introduction to the stories that I came across the point of the whole book, if, in fact, the ‘whole’ book (a collection of five tales) has ‘a’ point. There Rowling wrote:
Beedle’s stories resemble our fairy tales in many respects; for instance, virtue is usually rewarded, and wickedness punished. However, there is one very obvious difference. In Muggle fairy tales, magic tends to lie at the root of the hero’s or heroine’s troubles—the wicked witch has poisoned the apple, or put the princess into a hundred-year’s sleep, or turn the prince into a hideous beast. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, on the other hand, we meet heroes and heroines who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do. Beedle’s stories have helped generations of Wizarding parents to explain this painful fact of life to their children: that magic causes as much trouble as it cures (vii-viii).
Isn’t this the truth? I know that I have personally been the victim of many a magic spell gone wrong. And, too, have I learned that there is no secret spell I can cast that will make this problem disappear or that blessing appear—as if magic spells and charms exist merely to serve my ends and means. There are plenty of times when we certainly wish that magic worked that way. I wish sometimes I could conjure of an invisibility charm and vanish from the world, but it has yet to happen.
In Dumbledore’s commentary on the fifth story The Tale of the Three Brothers he writes this:
But which of us would have shown the wisdom of the third brother, if offered the pick of Death’s gifts? Wizards and Muggles alike are imbued with a lust for power; how many would resist the “Wand of Destiny”? Which human being, having lost someone they loved, could withstand the temptation of the Resurrection Stone? Even I, Albus Dumbledore, would find it easiest to refuse the Invisibility Cloak; which only goes to show that, clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else (107).
Sadly, while there may well be a Resurrection Stone and a Wand of Power, there is no such thing as the Invisibility Cloak. The one thing all of us would desire, to be hidden from Death and from others, is the one thing we cannot have in this life. It is a troubling fact of life that we cannot hide from anything. The Psalmist knew this: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139) For some reason God takes particular delight in forcing us to face all those people, place, and things that we would rather not face. He forces us to be seen and prevents us from being invisible. Oh, unhappiness!
I think it is easy to want to be invisible, to want to hide from everything. Sometimes, we don’t even want to hide from Death (recall Job who, so unhappy about his so publicly displayed suffering, wished he’d never even been born.) Sometimes we just want to hide from people for a while. What I truly admire about these stories and the stories of Harry Potter is that it’s often not magic that solves the problems or brings the blessings we seek in life. Often, more often than not, it is wisdom that is required, and this wisdom is only acquired by seeing and being seen in and by this world, by facing death a thousand times a day, and by continuing to live day in, day out, in all the strength that comes from being utterly helpless.
I recommend that you read this book because it is helpful for gaining some wisdom that will benefit you long before and after you reach the point in life where you realize that being invisible is simply not an option. Such wisdom is beneficial for those of us humans who realize that being seen is not only a privilege, but a responsibility.
Sinning Like a Christian, by William Willimon
Abingdon Press, 2005
A Peculiar Prophet (Willimon’s Blog)
I wish I had the courage to sin like William Willimon, but I know that if I did, people might look at me funny. After all, I’m not William Willimon. The problem with Willimon is not his theology. I think he is a fine theologian. His problem is not his preaching: he is thought provoking, at times his tongue is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and his sense of irony and sarcasm is astounding. I can take him in tempered doses which is why it takes me a month to read a 150 page book like Sinning Like a Christian. I read Willimon like I read Anne Lamott: slowly, cautiously, and with a small glass of sipping whiskey.
The problem with Willimon is that, for all his intelligence, he really doesn’t know when to quit, and when he keeps going he comes off as terribly judgmental, arrogant, and ungracious. So, Willimon, true to form, published a Postscript at the end of this book wherein he waxes eloquently about grace and love and happy-happy-joy-joy but manages to take swipes at former president George W. Bush and an unnamed ‘conservative, evangelical, Bible-thumping pastor.’ It’s at this point that Willimon tends to lose me: for as much as he talks about grace, he seems to reserve not the tiniest bit for those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle from him. I find this to be true of a lot of theological liberals.
Sinning Like a Christian is Willimon’s exploration of the so-called seven deadly sins. Overall, I think this book is worth the read if, and I say if, you can read with a light-heart and laughter. For example, take this quote, “Jesus was crucified for the very best of human good reasons such as peace, justice, doctrinal fidelity, national security, and on an on. We are rarely more murderous than when we are defending some noble ideal like freedom or democracy” (29). Frankly, it is this sort of statement that makes me want to vomit on the book. It is so painfully obvious what he is saying (and thank God and the warmongering conservatives he can say it!) It really gets old when one’s person political agenda manages to makes its way into a book that is not about politics. This is not the only time it happens in Willimon’s book, and it never, ever gets new.
It is difficult to continue reading Willimon after he makes such a blatant political statement. But, then, he will keep typing and come up with something like this:
The most moving moment in Sunday worship for me is when my people come forward at Holy Communion, streaming down the altar, and there they hold out empty hands like little children, like the famished folk they really are, empty, needing a gift in the worst sort of way…What’s strange, from the world’s point of view, is the empty-handed, needy, empty request for grace. (47)
That is beautiful. I wonder if Willimon is confident enough in God’s grace to serve communion to President George W. Bush? The true test of grace, it seems to me, is not how you treat your friends, but how you treat your enemies—especially your enemies who are your brothers in Christ. I’m not sure if Willimon is attempting to appeal to the more liberal folks among his readers or if he is just trying to irritate the more conservative folks among his readers. Anne Lamott is at least wise enough to realize that someday she will have to share a table with the former president (see her book Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith). Sometimes I wonder if Willimon realizes that?
So what I’m trying to do here is write a short review that a) talks to the strengths and weaknesses of what is written on the pages of the book I am reviewing and b) gives you enough reason to actually want to read it. I’ve read enough Willimon books to know that he is, frankly, difficult to pin down theologically. Sometimes he is profoundly gracious and other times he is profoundly stupid. I say that lovingly, of course; he’s probably said the same thing about most of the people he reads. That’s why I say that Willimon is hard to read: sometimes you love him, other times not. I know, you need a reason to read him so I’ll go back to what I said at the start.
Don’t read him for his political views (I don’t happen to think that his theological or political liberalism is any better an option than another’s theological and political conservatism.) Don’t read this particular book because you hope to find something particularly insightful, or new, or interesting about sin. Don’t read this book because you hope to find something that cures what ails you because I don’t think the book is chock-full of the sort of answers you might be looking for. But if you want, and if you dare, read the book because no matter how much Willimon appears to withhold grace from his political enemies (i.e., those who are ‘conservative, evangelical, [and] Bible-thumping’), I believe Willimon actually understands grace all too well—and perhaps that is what frightens (motivates?) him to write in the first place.
“This is who we are, says Jesus, not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children, naked, frail, empty, and hungry, needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. You can’t get into this Kingdom if you are all grown up and big and important. You can only come in through a very small door as an inept, bumbling, ignorant, and empty little child” (47)
And this is exactly the reason why I keep coming back to Willimon. No matter how distasteful he finds conservative politicians and haughty academics, he always comes back to grace. He cannot stay away from it. He circles it, swoops in, hints at its borders, dabbles here and there, and then in one final blow he unleashes a barrage of grace missiles (I couldn’t resist using a warfare metaphor to describe the tactics of a pacifist writing about grace; it’s my own bit of irony)—even he cannot stay away from it! It’s like he is writing along, happily minding his own business, and wham! out of nowhere—grace.
I’m a big fan of grace and my reason for reading Willimon is that he is too and he has found a way, amidst all the hoopla that is America, academics, politics, church and church-folk to articulate it in such a way that I actually find myself loving Jesus more and despising those who disagree with me less.
That, my friends, is the worth of a good writer.
“By the grace of God, a good-enough church, and lots of practice, it is possible even for ordinary folk like us to become saints” (146).
This is a test. This is only a test.
To all of you who have at anytime visited this blog and interacted with me, I want to say thank you. Sometime next month (maybe sooner) I will surpass 100,000 hits and I am happy about that. I am no longer a paid preacher. I resigned from my church last month amidst not a little unrest in the congregation.
I will leave the blog open because people are still accessing the sermons and bible school lessons I have posted here and uploaded at box.net.
I am still blogging and will continue to do so as I make this transition and mid-life career change. I am currently enrolled in Graduate School at Cleveland State University where I am pursuing a Master’s Degree in Education and teacher licensure. My specialization will be in Special Education with emphasis in Moderate/Intensive.
Grace and peace.
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The new preacher moves his things into his new office and comes across the former pastor, taking his items out. The former pastor says, “I left three envelopes in your desk. If you have any trouble, open them.”
Well, of course the new preacher thinks he will never have to use them, but in his youthful enthusiasm, he tries to change the order the kids march in during Vacation Bible School. Well, this makes the workers absolutely furious and there is a lot of ugly talk about the new pastor. He remembers the envelopes and opens the first one. It says, “You haven’t been here long, but you decided to make a change in the Vacation Bible School; now everyone is mad. Tell everyone that the former preacher had told you this was how you preferred to do it.” So the young preacher did that and it worked well.
He had been there about a year and a half when he tried to change the deacon position from being a life-long job to a position that rotated annually. Well, this made the deacons really mad, and they were the ones who made his salary recommendation. So he went back to the drawer and got the second envelope: “You did something to make the deacons mad and there’s talk of replacing you. Tell them this is the official denominational policy; that you thought they wanted to comply, but it doesn’t make you any difference what they do.” He tried this, and again it worked great.
You guessed it. After three years, he finally told the women’s organization that they were going to have to open the kitchen so that it could be used without a representative from the women’s group being present. This put the women’s organization in open revolt. So he went back to that third and final envelope: “You’ve been here about three years and you finally got the women’s organization mad. The only thing to do is prepare three envelopes …”
This installment of the De-Sanitizing the Parables series will explore the Parable of the Soil found in Matthew 13. However, before I explore the parable itself, I’d like to give some background on the nature of the parables found in Scripture. To do this, we will listen to two different scholars who give us some crucial background on the nature and use of parables in the New Testament, and a pastor who will help us better understand Jesus’ use of them as story. As such, I have decided to break down my post into two parts. First, an introduction to the nature of parables and second and exploration of the parable of the soils.
Craig Keener has written several books but in this particular case I will depend upon his massive Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Keener notes a couple of important aspects of the parables in the New Testament. First, he writes: “Rabbis commonly taught in parables, sermon illustrations, to communicate their main point or points. This Palestinian Jewish teaching form appears in the New Testament only in the teaching of Jesus, and thus cannot be attributed to composition by the later church outside Jewish Palestine.” (81-82)
This speaks to the authenticity of parables and their direct link to the mouth of Jesus. Especially helpful here is the idea that these are not mere distortions of Jesus’ ‘true’ teachings by later preachers. As we will see too the parables are directly linked to the Old Testament prophets and are seen, to a large extent, as fulfillment of the prophets’ words. There are parables in the Old Testament as well. Nathan told David a parable when he confronted David (2 Samuel 12), for example, and Isaiah used a parable in Isaiah 5 to talk about God’s relationship to Israel.
Second, Keener notes the general character of the population of Jesus’ day, that is, his audience: “Most of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants were rural peasant farmers or herders. The literate elite often ignored this large population, but Jesus’ illustrations show that he ministered frequently among this class. Although Galilee was heavily populated with villages and boasted two major cities (Sepphoris and Tiberias), most of its inhabitants were rural, agrarian peasants.”
So you might say that, in a sense, we have to transport ourselves into their mode of thinking of the world; put ourselves in their shoes; listen to Jesus as if we were farmers, prodigal sons, poor widows, or terminated business managers. Jesus spoke to their point of view and used illustrations that they could understand and relate to and listen to in context. What would make better sense to farmers than an illustration from the farm or to a poor widow than the constant threat of losing a coin or to a shepherd than losing a sheep? If you are a shepherd and understand not just losing a sheep but the effort involved in searching for the lost sheep then perhaps you can understand, more deeply, the rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. (See Luke 15)
Jesus spoke to people in language they could understand. He didn’t, as some assume, speak down to them; he spoke in their language. If anything, Jesus, in using their words, their experiences, their context, elevated their words, experiences, and contexts. Parables keep our feet grounded by requiring us to think outside of our comfort zones about God, kingdom, Son of Man, and our everydayness. Part of the problem with interpreting parables is discussed by our next scholar, Robert Farrar Capon. In his book The Parables of the Kingdom, Capon notes that people can easily and often misunderstand the parables by too quickly assuming that they already know what the parables mean:
“Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what he meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it was too. All those unforgettable stories we’re so fond of, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.’ Yet their enthusiasm is narrowly based. Jesus’ use of the parabolic method can hardly be limited to the mere handful of instances they remember as entertaining, agreeable, simple, and clear. Some of his parables are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.” (1)
This immediately puts the reader on the defensive: It is not likely we will understand the parables and we need to listen to them anew, listen to them afresh, and work our way through them again and again. After all, these stories were preserved for us, the Church. Yet, they were spoken to people who were not yet the church in any completely modern sense. Only too often do we allow what we ‘already know’ to get in the way of what is really there. We must admit that it is always difficult to avoid the biases that we carry to the text. Capon illustrates his point by directing our attention to the rejection of Jesus by his contemporaries:
“So too with Scripture. Often when people try to say what the Bible is about, they let their own mindset ride roughshod over what actually lies on the pages…Jesus, for example, was rejected by his contemporaries not because he claimed to be Messiah but because, in their view, he didn’t make a suitably messianic claim. ‘Too bad for God,’ they seemed to say. ‘He may want a dying Christ, but we happen to know that Christs don’t die.’” (4)
His warning, it seems to me, is not that we should be afraid of parables or interpreting them, but that we should be cautious and listen well. Peterson, whom I reference below, notes that “Inconspicuously, even surreptitiously, a parable involves the hearer…A parable is not ordinarily used to tell us something new but to get us to notice something that we have overlooked although it has been right there before us for years” (Tell It Slant, 19). It does us well to work our way through the parables often, and to be and become those whose eyes and ears are open to the Word of Christ. We need to continually visit them, read them, participate in their action. Capon goes on:
“It should be only after long study and repeated readings that I would dare to conclude what any particular passage meant, let alone what the entire thrust of his writing was. With such a wildly various collection, there would always be a temptation to let my own sense of what he was up to get in the way of what he himself really had in mind” (3).
Capon also draws our attention to the fact that the parables, if they are about God, happen to turn on their heads our popular conceptions of who God is and the way God does things:
“In the Bible, as a matter of fact, God does so many ungodly things—like not remembering our sins, erasing the quite correct handwriting against us, and becoming sin for us—that the only safe course is to come to Scripture with as few stipulations as possible. God used his own style manual, not ours, in the promulgation of his word. Openness, therefore, is the major requirement for approaching the Scriptures. And nowhere in the Bible is an un-made-up mind more called for than when reading the parables of Jesus.” (5)
Indeed. The parables turn our conceptions inside out and outside in as he further observes for us:
“For example, some of the parables are little more than one-liners, brief comparisons stating that the kingdom of God is like things no one ever dreamed of comparing it to: yeast, mustard see, buried treasure secured by craftiness, fabulous jewelry purchased by mortgaging everything…Once again, they set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat of people’s religious expectations. Bad people are rewarded (the Publican, the Prodigal, the Unjust Steward); good people are scolded (The Pharisee, the Elder Brother, the Diligent Workers); God’s response to prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance (the Friend at Midnight); and in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water (the Wedding Feast, the Great Judgment, Lazarus and Dives, the Narrow Door).” (10)
Finally, there is a pastor, Eugene Peterson whose book, Tell It Slant, is a masterpiece in Peterson’s ‘conversation in spiritual theology.’ In the book, he takes on a journey with Jesus through Samaritan country as he explores Luke 9:51-19:27 and the parables contained therein. I wish there were space and time enough to note more, but I’d like for the time being to pick up on just a particular aspect of Peterson’s work. He begins by reminding us of the rather mundane, earthy subject matter of the parables:
“The subject matter is usually without apparent religious significance. They are stories about farmers and judges and victims, about coins and sheep and prodigal sons, about wedding banquets, building barns and towers and going to war, a friend who wakes you in the middle of the night to ask for a loaf of bread, the courtesies of hospitality, crooks and beggars, fig trees and manure. The conversations that Jesus had as he walked on the Samaritan roads were with people who had a different idea of God than what Jesus was revealing, or maybe not much of an idea at all. This was either hostile or neutral country. Parables were Jesus’ primary language of choice to converse with these people, stories that didn’t use the name of God, stories that didn’t seem to be ‘religious’” (20-21).
For all the ‘high’ talk we use in churches, talk about sanctification, redemption, propitiation and suchlike (all great and useful words!), talk that make us sound far more knowledgeable than we truly are, we stand in contrast with Jesus who didn’t. Jesus seems to have delighted in ‘low talk.’
This prompts Peterson to ask, “Why in the world is Jesus telling unpretentious stories about crooks and manure? Why isn’t he preaching the clear word of God, calling the Samaritans to repentance, offering them the gift of salvation in plain language?” (21) Peterson observes that Jesus’ choice of language is increasingly relaxed and conversational as he nears the day (he is speaking of the context of Luke 9:51-19:27). And Jesus doesn’t apologize for doing so.
Why? Well, Peterson believes that this keeps the conversation going by continually involving the listeners. As Jesus neared the crucifixion, knowing he would not see these Samaritan people again, his language became less direct. He told them stories they would remember, chew on, think about and be involved in forever. We are keen to remember a good story, to hear a good story, to tell a good story. Even now, the popular culture is fond of ‘Good Samaritans’ and ‘Prodigals.’ But church folk forget this simple aspect of life and in our attempts and efforts to be important, we fail to capitalize on such an idea. We forget how to be children. I remember when my eldest son, now nearly 16, was but a toddler. He could listen to the the same stories over and over and over; memorized them too. Why do we forget this as adults? This is what stories are for in the first place. Not merely to entertain even if they do entertain. We remember stories. I couldn’t tell you the financial reports of last month’s board meeting. I can tell you stories from every church I have ever had the pleasure or displeasure of knowing.
“It is common among many of us when we become more aware of what is involved in following Jesus and the urgencies that this involves, especially when we find ourselves in Samaritan territory, that we become more intense about our language. Because it is so much more clear and focused we use the language learned from sermons and teachings to tell others what is eternally important. But the very intensity of the language can very well reduce our attentiveness to the people whom we are speaking—he or she is no longer a person, but a cause. Impatient to get our message out, we depersonalize what we have to say into rote phrases or programmatic formula without regard to the person we are meeting. As the urgency to speak God’s word increases, listening relationships diminish. We end up with a bone pile of fleshless words—godtalk” (21).
So, why? I think this has something to do with keeping people involved in the conversation by requiring their participation. “A parable is not an explanation. A parable is not an illustration. We cannot look at a parable as a spectator and expect to get it. A parable does not make a thing easier; it makes it harder by requiring participation, by entering the story…” (59-60).
Parables require effort. Parables require eyes of faith to see and ears of faith to hear. We have to listen and participate.
What I have laid out for you is three important aspects of the parables. First, Keener teaches that parable teaching is a common feature of teachers and rabbis of that day. This is not a later invention of the church. Second, as Capon noted, the parables turn our conceptions of God, Kingdom, Son of Man upside down and undo all our pretension. Third, as Peterson draws our attention to, parables keep us involved in the conversation by bringing us back to earth. “Why do you stand there staring at the sky?” the angel asked the disciples. Indeed, the answers are not found ‘out there’ or ‘up there.’ Jesus said, “Behold! Look around! You will see the Kingdom of God, indeed God himself, at work in places you never would have thought, under the spell of your own knowledge and wisdom, imaginable.”
Jesus told parables. He told stories that had meaning and connection to the everyday lives of the people who heard those stories. We do well, when we interpret the parables, to first listen to the parables. We do well to pay attention to the context of the parables. We do well to hear first the story of earth before we presume to know and attach meaning of heaven to the word of God. These are not earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They are carefully told earthy stories designed to capture our attention, involve us in a conversation with Jesus, and seek him and his kingdom first. In part two of this post, I will explore the parable itself and de-sanitize it.
Here’s an update on my Psalm 98 notes posted last night. These are more along the lines of prayer thoughts and gave way to my prayer time this morning–a sort of thinking out loud about the Psalm (and will make much better sense if the lectionary notes are read).
Past, present, future–there is never a time when we shouldn’t worship. There is never a generation who should declare his praise. There is always a reason to worship: His salvation has been made known, visible.
Never shall a day pass when God’s name shall not be declared. Worship is the effluence of the Spirit bursting us at the seams, rattling us to the bone, shaking us to the core. Worship turns us inside out. That is, everything inside of us comes pouring out of us uncontrollably. His Spirit within–stirring us, shaking us, rattling us.
Rivers never stop clapping. Seas never stop resounding. Mountains never stop rejoicing. We do, though. How can we keep from singing? How can our praise abate? This is why the apostle says that our daily act is to offer ourselves as living sacrifices–our spiritual act of worship.
Maybe we should always carry around our guitars and make noise in the park? Maybe our harmonicas should always be in our back pockets or on our lips. Maybe we should hoist pianos on our backs and carry them about with us? Maybe we hold back the the shout out of fear or worse, complancency. Maybe our hands ought to be cymbals and our mouths trumpets. We breathe in air and turn out worship and praise. Even air is transformed in the lungs of God’s children. What sort of factory is in us? What are our lungs producing? Is it worship?
Is it praise?
Our feet ought to be drums and our tongues ought to be flutes. Our teeth ought to be tamborines and the growls in our stomachs the low bass of the tuba or the slobbery sound of the trombone. Our bodies instruments of worship and organs of praise.
And we join in with the sounds and noise around us–the everydayness of today; the present. Rivers and mountains are not afraid to be what they are: noisy, boistrous, loud, constant. Why are we? Rivers let rip; why don’t we?
Thanks for stopping by.
Preaching is defined not by those who listen, but by the One who calls us to preach. Eugene Peterson said in an interview the following:
You have to go back a step and ask, “Why am I a pastor? What is my primary responsibility to this congregation?”The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, “Let us worship God.” If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor. I pick up some other identity. I cannot fail to call the congregation to worship God, to listen to his Word, to offer themselves to God. Worship becomes a place where we have our lives redefined for us. If we’re no longer operating out of that redefinition, the pastoral job is hopeless. Or if not hopeless, it becomes a defection. We join the enemy. We’ve quit our basic work.
Peterson goes on to say: (The questions in boldface are asked by the interviewer. Part 2.)
Most pastors I know would say that worship is critical and Sunday is very important to them. How could they begin to move away from that?
The defection starts subtly in what you do when people are not asking you to do anything. After three or four years in ministry, you realize that nobody is asking you to pray, and they are asking you to do a lot of other things, so prayer starts to erode.
Then study starts to erode. You cannot go to a pulpit week after week and preach truth accurately without constant study. Our minds blur on us, and we need that constant sharpening of our minds. And without study, without the use of our mind in a disciplined way, we are sitting ducks for the culture. This culture is an evil culture. This culture is the enemy. Through the media, through friends, through conversations we’re constantly fed lies, and like most lies, they’re 90 percent the truth. So you swallow the lie, and subtly, the edge of the gospel is blunted; you think you’re preaching the gospel, and you’re not. You don’t even know it.
So the first task in providing pastoral care is to pray and to study the Word
Who’s going to do that except the pastor? People in the congregation are busy in their jobs, reading their periodicals and attending their conferences. It’s my job to be suspicious of the culture. I’m not a culture critic, but to be a pastor, I cannot be seduced by the world. This becomes increasingly difficult in this so-called postmodern time. If you’re not sharp, you’re on the Devil’s side without knowing it.
A student was telling me he saw a video on Michael Jordan. He said, “Michael Jordan looks so lazy. He looks like he’s not doing anything. Then suddenly, he’s through three people, and he’s slam-dunking the ball.” As a pastor, how do you slip through the opposition and make your point? You do it by being lazy—or what looks like being lazy—sitting in your study for half a day reading a book that doesn’t have anything to do with your sermon. As a pastor I’ve got a responsibility to be alert to my culture so that my congregation is not seduced. If I don’t do it, nobody will.
Most congregations don’t think they’re paying pastors to do that.
That’s true. But they’re not the ones who give me my job description. I get my job description from the Scriptures, from my ordination vows. If I let the congregation decide what I’m going to do, I’m as bad as a doctor who prescribes drugs on request. Medical societies throw out doctors for doing that kind of thing; we need theological societies to throw out pastors for doing the same thing. And if you give up prayer and study, you will soon give up the third area: people.
Now here is Piper on that subject of preaching and the church.
Here’s the written version of Piper’s words in part:
Preaching is not the totality of the church. And if all you have is preaching, you don’t have the church. A church is a body of people who minister to each other.
One of the purposes of preaching is to equip us for that and inspire us to love each other better.
But God has created the church so that she flourishes through preaching. That’s why Paul gave young pastor Timothy one of the most serious, exalted charges in all the Bible in 2 Timothy 4:1-2:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.
That’s the call. That is preaching.
Here is the link to the sermon I have written based on this week’s Gospel Lesson from Luke 24:36-49. I have attached a link to the notes too. Be blessed.
Resurrection Changes Everything, Luke 24:26-49
Gospel Lesson notes: Luke 24:36-49
Here’s an excerpt:
Resurrection changed everything. The resurrection of Jesus set the world on a course that could not be predicted or controlled. The resurrection of Jesus, if it doesn’t, ought to scare the daylights out of us. And yet it brings us peace. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. I said it last week, I’ll say it again: Your Christian faith, your belief in the Resurrected Jesus, your acceptance of his Spirit into your life is not defined by your appearance here once per week. And perhaps if we are too willing to persist in sin, we are actually denying his work in our lives.
Resurrection changes us. And if resurrection hasn’t changed us, doesn’t change us, then perhaps it is not the resurrected Jesus who stands among us. Resurrection means that nothing remains the same. Resurrection means that we cannot stay the same. Resurrection means that we cannot sit still, we cannot stay, we cannot be content.
[But whatever else we may say, we may say this: Jesus did not stand among them, resurrected as he was, and allow them stand slack-jawed in awe and amazement. He commissioned them. He told them they were getting power to do something. He opened their minds to the Word so they could do something. He gave them peace so they could do something. He challenged their doubts and unbelief so they could do something. Resurrection does not bade us to stand around in wonderment; it compels us to obey the Resurrected Christ. It compels us to go. And we will see, it compels us to worship.] (This is not a part of the manuscript you can download.)
Thanks for stopping by. Have a blessed Easter season Sunday. I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to Pentecost. The Lord be praised.