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September 22, 2016, 2:40 PM

The Parable of the Repentant Master?

Luke 16:1-13, CEB
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
“The household manager said to himself, ‘What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The Parable of the Repentant Master
The Loan Shark. What is a loan shark? (give congregation a few moments to call out answers) Exactly. A loan shark is a person who loans out money for stiff interest rates and is notorious for being ruthless in their collecting. Loan sharks don’t like to do the collecting themselves, in most crime stories and police dramas. They hire collectors to go rough up the clients until the debt is paid. These collectors use threats, intimidation, and violence to force repayment. And in a lot of crime stories, the loan shark will even order the death of debtors who cannot pay. We wish these characters were confined to novels and television dramas, but in our world today too many people are experiencing some elements of the loan shark. In fact, the loan shark is one of those timeless occupations, if you can call it that. There have been loan sharks about as long as humans have lived together in villages, tribes and cities. Loan sharks certainly existed in Jesus’ time. In fact, it seems we have one in front of us in Jesus’ parable today.
As we mentioned last week in exploring the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin, parables are a wonderful and unique form a teaching. They are little stories designed to grab the attention of the audience through twists or shocking statements, and to stick with the listener, allowing them to wrestle with the story, to chew on it a bit and explore its many layers. There is little question that today’s parable grabs our attention and is a bit shocking, and more than a little perplexing. This parable is commonly titled, “The Parable of the Dishonest or Unjust Steward.” But that is part of the problem in entering into this story, the title already colors our vision and pushes toward a particular reading of the story. Jesus didn’t give titles to his parables. The gospels, as we have them in the ancient Greek, did not give titles to the stories. There are no headings in the Greek texts; no chapters, no verses. Though at times these are helpful tools added by translators and bible scholars, they are not original to the story, to the gospels. As we enter into this story, we need to shed the popular name, for in this instance, it does more harm than good.
This particular parable by Jesus is shining a light on a particular practice in ancient Israel, and so in understanding the context of this story, we need to understand a little bit about 1st century Jewish economics. According to God’s Law, the Torah, charging interest is forbidden. The Law is very, very clear on this, bringing it up several times in the giving of the Law in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 23, one instance). This was to prevent the gouging of fellow Jews and to try to prevent people losing their land and property in debt repayment. And it was to discourage the rise of loan sharks, those who sought prophet and power through loaning and interest.  But, where there is a will there is so often a way. The loan sharks found a way. When someone needing money or materials (grain, oil, wine, etc.), went to someone who had the money or materials to give, a contract was written up detailing what was loaned—a prudent practice. However, the loan shark would verbally agree with the debtor as to what would be loaned, and then would tell them verbally a different amount which would be repaid, and this inflated amount was recorded on the contract. For most enforcers of God’s Law, it was the figure in writing that mattered. In this way, the wealthy loan sharks were make a tidy profit or would end up with material goods or land…or some slaves. Many times people had to sell themselves into slavery until they worked off their debts.
In this story Jesus tells us today, we have a wealthy person who has many debtors, debtors who owe some substantial amount of goods. And we have a collector who works for the wealthy person. We have the story of a loan shark. It is important to note that the story opens with the wealthy master being told that this one steward or collector is squandering the master’s estate. We are not told that this is true. In the Greek it literally says that the collector or steward is slandered to the master. The master’s response, in true loan shark fashion, is to get rid of the possible risk without looking into the matter or allowing the steward to really answer to the charges. The steward or collector is simply fired.
This employee of the loan shark is now free. Certainly, as the story tells us, he is worried about how he will make money and have resources without his job. But in his efforts to create a place for himself going forward, and to enact a little revenge on his former master, does this collector of debts actually enact a bit of justice? We see in the story that he approaches those whom he was to collect debt repayment from, hoping to get into their good graces. He brings out the contracts and changes the figures that indicate the amount owed to the master. Is he cancelling out the interest and returning the debt to the original loan amount? It is hard to know. But something is happening in this act that profoundly changes the master. A good loan shark is aware of what is happening in their ‘business.’ This wealthy master, according to the story, is aware of what the former collector has done with the debt contracts. What does the master do when he discovers this? That is the twist or shock of the story, the master doesn’t order a hit on the former collector or send someone over to break something. The master commends the collector. The master praises the steward for his actions!
While that surprise hangs in front of us, Luke lays before us a series of Jesus’ sayings regarding money and living God’s way. Matthew also records these sayings, but in different places in his gospel. These sayings of Jesus follow nicely with this strange, unsettling story, especially that very last sentence of verse 13. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” This has become a popular translation in later years from the Greek, but the Greek literally says, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jesus used the name for the Syrian god of wealth to speak of serving two masters. By doing so Jesus was driving home the point that money and wealth can become its own deity in our lives. That is certainly true in the life of the master in this story. The master’s wealth is of utmost importance to him. He quickly fires an employee on even the suspicion of wastefulness. But in the end, do we catch a hint of repentance as he offers commendation for the lowering of the debts? Maybe. We will have to chew on this one a bit.
Regardless of the parable, Jesus is very serious about his statement in verse 13. Wealth often rises up in the lives of God’s people as a competing god. We live in a culture dedicated to profit. It is the nature of capitalism. We have witnessed time and again the corruption and greed of corporations. Many loan sharks dwell within legal businesses, seeking to profit on a culture addicted to debt. Money and finances continue to be the greatest stress on families and in relationships. Jesus spoke about money frankly and often because it was and it continues to be one of the greatest stumbling blocks to people of faith. I wrestle with it. You wrestle with it. Our church wrestles with it. How do we live faithfully with our material goods?
There is not an easy answer to this question. Instead, I believe it is a journey as we seek daily to embody Jesus’ way of living. We need to ask ourselves that question—how do we live faithfully with our material goods—daily, sometimes multiple times a day. It should be the question we ask before we make major financial decisions or purchases. And, we should be talking about it together on a regular basis. We will make mistakes. We will get sucked into the priorities of our culture. It has happened and it will happen in the future. But the good news I hear in this strange parable is that we can change. We can repent and start again. We can turn in a new direction. We can see an act of justice in our midst and go “aha! I need a new direction.”
Christmas is coming. Halloween is on the horizon. Thanksgiving will be here before we know it. Consumerism will sing its song of spending and buying, and the credit companies will whisper of financing for loans and credit cards. But the choice is ours. How might these holidays look if we were more Jesus centered? Are we willing to make a change? To ask Rev. Michael Slaughter’s question, what would happen if we spent as much on those in need this holiday season as we do on gifts, decorations, and celebrations? Could we spend less on the latter in order to spend more on the former? The consumer industry is already pitching its sales. How will we live faithfully with our material goods? Thanks be to God.  Amen.

September 15, 2016, 8:31 AM


Luke 15:1-10, CEB
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it?  When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’10  In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
It is one of my earliest memories, one of those memories that exists in a soft haze. My grandmother, Mary McConnell, who just turned 95 two weekends ago, would take me with her to go do some housework at her father’s house when I was very little. I know I was very little for my grandmother would have to pick me up and place me in her father’s lap before she started working. While she worked, I would sit in Grandpa Badman’s lap, and ‘help’ him do his jigsaw puzzles, while eating Fig Newtons (his favorite). I remember doing this several times, but I have no memory of ever completing a puzzle. It seemed to always be a work in progress. Grandpa Badman was methodical and diligent. He had a system and did not deviate. He first carefully constructed the outer edge of the puzzle and then worked from one end across to the other. As we visited and munched on cookies, he would search constantly for the needed pieces, eyes carefully scanning the assortment. Grandpa’s puzzles were always incomplete, but they were always given his rapt attention.
Incomplete is a word we could use to describe the situation in our two parables this morning from Luke’s gospel. The shepherd’s flock is incomplete, a sheep has gone missing.  The woman’s coin collection is incomplete, one coin is absent. The flock and the collection are incomplete. These are very, very familiar stories from Jesus. Most of us have heard them hundreds of times, and we know that in Luke this is a set of three interrelated parables: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and…The Prodigal Son. I’m willing to bet most of us could recap these stories easily, staying true to the essential elements. We might think we know most all there is to know about these beloved parables, but perhaps, as parables are intended to do, there are still a few surprises. Our understanding may still be incomplete.
As we enter now into the new school year and our fall schedule, we are leaving behind our sermon series from the summer, and entering back into the lectionary readings. The lectionary is a calendar of scripture readings on a three year cycle that guides churches in hearing a wide variety of texts across the entire Bible. Each Sunday on the calendar has a Hebrew Scripture, Psalm, Letter from the New Testament, and a Gospel reading. The lectionary also allows us from different denominations and locations to be spending time with the same scripture passages on the same Sundays. We are current ly at the end of the three-year cycle, year C, which spends a great deal of time with the gospel of Luke. The church’s new year begins with the season of Advent. The author of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts and the author uses the image of journeying in both books to tell the story of God’s activity in Jesus Christ and the early Christian community. In a large chunk of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem, the cross, and the empty tomb. Today’s reading, and the upcoming readings this month, are a collection of teachings Jesus gave ‘on the road,’ as Jerusalem came closer and closer.
These beloved parables are shared with a very particular audience. Look at the opening verses of the chapter: Jesus is telling these stories to tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and legal experts. Quite a mixed crowd. Tax collectors and sinners are usually wealthy people who are not adhering to the law of God, the Torah. Tax collectors are collaborators with the Roman occupation, often accumulating wealth by collecting more Roman tax than proscribed. Sinners in Luke are often wealthy citizens who do not obey the Law regarding care of the poor and marginalized—think of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Along with these non-observers of God’s Law are diligent observers. Pharisees are non-priestly Jews who have dedicated their lives to following the Law to the letter. Legal experts are professional theologians, those who have entered the profession of law knowledge and interpretation. Gathered before Jesus at this moment on the road are those who strictly and passionately live God’s Law and those who regularly disregard it. The law-keepers are upset with Jesus because he has broken the Law. He has eaten with the non-observers of the Law. Meals are sacred moments in Jewish tradition. To eat at table is likened to journeying up to the Temple in Jerusalem. To this crowd (along with the disciples, obviously) Jesus tells these parables of lost and found, these stories of incompleteness.
Parables are very unique forms of teaching. They are designed to be multi-layered, thought-provoking, and usually with a little twist or two that makes the stories stick with the listeners long after the hearing. Parables are designed to be chewed on and contemplated. So let’s chew. First, the sheep and shepherd. The first two sentences are told to shock, to grab the attention. “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them.” That isn’t too shocking. Most gathered around Jesus are rather wealthy as we have just discussed, they could imagine owning one hundred sheep. Some of the disciples, on the other hand (those fishermen, for instance), might have had a much more difficult time imaging owning so many. “Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it?” What? No! Common English Bible uses the word pasture, but it is really the word for desert or wilderness. First century Middle Eastern shepherds did not have fenced in pastures as farmers in our nation do today. They wandered the wilderness looking for grazing for their sheep. What shepherd would leave the entire flock in the wilderness to find that one? Sane answer: no shepherd in their right mind would do this. That’s the point.
One layer to chew on in this tiny, well-known parable, sees the shepherd as God. In the Hebrew Scriptures God is often seen as Shepherd of the flock, Israel. Is Jesus saying that God is an insane shepherd? If so, this little parable depicts God answering yes to Jesus’ question. God leaves all the observant sheep, who are not lost, because God’s flock is incomplete. Someone is missing. God runs off and searches methodically, diligently, relentlessly, until God finds this missing one. God’s joy in finding this one is extravagant and overflowing, calling everyone to join in the rejoicing. Does the audience see itself here? If we see the shepherd as God, are the sheep in the flock our Law-abiding audience, the Pharisees and legal experts? Is the missing sheep then our tax collectors and sinners? Is Jesus saying that God’s people are incomplete because not everyone in living the full life of God’s community?
However, not only is God depicted as a shepherd in the Hebrew Scriptures, another group is many times lifted up as shepherds of the people Israel—the keepers of God’s Law. As we move into another layer to chew for a bit, what does this story say to the audience if law-keepers suddenly see themselves as the shepherd? It is their job to keep the sheep; to guide, protect, care. Now a sheep is missing. Did they notice? Or have they only been busying themselves with the 99? Who is ultimately responsible for those sheep? Are they willing to do whatever it takes to find the missing and help them reenter the flock? Do they realize their flock is incomplete? Instead of criticizing Jesus, is he saying they should be sitting down at the table with him?
The story of the woman and her lost coin echoes the shepherd and sheep, but this time with a female main character. The woman has ten silver coins, something easily imagined by most of the crowd. Again, it is a stretch for the disciples. She misses one. One in ten is easier to miss than one in one hundred. She sees that her coins are incomplete and tears the house apart until she finds it—lighting the lamp to look under and behind, grabbing the broom to sweep all the nooks and crannies—until she finds it. Then she too calls everyone together and celebrates. If the audience has been seeing themselves in the shepherd and sheep, they don’t miss the carry over to the woman and coins. A few of the audience members may have bristled at God and themselves being depicted as a woman, but they are probably much more disturbed by the implications of the stories than the depictions. Jesus drops these stories into their midst. Stories that challenge their roles and responsibilities. Stories that challenge the legal expert’s harshness toward the sinners in their midst. Stories that point out that those sinners need to change their hearts and minds.  Many things here are incomplete.
We too are invited to find ourselves in this story. But let us remind ourselves of who we are, of our own context, as listeners of Jesus’ parables. We may want to identify ourselves with the missing sheep and lost coin. There may be moments in our lives when that is us. However, we are gathered here, in the sanctuary of the church, for worship and praise. We are not really tax collectors and sinners as Luke defines them, we are much closer to Pharisees and legal experts—those who seek to live God’s way in the world. After all, we are here. So, as we listen, as we contemplate, as we chew, we should find ourselves much more in the shoes of the observers of God’s way. Do we know our God to be so reckless and extravagant in God’s pursuit of those not living God’s way? Did we realize that this is God’s priority, that none be lost? Is that our priority as well, as followers of the One who sat at table with the non-observant regularly, as well as the observant? Did we realize our community is incomplete? Did we recognize that some are missing? What are we going to do about it?
It is the overall tendency in the Church to get busy with ourselves, to focus on what happens in here—for pastors as well as members. Do we have enough Sunday School teachers? What does the budget look like for 2017? How will pledging go this fall? Do we have anyone interested in campus ministry, visitation ministry, drama ministry? Can we schedule some youth café nights? These are important things, but according to Jesus, they are not God’s priority. Jesus challenges us today to prioritize our journey into the community around us. Jesus challenges us to be present beyond these walls in an intentional, diligent, even reckless way. Jesus challenges us to see that our community, God’s community is incomplete. Can we do this?
Like Grandpa Badman’s puzzle, our community will continue to be incomplete. There will always be more people to develop relationships with, reach out to, embrace. This community will always (until the coming age) be incomplete, but can it have our full attention? Can it have priority for us? Can we venture beyond the flock.

September 7, 2016, 10:58 AM

Earning Our Wings

Matthew 28:16-20, CEB
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
“Earning Our Wings” (Evangelism & Acceptance)
Rachel Held Evans recounts this story in one of her blogs concerning evangelism from 2013:
Mark spoke in chapel every other year, usually in the spring, which was about the time I’d accumulated too many absences to cut. A former college basketball player with an imposing six-foot-seven frame, bald head, and booming voice, Mark travelled the country telling Christian college students about his evangelistic exploits, challenging us to “wake up from our apathy” and start witnessing to people before they died and went to hell. 
Mark said his favorite place to witness to someone was on an airplane.  “It’s a captive audience!” he shouted from the stage. “I mean, the target is literally strapped in next to you!” 
[He probably said “person,” but all I could hear was “target.”]
Mark suggested we begin a conversation with our seatmate by asking if they knew where they would go spend eternity should there be a catastrophic failure in the plane’s hydraulic system and we all went down in flames. If that doesn’t work, he said, we should drill the person on how many of the Ten Commandments they might have broken, revealing their need for a savior—Ever committed adultery? Ever lied? Ever disobeyed your parents? Ever coveted your neighbor’s things? You know, make a little small talk about idolatry and death and then tell them about Jesus. 
At the end of chapel, Mark always announced he would be going to the local park that afternoon to evangelize. He would take a group of students with him, but he needed those students to stand up and publicly pledge their commitment to process. 
“Who’s going to live for Jesus today?” he asked. “Stand up right now if you’re ready to take the gospel seriously and live for Jesus.” 
That is the popular definition of evangelism—and the nightmare of introverts everywhere. Rachel Held Evans is what is called these days a “progressive evangelical,” along with popular author, Brian McLaren. These progressive evangelicals were raised in conservative or fundamentalist congregations and are deeply called to be evangelists, but their call does not lead them to Mark’s understanding of evangelism. They are striving, in their books and blogging, to help Christians everywhere to see evangelism in a new light, and to demonstrate an evangelism that goes hand in hand with acceptance and love of others.
So what is evangelism if it isn’t only defined in the example Rachel gives us from Mark, the chapel speaker? Evangelism is a word straight from the gospels, straight from scripture. It is an English adaptation of a beautiful Greek word, euangelion. And this word is a compound word—remember from your English classes—a word that is the joining of two other words together to create a new one. Euangelion is the joining of Eu, which means good, and angelion, which means message or news. Evangelism is sharing good news, and an evangelist is the messenger bearing the good news. But look closely at the end word in euangelion. Angelion is also the word angel. Angel is Greek for God’s messenger. An evangelist is an angel, bringing God’s good news. Another word we use for good news in the church is gospel. Gospel also literally means good news. Today’s reading comes from the Gospel of Matthew, the good news according to Matthew. The authors of our four gospels are often referred to as evangelists. They composed good news to share—our four famous angels.
Now that we have had a brief English-Greek lesson, I want to talk about another famous angel, but one that is far removed from the four gospel authors in our New Testament. I want to remind us this morning of the angel associated with the sermon title today—“Earning Our Wings.” Anyone here know which angel goes with that title? (Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life) Yes, the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Quick, quick recap of a very long movie: George Bailey, the main character, has decided life is not worth living and is going to kill himself by jumping from a bridge into the river on Christmas Eve. Clarence, his 2nd class guardian angel, is sent to stop him, to save his life and help him see that life is worth living. Over the course of this long movie, this slightly inept angel shows George what the world would be like if he had not been around—showing him his town, his family, and his friends in dire straits because George was missing from their lives. We learn also that Clarence, if he can save and redeem George, will earn 1st class angel status and will thus earn his wings. In the end George is redeemed, sees his own worth, and returns to this family filled with joy… and Clarence earns his wings.
I bring up this movie classic as we explore evangelism and acceptance because I firmly believe we are all called, in some fashion, to be evangelists and to share the good news of God. I believe we are all angels and I think Clarence is a bit easier to identify with then gospel writers or popular depictions of heavenly winged creatures. If you have seen the movie you will remember that Clarence is a bit goofy and bumbling. His heart is true and his intentions good, but he is a far cry from the mighty Gabriel bringing Mary word of her impending pregnancy and the birth of God-with-us from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. For us to entertain the idea that we too are angels, bearers of God’s message to the world, perhaps it helps to think of ourselves as those still earning our wings.
Our gospel reading-good news reading-today is the end of Matthew’s gospel, the very end. If we were reading Matthew’s account straight through to today’s verses, we would have seen “God-with-us” born and would have traveled with him throughout his Sermon on the Mount, through parables and miracles, travels and teachings. We would have witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection, and now find ourselves standing on a mount once again, hearing ourselves sent forth with a commission. This commission is very specific. Let’s look at it again, even though many of us could recite it by heart—Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you.”
This Great Commission is a command, so the action verbs take center stage. We are commanded to go and make. Go and make what? Disciples. What are disciples? Well, if we have been reading Matthew’s Euangelion, we have been traveling with disciples for most of the book. What are disciples? Disciples are those who follow Jesus, who seek to learn what Jesus has to reveal about God and to embody God’s way of living in their lives. The disciples are those who walked with Jesus, spent time in Jesus’ presence, together, as a group, as a community. Disciples are those who experienced Jesus together and who are then commanded or commissioned by Jesus to go and make more disciples.
What might that entail? Well, Jesus tells us in the command. It entails baptism and teaching. And isn’t that the essence of being a disciple? A disciple is like an apprentice or a student—learning, emulating, practicing, asking questions, growing in their understanding and experience. Discipleship is about relationship. It is about a community doing all of this together—learning together, practicing together, modeling Jesus’ way of life together, questioning, doubting, growing, becoming stronger, together. And going out, together, inviting others to experience the community and the way of life the community is committed to. Evangelism. Euangelion. Learning to fly, together.
We cannot ‘go and make’ if we don’t know the essence of the good news we are to be messengers for. That good news is the life found in living the way modeled by Jesus. Jesus, in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, loosened the chains of anger, greed, materialism, hate, and despair, and offered us an opportunity to walk freely in love, joy and peace. That is indeed good news. As we continue to grow in understanding and to gain experience in Jesus living, we go out together to show the world this resurrection living. We are living invitations into community and new life. Acceptance means we love people as we find them. Acceptance means that they are free to say no to our invitation, to say ‘I’m not sure,’ to say ‘give me some time’ without recrimination. Because being a disciple, living Jesus’ way, means we continue to love them, pray for them, spend time with them, regardless.
And who knows, even if they don’t join us in this community, their encounter with us should be an encounter with Jesus. And Jesus can work wonders in just the briefest of encounters. Who knows what seeds are planted in just a few moments, a few loving words, a gesture of acceptance and joy.
We are God’s angels, God’s messengers of good news, by our words and our actions. We are God’s angels through our living and our sharing. Our live together in this community is a life of sharing and practicing and exploring and learning, earning our wings—our confidence in being sent forth as living invitations.  Let us not be afraid of evangelism. Would not the world be better if Jesus living became contagious, if discipleship flourished? Isn’t the current plight of our nation and our community, with so much fear and distrust and division, calling for us to invite others into a new way? How many different forms might that invitation take as we journey forth day after day after day? We do not go alone, for “look, Jesus himself will be with us every day until the end of this present age.” Amen.

August 21, 2016, 3:07 PM

Exegesis and Hermaneutics

Matthew 10:34-49, CEB
34 “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword. 35 I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law36 People’s enemies are members of their own households.
37 “Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me.38 Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. 39 Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.
40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.”
Exegesis & Hermaneutics 
This is the word of God (lift up bible), for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
That seems like such a simple statement—the word of God for the people of God. And yet, it means something different to different congregations and different people. The word of God. Some take that quite literally. Some see it as inspired but not literal. Others, as a collection of stories and guidelines for living in relationship with God. These differences have divided friends, split congregations, and given birth to new denominations. It is part of the division we are seeing in our United Methodist Church right now, and in our nation. The word of God.
In living with this word of God, the people of God have many times developed some habits that are not always fruitful in discerning the meaning of this word and words. One habit that has caused some problems in our communications regarding God’s word is the habit of ‘proof-texting.’ It was the first big taboo explained to us in seminary—No Proof-texting. Automatic F. So, what is proof-texting? Simply put, it is taking a line or two from scripture and lifting it completely out of its context (the story or teaching of which it is a part) and then using it to prove your point. This lifting of the scripture to prove your point, this proof-texting, does not take into account the point of the passage of which the text is a part. The passage is used according to the agenda of the user, many times with a complete disregard as to the intention of the passage within its chapter and book.
Minority groups in the church have experienced this often, where verses are lifted and used as weapons against them. These are sometimes called clobber verses, scripture passages used to justify the discriminatory practices of the majority group. “You are wrong. You are a sinner. Here is the proof.” If we eager seminarians got caught proof-texting, we were in big trouble. This is not to say we can’t have a piece of scripture that is important to us, that brings us comfort. It does not mean we cannot offer a word of grace to someone in need. The warning of proof-texting is a warning of being flippant with the word of God. It is a call to be sure we read more than a passage or two, that we spend time with the word and that we read with some intentionality and integrity.
I offer this to you today as we contemplate the words of our Savior, Jesus, that are often troubling and problematic for us. We could never cover with integrity all of those passages that have been and could be read problematically. We cannot attend to every hard word Jesus says. What we can do together in these few moments, is explore ways to spend time with those texts in a way that allows us to hear them with fresh ears, and to put together a few tips, a few skills, to help us understand more fully. In other words, we can learn to do some exegesis and be aware of our hermeneutics.
First, hermeneutics—this is just a fancy word for the lens through which scripture is read. It is being aware of the point of view from which we read scripture. Many times when Christians read particular passages from the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—they do so through the lens of Jesus, through a Christian hermeneutic. That is not to say it is a bad or good thing, it is simply acknowledging that we are viewing these scriptures through the lens of Jesus. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do not view these same scriptures with the same lens. Knowing we are looking from a different point of view is helpful and can explain why we are seeing differently. Harry Pence, in our sermon discussion groups, has used the illustration several times of a group of blind men exploring, through touch, an elephant.  Each person is touching a different part—ear, trunk, foot, tail—and so has a vastly different experience. But they are all exploring the same animal, an elephant. Knowing our hermeneutic as we read a text is helpful—we are Americans in the 21st century in Upstate New York, in a fairly progressive congregation. How we initially view a text is different than someone reading the same passage in a South African village. How we have had the text explained to us in the past also colors our lens. It is helpful to explore our point of view, to the best of our ability, when we study scripture.
Second, exegesis—note the spelling. It is not ‘exit Jesus.’ Exegesis is a Greek word that means ‘to lead out’ and refers to study and interpretation of a text—to lead out its meaning. It is what I do every week in preparation for this moment, the sermon. In dealing with difficult texts, like the reading from Matthew that we have today, there are some simple exegesis skills that help us to see the text from different perspectives and to hear the text more fully.
Let’s open our bibles to today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 10, beginning at verse 34. What are your initial thoughts when you read this passage, when you heard it read just a moment ago? (give people a moment to respond, both out loud and internally). Now let’s go to the beginning of chapter 10 and read verse 1, and then verse 5. Verses 2 through 4 list the names of the disciples. What is the context of this chapter? What is happening? (allow time for responses). A helpful practice for seeing the flow of a story or passage is to create a general outline, so as we read down through chapter 10 of Matthew we begin to see the following:
  1. Jesus called the 12 disciples.
  2. Jesus now prepares to send these disciples out to the ‘lost sheep of Israel.’
  3. Verses 6-15 offer some strict instructions for their work. What are some of those instructions? (give time for responses).
  4. What is your impression of this chapter thus far? What is the tone? Do you hear the seriousness? What do you picture in your mind?
  5. Now let’s look at the next verses, 16-23. We are still in this preparation time. Jesus is trying to get the disciples ready to go out and do what he does. Now Jesus gives them a bunch of warnings about harassment and persecution. The disciples will be treated as Jesus has been treated.
  6. These continue to some extent into chapters 24-33. Intermixed in the warnings are words of encouragement—stand firm, stay strong, persevere.
  7. Now, we finally come to our reading from today—words about a sword instead of peace, of division within the family. Do these words sound different now that we have spent time with the storyline? Now that they are in context? What is Jesus saying?
Jesus warns that his work and his message can be good news, but it can also be seen as threatening. Some will reject Jesus’ message. Some of that rejection will even come from their own families. This may seem shocking to us, but look at the divisions happening in families right now. Many families are divided on the issue of homosexuality, immigrants and refugees, gun violence, political candidates. Is it so shocking for Jesus to warn the disciples that giving up everything to live Jesus’ way might cause some division and anger within their own families. Though Jesus blesses the peacemakers, can we not see how his word is the double-edged sword spoken of in the book of Hebrews, a word that might divide?
This time of teaching and preparation ends in verses 40-42, where Jesus points out how critically important this work is—these disciples go representing Jesus. When people encounter them and the message they bring, they are encountering Jesus. It is a message of life. It is a matter of true life with God—as we talked about last week and the week before—or life without God, which is a living death. Nothing should get in the way of that message. This entire chapter, chapter 10, seeks to impress upon followers of Jesus the importance of our work.
One more tip: When working through a text like Matthew 10, it is often very helpful to do this fuller reading and outlining with a small group, allowing other viewpoints, other hermeneutics, to give you a fuller picture. Reading more fuller to understand the context and creating an outline of the passage is only the beginning, but it is a great beginning and can ‘lead out’ a fuller meaning and understanding. So here is your homework: choose a passage that has troubled you, or perplexed you, and practice a little hermeneutics and exegesis.  Be aware of your lens and viewpoints. Try to read from a new point of view. And exegete the text—read passages and chapters prior to the passage. Read passages and chapters after the text. Read the opening chapter of the book, and the closing. Make an outline. See if you can “lead out” a deeper meaning and understanding.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

August 14, 2016, 3:23 PM


Revelation 20:11-15
11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire;15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.


Luke 16:19-31
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[h] 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Last week we explored heaven, and we played for a moment with all those popular images of pearly gates, St. Peter the bouncer, fluffy clouds, angels, white robes, and harps. But all those popular images of heaven are small potatoes when we look at how often popular culture plays with images of hell. Let’s face it, hell and the devil make great fodder for movies, television shows, novels…even commercials. Whether we examine classic works like Dante’s Inferno, or the most current popular television show, Lucifer, hell and its ruler fascinate us. We have the stereotypical images of the fiery pits, raging demons, tormented souls, and the horned devil with tail and pitchfork, some of which springs right out of Dante’s Inferno, and from scripture readings like today’s parable from Luke. We have images of hell as a vast wasteland, a dark stony ruin, a realm of heat and darkness. Each media portrayal plays with the image, seeking to capture the imagination (and the ratings) in new ways.
In the Church over the centuries, images of hell have been invoked to motivate obedience, to instill proper doctrinal belief, and to correct societal moral behavior. The Church got a rap for years as being a place that preached fire and brimstone, hell and damnation. Hell was used as the fear motivator to keep congregations in line. Threats of hell were common place, even woven into the architecture of the great European cathedrals in their gargoyles, demons, and tortured souls motifs. Popular culture and church doctrine have become so convoluted in some places that they are interchanged with one another until believers and non-believers alike mistake popular images with scriptural teachings. It’s is past time that we spent a few moments separating them out.

A scriptural concept of hell is not as easy to point to as you might think.  First, there is no concept of hell in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Our Jewish foremothers and forefathers did not have a strongly developed understanding of the afterlife. They were much more concerned with how they were living in their present life. Most references to death and after-death can be found in the book of Psalms, words like Sheol-an umbrella term for the realm of the dead, the idea of going down to the depths, of being redeemed from the pit or the grave, or the realm of the dead. All of these are just different words for the same vague concept.
What scripture does speak of, overwhelming, is a time when all people will turn to God in the age to come. The Psalms and the prophets have repeated references to the age to come—remember last week—when all nations shall stream to Zion or to God’s holy mountain. Certainly the Hebrew Scriptures speak a great deal about God punishing Israel for going astray, chasing after false gods or refusing to care for the widow, orphan, and stranger. But even as God proclaims these judgments through the lips of the prophets, God promises that a time will come when those punishments will end, when restoration will dawn and all people—not just Israel—all people shall come to the light of God. In Hebrew understandings across the Old Testament, the terms ‘life’ and ‘death’ did not refer to literally being alive or being dead, but referred to the life you chose to live. As we saw in examining Deuteronomy 30 just a few weeks ago, God’s people were called to choose either life in the abundant life of God, or to choose the world’s way, which is a living death. Our Hebrew Scriptures are deeply concerned with how we are living our day-to-day lives right now, in the light of God. And these texts hold fast to the image of an age to come, when all people will be welcomed into life in the light of God.
In the New Testament, we find frequent use of the Greek term Hades, another concept for an overall realm of the dead, and at times the word Tartares—again a Greek word for the realm of the dead, overseen by the god of death in the Greek-Roman pantheon. The actual word we translate as hell appears only twelve times in the entire New Testament, eleven times used by Jesus and once by James in his letter, in chapter three. The Greek word we translate as hell is ‘Gehenna’ which literally means the Valley of Hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom is a literal valley, immediately south of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time, this valley was the city garbage dump and refuse area. It was truly a horrible place. All the garbage of the city flowed into this valley; rotten food, sewage, bodies of dead animals, and even, occasionally, the bodies of homeless, unclaimed people. The smell was horrendous. It was on fire constantly—partly to try to consume some of the refuse and decay, party from the heat of the Middle Eastern sun on the rotting materials. Wild scavengers roamed the dump, fighting over the scraps and remains, the sound of their nashing teeth and clashing bodies rising up from the valley. When Jesus invoked the image of Gehenna, his listeners had a truly vivid picture to bring to mind.
Each time Jesus speaks of Gehenna, he uses it to speak to those who are deeply religious and dedicated to God. He uses it to speak of how horrible it is for leaders to lead people astray, to cause little ones to stumble in their faith, to stand in the way of people’s relationship with God. It would be better to have your body or a part of your body lobbed into Gehenna than to do these things. This was a truly vivid image to the Pharisees and scribes, and to the disciples, when Jesus spoke about these things.  James invokes the word Gehenna to describe how vicious our tongues can truly be. They can be set on fire with the flames of the valley garbage dump, reeking of burning refuse.
The idea of the age to come, as we explored last week, continued into the writings of the New Testament. Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom throughout all four gospels, and made reference in many places to the age to come. He was deeply concerned that those listening to his message, and those who would listen to the disciples’ message after his death and resurrection, embody kingdom living now so that they would embody kingdom living in the age to come. Jesus told parables in which God was the searcher of the lost, never giving up until all that was lost is found—as in the parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son. This message continued into the writings of the letters in the rest of the New Testament. Paul spoke frequently of a time when ‘every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2).” This message was embraced by many of our early church leaders—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, to name a few.
Having said all that, our scriptures today speak clearly and decisively about judgment, a Day of Judgment, to be exact. Our reading from the Book of Revelation is John of Patmos’ word painting of the great Judgment of all humanity before the Throne of God. This painting presents us with a paradoxical moment as two books are opened, the Book of Life and the book of human deeds. All people, great and small, render an account to the One on the throne for the life they have lived in the present age, with the age to come at its dawning. John’s image makes it clear that God means it when God says that we are to live God’s way in this present life. At the same time, the Book of Life is opened, a book of grace to balance the book of judgment. God does want us to live God’s way now, and yet there is grace. All judgment and salvation is in God’s hands, not ours.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke connects a bit with John’s vivid portrait of Judgment Day. This is a story, a glimpse of the kingdom, the age to come, for Jesus’ listeners—in response to some Pharisees who are overly concerned with money. It is not a paper on theological understandings of the end time. It is a story. Jesus is trying urgently to convey the evil of putting your faith in money, possessions…stuff. However, this parable lays before us the consequences of how we live in this present age, and warns us of the dangers inherent in our free will. God’s love has gifted us with the absolute freedom to love God back…or not. That is very evident in our present age. This parable seems to say that this may be true in the age to come.  The chasm between the rich man and Lazarus was not evident to the rich man in the present age, but we can be sure Lazarus saw and experienced it. In the age to come, the chasm becomes literal (in the story). The rich man cannot let go, cannot see Lazarus as of equal worth, even when Lazarus is held in the bosom of Abraham. Instead the rich man orders Abraham to send Lazarus as a servant, first to bring a drop of water to the rich man, and second, to warn the rich man’s siblings. Has the rich man rejected the salvation in the age to come in favor of the sense of self-worth and power he enjoyed in the present age? Is this possible for all of us as well?
Having touched just the surface of all this, what is the answer? Will everyone ultimately be saved? Will some perish apart from God? Therein lies the tension of our faith. I do not believe this is a ‘yes or no’ question. What is certain, in the passages we have before us, and throughout scripture, God cares how we live in this present time. It is critically important and has ramifications for the age to come. But we cannot answer these questions about salvation and judgment. It is in God’s hands. 
We ended last week’s sermon with an illustration from C.S. Lewis’ final book—The Last Battle—from the Chronicles of Narnia, in which the children from all the adventures find themselves in the age to come, ready to enter a new story, the real story, traveling forever with Aslan…Jesus. Lewis also seeks to address the other side, those who have been rejecting Aslan throughout the adventures, and are invested in the non-Aslan way of living.  At the close of the story, just as the children are ready to head out on their Great Adventure into the kingdom, Lucy, the youngest, sees a circle of creatures sitting in the gorgeous field of Narnia, clearly in anguish. These creatures had been followers of the queen, the enemy of Aslan. Lucy approached them and tried to get their attention, to see how they could possibly be in agony in the perfect reality of the real Narnia. However, they did not respond to her and appeared not even to see her. She reached out and touched them and suddenly she found herself surrounded by fire and anguish, suffering and torment. When she let go, she could see Narnia around her once again.  Aslan gently explained to Lucy that these creatures could not let go of what had been important to them throughout their lives. They were lost in their own anguish and torment, and could not see or accept the beauty that truly surrounded them.
C.S. Lewis’ depiction certainly has some flaws and some points for debate, but he captures the tension of our faith and the realities of the freedoms gifted to us. As we continue to journey in faith, as we continue to live in this tension, may we dedicate ourselves to always seeing the Lazarus at our door. May we live God’s realm of justice and love here and now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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