Text Study for Luke 16:1-13 (Part Six)

The commentaries at workingpreacher.org this week offer emotional support and solid exegetical encouragement for us preachers. “It is far easier to comment on this text,” Kendra Mohn writes, “than to preach on it.” Yes, I resemble that remark. Five posts into the week, and we’re not much closer to a message.

Mohn notes that when it comes to living our faith in the real world, we might see our only options as accommodation or resistance. “But the reality for most people, whether in the Roman Empire or the United States in the twenty-first century,” Mohn continues, “is more akin to negotiation, weighing options and choosing who or what to prioritize in the next decision with less-than-ideal options. Perhaps Jesus’ admiration for the shrewdness of this generation has this kind of orientation in view.”

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

There’s much to be said for this perspective. This can certainly help us to understand what Jesus might mean by the idea of making friends with unrighteous Mammon. “Devotion to God, faithfulness in stewarding God’s gifts, is the priority for a follower of Jesus,” Mohn says, “But it is never easy in a world full of negotiation where wealth demands our loyalty. Recognition of this challenge drives us again to our need for Christ to reconcile us to God and to one another,” Mohn concludes, “and the response of mercy and forgiveness at the heart of the Gospel.”

This is a standard and appropriate Lutheran “second use of the law” move with the text. On our own, we can’t find our way to a right relationship with God or with one another. The realities of sin, death, and the devil will overwhelm us, despite our best intentions. The Law forces this realization upon us and drives us back into the loving arms of Jesus. Resting in those arms, we are given the wherewithal by the Holy Spirit to serve our neighbors freely in love.

I think that’s right and proper, and it may be one of the places I end up in my message. But Luther’s theology of Law and Gospel is a tool for interpreting the text. It is not in and of itself in the text. I’m not ready yet for that approach as the way to get off the horns of our homiletical dilemma.

Mitzi Smith helps us to stay connected to the enslaved status of the manager and what that means for our interpretation of the text. She reminds us that the accusations directed at the steward would have been taken at face value. Enslaved persons were regarded, by their enslavers and the culture, as inherently greedy and corrupt. However, the parable reminds us as readers that the system itself is greedy and corrupt, filled with opportunities for gouging the poor who were indebted to the master.

“Jesus seems to side with the slave manager,” Smith writes, “given the dilemma that slaves face and since the slave is not the owner of the dishonest wealth. Perhaps this is how we should read the verses that follow,” she continues, “Luke’s Jesus often sides with folks considered “sinners and tax collectors” (5:30-32; 7:34).” Siding with the oppressed requires honest dealings in the world. Otherwise, how would anyone trust us when we are dealing with the things of heaven?

Yet, Smith reminds us that treating the masters dishonestly was a form of resistance on the part of those enslaved in the American system (and elsewhere). I must wonder if the master regarded the steward as “unjust” because the steward was using his position to help the oppressed rather than the master. I continue to think it is critical to remind people that the enslaved steward’s “unrighteousness” is determined by the master and not by some objective standard of procedural or ethical justice.

Smith reminds us that the use of enslavement metaphors and tropes in the gospels should give us trouble, knowing what we know now. We will need to pick apart those metaphors and tropes to get at what they mean in the text. Smith makes an excellent suggestion for the meaning of our text in the end. “We should choose to be more conscious and strategic in our daily transactions and speech so that we contribute less to the pursuit of wealth for ourselves and others, particularly in the service of greed and creation of poverty and at the expense of equality and the justice and love of God.”

Barbara Rossing provides a clear description of the loan and interest system at work in our text. “To try to understand this parable…and the attached sayings,” she writes, “we need a mini-course on the economics of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century.” Yes, that’s certainly the case, but it won’t make for much of a sermon. That’s the problem.

Nonetheless, it’s helpful to know that rich rulers and landowners charged loan-shark interest rates in order to accumulate more wealth and power. The result was that the poor lost their land, homes, families, and sometimes their lives. The prophet Isaiah pronounces a woe on those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Isaiah 5:8, NRSV). Yes, that will be a well-received text quote with my new farmer friends in southwest Iowa! But there it is.

It was this predatory practice of putting together large estates at the expense of the poor, according to Isaiah, that resulted in the desolation of the Exile. Rossing notes that both the master and the steward were part of a system that exploited desperate peasants and was emptying out the land. The parallels to what continues to happen in the American agricultural system are painful and obvious.

Rossing notes that the system was rife with hidden charges, penalties, conditions, caveats, and codicils (she doesn’t add those categories, I did). When such agreements were executed with illiterate peasant farmers, the results were predictable. Indebtedness became debt slavery became forfeiture and imprisonment.

In 2020, payday lenders in Nebraska were restricted by statute from charging more than 36% annual interest on their short-term loans. You can read the details here. As a result, those businesses have packed up and left Nebraska. Representatives of the industry note that with this limitation, the businesses could not make any money – given the default rate of forty percent or more. The implication was that there was something wrong with the lenders, not with the business model.

These representatives warned that without the payday lenders, low-income borrowers would turn to less reputable, and legal, sources of loans. In effect, they warned that these borrowers would have to turn from state-licensed loan sharks to the real kind. They predicted that the law was a bonanza for the illegal lenders, who had no concerns about “consumer protection.” Data so far shows that this has not happened, but that was the dire prediction.

This was the story from the perspective of the proprietors.  But what if the problem is with the business model rather than the borrowers? Borrowers, according to a state report, paid an average 405% annual rate in 2019 on their loans. “As a result,” the article reports, “borrowers can end up in a spiral of debt, in which they pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees over time and fall further and further behind financially. Some lose bank accounts or even end up in bankruptcy.” That’s the story from the perspective of the borrowers.

Former customers of payday lenders have found alternative sources of financial help that do not charge loan shark rates. Nonprofit organizations are stepping in to provide helpful and hopeful alternatives to the former system. This law has made life for low-income people better overall.

I mention this as a contemporary example of the sort of system in which the steward found himself. I’m not sure he set out to be a hero, but perhaps he became one in the end. He found himself in a place to either serve himself as he had before or to do some good for others. “What is important is to situate the parable in the broader economic context of how Jesus was reviving village life by reviving biblical covenantal economic life, forgiving debts and giving people new hope,” Rossing writes, “In Luke, the joy of the Gospel is the joy of God’s healing of relationships, including economic relationships,” she continues, “Jesus repeatedly warns that we cannot be disciples while accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor” (my emphasis).

I continue to think about where this whole section of Luke ends up – the Zacchaeus story. Jesus comes across his path and brings salvation to his house. Zacchaeus realizes that he is in a position to do good in response to having Jesus in his life. He realizes that any other choice is no longer possible if he is to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus chooses wisely, just as the steward in our parable chose wisely in how to deal with the stuff of this age.

If I am following Jesus, I’m going to be in places where I can do some good. It will likely cost me something. I am unlikely to be the only or prime beneficiary. I may even have to flee for my life on a few occasions, so I better have a good exit strategy in place. I can use unrighteous Mammon to serve God. But I cannot use God to serve unrighteous Mammon. Which will it be for me?

Resources and References

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Kindle Edition.

Goodrich, John K. “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1—13).” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 3 (2012): 547–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488254.

Levine, Amy Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Sellew, Philip. “Interior Monologue as a Narrative Device in the Parables of Luke.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2 (1992): 239–53. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267542.

Sherouse, Alan. “The One Percent and the Gospel of Luke.” Review and Expositor 110 (Spring 2013): 285-293.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Udoh, Fabian E. “The Tale of an Unrighteous Slave (Luke 16:1-8 [13]).” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 2 (2009): 311–35. https://doi.org/10.2307/25610185.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 4); November 14, 2021

Friends, it’s time for fundraising at workingpreacher.org. I’ll be making my contribution soon, and I hope you will as well. There’s a dollar for dollar match available through November 30th that makes this even more effective. Just go to the site and follow the instructions. Thanks!

It’s About “You”

We can get caught up in the details of our life dramas, since that’s what we live intimately day in and day out. Amanda Brobst-Renaud refers to a recent article by Simon Dein on the relationship between current crises and apocalyptic thinking in our own contexts. That article is available online and worth a firsthand read.

“Pandemics,” Dein writes, “indicate the fragility of life and the world, chaos, engender paralysing anxiety that the world is dissolving, a sense of detachment and raise significant issues of meaning resulting in existential crises.” He suggests that such a crisis puts into doubt our accepted systems of symbolism, significance, and sense. As a result, we cast about for other explanatory systems to manage the mess.

“Our current plausibility structures upon which the existence of society is dependent are (sic) threatened,” Dein writes, “and we are urgently in need of alternative sociocultural contexts to provide structures of meaning.” I would suggest that this need explains at least to some degree, for example, the phobias regarding masks and vaccines and the continued attraction of informal apocalyptic schemas such as the QAnon conspiracy cluster. More on that, perhaps, later.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Dein notes that apocalyptic literature, therefore, is not only “religious” in background and context. In fact, I would argue, that we live in an era of hybrid religio-secular apocalypses resulting in such things as the “Christian Nationalism” at the root of the January 6th insurrection. From that perspective, the Covid crisis is uncovering a decay in the “Real America” of Christian Nationalist mythology. Since this is an existential crisis, it’s no wonder that as many as a third of the proponents of this mythology believe that public violence will be the result and solution.

The Covid crisis also provides the opportunity for more “left-leaning” apocalyptic scenarios. I find these more based in evidence and less in ideology, but such views are not without their own mythologies. That being said, Dein puts it this way. “The Covid crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions, unequal distribution of power, and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid. Health inequalities have been brought into sharp focus and the crisis has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”

I just want to point out the “apocalyptic” verbs in Dein’s comments: revealing, brought into sharp focus, exposed. These verbs describe the impact of apocalyptic scripting and literature on the audience and readers.

All that being said, Dein reminds us that the fundamental perspective of apocalyptic literature in the end is that of hope. Things are not as they ought to be. The current situation is dissolving under the weight of its own dysfunction. Something new is being born among us. The question is not whether we face an apocalyptic crisis. Humans always face such crises, to one degree or another. The question is, rather, whether we have placed our hope in One who brings the beginning to birth.

How would the Markan performer present this part of the script? There may be clues to such performances in the text. And those clues may help us to experience the text a bit more like the first audiences did. I would encourage you to read Mark 13 aloud several times and try to experience what it would be like to speak these words aloud to a living audience. I find that this affects my responses as an interpreter.

The text begins in a “third-person” mode. We are spectators as the anonymous disciple raises his question about the temple. But that indirect mode of address quickly turns to a “second-person” perspective. “Are you seeing these large buildings?”

The shift goes from “him” to “you” very quickly. There is a brief respite from that in-your-face conversation back to the third person for a moment in verse 3. I can imagine the performer turning more directly to the audience and looking people in the eye. Even though the audience would not be looking at the Temple in person, many in the crowd would be able to recover images of that Temple in their imaginations.

Remember that the text is spoken after the Temple has been reduced to ruins. Inviting the listeners to bring the Temple to mind would likely lead them to feelings of fear, anger, grief, and shock. At least some may have worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple before its destruction. Some may have witnessed that destruction as they escaped from Jerusalem one step ahead of the Roman occupiers. I am moved by this imaginative effort at some empathy which deepens the pathos of the text.

If that was the experience of those early audiences, it’s no wonder that there is a small break, perhaps, between verses two and three. The listeners have been smacked in the mouth, rhetorically, with memories of tragedy and trauma. They probably needed a moment to recover before the onslaught continued. I imagine the whole crowd taking a deep breath after verse 2 and the performer allowing for and even imitating that pause.

The four disciples speak the anxieties of the audience in their questions. The listeners are drawn back in because they too would like to know the underlying code if that’s possible. The performer turns from the third-person narration back to the second-person (plural) confrontation.

This is the power, as is so often the case in the Markan composition, of the quoted dialogue. “See that you are not deceived,” Jesus says. I cannot imagine playing this line in any way other than looking at the listeners right through the “fourth wall” of the performance. This direct address doesn’t let up until the end of chapter thirteen.

Joanna Dewey argues that “in the very oral performance of these speeches, Jesus is made present to audiences. The hearers of the Gospel experience being directly addressed by Jesus” (page 117).

I would argue, in fact, that the Little Apocalypse is framed by direct addresses to the audience. There is the initial order to look at the great building and to look to oneself. And there is the final admonition to one and all to keep watch. Dewey says this final admonition “is easily understood in the context of oral performance, for performers often make asides to their audiences in character” (page 118).

The focus of literary criticism and interpretation of scriptural accounts is typically on the meaning of what has been written. We preachers try to figure out “the point” and then translate that to our current settings. The focus of performance criticism, however, is to help us experience the impact of what is being spoken. Meaning and impact are certainly related. But the Markan composer is not merely in the business of information transfer. The composer is in the business of provoking responses.

Dewey argues, in line with most Markan scholars now, “that the Gospel of Mark was composed around 70 CE, in response in part to the First Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. I agree that it is ‘hot memory,’” she continues, “serving that present situation, not an attempt to preserve some earlier pristine past” (page 111).

This makes the Little Apocalypse a critical section for understanding the Markan composition. I have often been reminded by commentators that the narrative of the composition could flow uninterrupted from the Poor Widow’s Offering to the beginning of chapter 14 without the inclusion of chapter 13. In fact, that may have been the shape of the script until the events of 66 to 70 CE in Judea.

With Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins and prisoners being executed in Rome, it became not only necessary but critical to include some interpretation of those events in the Markan composition. This doesn’t require the proposal that the Markan composer either made up the Little Apocalypse or hijacked it from some other source. Jesus’ words, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, made sense in the days of his earthly ministry. But they took on real urgency once there was no longer “one stone left upon another.”

With this narrative framework in mind, the address to the audience takes on a bit more clarity. “I would argue,” Dewey writes “that Mark is simply separating the expectation of the return of the Son of Humanity from the events of the Roman-Jewish War” (page 115). Part of the impact of the direct address is to shift the attention of the audience from those “prophets” who saw the destruction of the Temple as the “end” and to the narrative that sees it as the “beginning.”

Times of disorientation, dislocation, and disintegration lend themselves especially to the machinations and manipulations of false messiahs. While government authorities will persecute the Jesus followers and family members will betray them, it is only the false messiahs who will mislead and deceive them.

Dewey, following Werner Kelber, argues that these false messiahs are, in fact, leaders of the Markan community. These are not, Dewey argues, to be seen as equivalent to The Twelve or their successors. Instead, they are leaders who arise, I take it, in the midst of the crisis and seek to lead the community in the direction of end times speculation rather than in the direction of patient endurance.

In my parish ministry, I learned that whenever a crisis of meaning or identity faced the dominant culture in the United States, one or more parishioners would approach me and ask, “Pastor, do you think we’re in the End Times?” In my pastoral youth, I discounted such questions with overly long disquisitions on the nature of apocalyptic and our hope in the gospel. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I was neither pastoral nor helpful.

After a while, I began to answer the question with a qualified “yes.” While I take seriously the reminder that eschatological calendars and timetables are both a waste of time and bordering on heresy, I also know that we often find ourselves at “the end of the world as we know it.” The Millennium Bug, the Iraq War (either version), Hurricane Katrina (or others), the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Barak Obama, Antiracism protests, Covidtide, and a dozen other events have produced the question in congregations I served – and for very good reasons.

After more of a while, I began to answer the question with “I hope so.” This is the Good News of Christian apocalyptic discourses. It is not that we are about to experience the Rapture or Armageddon, to ride with the Four Horsemen or to flee to the mountains beyond Judea. Instead, I hope we are always witnessing a fresh outbreak of the Kin(g)dom of God drawing near. I hope that we are always, as Jesus followers at least, changing our minds and putting our trust in the Good News.

Let the reader understand…

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 2); November 14 2021

We began this year of the Markan composition on November 29, 2020, with a reading from the last half of the Little Apocalypse. I am re-running that text study both as a reminder of this full circle and because there’s good stuff here.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Happy New Year! We begin a new year in the life of the church on the first Sunday in Advent. This year we will use the Gospel according to Mark as our major lens for seeing Jesus and our primary matrix for hearing the call to discipleship. In its original form, Marks’ gospel may have been a sort of narrative catechism for new believers in the congregations in Rome (if that’s the actual location). The focus is on what it means to live as followers of Jesus, as disciples.

We begin the New Year, as we always do, in such a strange way. We begin with a text that talks about the end of the world (or so we think). “In America,” write Matthew Barrett and Mel Gilles, “everyone believes in the apocalypse. The only question is whether Jesus or global warming will get here first.” (Gross, Matthew Barrett; Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth, p. 9). We could add several other doomsday scenarios given the realities of 2020. In fact, we’re not at the end of anything.

We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working. That’s really the message of Mark 13. There will be an end, just not now. Panic is over-rated. Patience is undervalued. So, keep awake and keep working.

Mark 12 ends with the story of the widow’s offering at the temple treasury. This little narrative prepares the ground for Jesus’ prophetic words against the exploitive, extractive, collaborative system of the Jerusalem temple and the temple leadership. The widow gives “her whole life” to God as she makes her offering. Soon, Jesus will give his whole life as the offering for the healing of the world. The temple will no longer be the place where such sacrifices are made.

Jesus uses apocalyptic texts and imagery to deliver this prophetic critique. Our gospel reading is the climactic third of that critique. The disciples express wonder at the astonishing size and beauty of the temple before them. Jesus says that soon it will all come tumbling down. The disciples rightly wonder when this catastrophe will take place.

“The place to start to understand this passage,” notes Tom Wright, “is in the middle, at verse 8: ‘These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.’ (Mark for Everyone, KL 3138). Mark is all about beginnings rather than endings. His title for the dramatic narrative he produces is found in chapter one, verse one: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…

Thus, this isn’t the end of anything. It’s a strange way to start a year, unless you understand this. Tribulation isn’t the end of anything. It’s what we will endure if we are faithful. Christians need not look for trouble. It will find us if we’re doing what we are called to do. And the trouble that finds us will be what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”

The Greek word for “judgment” is “krisis” from which we get our English word “crisis.” A crisis is, to use the current jargon, an inflection point — a point of no return, a decisive moment which determines what comes next. It is a fork in the existential road, a branching of the universe into new territory. A crisis may be the end of the world as we know it, but it is also the beginning of a world we cannot yet see.

“The world is going to be plunged into convulsions, Jesus says; and his followers, called like him to live at the place where the purposes of God and the pain of the world cross paths with each other,” observes Tom Wright, “will find themselves caught up in those convulsions.” (Kindle Location 3170).

It’s always the end of the world somewhere. I think about this insightful bit of dialogue from the film, Men in Black. Kay scolds his younger partner: “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public!” Jay is not impressed. “We ain’t got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don’t know whether or not you’ve forgotten, but there’s an Arquillian Battle Cruiser that’s about to…”

Then comes a bit of trademark MIB philosophy. “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet,” Kay retorts, “and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it!” [For another day: this is also a way to understand the way racism functions in our culture – not an accident that the film is called Men in Black].

Of course, Jesus is not advocating for a safe god who keeps us in blissful ignorance. Rather Jesus points to the faithful God who walks with us into the changes and challenges of faithful living in the here and now. “The safe god asks nothing of us, gives nothing to us,” writes Mark Buchanan. That god

never drives us to our knees in hungry, desperate praying and never sets us on our feet in fierce, fixed determination. [That god] never makes us bold to dance. The safe god never whispers in our ears anything but greeting card slogans and certainly never asks that we embarrass ourselves by shouting from the rooftop…A safe god inspires neither awe, nor worship, nor sacrifice. (Your God is Too Safe, page 31).

Jesus is not describing a safe god. Nor is Jesus describing “the end of the world.” But he is describing the end of the world as we know it (and the beginning of a new – or it renewed – order). Wright makes the point clear.

Had it been the end of the world, what would have been the point of running away so frantically? No; but it was the end of their world, the close of the way of life that had failed, by the combination of injustice towards those inside and revolutionary violence towards those outside, to obey God’s call to be the light of the world. (Kindle Location 3240).

It’s instructive to observe the bifurcation of the QAnon movement in the wake of the recent election. For some members, the result has produced a crisis in faith since the predicted outcome did not materialize. For others, the strategy is to double down, recalculate, read the signs again and continue the delusions. It’s no surprise that the mysterious center of all this baloney — the anonymous and eponymous Q — has simply counseled patience and watching.

On the other hand, True Q believers are advocating a variety of narratives and responses, many involving some form of violence. Christians should hear clearly in our text the warning against listening to false messiahs and prophetic pretenders. That warning was potent in the first century and pertinent in the twenty-first century.

Regarding Mark 13, Larry Hurtado writes, “it is helpful to note that the dominant theme of the whole passage is a warning against being deceived by false claims about the end being near and by individuals who will try to pass themselves off as prophets – or even something more (vv. 6, 21).” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So, Hurtado suggests that Mark had a particular pastoral concern for his listeners/readers. “Thus, Mark’s primary purpose,” Hurtado continues, “was not to inflame speculation about the time of the end of the world, but rather to urge caution and wisdom. He cared more,” Hurtado concludes, “about the welfare of his readers than about encouraging them to try to calculate the details of God’s future plans” (page 212). In a time when the QAnon conspiracy myth walks in the front door of some churches (well, at least figuratively in Covid-time), the words of Mark 13 are noteworthy.

There will be an end to history at some point, Jesus says, but this ain’t it, friends. The destruction of Jerusalem was a huge deal, but life went on. The utter chaos of 2020 is a huge deal, but life goes on. Most of us never met a crisis we didn’t enjoy, but that’s not the role for Christians. We are to wait patiently, to endure faithfully, and to continue to work while it is daytime. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

Panic is over-rated. Preparation is under-appreciated. Patient endurance is the platinum standard for disciples. Wright says it well: “But it is also important for us to remind ourselves of our own call to watch, to be alert. The judgment that fell on the Temple is a foretaste, according to other passages in the New Testament, of the judgment that will fall on the whole world.” (Kindle Location 3308).

I have two questions still to address. First, where is the “good news” in this part of Mark’s gospel? It is in the narrative yet to come. The crisis will come to its climax on the cross. The forces of sin, death and evil will be drawn to a single point in time and space. God takes on and takes in all the powers of anti-life and defeats them in the death and resurrection of the Beloved Son. Today’s text is the beginning of the birth pangs. In a few weeks we will remember and celebrate the Festival of the Incarnation when those birth pangs produce a child in a manger, who is Christ, the Lord.

The second question is, who benefits from misreading this passage as a text of terror? “We are surrounded by fear,” writes Scott Bader-Saye, “just to the extent that we are surrounded by people who profit from fear.” (page 14). Let us not be distracted by the fear-vendors among us. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

Bader-Saye continues. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger. It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good.” (page 22). It’s hard to improve on that line. But it does give me a chance to squeeze in a great Harry Potter quote. “’Dark times lie ahead of us,’ Dumbledore warns Harry, ‘and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.’”

That is, of course, always the choice facing Jesus followers. For Christians, Jesus tells us, this time is all the time. “Courage is the capacity to do what is right and good in the face of fear,” writes Bader-Saye. “We become courageous when we learn to live for something that is more important than our own safety.” (page 67).

Can our congregations be places where we can speak our fears safely and honestly? “To speak our fear to another is to begin to loosen the grip that fear has on us. To make fear take form in speech is to name it as something that can be confronted, not confronted alone but in the community of those willing to speak their fears aloud and thus begin to subdue them.” (Bader-Saye, page 71). What a gift to the world if our congregations could become and be such places!

We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

References and Resources

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Buchanan, Mark. Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control. Sisters, OR.: Multnomah Publishers, 2001.

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485

Gross, Matthew Barrett, and Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Promotheus Books, 2012.

Hartwell, Drew, and Timberg, Craig. “‘My faith is shaken’: The QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/11/10/qanon-identity-crisis/

Hogan, Lucy Lind. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2278

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jervis, L. Ann. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=180

Lange, Dirk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1131

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Kindle Edition. Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992.

Wendland, Kristin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2253

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (2nd Edition, Kindle). Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Text Study for Mark 1:1-8 (Pt. 1)

December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. While I don’t recommend a sermon that deconstructs Santa Claus in the presence of tearful children and horrified parents, I do think that the story of Nicholas can be a good sermon illustration and open the door for parents to share a deeper sense of the meaning of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. I think the icon of St. Nicholas makes him look a lot more like John the Baptist than like Santa Claus (This image is in the public domain). The Wikipedia article on St. Nicholas of Myra gives a good summary and some references:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

For me, the season of Christmas really begins with this festival and runs at least through January 6, the Epiphany of our Lord. And since the season of Epiphany is really an extension of Christmas, we tend to keep many of our Christmas decorations up at our house until Ash Wednesday.

Gospel Reading – Mark 1:1-8

To begin…The gospel according to Mark contains the testimony of the best Christian theologian in history. A frantic father brings his demon-possessed child to Jesus for healing. In his desperation, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This father represents, I think, the audience for Mark’s gospel. Mark preaches to people in desperate straits – people who know they need help but who can’t figure out how to get it. It is important to keep that desperate father in our thoughts whenever we try to preach on a passage from Mark.

Last week we heard that the coming of Christ is not the end of anything. Now we get to the real beginning. We will get two weeks of John the Baptist here at the beginning of Year B. There will be significant crossover and perhaps even some duplication from this week to next week. The benefit is that it is not necessary to say everything about John the Baptist in one week. The liability is that we might struggle to have enough to say for two weeks.

Prepare for God’s coming! The good news is that God is coming, ready or not. In a time when we have perhaps been alone too much, God’s coming may be especially good news. In a time when we feel isolated, abandoned, and cut off, it’s a real joy to think that we welcome God into our midst. Advent is the prelude to Incarnation, the good news that God is with us. In this time when we are called to go away from one another, to be socially distant from one another, God comes to us, in the midst of our wild and lonely places. In this time when we are threats to another and threatening to one another, God comes to us with the gifts of healing and rescue.

Verse one has no main verb in it. It is not a sentence but is, rather, the title of this little book. So, the whole of Mark’s work is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Since there is no verb, the phrase is (I think, intentionally) ambiguous. It is the beginning of the story that Mark tells. And the telling of the story can begin the working of the gospel in the life of the world and in the life of the hearer. This also will help us understand the apparent lack of an ending to the gospel text in chapter 16. The gospel has no ending in it. It is all about beginning. The ending gets worked out in the life of the disciple community.

Commentators see the obvious connection between the first chapter of John’s gospel and the first words of the book of Genesis – “In the beginning…” I have not seen, however, the same sort of connection made to the first words of Mark’s gospel. A few commentators have referred to these first eight verses as Mark’s “prologue,” in the same way we might refer to the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel.

Of course, the words in John are a verbal copy of the Genesis language. But I think Mark intends to echo those words as well. Verse one is the beginning (Greek = arche’) of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is also the beginning of life as God intends it. Verses two and three really function as epigraphs for the book – sort of like the quotations that many writers would put on a front page of a book or at the head of each chapter.

Verses two and three set brief anchors and chart the direction of the good news. The creating Word in Mark is spoken through the prophets and recapitulated in the proclamation of John the Baptizer. Again, this is perhaps why the gospel of Mark ends so abruptly in chapter sixteen. The gospel according to Mark is not the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.

I’d like to press this a bit further. Mark’s gospel begins with prophetic words in the midst of the wilderness, a place of chaos. John’s words point to the water of the Jordan and baptism. Jesus comes up out of the water and is declared God’s beloved Son. He is the human being in this new garden. Immediately following this creation, the Son is tested (tempted). In this new creation, Jesus triumphs over the tempter, and the real good news ministry can begin (in verse 14).

“A beginning,” writes Frank Herbert in Dune, “is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” As a lifelong sci-fi fan and a Dune devotee for the last thirty years, I’m excited to hear that a cinematic Dune reboot is in the works for 2021. Herbert understands the importance of beginnings for how a story unfolds and ends up. Mark understands it even better.

Some application questions…

We could ask our hearers about their own beginnings. Next week we will think more about what it means to be a witness. So, if you go that route next week, you might want to hold off on asking for faith stories or other “beginning” narratives this week. But we could ask our listeners to think about other ways in which the Holy Spirit has begun something in me or in us or in the world.

We could remind our listeners that each day is a new beginning in our baptismal journeys as disciples. We could invite our congregants to watch for and even to report back any new beginnings they might notice in the coming week. And it will be helpful to remind folks that this beginning takes place in the wilderness, with the cry of a lone voice of faith.

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Text Study for 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

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“Privilege usually works for those who have it,” writes John Pavlovitz in A Bigger Table, “unless they are so roused that they are able to see with fresh eyes and notice their blind spots and the great advantage in their experience.” Part of Paul’s task in writing to the Corinthian Christians is to rouse the privileged in the community to “see with fresh eyes” the real riches that have been showered upon that little community in the bustling Greek city.

This second lectionary reading fits better with the gospel text than most weeks. In particular I would consider focusing on verse 7: “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If one of the takeaways from the gospel is to keep awake and keep working while we wait (and I think it is), then this reading allows the preacher to pivot into reassuring the congregation that we have all that we need as a community to continue serving in between the times. Our waiting is always active waiting, and we are fully equipped to use our waiting time for loving and serving our neighbor in need (and receiving that love as well).

This thanksgiving section of the letter is Paul’s version of the infomercial staple: “But wait! There’s more!” Some of the Corinthian Christians are tempted to think that they have arrived, that they have experienced all that God has to offer, that there is no more to come. Paul writes to set them right. Christ has not yet been revealed fully in the world, so there is still work to be done. The resurrection has not yet been fully realized, and the New Creation is among them as a down payment rather than a full deposit. But that down payment is more than enough for all community members to have enough and then to share their abundance with the world around them.

Other Corinthian Christians are tempted to think that there’s not enough of the good stuff for them to get through the waiting time. We will read later in the letter that they have evidence for this concern, since the privileged in the community eat all the good food before the hard-working folks even get off work to attend the community love feast. Of course there’s enough for all — if all simply take enough. It’s not that God is stingy or has reneged on any promises. The problem is one of distribution, not one of supply. This is a useful text for preaching on the Sunday after a national day of thanksgiving in the United States.

L. Ann Jervis writes about the eye-opening capacity of this text on the workingpreacher.org site:

What some of the Corinthian believers either denied or had forgotten was that their lives were to participate in the narrative of Christ. Once they were incorporated into Christ through faith, their lives were to follow the shape of Christ’s life. There are aspects of Christ’s life which of course are not to be imitated. However, Christ’s obedient faith, Christ’s suffering for the sake of others, Christ’s death and resurrection–these narrative episodes of Christ’s life are to be re-enacted by those who by faith live ‘in Christ’.”

She concludes, “Paul is convinced that God in Christ has given those ‘in Christ’ everything they need in order to wait well for ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’.”

Luther roots our good works in this abundance and describes it as an overflowing of love. “Therefore I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” he writes in The Freedom of the Christian, “just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor,” Luther concludes, “because through faith I am overflowing with all good things for Christ” (page 524).

What to do with this embarrassment of spiritual riches? Be faithful in the waiting. Christ “will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 8). Dirk Lange helps us to see that Paul describes our waiting as an active waiting. “Paul invites the community,” he writes, “from these very opening lines, into a vision of waiting, into a vision of actively waiting for Christ to shape them into a merciful fellowship.” The waiting is not merely empty time. As is noted, for example, in the Book of Revelation, we get waiting time in order to be more fully formed as witnesses for Christ.

This is how it should be for the Corinthians, Lange continues. “This community continually remembers God in their ways. Or, to draw on Isaiah’s metaphor from the first reading, the community is like clay that the potter takes and molds so that it may be blameless on the day of the Lord. That is God’s doing, God’s calling, not ours.” Of course, we might complain that we could do with just a bit less or at least a bit less aggressive molding in this challenging time. But even our trials can be viewed as gifts from God to shape our faithfulness. As my pastor sometimes says, let’s not waste a good pandemic while we’ve got one.

We have been waiting since early March for things to get better. Instead, they are in many ways worse. We are living with Covid-fatigue, election-fatigue, racism-fatigue (for privileged white folks), and lots of other types of fatigue. So, we need messages to sustain our stamina and prop up our patience. Thus it was for the Corinthians. Paul’s words of encouragement are timely for us.

“Paul also reminds them that, as they wait in this time of trial and uncertainty, God’s gifts will keep them strong. God will be with them every step of the way, for God has been, is, and always will be faithful.” Lucy Lind Hogan writes. They live on this side of the Incarnation. The heavens have been opened, and we are never on our own.

Hogan continues,

Like the community in Corinth, we too need to be reminded that we continue to live in the time in between. We will soon celebrate the birth of the Word made flesh. We will celebrate God’s gracious gift of Jesus. But we must remember to look not only back, but forward as well. What God is doing is not over and done. There are still more truths to be revealed. And we, too, have been given spiritual gifts that will strengthen us for the journey ahead. This is, indeed, a wonderful “Advent” letter.

This is a strange holiday time. We are deprived of many of the ways we will mark that time of waiting. Normal family gatherings are perhaps suspended. We won’t have holiday parties at work or at school. Christmas programs and choir cantatas and fall festivals and Advent workshops and all the other road markers on the journey will be absent or virtual or truncated. We will not have all the “normal” external props for this time. But the resources of faith, hope and love are not absent or abbreviated. Instead, you and I “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Resources:

Hogan, Lucy Lind. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2278

Jervis, L. Ann. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=180

Lange, Dirk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1131

Luther, Martin. The Freedom of the Christian (Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community . Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Isaiah 64:1-9

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I wonder if the audience for this prophetic word was suffering from exile-fatigue. We’re past the promises of Second Isaiah (although we’ll hear some of those encouraging words next week). The remnant has been returned to Judah, and the rebuilding has been underway for a while. The writer of Third Isaiah prays in the midst of the Persian colonial dominance of Judah and the lackluster restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. The excitement over being rescued is past. The novelty of returning has faded. Now it seems to just be one damned thing after another with no real end in sight.

The people perhaps are tired of muddling through, apparently on their own. “Look down from heaven and see from your holy habitation,” the prophet quotes them in Isaiah 63:15-16. “Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion?” Gone, apparently, is the experience of God’s warm embrace for the exiles longing to return home. Is there anything worse than thinking you’ve been left on your own? “We have long been like those whom you do not rule,” they complain in 63:19, “like those not called by your name.” Lord, you are treating us no better than the un-chosen pagans among whom we have lived.

The supplicants are, perhaps, looking for the Lord in the wrong place. The text reminds me of an old joke (takes one to know one, right?). A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.

“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.(https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/04/11/better-light/).

These are the ones who pray, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The prayer in our reading today is for a direct intervention from God, a rending of the heavens and a divine confrontation with the powers that oppress God’s people. We Christians believe that this prayer is answered most directly in the baptism of Jesus, but that’s a conversation a few months away. The text here invites us to wait with hope for this intervention and in the meantime to confess and repent our part in the brokenness of our world.

It’s a pretty whiny and somewhat self-deluded prayer, I think. Perhaps the prophet repeats all of this poetry of self-pity to help the people hear just how pathetic they sound. In verses 5 through 7, they blame God for their condition. If only the Lord had not been so peeved, then they might have stayed on the straight and narrow. Even now, if the Lord would just calm down a bit, things will get better. In verses 10-11 the supplicants protest that they have suffered enough. The temple is still a pile of ashes, and Jerusalem is desolate. “After all this,” they plead, “Will you restrain yourself, O Lord?” Can’t you just let bygones be bygones?

It’s important to read the Lord’s response in chapter 65. The Lord is having none of it. The Lord was ready to respond, but no one came looking. They searched under the lamppost where they thought the light was better. The people made sacrifices to other deities. They consulted the dead in tombs and spirits in dark corners. They ate unclean food and told the Lord to stay away since they were already too holy for such company! (verse 5). In 64:12, the petitioners plead for the Lord to speak up. In 65:6, they get their wish. It’s always best to be careful what you ask for! “I will not keep silent,” the Lord responds, “but I will repay…

I think that perhaps Kristin Wendland is a bit too optimistic about this text as she writes on workingpreacher.org (2014), “The gospel reading assigned for Advent 1A includes the refrain to keep awake so that one will not miss the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:33). The reading from Isaiah assures us,” she continues, “that God will be recognizable when God comes. For we have experienced God before.” The prophet includes a mention of God’s past great deeds in verses 2 and 3. But it seems that such signs of power are lacking now. God comes “Through signs of power,” Wendland continues, “but also as one who does not remember iniquity forever but turns to look with forgiveness — at all of us.”

That is certainly the punch line of the prayer in 64:9. But it is uttered by people who engage in revisionist history rather than repentance. We can look to God’s coming with hope but only if we are willing to look at ourselves honestly. It is only then that we can pray for healing. This text has that Janus-character which should be part of our Advent discipline (it is, after all, our Christian new year!). We look forward to God’s great intervention for the sake of all Creation. And we look inward at our own brokenness, how “we have all become like one who is unclean…

Corrine Carvalho writes on workingpreacher.org (2017), “Reading this passage at the beginning of Advent reminds us that we are not in control and that our relationship with God needs healing. Our sin too often manifests in our attempts to keep God in a box that we can manage, taming God’s power, but the poem reminds us that God cannot be contained. And thank goodness for that,” she concludes, “because that means that God’s grace can also not be contained or circumscribed.”

We cannot force the divine calendar or agenda. But we can make ourselves joyfully ready for the invasion of God’s grace and mercy. “At the beginning of Advent, then,” Carvalho declares,

this poem asks us to surrender. Stop fighting to be good or better. Stop worrying about being more righteous or enlightened. Stop thinking we alone can make Christmas special. Stop rushing past the hard lessons. After all, “We all fade like a leaf.” That is, until God claims us as sacred clay.

Stop rushing past the hard lessons – there’s a word for us in this moment. The temptation to write a revisionist history for ourselves, for our side, for our ideas, will be intense. We all will be tempted to rush past the hard lessons and fabricate easy ones. We are all terribly tempted to become legends in our own minds and then to blame God for not recognizing this sooner. Here at the beginning of Advent, we are called to wait. Not because waiting is a good in itself – it may or may not be. Instead, we wait for our past to catch up to us and for the power of the Spirit it takes to tell the truth about that past. Only then can we be freed for life in the future.

Resources

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485

Wendland, Kristin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2253

What I Want to Hear on Sunday

Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-resilient faith.

But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.

Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. David Lose writes, “they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”

Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.

Lord, make me a sheep.

The sheep feed those who are hungry. The sheep give drink to those who are thirsty. The sheep welcome those who are the strangers. The sheep clothe those who are naked. The sheep take care of those who are sick. The sheep visit those who are imprisoned. The sheep may not have seen Jesus in the vulnerable, but they saw the vulnerable. The goats saw neither.

This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.” The good news is that we are on the receiving end of this unconditional love first. Christ is present in us in faith so we can be present to our neighbor in love.

“Therefore,” Luther writes, “I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.

Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us,” Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.”

Who can do those things? Generally it’s not those who struggle with hunger and thirst, who are lost and naked, those who sick and imprisoned. The ones who can do all this good work are those who are better off! The behavior the Lord commends here is the work of solidarity with the vulnerable. The behavior the Lord condemns is the failure to do that work.

Lord, make me a sheep.

We live in a representative democracy. We can certainly respond to those who are hungry and thirsty, those who are lost and naked, those who are sick and imprisoned on our own. Personal acts of lovingkindness are part of the discipleship life. We, however, have far more power than that. We can work together for policies and practices that put in place public responses to the needs of the vulnerable.

There is no discussion in the parable of whether the vulnerable are worthy or unworthy. For Jesus followers that is not part of the conversation. We know that theologically if we understand the grace of God in Christ. No one is worthy — not even one. If worthiness were part of the equation, we’d all be screwed.

If that’s God’s standard for us, why should we apply a different standard to those God loves? Look, serving with the vulnerable is going to draw us into policies and politics whether we like it or not. Only the privileged oblivious get to avoid such concerns.

I’ve worked with those in prison. It took me about ten minutes of that work to start wondering about our corrections policies and practices. If you’ve volunteered to feed the hungry, it’s probably taken you about that long to wonder about our food policies. If you’ve had chronically ill friends or family, you’ve struggled to understand our medical system and health insurance practices.

In my experience, trying to live as one of the “sheep” has always pulled me into politics and policy issues. The only way to stay out of those issues is to look the other way. But that is “goat” behavior.

Friends, this is not just about “those people over there.” This is about us. Most of us are about one medical catastrophe from bankruptcy. Most of us are about one lay-off from disaster. Most of us are only a couple of paychecks from going hungry. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who worry about food has gone from 40 million to 80 million. Chances are that one in every four people you know is worried about whether they will run out of food before they run out of month. Maybe you are one of those folks. And many of those folks wonder if they will have a roof over their heads at the end of that month.

So this Sunday (and every Sunday) I want to hear politics from the pulpit. When we keep politics out of the pulpit, we’ve made a political decision. We’ve decided to support the people who benefit from the way things are. Those folks generally are not among the hungry and thirsty, the naked and strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Those folks are generally not much like you and me.

These days the truth is that a disproportionate number of the vulnerable are black and brown people in the United States. Race and racial conflict are tools used to keep people in their economic and social places. But lots of white people are among the vulnerable as well. Advocating for the least of these is a form of multi-racial politics that will make life better for all of us. When we are Christ to the neighbor, race, class, ethnicity, gender — they are all real, but they are not barriers to loving community.

Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.”

Lord, make me a sheep. Amen.

Text Study for Matthew 25:31-46

My study of the gospel text for this Sunday is fairly long on its own. So, I think I will publish it today and put out more text study materials in the next few days. But first, a couple of related notes.

November is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s publication of The Freedom of the Christian. 1520 is such a central year for Luther’s theology and writing. I’m disappointed we haven’t celebrated his publications from that year a bit more (although we’ve had a few other small concerns to address this year). I reference this document several times below and encourage you to consider reading (and re-reading) Luther’s text in its entirety.

This is also fundraising time for our friends at workingpreacher.org. I plan to contribute to their work and I hope you will as well. They do a great service for preachers across the church, and that work should be supported by those of us who use it.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 serve as bookends for Matthew’s pre-passion narrative. But Matthew 28 serves as the capstone of the Gospel and ties the bookends to the larger narrative.

Most important for our text today, Jesus says in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” The call is to disciple the “nations.” The Son of Man uses the same word in the Great Judgment in Matthew 25. Matthew assumes that the church has been engaged in that mission during the time between the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. The sheep and the goats are not completely in the dark, Matthew assumes, about the good news of Jesus.

A major theme of that good news in Matthew is that God is “with us” in Jesus. Jesus is named “Immanuel” (God with us) early in the gospel. The last words of the gospel, and of the Lord in Matthew’s account, are “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So, we should not be surprised when we run into Jesus here, there, and everywhere. And yet, we are routinely surprised by the presence of the Lord in what we think are odd places.

Today’s gospel reading suggests that we are looking for God in all the wrong places. If you hear echoes of the Beatitudes from a few weeks ago, then your ears are tuned properly. We look for saints in all the wrong places because we look for God in all the wrong places. We expect to find Christ adorned with a crown. We resist seeing him hanging “in glory” on the cross.

Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-free faith.

But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.

Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. “Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize the Son of Man,” writes David Lose (2014). “Or, more to the point, they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”

Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.

This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian (and several other places) Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.”

In Freedom, he writes, “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (Freedom of the Christian, page 524, my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.

Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. Luther says we are called “Christians” because Christ lives in us and works through us for the good of our neighbor. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us, Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” (Freedom of a Christian, page 525).

I think it is important to emphasize how works “work” in the life of the Christian so that this text does not become a burden but is rather a joy. Tuomo Mannermaa writes, “When Christ lives in Christians through faith, love begins to ‘live’ in them as well, as Luther expresses it in the Heidelberg Disputation.” (Two Kinds of Love, Kindle Locations 1029-1030). Christ present in faith frees and equips us to see Jesus in the places we would not look on our own.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world, except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Loving the neighbor as Jesus loves me (us) happens through a particular way of seeing. “To those who desire to know God truly, Luther says, turn from what appears to be beautiful—all that is saturated in glory—toward that which is avoided and despised by the world, the cross and suffering,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones. “God is hidden in the cross of Christ and also in the crosses of those who suffer.” (Cross in Tensions, Kindle Location 2181)

Luther connects our way of seeing to our theological orientation. When we look for God in all the powerful places, we practice the theology of glory. When we do that, we will miss seeing God at all. Martin Luther gives voice to this conundrum in his theses for the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. It is useful to look especially at theses 19 through 22.

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1.20].

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

In Luther’s theology of the cross, God is always hidden under the form of the opposite. “The theologian of the cross in action must be the reverse of the theologian of glory,” writes Ruge-Jones, “preferring sufferings to works, cross to glory, the weak to the powerful, the fools to the wise, and universally that which is taken by the world as evil over that which the world lauds and pursues as good.” (Cross in Tensions, Kindle Location 3912).

Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.” (Freedom of a Christian, page 530).

What are we to make of the “unconscious” (or perhaps “un-self-conscious”) responses of the sheep and the goats? The sheep did not act out of some sort of self-interest. Since they did not recognize Jesus, they did not act in order to impress him. There is no discussion or debate about whether those in need are somehow worthy or unworthy.

The sheep paid attention to the need and responded without extended reflection or calculation. Their faith informed and their love formed their actions. The goats did not respond accordingly. “Or to put it even more precisely,” writes Capon, “they [the sheep] are praised at his final parousia for what they did in his parousia throughout their lives, namely, for trusting him to have had a relationship with them all along.” (Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Kindle Locations 6635-6636).

This love by attention continues to be our vocation. “The victory of Jesus over the evil in the world is not simply a fait accompli which could be disproved by the continuance of evil to this day,” notes N. T. Wright. “It is a victory waiting to be implemented through his followers.” (Following Jesus, Kindle Location 1186-1187).

You may leave your listeners with several points to ponder this week. Who is “being Christ” to you this week? Who needs your loving attention this week? In what unexpected places and ways is Jesus showing up in your life this week? Where can you respond to those in need beyond your immediate daily activities?

Now for the “surgeon general’s warning” on this line of thinking. We could lead people to think we are affirming:

  • Co-dependent caretaking at the expense of myself – no, that’s not it.
  • White savior complex because we (white, male, European-educated, upper middle class) have all the answers to the world’s problems – no, that’s not it.
  • Colonization by evangelization – no, that’s not it (see the previous bullet point)
  • Power over the “needy” – no, that’s not it. Jesus power is always power with, to, and for the other.

It’s important to remember that the presence of Christ in us by faith produces the death of ourselves first (see Galatians 2). If serving in love makes us powerful in worldly terms, we are embodying the theology of glory and deluding ourselves.

Resources

Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 6366-6368). Kindle Edition.

Online text of the theses for the Heidelberg Disputation — https://mbird.com/wp-content/uploads/sermons/HeidelbergDisputation.pdf.

Lose, David. “Christ the King A: The Unexpected God.” http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/

Wengert, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian: The Annotated Luther Study Edition. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

N.T. Wright. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Kindle Locations 1186-1187). Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 966-967). Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91) . Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition

Weil, Simone. Awaiting God. Fresh Wind Press.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24

Limburg, James. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24-2

Sharp, Carolyn J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24-4

The Widow’s Minute

I’m often tempted to sort podcasts by title and ignore those that are not immediately attractive. That’s a mistake more often than not. Those pods that seem least relevant to me are often the most informative. Humility training is usually free and frequently available.

The latest illustration of this principle is the current episode of It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders (Episode 253, 11/19/2019, 33:40). Let me quote a bit from the show notes.

“Journalist Alicia Menendez has noticed a problem: in the workplace, and in many aspects of their lives, women are forced into becoming inauthentic versions of themselves in order to be likeable. Her new book, ‘The Likeability Trap: How To Break Free And Succeed As You Are,’ examines how to avoid these traps. Menendez and guest host Elise Hu talked about creating more fulfilling personal relationships and a better workplace and how likeability plays into politics.”

The pod is worth the time on its own, but it caused me to reflect more on this past Sunday’s gospel reading. When we get the Lukan Little Apocalypse in chapter twenty-one, it is tempting to preface it with the small story labelled in some study bibles as “The Widow’s Offering.” It’s much more satisfying and productive to preach on the generous widow than to proclaim about wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famine, plagues and persecution (at least that’s true for me). I have made that homilietical choice several times over the past decades.

I am reminded now that this is not a helpful choice. Not that pushing out a good stewardship sermon in Novemer is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But portraying the widow in Luke 21:1-4 as a stewardship heroine is not a good thing. This is not news for folks, but it’s good to remind myself of this reality in my own reflections.

Typically I and others have protrayed the widow as a model of faithful and courageous generosity in contrast to the rich people as all gave their temple offerings. The widow gave her last two coins, “all she had to live on.” Even though her gift was the smallest, it cost her the most. Sometimes I then have made the point that the size of the gift is not as important as the size of the heart of the giver (although I would always hope that rich members might have proportionally big hearts).

I am sorry for all the problems this perspective causes. It’s easy to valorize generous poverty when one has enough and more. It’s easy to use this text as a scaffold on which to build a shaming platform to prick the consciences of well-off Christians. It’s easy to leverage our expectation that women are givers and to thus assume that the giving is the point Jesus wishes to make in seeing the widow. In that regard, I refer you back to the podcast that led off this entry.

In fact, I see something else happening here. The text is preceded by warnings about the scribes who “devour widow’s houses.” The text is followed by the long apocalyptic discourse on the destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem. What is the throughline in verses one through four?

The political and legal system was being used to oppress the poor and those without legal standing, such as widows. It appears that the temple system, wittingly or not, was participating in that systemic oppression. The poor widow’s gift was an example of how the temple system had been coopted not only to sustain existing power differentials but also to deprive the poor of the few remaining resources they had. Instead of protecting the widow, the orphan and the sojourner, the temple system had become “a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).

So I no longer hear the story of the widow’s offering as an example of heroic stewardship. Rather, I find it a challenge to the church and our ministry. In what ways do we participate in the system that oppresses the poor and transfers their meager resources to the rich? More than that, what are we doing to oppose that system–which has now produced the greatest top vs. bottom disparity in income in human economic history?

How do I participate in a system that valorizes the “niceness” of women to the exclusion of other qualities? For centuries, the church has lived off the free labor of women who did not work outside the home. Female pastors live with more double standards than can fit on a page. Our evanglical sisters and brothers are once again tying themselves in knots trying to prove that women are somehow inherently inferior to men and thus cannot be preachers. And let’s not get started on the modernist gender essentialism in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities that underwrites the ongoing oppression and abuse of women with the blessing of the Church. In that regard I would refer you to the latest essay by Bryce Rich on the publicorthodoxy.org site.

Sometimes I like to think of this widow as the same one who parabolically threatens the judge in Luke 18. I know that’s an imaginative reconstruction, but what if? What if those two copper coins are her final, biting challenge to the God who seems to have left her bereft and an object of pity? Perhaps this is her heroism–the crabby courage that won’t settle for niceness in the face of nonbeing.

If a good sermon makes one think of the text during the week, then I heard a beauty on Sunday.

Oh, and be sure to listen to that podcast! In addition, don’t miss out on the discussions at workingpreacher.org. That site will be one of the places I support again this year on “Giving Tuesday.”