Category Archives: Sermon

This is not the end!

Proper 28 Mark 13 15 NOV 2015

Title: This is not the end!!

Context: Field Service at Ft. Sill. Last Sunday of Mission Readiness Exercise in preparation for a deployment in February.

Text: Mark 13:1-8

Proposition: There will always be war and rumors of war but have hope, the end is not yet.

What makes a phrase “iconic” perhaps the better question to ask is what makes a phrase, “timeless?”

In our passage this morning, we have an iconic, timeless phrase, “there will be wars and rumors of wars…” It’s a phrase that is repeated in literature and in culture throughout West. It’s one of those phrases that is almost always true.

There will always be wars and rumors of war.

Why? Because we are human. Because we consistently fail to resolve our issues with one another with dialogue and conversation. Because we are greedy. Because we seek for power. Because we love violence. Because we can’t abide evil that destroys life. Because we are human. There will always be wars and rumors of wars.

It is nearing the end. The followers are starting to notice that their leader has been getting darker of late. It’s evident to them as they travel that people are less likely to welcome them, house them, and give them food. Good, Yahweh fearing, hardworking, respectable people are closing their doors when they pass. The young come out in droves. The hurting needing healing are hounding them. The poor who have nothing to lose anyway come out to see them and hear the prophet. But the respectable? The established? The connected? The wealthy who could support them in their ministry? Nowhere to be found. What worried them were the zealots, the outcasts and subversives that brought with them spies and traitors, agents of the empire. Fear began to creep in and disturb their comfort.

Something, something was happening.

It wasn’t always like this. When they were recruited, it was exciting! They were part of a movement unlike anything they had ever experienced! Jesus was a rock star. They were awesome just because they were with him! Early on, everyone came out to see them. Everyone surrounded them pressed them in. It was exhilarating! They were part of something big!

They had given everything to this movement. They had abandoned their careers. Left their families. Walked away from security and home because they felt the call to something bigger. Lately though, it didn’t seem as fun. It didn’t seem as clear cut. The teaching was darker and Jesus kept going on and on about dying in Jerusalem. Then they went to that very place. The place where Jesus said he was going to die.

Day one was amazing. People who only had one coat in their lifetime threw that coat on the ground so that the donkey Jesus was riding didn’t even have to touch the dirt. Branches of trees were strewn everywhere. Jesus was riding in like a king! They cried out hosanna!! Then someone (clearly a zelot) started saying, “blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The people picked it up and it spread through the crowd. They weren’t screaming for a messiah, they were screaming for their king. So, Yeeeahhh, that happened. Their leader became the literal second coming of King David. Obviously Rome was NOT impressed. Things began to go south. Moderate people started to avoid them. The reception began to go cold.

It all went downhill from there. Everyone is watching them. People are looking darkly from behind corners. There is angst about what comes next. Is this what they signed up for?

Angst. Anxiety. Worry. Embarrassment. Maybe this wasn’t the best thing to do with their lives. (I might be projecting a little but that’s what telling stories is all about right?)

So, then they come to the Temple. It’s beautiful. The stones are so huge! They rise out of the ground. These fishermen, most of whom have probably never been to a city in their lives much less Jerusalem, the Holy City, are amazed. They walk around gazing upward like the country bumkin rednecks they are. They comment to Jesus how awesome the stones are, how magnificent the building is (maybe trying to cheer him up?) and how does he respond?

“Do you see these great buildings?” replies Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Crash and burn. Jesus is talking about the very seat of Jewish identity. This is the core of the Jewish faith and their nationality. Of course, we know now that not long after this, Rome would burn it all and what would be left is rubble never to even look like what it was. But they didn’t know that. Jesus rained on their parade with fire and brimstone. This is after (in chapter 12) he has laid waste the religious establishment for building their wealth on the backs of the poor who could not afford it.

So the cozy up and ask – “so, when’s it going to go down?”

Jesus replies by describing what the end of the world would look like. It is important to remember that Mark is an apocalyptic writer. He believed that Rome would bring (as it, in fact, brought) about the end of civilization. This writing was to a people who believed that they would see Jesus again in their lifetimes. The message is to a specific people but it is also timeless.

There will be war. There will be rumors of war. This is a fact of life. But the end is not yet come.

And that, I hear with hope. The world will be bad, it will get worse, it’ll be tough. Things will be demanded of you that you can’t imagine but don’t be afraid, the end is not yet.

What does this all mean for us, sitting here, in this room looking down the barrel at (for some of us) another journey into the breach? We all saw the news yesterday, Paris and Beirut attacked, once again, the drums of war sound and those of us who have carried that burden hear them with the exhausted ears of the boxer hearing the ring to start round 14. Will the wars never end?

Perhaps and perhaps not. History, if it shows us anything, demonstrates that as long as we’re human, we’ll be either at war or talking about it. War is an exercise in rhetoric except for us, we who put on the armor, pick up the rifle, shoulder the ruck, and move to contact.

Here’s how I hear the text this morning:

Listen, these walls you see, they are built on the backs of the poor. They will fall. They cannot stand. This is the nature of life. There will always be people who come along and profess that their way is the only way, beware of them. They will say they represent me but they do not! When you hear of wars and rumors of war, do not be afraid, this is not the end.

Soldiers, there could not have been a better text for us this morning. There will always bGetting readye wars and rumors of wars. We are fighting one that is 14 years old and another that is moving into its third iteration. There is no doubt in my mind that war will define the rest of my career and possibly yours as well. If we continue as we are, in 2025 when my retirement becomes possible, we just might still be in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet, the message I hear is, “Don’t be afraid… the end is not yet.”

Saints, hear this from Christ, Do not be afraid, this is not the end.

So live! Love life! Anxiety is normal. It is part of recognizing that we are not working at McDonalds, we are Soldiers in the Army of the United States. And we, gathered here, are Christians. Followers of the Way. As we move to contact, as we live our lives, let us be the best of who we are. Let us be the best Soldiers for we represent our heritage. Let us be the best leaders for we represent our nation. Let us be the best people for we, believers, represent Christ. Let us live forward, into the light, unafraid, for this is not the end.

Amen.

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It’s been a tough week…

Ok. Take a deep breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Think about good things.

Really, I meant it, breathe out. Let it go…

Some really bad things happened this week. Really bad.

A general was laid to rest after giving his life in service to his country.

A Missouri town is in terrible upheaval.

A family is without their son.

Robin Williams. THE Robin Williams. The “Carpe Diem” said in a horse whisper, is dead.

And, of course, SFC Hairston died in Afghanistan this week. As have thousands.

And we should not forget those suffering in the hands of ISIS extremists.

And there is always Gaza.

It’s been a tough week.

Maybe, this night, as we prepare for tomorrow’s worship, we could all just remember that everyone is suffering their own hurt. That each person’s tragedy is their own, their pain is their own, and our pain is not their pain.

This is important. Grief is important.

This week, I’ve seen some “tragedy shaming” making its inevitable rounds. The memes showing images of graphic suffering with a “my tragedy is worse than your tragedy” theme. Hey everyone – its tough out there, people are hurting, you are hurting, I am hurting – shaming each other for not making your tragedy as important as their tragedy isn’t terribly helpful.

I’m sorry you are hurting. I am too. Each of the above events impact us in different ways. I’m not going to lie, there was a moment when I was about done hearing about the General, as great as I’m sure he is, thousands have died in the last decade – THOUSANDS. What makes his different? Rank?

But you see, that is exactly it – I am, in that moment, comparing my suffering and other’s suffering. A pointless and hurtful enterprise. Unhelpful at best. Painfully shaming at worst.

As we prepare our hearts for entering the Sacred Space tomorrow, may we focus on where we are grieving and think about how our fellow saints are grieving so that we might minister to them the healing Gospel.

Life is hard. We, as Christians, at our best, can make life easier by hearing the pain and offering the Grace needed for healing to begin.

“Bear you one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ.” 

Amen

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Hope (part two – from prison to the Tomb and beyond)

Speaking of the afore mentioned hope

There was no such hope for the two women that approached the tomb that Easter morning. (Matthew 28:1-10) There was no comprehension that anything was going to happen outside of their own suffering. They had hope that Jesus was going to be some kind of king, that Jesus would bring some real change to the world they lived in. But that didn’t happen. After all the talk, all the prophecy, all the miracles, all the hype, Jesus came to Jerusalem and nothing changed.

Nothing changed. Nothing.

The Pharisees still walked to and from the Temple, praying on the street corner. The Sadducees still were the elite. The Sanhedrin still ruled in Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate was still procurator of Judea. The Romans were still the power. The Zealots were still on the run, still hiding. The disciples, for all their talk, were in hiding.

The world on that Sunday morning was still the same. Nothing had changed.

At least nothing they could see.

Actually, the world had changed. Resurrection had come.

Their hope was based in their reality. No matter how much Jesus had been with them, spoken to them, shown them miracles they couldn’t explain, their life was still profoundly attached to the reality they knew.

So they went to the Tomb. To sit. To remember. To think on what life had been for the last few years. To reset. To think about what to do next. To grieve.

There was no better tomorrow. There was only suffering. Today.

They had limited vision. They only saw God working in a way that made sense to them. We do the same thing with our hope, we put all our eggs in one basket and see God working in a way that makes sense to us. We know that it’ll work out because the Army will send us where we need to go, we’ll get that promotion, that family member will come around and see life the way I see it, time will start happening the way I want it to – I have hope but my hope is built around my life.

Only God does not work like that. We can’t make God work the way we want God to work. NO amount of hoping will make it so. God’s plan is not bound by a world that makes sense to me. Truth is, we have no idea what comes next. We can look to the past to reassure us that we’ll live, but then, the moment may still hurt.

So the hurting women came to grieve.

This passage plays out as a drama – there is an earthquake, the guards “become as dead men,” an Angel says “do not be afraid. Sometimes our salvation brings fear. We need our God to assure us that in the midst of it all, it’s going to be ok.

They were grieving and needed hope. They needed a vision for they were dying. They looked to Jesus for Salvation but that didn’t happen so they came to the Tomb to wait.

I’m wondering what they did with Jesus’ words. I wonder if, in those moments before the earthquake, they thought about what Jesus had said. That he planned on going to Jerusalem, where he would die and rise again. I wonder if they talked about what that would be like. I wonder if they believed it.

I wonder if they set their mind on the heavenly reality. I wonder…

The Apostle writes to the early Church, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

We have the resurrection. They didn’t. We have the benefit of looking back on their reaction thousands of years later and wondering about them. They didn’t.

But the challenge of looking heavenward still remains.

Too often, our vision, our hope, is earth centered. It is human-focused. We see only what we want to see. We see only what we are looking at and when we do that, we miss what God is doing. We miss the possibilities in God. I wonder what I have missed because I only could see what I wanted to see. I wonder what you have.

Seek the things that are above…” Actively do it. Actively seek. Make it happen. Saints – where are you looking? What are you seeking?

I wonder if they had been seeking a risen Lord – would they have looked somewhere other than the Tomb? I wonder if we tend to look for God in the last place we saw God instead of a new place with the earnest expectation that God is present and alive, actively moving in this world – in our lives.

I wonder how much extra pain we end up with because we’re looking in the wrong place for a God who is doing something we don’t even imagine is possible.

This Easter – hope in God.

Look Heavenward. Seek heavenly things. Look for what God is doing and imagine what God might be doing beyond my reality.

So that you too might be able to say, I am in sorrow right now, but I know that I will make it.

For if God is with me, who can be against me?

Hope is stronger than memory.

Salvation is stronger than sin.

Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness.

Reconciliation is stronger than hatred.

The open tomb is stronger than the bloodied cross.

The Risen Lord is stronger than the dead Jesus.

We are the Easter people.

We are the people of hope.

We are the people of the empty tomb, the Risen Lord, the new life in Christ.

– Kennon L. Callahan, Ph.D.

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Hope

This last week, during counseling, one of my inmates made a profound observation about his life,

 “I know I’m going to make it, but right now really sucks.”

What a resilient statement. It’s a life-giving, hopeful statement. It’s based in reality. It is a recognition that he is full of sorrow and discouraged but, based on his past journeys through similar terrain, he knows that he’ll make it.

On the same day, Good Friday, I served Communion in the SHU. The SHU is the “specialized housing unit” 23 hour lockdown, solitary. Inmates end up there because they are having a difficult time getting along with others or obeying the rules. It is, by it’s nature, a depressing place. Inmates struggle back there. It is not a pleasant place to be. I put on my stole, filled individual communion cups, and took the trays into the SHU. The inmates are usually very respectful of my presence in there. They’ll stop their conversations and, particularly if I’m bringing communion, they’ll quietly prepare themselves for their turn.

The SHU becomes a sacred place. A place where God is present.

I move from cell to cell. The small feed tray is opened and I kneel down outside of it. Because of the low height of the open slot both myself and the inmate inside are in the kneeling position. Though a massive steel door separates us from one another, our faces are inches apart which creates a very intimate experience. Behind us, radios squawk, correctional specialist discuss what needs to be discussed, other inmates talk through their doors to one another, but in that sacred space between me and the inmate, God is there. I invite the inmate to confess whatever they need to God and then say amen out loud so I know to pray. When they are done (this can take a few seconds or even minutes as we kneel on the hard cement floor), I pray for them, myself, and the correctional staff. I thank God for the forgiveness promised in 1 John 1:9 and praise God for mercy and unmerited favor. I speak the words of institution:

“I will tell you the story as it was told to me, that the same night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread…”

We partake of communion together and end with the Lord’s prayer. Some of us have known each other so long now that they could recite the entire liturgy with me. When I finish, it is not uncommon for the inmate to have tears in their eyes. Yesterday, I ended with, “My friend and brother, it is Good Friday. Easter is Sunday. I’m so sorry that this will be your Easter.”

Over and over, they would say something like, “your right Chaplain, but God is here.”

Hope is so powerful. It can carry us though such hard times. It can give us strength to make it. It can endow us with the courage we need to see life as it is – tough, but we’ll make it. Hope is the very stuff of life.

When I hear hopeful statements like that, I am encouraged that growth is taking place. I am convinced that though it may be hard for them to experience it, they can see it in the Gospel. For that moment, that sacred moment, it’s going to work out.

Life is bigger than their suffering. 

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Hearing the Wife preach

Last Sunday, I heard Sara preach *in public* for the first time. It was perfect. It was not her first sermon, just the first time I got to hear her. One of the realities of being a two-pastor home is that we do not get to hear each other preach all the time. Sara often covers for me when I’m in the prison, so while I love that I have a dependable preacher every Sunday I am out of my civilian pulpit and in the prison, I also do not get to hear her preach. boo.

Sitting in the pew, I experienced pride, joy, anxiety, excitement. I’ve walked this journey with her for years. I remember our conversations about what to do as the kids grow up, how to pursue a career. One of the things that attracted me to Sara from the beginning is that she was not just about getting married and having babies. She was a strong, career minded woman even though at the time, she didn’t have the theological freedom to embrace that. I sensed that in her and it drew me. I remember exploring all these helping professions with her since it seemed that was the most logical but all of them fell short. She was not fulfilled. I wanted her to find her passion but didn’t know how to help her.

When she acknowledged God’s call in her life, it immediately made sense. It was the most logical, peaceful realization we have experienced together. I didn’t affirm her because she was my wife, I affirmed her because I immediately recognized the truth of her calling. Of course she was called to pastor. Of course!

When she called the kids to come forward for the children’s sermon and they all gathered around, snuggling in to a pastor who also was a mom, it was so right. When she took to the pulpit and began with a brilliant introduction about the elementary school pick-up line that drew the audience in to the text, it was so perfect. When she ended with solid questions and challenges – I watched the impact on our congregation – it was palpable.

Experiencing Sara in the pulpit for the first time confirmed once again to me that the God we serve is about the business of calling the best shepherds to guide the flock.

It was fun preparing the message. Since we have been in Matthew 5, we chose to do a mini series. I preached last week and Sara this week. What I loved about it was that we were able to take different perspectives on the same passage. Our congregation really enjoyed it as well. As we come into Lent, we are going to preach back to back through the season with the same goal.

I have noticed that we take very different approaches to preparing sermons. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s challenging. I may have been preaching for much longer but that does not mean that I get to critique without leave…

I gotta tell you, this is getting fun!…

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Shame. Hope.

Guilt. Shame. Church.

Do they go together ? Sometimes, it certainly feels that way.

Why is it that the Church uses those tools so much? Seems like every time I turn around, I am meeting someone who has experienced great hurt at the hands of the Church as a result of a very ungracious way of communicating guilt and shame.

Guilt is what we feel when we’ve done something wrong.  Guilt is sometimes deserved and sometimes not deserved.

Shame is what we feel when we are wrong. Shame is exposure. When what we’ve been trying to hide is exposed to others.

In the story of the nativity, guilt and shame are powerful players.

It begins in Matthew when Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. 1:2. Seems that Mary was “found to be with child.” Discovered. Uncovered. Exposed. Shamed.

This is not just about Mary. In Matthew’s Gospel, she enters the story with this: there was a girl, promised to an honorable man named Joseph. They did not have sex. She was pregnant. She is discovered and now it’s Joseph’s problem. But Joseph is an honorable man. He is a just man. He doesn’t want Mary to be hurt.

Stop.

Listen.

The story of the birth of Jesus Christ, the opening story of a faith of untold millions in human history starts out talking about sex. Specifically, scandalous sex. There was this girl you see…

For shame.

This is not just about Mary. Marriage was a big deal in the ancient Mediterranean culture. Marriage is the glue that holds the culture together. Who your kids marries determines what kind of care you can expect in your old age. Having children gave you legacy and workers in your family business. Much of Mary’s young life was focused on her future husband and that choice was more about her family than her. What had taken place here was a negotiation between Mary’s father and Joseph’s father. There were certain obligations that needed to be met. Mary had no life of her own – she belonged to her father until her father gave her to her new Lord. The one who would care for her as she bore children to him. Joseph was obligated to provide for his parents in their old age. To do this, he needed children to work in the shop, learn the trade, grow and care for him through marriages that he would negotiate. This was not about love, this was about culture. Security. Continuity. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. This is a gender-divided world where men and women had little contact. Their union was arranged for the political or economic advantage of their families. If love grew from such a thing, it was a blessing though not necessary.

In America, we talk about marriage being the social glue that holds culture together but our ideas of marriage and their ideas of marriage are oceans apart. In ancient Palestine, Marriage held the social contract, the security of food and the passing on of necessary work. These were not wealthy people, they were just people living in a society. That society valued marriage in a way we cannot fully grasp. The whole process was a ritualized removal of Mary from her family. The groom’s father offers gifts, money, or services to the bride’s father to win the daughter for his son. The mother’s negotiate the deal to ensure that all is above board and fair. The bride’s father makes the ultimate decision. It sounds harsh to our ears but we are talking here about property. And community. And the security net the society depends on.

To be single is disastrous. Certainly for a woman.

To be single and have a bastard? Almost no other option excepting prostitution existed.

Discovered. With. Child.

I see Joseph pacing. “Does your father know? Really?? And he didn’t tell me?? This is not right!!”

Mary, sobs in the corner, “the angel… said I was highly favored… said I was going to…”

“STOP!! Just stop! You don’t even know what you’re saying! Will you add blasphemy to your harlotry??”

In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that unless prevented by appropriate measures, a man and woman who found themselves alone would inevitably have sexual relations. This is why the culture prescribes that men (fathers, husbands, brothers) watch, guard, and protect the women in their care.

There were a variety of strategies for accomplishing this protection. One was to ensure that there were always chaperones – woman, children – always around. The other was to structure the houses in such a way that there were inner rooms and courtyards that would prevent outside men from seeing the young girls. Again, if you are the father to a young woman in this time, protecting your daughter from violation is of paramount importance. You love your children, and they are your treasure. Literally. If this sounds like some Muslim cultures you have read about, you would be correct in seeing some similarities. Their world and our world are not the same.

Discovered to be with child. Calamity. When Joseph, their pious man, realizes, long after the rumors have been floating around, probably in the presence of her mother, that Mary is pregnant – they whole paradigm shifts in that moment. Trust is gone. Mary’s father had negotiated in good faith. Good faith! He guaranteed a virgin that would bear him many children. But this! This treachery. This betrayal! Someone needed to pay. He certainly had.

This was not just about Mary. This was about a system that had collapsed. Mary is betrothed. Our modern ideas about “engagement” do not capture the arrangement that has been made here. Betrothal was a family event rather than between individuals. Betrothal was the initial phase in a process in which the prospective spouses were set apart for each other. This had taken place years ago. The couple did not live together but a formal divorce was required to break the publically established betrothal. Any sexual relations outside of marriage was adultery. This was not a case of young love – this is adultery. Clearly, there is a problem. Perhaps her brothers had not cared for her. Perhaps her father had not protected her enough. Without the proper “tokens of virginity” after the marriage, her family would be shamed.

Joseph clutches his chest. Sinks to his knees. He was not ready for this. He’d never be ready for this. The girl he was promised huddled uncomfortably in the corner protecting her stomach, she was afraid. She was afraid of him. She was right to. He could have her stoned. Dragged into the street. Ruin her father and family.  They would never do business in this town again.

Now, Matthew, introduces the hero factor. Joseph is presented with two bad choices. He could expose this girl to death (Numbers 5:11-31) or return her to her father though divorce. He certainly does not want to take responsibility for a child that his not his!! Who would do that? The cultural honor code that society functions by, the “way things are” demand that he not let this stand. This child does not get to get away with messing that up. Regardless of her claims of supernatural conception.

But he is a just man. He does not want blood on his hands. He does not want to ruin this family. He does not want to be made out more of a fool that he is already been. People have been talking. Mary was not a part of the monthly ritual bathing. He knows that the rumor mill is in full operation. He is already tainted by this relationship – better to end it now, find someone worthy, and hope the whole thing is forgotten.

He makes plans for divorce. Not public shaming divorce but discreet and private divorce.

Isn’t it something that for all the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew chooses to start out this way? The lineage of Jesus through Joseph, a helpless girl, and a noble man.

It’s the stuff of great novels or rubbishy ones – depends on what you like to read I guess. Only, it’s not a novel and Joseph is a man plunged into a personal trauma he never wanted nor was prepared for.  He didn’t ask for this. He didn’t sign up for this. He certainly didn’t think he was up to the task of being “step dad.” His family was about to look not very normal.

Here’s the thing, we’re very good in our puritan culture of holding up a family system that we identify as “normal.” There’s a father, a mother, idealized kids, dog, picket fence, college, sports… the whole thing. When something comes along that looks different, even when we are witnessing redemption at work, sometimes, we let shame do our talking and condemn what doesn’t look right.

Until we’re the ones with the weird looking family system. Until we’re the ones with the kids from different parents and the baggage of divorce.

I have 7 adopted brothers and sisters. Several of them have handicaps that are quite severe. I grew up with a mantra – “what’s normal?” I mean really – what. is. normal?

The church seems to be really great at deciding and then spiritualizing what normal looks like. Jesus was not born into a normal situation. This was not lost on anyone and Matthew chooses to lead with it. Something very different is happening here.

All the traditional rules about the birth of a king are off. All the standards of lineage are broken. It is fascinating to me that Matthew spends all this ink laying out the Jesus bloodline and then saying – but that’s not how this one went down… there was this girl… betrothed to a man…

The birth of Jesus Christ is not about joy and happiness.  It does not seem to be too full of joyful anticipation. There is the journey of Mary to see Elizabeth. Seems a bit strange no? A young woman spirited away to another town visit with her Aunt in her “advanced maternal age…” Then there was the whole taxes thing and the long journey and the born in a barn… Not much about this birth is the way it’s supposed to be.

But look what it became.

Christmas is often like that. The season seems to highlight over and over again how life is not always played out the way it was planned. People are not where they are supposed to be. Plans didn’t turn out. Dreams didn’t pan out. Goals were not reached. Christmas is fun but can’t really hide the emptiness.

Not every Christmas is all tinsel and cookies. Not every birth is baby showers and cuddly blankets.

Joseph knows that feeling.

He carries through with the marriage out of duty. God tells him what’s going on, what’s expected of him, and Joseph responds immediately. No divorce. No putting away. This step-dad steps up to the plate and does what God has asked him to do. He does not choose shame and guilt. He does not walk away. He embraces and scandal and owns his calling.

This is why Christmas is so hopeful. Life is not always what we want it to be but there is hope. There is always hope.

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All Saints and the struggle of understanding Christian History

All Saints Sunday, 2013

Luke 6:20-31

It’s All Saint’s Sunday. A day when we, as a Church, remember the saints that have gone before us. Generally, it’s a day for warm memories and challenging stories. Traditionally, capital “S” saints who are revered in the Catholic Church are people who are set apart, their holiness and particular living worthy of memory. In the Protestant church, many hold that all Christians can and should be categorized as “saints” even the not so holy. Therefore, on a day like to today, we remember all our beloved who have “gone to glory” before us.

This brings us a challenging thought however – isn’t our collective past as Christians fraught with very non-holy actions? Even our saints, upon closer examination, are not exactly paragons of holiness. If we expand the definition to include everyone, we’re really in a bind!

The Chapel where I pastor is called, “Memorial Chapel.” This year will be the 136th year of active worship within it’s walls. Those walls are covered with what are essentially gravestones marking the heroic dead – many of whom are officers who died during the “Indian Wars.” Surrounded by the memory of one of America’s bloodiest periods, where sovereign peoples were put to the sword and whole people groups laid waste by good Christians who worshiped in that very church is complicated to say the least. From here, native children were placed in good Christian homes forbidden to even speak of their cultural heritage. Fort Leavenworth was the edge of civilization back then, beyond that was war.

On All Saints day, I remember that our Christian past is complicated and not always terribly Christ-like.

Then, as I am preparing for my message, my text is from Luke 6:20-31:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Not helpful.

How do I, a Chaplain in the mightiest Army the world has ever known make sense of 1. Our bloody history and 2. Jesus words in this text?

As I thought about his text I remembered another pastor, a saint, who faced similar questions. Perhaps it might be helpful to remember his struggle.

Cheap Grace

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

These words were written by a young pastor. The words were first published in 1937. The pastor the wrote them had been overseeing an illegal seminary training pastors for ministry in Nazi Germany. At the time of this publishing, the Gestapo closed the Seminary in Finkenwalde and arrested 27 pastors and former students. This was a text written for a country in battle for its soul.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine was born on February 4th, 1906. His father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer is just beginning to teach neurology and psychiatry. He would go on to become one of the most well-known and most respected psychiatrists in Germany.  His mother was one of the few women in her generation who obtained a university degree. It was a happy family. A family of thoughtful, educated, and scientific people. D’s brothers would go on to become scientists and were dubious at best of D’s forays into the theological life.

Dietrich’s young life was marked by a continual interest and calling into a life in the ministry. His father is proud of his son but hopeful that this religious phase would pass and he would pursue something more fitting his vast academic abilities.

This didn’t happen however, and Dietrich did indeed pursue theology. He was published at a young age. Within four years after beginning theological studies at Tubingen University, he successfully defends his brilliant and ground-breaking doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints), a significantly new way of looking at the nature of the Christian church. He is just 21 years old.

Like any young seminarian, he wonders what comes next. He sails to New York and begins a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. He identifies with the African American church experience in Harlem where he spends a great deal of time teaching and interacting with the congregation.  He is exposed to the “Social Justice” movement as taught through what would become known as the “Social Gospel.”  It is a profound moment for him and would inform what came next.

He is a contemporary of the theologian Karl Barth and the two wrote often. Barth said to him that Germany needed his voice. Things were getting bad there. In 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.

1933. A pivotal year for Germany. Adolf Hitler, the Austrian Corporal turned artist turned political theorist completes his rise to power and is appointed Chancellor. Two days later, Bonhoeffer now a professor of theology at the University of Berlin, delivers a radio address on leadership attacking Hitler. He is cut off the air. In April, 1933 he publishes “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which was the first known essay to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship; his defense of the Jews was marked by Christian supersessionism – the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism, in history and in the eyes of God; the real question, he argued, was how the church would judge and respond to the Nazi state’s actions against the Jews; his essay was completed in the days following the April 1, 1933, boycott of Jewish businesses. Some scholars believe Bonhoeffer was influenced on this issue by his close friendship at Union Seminary with his African American colleague, Frank Fisher, and his direct observation of Fisher’s experiences under racism.

In the summer of 1933, many protestants welcomed the rise of the Nazi state. A group called, the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) became the voice of Nazi ideology within the Evangelical Church, even advocating the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Deutsche Christians cited the state Aryan laws that barred all “non-Aryans” from the civil service, they also proposed a church “Aryan paragraph” to prevent “non-Aryans” from becoming ministers or religious teachers; the Deutsche Christen claimed that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an “Aryan” German church even through baptism a clear repudiation of the validity of Gospel teachings. The mainstream church was also coming under the grip of Nazism, becoming silent on the world that Germany was becoming.

In November of that year, he is ordained pastor at St. Matthias Church, Berlin.

In 1934, he and a group of brave Christians, form the “Confessing Church” in direct opposition to the established church who was about the business of assisting the State along the path leading to genocide. The Confessing Church was free of Nazi influence but not Nazi persecution. On August 2, German President Paul von Hindenburg dies and Hitler is proclaimed Chancellor and President.

He moves to Finkenwalde in 1935 where he is part of the founding of the aforementioned Seminary training pastors for ministry. By December, Himmler declares all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all participants liable to arrest. German Jews are being arrested under the Nurmburg laws.

This is the world in which he writes about “Cheap Grace.”

He sets it against “Costly Grace” – “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

It is “All Saints Sunday.” A day where we remember those saints who have gone before us, stood with us, and in whose shoes we stand today. It is right that we remember them. It is right that we recall the stands that others have taken so that we can evaluate where we are, who we are, and what we represent. Our Faith is not a faith that exists in opposition to others. We have a faith that is typified in its best sense in Love.

However, if the shoe of opposition fits, are we willing to wear it?

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Dietrich lived in that tension between the being a peacemaker and embracing war – even internal war – against a State which was doing such wrong. By 1938, he had made contact with the German Resistance. His twin sister Sabine and her Jewish husband escape together to England by way of Switzerland.

1941, Bonhoeffer is forbidden to print or publish. He makes two trips to Switzerland for the Resistance. WW2 is in full force. Over the next two years, Dietrich would continue to write, teach and preach while making several visits to Norway and in Sweden he would meet with the British – all on the behalf of the Resistance.

1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arrested. He writes during his incarceration. He continues to minister while in prison – both to the other inmates and the guards. One guard, a Corporal, approaches Dietrich with a plan for his escape and the Soldier’s with him. The plot is laid but in the end, D stops it as he does not want other members of his family, incarcerated and not to be endangered by his actions or escape. He is transferred to Buchenwald. He is very cold in the winter of 1944. The news is that America and Russia are pushing in on Germany from all fronts. They cannot hold out forever. He leans up to the crack in his door and for hours converses with those near his cell, prisoner and guard, about the grace of God.

1945. In February an Allied conference is held at Yalta to discuss post-war settlements. On March 7 American forces cross Rhine River. On April the 3rd of that year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor, theologian, and author, is moved from Buchenwald to the Flossenburg concentration camp. On the 9th, he is executed with several other key leaders of the Resistance. On April 12 President Franklin Roosevelt dies; Harry Truman is sworn in as president. On April 30 Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker. By May 2 Berlin falls. On May 7 the German forces make an unconditional surrender.

“Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

So which was it? Was Bonhoeffer a combatant? A German patriot fighting for the soul of his country if not it’s government? Is there a time to take up arms? Is there a time to stop turning the other cheek?

These are questions I face regularly and struggle through. I recall Jesus words, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” I do not experience them as particularly judgmental but more of a statement of fact, if you live by the sword, it is very likely that you will die by it.

We live in complicated times but no more so than any other time. Those who are commemorated on the walls of memorial chapel lived in complicated times as well. They followed God in ways that made sense to the world that they understood. Let us not forget that their immediate peers and superiors had just finished fighting a war to end Slavery and the economics that the institution upheld.

When working through our Christian history and all the victories and failings of those who have gone before, we would be remiss forget the times in which they lived. They should be understood and given grace for the world that they understood rather than be judged by the one we understand.

Where does that leave us?

Living the Gospel in the best way we know how. Living out our faith in a way that makes sense to us in the world we understand hoping that a hundred years from now, we will be judged by the world we knew.

And in all this, seeking to live in the way that Jesus taught. Loving others. Blessing those that curse us. Doing good to those who hate us. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Is there a tension? Of course. But as a Chaplain who preceded me once said powerfully, “if you don’t feel the tension, then you’ve probably already given in to one side or the other already.” It is no wonder that the Apostle, in one of his last letters, written from prison, said that we were to take on the example of Jesus Christ in our lives. Living as a servant to our fellow man and, in the end, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Even so, I hope we can remain faithful. Perhaps when we, as saints “going into glory” meet Jesus he’ll say to us that we had this right and that wrong but in the end, we were faithful. I can only hope and work for that moment when he says to me, “Welcome home my good and faithful servant.”

Amen.

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Dangerous Wealth and Encouragement

The Kingdom of God will bring balance to the world. This is a story of both encouragement and caution. Encouragement that no matter the pain we suffer in the present, we are not forgotten by God. God cares for the poor and suffering. If we find ourselves in great wealth, we are to use that wealth for others. Wealth is responsibility.

Throughout the NT, we see images of how God’s order of the world is not the same as our order of the world. “God chose the foolishness of preaching to confound the wise…” “The first shall be last and the last shall be first…” “To be great in the Kingdom is to serve others…”

Here, God brings balance to the world. 

Luke 16:19-21 “There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

22-24 “Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’

25-26 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’

27-28 “The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’

30 “‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’

31 “Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’”

What did you see?

What did you experience and observe?

It is fascinating to me that Jesus mentions “Hades” in this passage. Hades is a Greek term. It refers to the god of the dead. It was used in the NT period to refer to some kind of place of suffering where those not fit for the “bosom of Abraham” would go. It was a place that brought balance to the world as a place where the evil suffered. Often the term “Sheol” would also be translated as “Hades.” It’s description is often like “Gehenna” which was a real place in Jewish antiquity. It’s thought to be the “valley of Hinnom” which would be located immediately southwest of Jerusalem. Here, it’s surmised that the worship of Molech took place by Israelite kings Ahaz and Manasseh. Here, a huge, hollow brass alter was erected and, according to some traditions, infants were placed in the arms of the idol to be burned to death. However terrible the means of execution, it is certain that the worship of Molech involved sacrificing children with fire. It was a time of grave sadness and pain. Gehenna, forever associated with this dark time in Israel is also associated with the great trash heap of Jerusalem where the garbage of the city would go to be burned. This term of pain and suffering became, over time, Hades. It is used in the NT to describe a place of great torment.

Recall who Jesus is talking to in this text. The Pharisees have come at Jesus and he is calling them out for their love of money. He is very much saying that they are like this rich man and deserve Gehenna, Hades, Sheol. The poor have been resigned to the trash heap in life and in death, God would bring the balance to this world. This is offensive Jesus. He’s not being nice. Everybody knows it and it’s not a friendly scene.

Hades is a place of torment and in Revelation, it is cast into hell. Forever.

It seems that God has no use for those that abuse the wealth to which they are entrusted.

Here’s the thing: In the ancient Mediterranean world, there is no concept of “coming out” of poverty. Jesus lives in a world where people believed that all the good in life (land, wealth, honor, blood etc) had already been distributed. It was limited in quantity. There was no more to be had. This is the opposite of the Western American viewpoint that hold that there is always more and it’s available to whoever works hard and has the pluck to go and get it. To “get ahead,” to improve one’s lot in life is really unthinkable. This is why it was so remarkable that Jesus chose who he did to serve him – the disciples are not leadership material – they are blue collar fishermen, necessary for life but no one is inviting them to any parties…

The rich man does not work. To be rich in this culture means that you were born into wealth and working was not in your lot. However, in Jewish culture, wealth came with the responsibility to care for others. This man clearly did not.

I wonder what the relationship was here. It is remarkable that the rich man knows the name of the destitute. He knows him. I wonder if Lazarus was the rich man’s servant at one time. This wealthy man had a servant who became injured which prevented him from doing his job. Now, he just sat at the gate of the house – not begging (an actual occupation) – eating table scraps. I wonder if this rich man prided himself on the fact that Lazarus was not just any poor man, he was his poor man. I wonder if he greeted him by name from time to time. I wonder if he tossed some scraps from time to time. I wonder if he came home from important meetings and gave some alms in front of his friends (remember Jesus is making a stinging relationship to the Pharisees here) to demonstrate that he practiced those ritual associated with caring for the poor.

But it was all for show.

I wonder if he ever said of this man, “Hello Laz, how is today? Good old Lazarus, you never see him down or depressed. I don’t know how he does it. He’s an inspiration to us all…” Then leaves him there, at the gate, this man entrusted to his care, suffering so that the dogs lick the puss out of his wounds.

We live in a world that has always been knit together in an intricate web of relationships where we respond to one another. We relate. It’s one of those things that make us human.

Response – ability.

Now, we leave that to someone else. We leave the response to suffering on the shoulders of governmental agencies. We pay others to keep those with whom we are uncomfortable away, far away from us. “Put them at the gate” we say. Let them work for their welfare check. Don’t let them abuse the $200 a month food stamp benefit. Let them pay for their own health care. If they  need so much, let them work for it. Put them at the gate. Don’t let them inside. I don’t want to be made unclean with their suffering…

This ritual continues day after day. Week after week. These two souls connected together. Then, death.

The ritual changes.

The scene opens with the rich man in torment. Suffering in the burning garbage heap. Across a great divide, he sees Abraham and Lazarus. Even in torment, he gives command. Even in torment, he is still entitled. Even in torment, he is proud. Even in suffering, he holds to a world that no longer exists.

“Father Abraham, Send Lazarus…”

But there is a problem. Abraham points it out. In life, you had it all and did not share. In death, the tables have turned. There does not seem to be vindictiveness in the voice, just an explanation of the facts. You experienced good in life and now, in death, Lazarus is being “comforted.”

This word translated comforted is “parakaleo” You can see how the translators got to comfort here. If this is a story about reversals, then the rich man’s enjoyment is turned to “torment” (a word originally contrived to describe the process where a coin was tested – scratched by a hard rock – to determine it’s genuineness) and Lazarus’ suffering was turned to _______. Comfort right? However, this word does not mean that. This word is put together words using words that mean something like, “call on.” If you check the lexicon for the meaning of that word, you’ll see a variety of words that flow in the channel of comfort, encourage, and exhort. If someone is worn out or weary, you might encourage or exhort that person. But think of what that might look like – we’re not talking about feather beds here – we’re talking about something much more active. What sort of thing requires this “call upon?” I think of runners who have hit the wall. Warriors that are weary from the fight, athletes with their hands on their knees wondering if they have it in them for “one more…”

I remember going out for soccer in college. I walked on the field that day during tryouts and coach Whitecar said, “Fisher, you want to play?” YES! I replied. He motioned to the waiting bus which took us to Mount Baldy. This was a sand dune on the shore of Lake Michigan. Up and down is one time. Do 25.

I didn’t need a lazy boy, I needed coach behind me yelling, “come on! You can do it! Make it happen! You want to play?? Get some!”

Call upon.

Deeper translations of the word can have the connotation, “I am called upon as a witness.” Perhaps Lazarus is called upon to witness that the world has been set right. Either way, what I love about this is that no matter if we are worn out in this life and seek comfort in the Kingdom to come or need the “kick in the pants” here on earth – encouragement from our God is in the form of service! We are always useful to God. We don’t retire to a life of leisure – we retire to be useful, purposeful, always in the fight! Whether our need is to be reminded that we are not forgotten in this world – no matter the suffering, no matter how much it feels like it’s over – we are not forgotten!! Keep going! Get some! You have a purpose! You have meaning! You matter to God!!

If it’s your time to enter rest, know that our rest is eternal worship of God. Forever. Worship. You can make it.

The rich man sees his situation in full focus. It’s ugly. Abraham was not mean. He even responds with “my child!” The rich man has, perhaps for the first time in his life, a thought of others. In a scene that Dickens ripped off for Jacob Marley, he cries out, asking that someone be sent back to warn his brothers. Someone needs to go! Surely, if they could see the pain! Surely, if they could smell the sulfur, feel the heat… they would repent! They would change.

Here, the passage is, I think, at it’s darkest. Abraham looks at the suffering man.

“They know.”

“Yes but…”

“They have Moses and the prophets – let them hear them. If they will not – they will not hear anyone.”

Abraham’s response to the rich man’s second request is that the brothers have Moses and the prophets. Did not Moses say, “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor” (Deut 15:7)? And are not the words of Isaiah clear enough?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa 58:6-7)

I believe when Jesus finished this story, he ended by looking hard at the Pharisees that surrounded them. Silence. No one had anything whatsoever to say. Jesus literally says, referring to them, that if a rotting corpse should rise from the dead to tell them their future, they would not hear, they would not have ears to hear, they would not listen.

Saints, this passage is both a warning and an encouragement.

What do you need?

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Nicely played Steward. Nicely played…

Luke 16 

He was hired to manage people and property. That’s his job. Make money for his master, the landowner. Pause.

In the preindustrial world of Jesus, agriculture is the heartbeat of the economy. The chief issue at play in the economy was who controlled the land and who had the power to extract the surplus. In this case (Luke 16) the landowner had the power and the steward (manager) had the responsibility to manage the agricultural production on the property. In the case of this story, the debtors (who rented/worked the land) owe the master produce – olive oil and wheat. Money, in peasant economies, was neither the only nor the primary medium of exchange. The Steward will pay regardless if the peasants produce or not. Go.

But he was terrible at his job! He squandered his Master’s money. The property he was given to manage has produced and he has not managed it appropriately.  Now, he’s going to pay. Pause.

The verb translated “squandered” here is the same word that is used to describe what the Prodical Son did with his inheritance – wasted it. Threw it away. Took the blessing and responsibility from his father and spent it on worthless things. The passage does not say what the Steward did to squander the money, I suspect it does not matter, what DOES matter is that it’s time to pay up and there’s nothing to pay.

It’s worth noting that the Mishnah, postbiblical tradition in Jewish literature, identifies three kinds of renters: those who pay a percentage of the crop, those who pay a fixed amount of the crop, and those who pay in money. This passage speaks of the second kind. They need to pay regardless of what the ground produces. A risky business after all. If they do well, they will have a great year since it’s settled up front what they owe, if not, it’s coming out of their savings or debt. And it’s not a small amount. The amounts in question underscore the rich man’s wealth. The first debtor owes one hundred “baths” of oil. Since a bath is equivalent to nine gallons, this man owes nine hundred gallons of olive oil. The second debtor owes one hundred “kors” of grain. Estimates of the size of a kor vary from 6.5 to 10-12 bushels, and even Josephus gives inconsistent reports as to its meaning. Nevertheless, a hundred kors of grain would have been a large amount. The rich man and his debtors were dealing in large commercial interests therefore, and not in household quantities. Go.

The master returns angry. He calls the Steward to himself – you’re fired. You can’t produce. You are fired. The Master shows mercy to the manager. After all, he had the right to have him fined or imprisoned. He does neither, just lets him go. The steward’s reputation will proceed him and he’ll not find work anywhere else. The Steward is in chaos. What will he do? Where will he go? It’s not like he can go apply at the Synagogue for unemployment! He’s simply out of a job, out of a home, out of security, and out of time! He’s too old to dig (read: work) and too proud to beg! Desperation creeps into his thoughts.

Except… he’s not out of time. A plan forms in his mind. There is some hope here if he plays his cards right. Pause.

A Steward, or an Estate Manager, was entitled to a commission. He was entitled to a fee for each transaction, which itself was recorded, principle and interest, in a public contract. There is no way that he could extract a fee of 50% as peasants would immediately inform the Lord that of the extortion. If the Lord and the Steward were in cahoots, there would be revolt. What he does here is described as “shrewd” or brilliant, or terrible based on how you see it. Go.

The Steward realized that he had a window of opportunity to write new contracts with the peasants before they realized that he was no longer the Steward. He rushes out and speaks to the debtors. You owe the master 100 measures of oil? Make it 50. You owe the master 100 measures of wheat? Make it 80. The peasants love him! They begin to dance in the streets! They begin to praise the master’s generosity! What a great year it’s going to be!! The Steward has never been more popular. Pause.

Here’s the brilliance – by renegotiating the contracts, he has set the Master up. If the Lord rescinds the legally binding contracts because they are unlawful, he will alienate the renters AND the entire village who are out singing his praise. If he allows the contracts to stand, he will lose money but will gain honor. And in the ancient Mediterranean culture, honor is better than money. To some extent, it IS money. The good favor received from these transactions will carry him far in the economy of the time. That said, it’s still going to be a touch year. The Steward, though now unemployed, can turn to his former clients and make claims on them for favors as he needs them since everyone knows who “arranged” the deals. Nicely played Steward. Nicely played. Full Stop.

So. Now we ask the obvious question – why?

Three possibilities:

1. Steward is a worthless manager, also corrupt, so in response to getting fired, cheats the master out of the contracts. He sends a blanket email to everyone in the company and does not use BCC declaring that they are all… wait, I’m jumping ahead a few centuries…

2. Steward was acting righteously by excluding any interest figured into the debt.

3. Steward reduced the debt by his own commission – however, no steward gets half as we’ve already discussed.

Whatever the reason – it costs the landowner a significant amount of money. The mere fact that he does not have the faithless steward killed on site probably reveals a good deal about how wealthy this guy was. Seems like the owner looks at the big picture and decides that there are better things than money – honor being one of them. So he commends the steward… and then has him escorted off the property.

Jesus follows this up with what seems to be a sarcastic comment – make friends with unrighteous mammon and you’ll be welcome in that world but it’ll cost you. Is that the kind of person you are? Slave to money?

Faithfulness and honesty. These are bywords of the person who desires to live a “kingdom life.” They can be described as faithful and honest in all their dealings. You can live shrewdly but there is a reward for that – emptiness, separation from the service of the master. There are more important realities than things and money – there is faithfulness and honesty.

Notice the conclusion:

1. A slave cannot serve two masters.

2. If he does, he’ll hate one and love the other or despise one and love the other.

3. We cannot, as servants of God, serve God and wealth. The two do not go together. This is not to say that wealth is somehow bad or that Christians should immediately give everything they have away and move into socialist communes (although, to be fair, the early Christians did…) – it is to say that if wealth is driving you, God certainly is not.

It is reminiscent to me of Ephesians where Paul admonishes the Christian to be led by the spirit of God (rather than drunkenness).

One of the marks of a Christian is that they are faithful regardless of the size of their paycheck or responsibilities. Our faithfulness is not about a measurement, it is about our faithfulness.

This week, you may be called upon to “defend the faith” but probably not. It is more likely that you will be challenged – even today – to be faithful in what God has called you to be. Will you help another on the road of life? Will you offer a listening ear to someone suffering? Will you defend that person who is always getting picked on at work? Will you be patient with your children? Will you be honest in all you dealings? Often, we say we want to have God challenge us to greatness – I’m wondering if we’re actually ready for it.

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Living It

Living out your faith is going to cost you something; not likely the classic idea of the “lay your life on the line for Jesus”, but a more visceral laying down of pride, rights, justice, money, social status, family – for this new family and life in Christ.

The scene is the prison in Ephesus. It is a dark place but the Old Man is someone of some significance. His importance in the community gives him some creature comforts that other inmates might not have. He has a network of family that will bring him food and drink. He has a cot and a desk on which to write. He has influence in the prison. Guards and inmates alike seek him out for counseling and advice. It might be slightly more comfortable for this minimum inmate, but let there be no doubt, it is still a Roman prison in ancient Ephesus!

Narrator (italics): The Old Man graciously receives a cup of tea from his young associate. The steam rises from the cup and he smells the bittersweet aroma. The Young man is quiet. He has the takes the subservient position of the slave, head slightly bowed, hands folded, he pulls back to the corner.

“You should go back.” The Old Man finally says, after sipping the hot liquid.

The Young man knew this was coming. “My father, how can I? It is a return to slavery. He was not a nice man.”

“It is true.”

“And I am a Christian now, I am your follower, your disciple.”

“Also true.”

“I need to stay with you and learn more of Christ!” The Young Man’s eagerness betrayed his complicated motives.

The Old Man smiled sadly. “My son. It is the law. Roman law requires you to return to your master.”

“But we are subject to a higher law! We are subject to the law of Christ! You said so yourself, the Law of Love. Does not love dictate you keep me here with you?” Desperation crept into his voice. His confused affect betrays the growing anger rising in him. He had reached out to this prophet, this preacher, this teacher who had introduced him to a new faith. Surly, this faith would save him from returning to his master. Law! The law was not helpful! The law separated people into the haves and the have nots! The Law made classes of people. The Law made some rich and some poor. The Young Man’s simmering anger began to move towards rage. How could he just sit there! How could his mentor and leader just sit there, sipping tea, in this prison and speak of following Roman Law! He was here for disobeying Roman Law!!!

The Old Man sat watching the drama play out in the Young Man’s face. He watched the angry thoughts dart back and forth, fighting reason and emotion. His smile drifted away and was replaced by a pained look, he grieved for the Young Man. He knew his baggage. He had heard his story. The Young Man was a tradesman seeking to grow his business. He had a rough go of life. Coming from a distant Roman colony, his parents died early and he had been apprenticed at a spice seller’s shop. Selling spices on a far flung Roman outpost is an unpredictable trade at best. If a ship goes down in a spring storm and the tradesman has not prepared, they are destined for poverty. This was the Young Man’s story. He struck out on his own too soon. He was passionate, full of dreams and vision, he saw himself a wealthy man at a young age and did not adequately prepare for the reality of selling a luxury item in a poor place. Add a particularly vicious storm and soon, he was over his head in debt to creditors. In desperation, he entered the slave market, indenturing himself to a wealthy spice trader in Rome. Philemon paid Onesimus’ debts. In return, Onesimus was now a slave.

Onesimus tried another approach. “My father. When I was captured by the slave hunters and brought to this prison, I thought my life was over. I really believed that when I was sent back, Philemon would exercise his rights. He would have a limb removed or chain me in his kitchens, beat me, or even have me killed. I was so overwhelmed with this thought, I planned to end my life in this prison but then, I met you and…” his voice trailed off, breaking under the strain of his emotions.

Paul, the Old Apostle who had met so many in his journeys recognized that you cannot reason your way out of an emotional decision. He reflected Onesimus’ fears. “My son. Of course. Philemon still has those rights. He can still do all of those things to you. It would still be justice if he did yes?” Onesimus was sobbing by now and nodded. “You do not want to return because you fear that he will do those things to you?”

“Yes! Yes my father! I believe he will.”

“Oh, my son. There is something you do not know about your master. He is as you are. He too is a Christian and he is your brother. I have some sway with him. I will write a letter to take with you. He is my spiritual son as you are. I shall appeal to him on the basis of his obligation to honor the elderly and his obligation to kinship. I shall ask to pay whatever debts you owe. He shall put them on my account. We are all brothers. You, me, and even Philemon. I shall ask if he will take you back and not carry out retribution as is his right.”

“Thank you, oh thank you my father.”

“Onesimus. Hear this. You will still need to work. You will need to be faithful to your master, as a though you were faithful to Christ. Obey him with fear and trembling not only while being watched, in order to please him but, as a save to Christ, do the will of God from the heart. God would have you be a faithful servant. Whatever good you do, you will receive from the Lord, whether you are a slave or a free man.”

SCENE

Philemon is reminded by Paul that when he came to Jesus, he was choosing a life that was challenging. He was choosing a life that would challenge and change him. He chose a life that came with it, some responsibilities. Was he really ready to give something up for Christ?

Was he ready to give up his rights?

He had a right to justice. He had a right to retribution. He had a right to a world he made. Paul calls him to something else. He calls him to fully embrace another way of being – the way of grace. Let God handle the retribution, let God handle justice, let God handle his pride.

I wonder what it was like when Onesimus came back. I wonder what it was like when he walked in and handed Philemon that letter. Did he throw him in the dungeon to wait for justice? Did he stand there and read it while Onesimus knelt before him? At what point in the Onesimus/Philemon relationship did Philemon, the wealthy merchant with the right to kill Onesimus demonstrate that he was a different person? That he had changed? That he actually saw and experienced life differently? How would Onesimus know that Philemon had really, truly changed?

This takes us to Luke 14. From the New Interpreters

14:28-32. The twin parables that follow might aptly be entitled “Fools at Work and at War.” These parables have no parallel in the other Gospels. Jesus draws attention to a simple observation: A prudent person would not begin a project until being sure it can be finished. A man would not lay the foundation for a tower unless he was sure he could finish it. A king would not go to war unless he had enough soldiers to resist the opposing force. By the same token, God has not entered a redemptive process without being prepared to complete it, and Jesus did not set his face for Jerusalem without being prepared to face the sacrifice that would be required of him there. Thus no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus.

The two parables move from the lesser to the greater consequence. In the first, the threat is merely that one may be embarrassed before one’s neighbors. In the second, the consequence may be defeat at the hands of an enemy. The parable does not advocate building stronger armies; it illustrates the folly of embarking on a venture without being sure one can see it through.

14:33. The parables lead to the third condition (v. 33); they demand that one be ready to give up everything to be a disciple. If you seek to follow Jesus, then understand first that what is required is all you have.

Applying this principle in the area of one’s material possessions, as Luke often does, v. 33 concludes with a return to the refrain found in vv. 26-27: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” The verb translated “renounce” or “give up” (ajpota”ssomai apotassomai) literally means “to say farewell to” or “to take leave of.” The descriptions of the sharing of goods in the early church in Acts 2:44; 4:32 probably illustrate what Luke understood this demand to mean.

14:34-35. Sayings on salt also appear in Matt 5:13 and Mark 9:49-50. Although Luke uses these aphorisms as the conclusion to this section of warnings, the sayings actually make a different point from the preceding sayings, which were directed to the crowd of would-be disciples. The sayings on salt are more appropriate as warnings to those who are already disciples. The value of salt lies in its salinity. If it loses its saltiness, it cannot be restored. The point of the analogy is that the disciple is defined by his or her relationship to Jesus. If one gives up that relationship, one is like salt that has lost its saltiness.

Real salt cannot lose its flavor, but the complex minerals found around the Dead Sea were not pure salt and could, therefore, become tasteless. The taste, once lost, could not be restored. Jesus observed that this tasteless salt was not even good for fertilizing or killing weeds; “it is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile” (14:35). The point seems to be that salt that has lost its saltiness is not even good for menial, alternative uses.

The call for those who have ears to hear is a call to decision. The reversals of the coming kingdom have been dramatically illustrated, the conditions of discipleship have been set forth, and the consequences of rejecting the call to discipleship have been made clear. Now is the time for decision.

Some churches, preachers, and TV programs present the gospel as though they were selling a used car. They make it sound as easy as possible, as though no real commitment were required. Jesus’ call was far different. He was not looking for superficial commitment or a crowd of tagalongs. Instead, he required his followers to be totally committed if they were going to follow at all.

The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just to a way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life.

In a sense, no one can know whether he or she will be able to fulfill a commitment to discipleship. Jesus was not asking for a guarantee of complete fidelity in advance, however. If he had, no one would qualify to be a disciple. Through these parables, Jesus was simply calling for each person who would be a disciple to consider in advance what that commitment requires.

Cultural accommodation of the Christian faith has progressed steadily in recent years. As a result, many see no tension between the teachings of Jesus and the common aspirations of middle-class Americans. On the contrary, a complete change of priorities, values, and pursuits is required. Paul wrote that in Christ we become not just nice people but new creations (see 2 Cor 5:17). When Jesus turned and saw the crowd following him, he was not impressed by his own success. He was not interested in the casual, easy acceptance the crowd offered.

The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would-be disciples. No part-time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.

Are you ready?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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