Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Not Ashamed

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 2, 2022, Pentecost 17C

2 Timothy 1:8-14

Not Ashamed

{sing} I know whom I have belie-ved

and am persuaded that he is able 

to keep that which I’ve committed 

unto Him against that day

That’s one I remember from my childhood. I’m going to be honest with you; I had no clue in the world what that was supposed to be about. It made no sense to young me whatsoever. I know people get all sentimental and attached to the King James Version of the Bible (and some folks more than that, quite viciously combative about it), but had you showed the young me verse 12 from today’s reading and said that this was the verse that this old gospel refrain came from, I wouldn’t have believed you one bit. This is one case where I’m quite grateful for modern translations.

This comes to us in a strong and admirable bit of testimony from the author of this letter, acknowledging the struggles he has faced and yet declaring his continuing trust in God and encouraging his reader(s) to do the same. But getting to this testimony takes us through some challenging territory.

[Quick note: even though Paul’s name and Timothy’s are both on the letter, it is extremely unlikely that Paul actually wrote this letter or 1 Timothy. The roles of bishop and other church leaders described in 1 Timothy simply didn’t exist by the time Paul had died, and the writing style is frankly alien to the rest of Paul’s letters. This was not uncommon practice at the time. For the sake of convenience in the rest of ths sermon, I will refer to writer and reader as “Paul” and “Timothy” anyway.]

The author, who we’re calling Paul, seems to want to make a big deal of his imprisonment, and seems awfully concerned that his young reader might be feeling some shame over Paul’s situation, whether for Paul directly or for how it might reflect on himself to have his teacher and mentor in jail. Perhaps as a result, this dynamic duo of “shame” and “suffering” pops up twice in this brief passage. First, in verse 8, Paul is encouraging Timothy not to be ashamed of Paul’s testimony or of Paul himself, but to “join with me in suffering for the gospel.” Later, in verse 12, Paul, having spoken of his call to apostleship, acknowledges that he suffers for this, but again encourages Timothy not to be ashamed. 

For anyone who knew Paul’s career, suffering was almost a given. Paul had been jailed so many times that under modern marketing practices he would probably have earned a free stay somewhere. He had faced any number of arrests, tortures, and harsh punishments for his proclamation work. Speaking of suffering simply was talking about life for Paul. This business of shame, though, is something different. 

Paul’s most well-known statement on suffering came back in Romans, where he proclaimed that “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of salvation…“. In other epistle passages there is talk of others being ashamed for various misdeeds they might have done. This business of whether Paul might feel shame over his imprisonment is new, and frankly odd. 

The idea that Timothy (or whatever reader might see this) might be ashamed of Paul for this is still farther afield. Actually this might make a decent argument for why Paul did not write these letters, as such attitudes about Paul (while not unheard of in his lifetime) became much stronger after his death, as different leaders with different ideas and attitudes came to the fore in the church. 

Still, whatever its sources, this does raise some questions that it’s worthwhile for the church today to consider. What brings about shame these days? 

You would think that, say, reports of rampant sexual abuse and subsequent coverups by Roman Catholic priests some years ago, and Southern Baptist pastors more recently, would be the kind of thing that might provoke some degree of shame. But no, the only responses seem to be more coverup, more hiding, or sometimes “doubling down” and endorsing the leaders exposed for their wrongdoings. Somehow, shame at the abuse of other human beings doesn’t seem to enter the picture.

One might think the church’s past complicity in the eradication of Native American peoples from their lands and erasure of their Native identities might also be an object of shame. While some fitful and tentative gestures towards acknowledgement and apology – and Pope Francis even used the word “shame” to describe his feelings about such abuse on his recent trip to Canada – there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that any church so involved has experienced much shame for their actions in those times. 

So what do churches “get shamed” for these days?

Well, up in Birmingham, two campus ministry staffers – one PC(USA), one Episcopalian – were disinvited from a “Church and Ministry Expo” fair on the campus of Samford University, apparently over those denominations’ failure to exclude LGBTQ+ persons from their fellowship and ministry, specifically because both denominations allow same-sex marriage[1]. Admittedly I’m looking on from a distance, but it does seem odd for a church organization to shame another organization for not being “biblically orthodox” in a situation where those organizations are in fact being biblically Christlike. But that’s just me, I guess.

What else do churches get shamed for these days? 

Maybe for being small? 

You ever see that? Someone affiliated with a larger church maybe being a little bit pitying, a little bit patronizing toward someone who goes to a smaller church? What are the automatic assumptions about a small church, the default words used to describe it? Maybe “struggling”? Maybe even “dying”? Maybe the higher-ups in that church’s denominational struggle get into hushed conversations about how to gracefully ease that church aside and devote more resources to the bigger, more “successful” churches? 

Well, for one thing, small churches are trendy now. There’s even a book on the subject of the trend towards very small churches – even smaller than us in some cases[2]. For another,  small ain’t necessarily dead. I’ve been in small churches that crackle with activity and mission, and large churches that are – bluntly put – dead as a doornail. Seems from here that one church shaming another over size needs to worry less over the one finger pointing at the small church, and the three others pointing right back at them.

In short, there are reasons churches should be ashamed, but they seldom are. And there are things about which churches don’t need to be ashamed, but sometimes get told they ought to be. Neither is good – the first because something very bad has clearly happened, and the second because one church trying to shame another is, well, frankly, something to be ashamed of. 

Whatever shame was being experienced by Timothy (or whatever reader of this letter) was doing no good, and probably distracting from the work that needed to be done. The same can be said for us. Getting caught up in shame over being small or over being ostracized by some fundamentalist church types doesn’t help anything, and probably gets in the way of the work that is before us. So let’s not waste time with that, okay?

For not getting caught up in pointless shame, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Glory to God: the Presbyterian Hymnal): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #720, Jesus Calls Us; #840, When Peace Like a River


[1] https://baptistnews.com/article/samford-university-excludes-presbyterians-and-episcopalians/#.Yzievi-B08Q

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Microchurches-Smaller-Way-Brian-Sanders/dp/1088455662


Sermon: A Root of All Kinds of Evil

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 25, 2022, Pentecost 16C

1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

A Root of All Kinds of Evil

The opening of Douglas Adams’s science-fiction satire The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an introductory look at a small, sad planet (which is of course Earth) as viewed from the outside. One of the observations from this outside perspective is pretty stinging:

This planet has … a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

Indeed, if we look around it does seem as if most everyone associates happiness or contentment or pleasure or power or all manner of presumed good things with the movement of those small green pieces of paper or with the things acquired by doing so. And historically, even if those small green pieces of paper were actually gold or silver or copper coins or some other form of currency, the same holds true. The concept of “enough” seems to be widely lacking.

Both of today’s main scripture readings hit on this subject, albeit from slightly different directions. The parable read from Luke 16 is probably at least familiar sounding to most of us; the rich man enjoying what his wealth gains him, while the poor man Lazarus is at the gate longing for anything he can eat at all. Both men die, and let’s just say they go opposite directions. 

The striking thing about that ending is just how un-self-aware the rich man seems to be, even after he ends up in The Bad Place. He seems to think that Lazarus is somehow at his beck and call, first calling out for him to come dip his finger and water and cool the rich man’s tongue – which, ewwwww – and then thinking that Lazarus could still be used as some kind of supernatural apparition to scare his brothers into getting right with God. Even in his Hadean state, the rich man of the parable somehow seems to think of himself from that point of view of wealth and the power that comes with it; I tell others what to do and they do it. Clearly the man had no concept of “enough” and no contentment at all.

At this point it’s useful to jump over to the epistle reading and the oft-misquoted verse 10. How often have you heard it simply as “money is the root of all evil“? It’s well-known enough that some users of the saying might have no idea that it has its roots in this scripture reading. And to be honest, the short form just quoted is such a deformation of the verse that it really shouldn’t beassociated with the scripture reading. 

First of all, it isn’t money that is the root of anything. To recall the Douglas Adams quote from the beginning of this sermon, it isn’t the small green pieces of paper that are unhappy. No, it’s not about the money, it’s about our attitude towards it. The desire for it, or the desire for the things it can bring us in large quantities. Or, to put it bluntly, greed. Being unable to know what “enough” is, not being able to be content, is always on the bad side of scripture; the Bible never has anything good to say about greed. It is a corrosive thing; no wonder it ends up as one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. 

Note also what follows: “the love of money is a root…“. Not “the” root. Love of wealth, or greed, isn’t the only way for the soul to be corrupted. It’s a big one, yes, but not the only one. 

Finally, note how this saying ends; this love of money of which we are being warned is a root “of all kinds of evil.” There is more than one way to do bad or to go bad or to be bad in this world; the unpleasant truth is that greed ties into many of them. Take a look at what’s happened over in Mississippi, where a certain famous former NFL quarterback got involved in a scam to redirect funds directed towards the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families anti-poverty program (this in one of the poorest states in the country) to him, first for some speeches he never gave, and then for a volleyball facility at the university where – who’da thunk it? – his daughter happens to play volleyball. Sometimes love of money is about keeping it away from those who don’t have it, just for spite. That is a kind of evil, to be sure.

But there are other kinds of evil that the love of money gets tied up in. We live in a state where perhaps the truest pandemic is of wealthy business interests using the clout their wealth brings to get laws written to benefit them – shady development deals in places that should not be developed, making sure the earliest Covid vaccines to get to the state went to wealthy enclaves well south of here, or, to be blunt, just flat-out buying and owning politicians to do their bidding. Lots of people for whom enough is never enough, just loving that wealth and making absolutely sure it never gets to those who don’t have it. Those people are just tools, like Lazarus was to the rich man in the parable.

Maybe one of the more subtle signs of this excess loving of wealth can be found in a bumper sticker you can see around town. It’s one that seems harmless or even humorous on first sight but betrays perhaps one of the most insidious “kinds of evil” of which the love of money can be a root. Maybe you’ve seen it? It says, “If 10% is good enough for God, it’s good enough for the IRS.” 

I have no interest in addressing the IRS at all here, but the first half of that sentence has got to be beaten down for the horrible theology it foists upon the world. What distorted scripture are you reading if you think that 10% of anything about your life is “good enough for God”? 

No. One might even have to be brash enough to say “Hell, no” in recognition of the fact that Hell would be exactly where such an idea would come from.

If you are going to be calling yourself a follower of Christ in any way at all, the only percentage of anything of yours that can even remotely be called “enough” is 100%. No less. 

The beginning of the reading from 1 Timothy reminds us that “we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” The later portion of the reading puts it plainly that it is God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment,” and that our business with whatever wealth we have is “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future [that is, eternity],so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” It all comes from God and all goes to God for the doing of God’s work here on this earth.

Since we are approaching that time when we are called upon to reckon with the finances of the church and how we will support the work of the church, we should go ahead and say that giving to the church certainly should be a part of that all belonging to God – not merely for the sake of propping up the church itself or making sure we have big shiny things to show off, but to keep the work of the church going. Besides missions like Family Promise, St. Francis House, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (had to mention that one right now with Ian on the way), Heifer International, and others we support, the plain fact is that our building itself is a venue of community outreach and service. We’ll hopefully have a lot of folks passing through our grounds this Friday evening to take in the artworks of the members of Art Studios of Grace (including our own resident artist Jay Winter Collins). We have some community organization or other in our fellowship hall pretty much every night of the week, from AA groups to community choirs to Girl Scouts and more. And one reason we try not to linger too long in here is so that the Korean Presbyterian Church can gather at 1:00 for worship. Right now, our facilities are one of our biggest means of serving others. So yeah, contributing to the church counts for that 100% belonging to God.

What wealth we have, great or small, is God’s, if we claim to be God’s. The rich man of the parable clearly didn’t get it, and others too if the epistle reading is any indication. The world around us seems to need reminding as well. 

For the call to be rich towards God and content with what God gives, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #806, I’ll Praise My Maker; #—, God, grant us the contentment; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again


Sermon: Everyone

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 18, 2022, Pentecost 15C

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Everyone

Everyone.

Kind of a definitive word, isn’t it?

I mean, how do you put up an argument against something being for or about “everyone” without sounding like an idiot (“you really mean everyone?“) or a hatemonger (“surely you can’t mean them???“) or worse? 

So it had to be a bit bracing for the readers of this letter, whoever they were, to see in this brief passage “everyone” invoked three times, in idea if not in exact word. In a time when the persecution of those identified as “Christians” or “followers of the Way” was beginning to intensify, around the end of the first century, this was going to be a hard pill to swallow.

So what exactly is being applied to “everyone“?

1. Right away, in verse 1, we see the instruction begin: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone“. 

In case it wasn’t clear the author continues, “for kings and all who are in high positions…“. Exactly the folks who would be in charge, the emperors claiming divine authority and moving to squelch small, nonconforming movements like the church; pray for them. Even if you do so with gritted teeth, pray for them.

An attempt to sweeten the medicine follows: “…so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” This is frankly a strange phrase; those last two words – “godliness” and “dignity” – do not appear at all in the New Testament aside from this letter and the two following, 2 Timothy and Titus. This is not Paul-like language at all, for that matter; “dignity” in particular is about as antithetical to Paul’s body of writing as anything can be. Outside of these three so-called “pastoral epistles,” so named because of their evident direction toward those in charge in the local body, New Testament writers simply don’t talk like this. Paul in particular isn’t all that interested in the followers of Christ living quiet, peaceable lives. 

No, the real kicker here is in the second invocation of “everyone,” that follows next.

2. “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 

Let’s strip this down and clarify this: God wants everyone to be saved. Everybody. To put it in good Southern terms, “all y’all.” The most elemental, basic reason Christians would be called to play for everyone is simply that God wants everyone to be saved. God wants everyone to know that truth. God has zero interest in the lines we draw between ourselves and others. God wants everybody to be God’s. 

When we’re most honest with ourselves, can we really say this? Can we really desire the salvation of those who torment us? And we’re not talking in some sarcastic kind of “I really wish God would call this one home already…” wish, but truly desiring God’s truth and salvation for them? Do we have that within us, wishing for the salvation – wishing the good – for those who harm us? That’s what’s being asked of these readers here, let’s not miss that.

The word “everyone” doesn’t appear again in this passage, but the meaning certainly does when the author adds this:

3. “…there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (which is to say, everyone).” 

That’s pretty complete. We are called to pray for it, God wants it, and Christ gave himself for it: the salvation of “everyone.” 

This passage isn’t the entire Bible, though, and we do have to remember that other passages of scripture offer words that caution us from getting too excited about this. Take Matthew 7:21, for example, in which Jesus cautions his disciples that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my father in Heaven.” No matter how much God may want it, it takes a response, and a response that is more than words at that. Being saved involves a changed life, one given to doing God’s will more than to big empty words. To put it most bluntly, it’s entirely possible that the biggest talkers out there, the ones who have the most to say about who is and who isn’t saved, are themselves nowhere near being saved. 

To put it bluntly, not everyone says “yes.” 

That doesn’t make it any less what God desires for all of humanity, for “everyone.” 

That doesn’t make Christ any less a ransom for “everyone.” 

That doesn’t make it any less our call to pray for “everyone.” 

That’s our job. That’s what God calls us to do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #42, Your Faithfulness, O Lord, Is Sure; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own; #697, Take My Life


Sermon that would have been preached: One Really Disruptive Letter

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 4, 2022, Pentecost 13C

Philemon

One Really Disruptive Letter

There are four books of the Bible, across the Old and New Testaments, that were not in the course of history subdivided into chapters. The lone such example in the OT, the book of the prophet Obadiah, is not wildly different than its longer prophetic siblings. The letters named 2 John and 3 John are likewise similar to the general epistles found towards the end of the New Testament, if not nearly so long and a bit more vague in their address. None of those books appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. Today’s book, however (which does appear in the RCL), is significantly different.

It’s a letter that should not be overlooked, as the book has had an influence out of proportion to its size across the history of both the church universal and the church particular in this country, especially in the US South. That influence was not good, largely because those who interpreted it did so more for convenience than from any genuine desire to learn from it. 

You see, this little letter became, in such empires or nations as sanctioned the practice, a primary scriptural justification for the institution of slavery. That list of such nations, of course, includes the USA for about the first two hundred-plus years of its colonial and national history. To be blunt, the only reason you’d have ever heard a sermon on Philemon was in order to support or prop up slavery as “biblical,” frequently (although not exclusively) in the southern part of the country, in churches that separated from their northern fellow churches over slavery – including, yes, Presbyterians.*

The tragedy of it is that this could only be done by emphasizing something that is not in the letter. For all that Paul says in the letter, there is one thing he does not say: “Slavery is wrong.” (He also doesn’t say “slavery is right.”) Neither does he explicitly order Philemon to free the slave Onesimus (although in verse 8 Paul does claim the spiritual authority to do so). And hey, if Paul doesn’t say slavery is wrong, then slavery must be OK, right?

This was not the only such passage of scripture that preachers of the past would have used to justify slavery, but it made this letter damaging all out of proportion to its size, and was also completely contrary to the spirit of the burden that Paul laid upon his “dear friend and coworker” Philemon.

I could have left off some of the preliminary and concluding verses of this chapter in the interest of shortening the reading and focusing on the “important stuff” in this little letter. In the case of this letter, though, the preliminary and concluding verses of the chapter are really part of the “important stuff.” The salutation of this letter names other members of the “church that meets in your house,” specifically “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier”. This wasn’t a true ‘private’ letter; the whole community is being addressed and included here, and what Paul asks of Philemon is in effect being asked of the entire community, not just the one who actually owns the slave in question.

That brings us to the central character, or ‘object’, of the letter. Onesimus was a slave, this much is clear. Even if there were no other clues about his identity his name itself would be a giveaway; the name ‘Onesimus,’ which translates as ‘useful,’ was not given to a free-born person in the Roman Empire. Would you name your child ‘Useful’? (And yes, this makes a pun of Paul’s words in v. 10 about Onesimus being formerly “useless” but now “useful”.)

Onesimus’s situation is less clear. Most interpreters of this letter believe that Onesimus had run away from his master. Others suggest that possibly Onesimus was guilty of some other wrong against Philemon, maybe some kind of theft or some mistake that had cost Philemon. Aside from the “useless” pun in verse 10, we don’t know what’s going on, but there is some reason Onesimus doesn’t want to return to Philemon and Paul is interceding on his behalf, via letter (he can’t do so in person because he’s in prison, remember). It might be simply that Paul wants Onesimus to work with him, and Onesimus wants that too. It could just be as simple as a slave wanting to be free, maybe even free to do a work God is calling him to do.

As is the case when you only hear one half of a conversation, we can’t be sure about much. But one thing is inescapable; how Paul envisions Onesimus being received by Philemon (and Apphia, Archippus, and the church in his house) is dramatically, life-alteringly, status-threateningly different than the way Onesimus had functioned in Philemon’s household before, and Paul gets that Philemon has to choose, himself, to take this radical step.

Paul is not asking Philemon to readmit Onesimus to his former slave status. A reset, a return to status quo would not require words like these:

  • Paul calling Onesimus “my child” “whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (v. 10);
  • Paul telling Philemon “I am sending him, my own heart, back to you” (v. 11);
  • Paul encouraging Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother … both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16);
  • Paul charging Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17).

This isn’t “take him back and I’ll make up your loss and nothing changes,” even if Paul does promise in verse 19 to make up any loss Philemon has sustained due to Onesimus. This is “change everything,” “totally turn things upside down.” And it’s not how any self-respecting Roman citizen treats a slave. If you can figure out how to treat a piece of property with no legal human status as a beloved brother or sister, the way you would treat the man who brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to you, well, you’re evidently cleverer than me.

What Paul asks is not without consequence for Philemon; you didn’t just free your slaves all willy-nilly and get away with it. Besides the social stigma and cultural backlash such an act likely to face, Philemon could face even legal consequences for such treatment of Onesimus, even if he did not technically “free” Onesimus. Anything that had the potential of setting off unrest among slaves or upsetting the social order could be punished by Roman authority; and seeing Onesimus gaining status and acceptance in Philemon’s household could very well provoke such disruption. Paul does not care and engages in monumental arm-twisting to persuade Philemon while in every technical respect leaving the choice in Philemon’s hands (in the context of the community of faith in which Philemon lived and moved; Apphia and Archippus and the church).

An aside: one of the great wrongs of slaveholding societies is their utterly misguided and destructive attitude towards work. Work was, in such societies, beneath the well-off. Work was for other people – those people, whoever that society demeaned with such a label. It seems needful on a Labor Day weekend to note that labor of whatever sort is an honored thing in God’s eyes. Remember the words of Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes, about how there’s really nothing better than to do one’s work and enjoy the fruits of it. The business of exploiting the labor of others for one’s own convenience simply has no place in the kingdom of God, where any human being is a fellow child of God; this is part of what Philemon is now charged to learn.

While I hope there aren’t many today who would seek to restore the discredited practice of using this letter to justify slavery, plenty of forms of oppression fall under the ban if we take this letter seriously. Racism simply cannot stand in the face of a call to love others as beloved siblings in Christ. Any kind of bigotry at all, any claim that the world would be just fine if they would just “stay in their place” or “not rock the boat” or simply stay quiet and out of the way, has no place in the mind of a follower of Christ, no matter how entrenched or enmeshed in our culture such an attitude may be. “That’s just the way it is” might have made a great song for Bruce Hornsby back in the 80s, but it can never be the response of a follower of Christ in the face of any injustice or oppression. (And if you remember the song, even Hornsby wraps that “just the way it is” chorus with the imperative “but don’t you believe it”.) 

If it is a coincidence that this scripture happened to fall on a Sunday when the Lord’s Supper is being observed, it is a happy one indeed. The table of the Lord is decidedly non-selective about who is welcomed. Anyone – anyone – who calls upon the name of the Lord is welcomed as beloved brother or sister. And if that fact produces anything other than an “amen” from us, it might be well for us to remember that this radical openness might just be to our benefit as anyone else’s. 

We don’t know what Philemon did in response to Paul’s letter. It seems unlikely that such a personal and particular letter would have come into the canon of scripture, even under the Holy Spirit, if Philemon had responded to Onesimus’s return with thirty lashes and an order to “get back to work, Useless.” We do know that later in the century, a bishop named Onesimus served in the city of Ephesus and may have even been responsible for the preservation of many of Paul’s letters. Even if not the same Onesimus, somebody’s slave became a “beloved brother” along the way. And we should note that evidence suggests that in the communities touched by Paul’s preaching, all who were part of that church – rich and poor, male and female, slave and free – were really together in community, just as Paul is instructing Philemon and all the church in his house to be.

But in a way, not knowing the outcome places the burden of answer on us. How do we respond to one who, like Onesimus, of no status or even humanity in the eyes of the world, is set before us as beloved in Christ, one of God’s own children, no matter how vexing it might be to us?

For the call to answer that question, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #36, For the Fruit of All Creation; #300, We Are One in the Spirit


Sermon: Table Games

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 28, 2022, Pentecost 12C

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Table Games

One of the great points of intrigue in such period-based (and frequently British) TV shows such as Downton Abbey, or even reaching way back to Upstairs, Downstairs, is the intrigue that surrounds the dinner table. Everyone has their place to sit, and violation of such order is the worst possible offense. Serving takes place in a very precise and ordered way, and again, no violation of such order is to be tolerated. Silverware is placed exactly so; each course of the meal is presented with precise and inflexible timing; everyone is dressed impeccably. Even the servants’ quarters down below, while significantly more relaxed than in the main dining room, sees its meals happen in a quite regular and orderly fashion.

“Table games,” it seems, have been a part of meals for almost as long as there have been meals, particularly among the more powerful and well-off of most every society. The arrangement of guests at the table, the serving of the different courses or parts of the meal, the very fact of who is invited and who is not all become part of a larger project of keeping or imposing a fixed and immutable order upon not only those gathered at any particular table, but upon the society as a whole. You found out where you “belonged” in society by where you were seated at the table – that is, if you were seated at all, which was an even more explicit statement about your place in that society.

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus has been invited into a great meal at the home of a member of the Pharisees. We are conditioned automatically to equate “Pharisee” with “enemy of Jesus,” but that was not always the case; some were at least intrigued by his teaching and were sincerely interested in hearing more, and at least some, only a few verses ago in 13:31, were concerned enough to warn Jesus that he should get out of town as Herod had designs on killing him. Whether this invitation was reflective of such concern or was perhaps more of a means of keeping an eye on Jesus, we can’t say for certain, though we are informed in 14:1 that they “were watching him closely.”

The verses we skipped over in chapter 14 tell of yet another healing on the Sabbath, in this case of a man with a withered hand. It plays out very much like the event from last week’s reading, except this time none of the religious leaders present even dared say anything at all. It is from this event that Jesus proceeds to talk about how the “table games” of this event were playing out. The guests at the meal may have been “watching him closely,” but it turns out Jesus was watching them closely too.

What he saw was, in short, a lot of guests trying to make a place for themselves among the seats of greatest honor at the table, namely those seats closest to the host. One could almost argue that Jesus’s observations about these seating maneuvers were almost not spiritual at all, or only barely so; on the surface, it sounds like savvy business advice for the one trying to climb the corporate or social ladder. Don’t try to weasel your way up the table; that’s just a good way to get humiliated. Let the host seek you out and elevate you

You could almost see that advice being handed out on some kind of reality TV show about corporate boardroom maneuvering. That counsel, though, did have clear roots in much of Hebrew scripture, particularly in the book of Proverbs 25:6-7, which instructs the young learner:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence 

or stand in the place of the great;

for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,

than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

In other words, there were very likely many of those at this meal who would have quickly recognized exactly what Jesus was talking about and probably could cite the source of his statement. You could imagine a few of the wiser guests nodding knowingly or perhaps even chuckling at his remarks so far, maybe even Jesus himself. Even within their own religious tradition, their values had become rather skewed or even twisted all out of shape.

It’s what comes next, though, that blows up the whole event. When Jesus turns to the host of the meal, what he says there is at least as vigorous a metaphorical “flipping tables” as Jesus would do literally in the Temple marketplace during the last week he spent in Jerusalem.

Another corner of the “table games” mentality, again like in many societies across history, had more to do with who got invited to a meal, and what that inviter might in turn expect from his invitees (and in this society, the one doing the inviting was always ‘he’). The expectation was simple; I invite you to a meal at my house, and in return you invite me to a meal at your house. Honor was thus repaid. To fail to reciprocate such an invitation was a grotesque social faux pas and not easily forgiven or forgotten.

It is into this extremely rigid and inviolable social order that Jesus tosses something like a verbal hand grenade. Don’t invite the ones who will invite you back. All you get out of that is one dinner. Invite the people who will not be able to return the invitation to you; the poor, the ones who are hindered in some way. That’s when your great and ultimate reward comes in. 

The ones who were nodding along or chuckling along after Jesus’s first observations were probably now feeling their chins hit the floor in shock. One of them did try to change the topic, sort of, in verse 15 (after our day’s reading), with something of a generic blessing, only for Jesus to come up a parable that illustrates a man doing exactly what Jesus has just instructed, although in this case it was because the invited guests begged off and made excuses not to come. Given the chance to back off or at least change the subject, Jesus doubled down on his teaching. 

You get the feeling that if Jesus were to show up in Gainesville looking for a good crowd with which to have dinner, he’d most likely go to St. Francis House [NOTE: a local homeless shelter]. 

Are we in it for social reward? Are we in it for honor? Are we in it to boost our reputation, to climb the ladder of success? Or are we in it to serve the ones called “the least of these” in Matthew 25? Are we in it to serve those Jesus calls us to invite and serve? Are we about “table games,” or about Christ’s table?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #722, Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #345, In an Age of Twisted Values


Sermon: Who Could Possibly Be Upset About This?

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 21, 2022, Pentecost 11C

Luke 13:10-21

Who Could Possibly Be Upset About This?

I make no claim to understand the workings of the Revised Common Lectionary. I have no knowledge of how that particular consortium of representatives of the various religious bodies involved made their particular choices about what scriptural content to include and what to exclude, which books of scripture to emphasize and which to de-emphasize, which narratives to include and which to let pass.

I am quite convinced, however, that the choice to go directly from last week’s gospel reading, skipping over the very tail end of chapter 12 and the first verses of chapter 13, into the reading give for today was extremely deliberate. Remember how last week’s reading gave us the hard declaration about “no, I tell you, but division!” and the whole depressing point that there was really nothing Christlike we could do that wouldn’t draw somebody’s opposition? Well, it’s as if somebody decided “you know what, we need to follow up this reading with one that demonstrates exactly what Jesus was talking about. Oh, look, here’s exactly the thing, just a few verses later…“.

Indeed, this account, only separated from last week’s reading by twelve verses, is pretty much a textbook example of Jesus being given trouble for doing exactly the kind of thing he was called to do. The biggest difference here is that the larger crowd at the scene, for once, took Jesus’s side, and vocally so.

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on a sabbath, as he was wont to do on his travels. We aren’t given any clues by Luke where Jesus is on his journey, so we can’t make anything of location or proximity or any such context clue. All we have is that he was teaching when a woman appeared, with “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” as Luke describes. Most likely the condition was an orthopedic one known as ankylosing spondylitis. We should not think only of the woman being stooped over slightly; the Greek term best translates “bent double,” and while the condition is very treatable with modern medicines and techniques, in the time of this story there was not much that could be done. 

This condition can be marked by neck and back pain, difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue, and even heart problems, not to mention the frustration and isolation that a person with this condition likely experienced in a population that hand no understanding of what was afflicting her, and (as Luke describes) attributed her state to being oppressed by a spirit or demon.

 At any rate, the teaching is over. Or, perhaps, it is just beginning.

First Jesus speaks to the woman with a declaration of healing: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Throughout much of this gospel to this point, such a pronouncement has itself been enough to accomplish the healing in similar situations. Even in a previous healing-on-a-sabbath situation in chapter 6, Jesus spoke, and a man’s withered hand was healed. In this case, though, Jesus decided there was need of more than a word; a touch was needed. 

To be clear, it is not to say that Jesus could not have healed her with only a word. Clearly a word had been sufficient in the past. However, here, the touch seems to be necessary for a different reason. Remember that others likely figured the woman was under the bondage of some kind of spirit or demon. As such, she was likely to be considered “unclean” by those in the community, and likely by the religious leaders as well. Jesus wasn’t one to let the specter of being “unclean” stand between him and anyone in need of healing. So, in this case, placing his hands on the woman became not only a means of healing, but of restoring – taking away the social separation that had clung to this woman as well as the physical affliction that had hindered her. 

Seriously, who could possibly be upset about this?

Of course there was somebody. The head of the synagogue raised the very standard objection: healing constituted ‘work,’ and was therefore forbidden on a sabbath. What should be noted here is that while this was a standard objection, it was far from a universal one. While some readers of the law held this position, not all did. Many held that, based on a reading of the sabbath commandment as found in Deuteronomy 5, the sabbath existed as a commemoration of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from the land of Egypt and the bondage they had suffered there; it was, in short, a celebration of liberation. Therefore, any ‘work’ that served as an act of liberation – and healing from disease certainly was read that way – was to be not only allowed, but even celebrated. By such a reading, Jesus was well within the bounds of sabbath law, and you can bet he knew that.

That will be his second response, though. First, he points to the hypocrisy of his accusers, zeroing in on an exception commonly made to the law allowing one to lead an animal out for a drink. As much an act of compassion or even basic maintenance as this was, it was technically a violation of sabbath code, yet it was a violation that no longer drew offense. Jesus didn’t even have to be explicit in slamming his critics for showing more compassion for a donkey than for (as he named her) a daughter of Abraham. 

The synagogue leader and his allies were put to shame, the people celebrated all the good and wonderful things Jesus was doing, and for some that’s the end of the story. Not for Jesus, though.

Notice how verse 18 begins: “He said therefore…”. Those pithy sayings that follow this story aren’t a separate event; they follow directly on what has just happened. And this event, even as much as the content of the two sayings themselves, is for this moment an outbreak of the kingdom of God. It doesn’t just look like the growth of a mustard seed into a sturdy and spreading bush that can host the birds of the air, or the spreading of a little yeast in a bread dough. It looks like a woman who has been bent double for eighteen years standing up tall and straight. It looks like the work of God going forward despite opposition and division. It looks like healing on the day of liberation. It looks like celebration. It looks like acts of love. And it is this that we celebrate and await, at the same time.

I have quoted the novelist, inspirational writer, and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner many, many times in my sermons since I’ve been here, far more often I am sure than any other source outside of scripture itself. Buechner died this past Monday at his home in Vermont, aged 96. How fitting it is that it works well to leave the final words of this sermon to Buechner, who seemed to have something just right to say about almost any portion of scripture, and indeed has something to say about this work of expecting the kingdom of God (this from the title essay of a collection called A Room Called Remember):

 

Shall is the verb of hope. Then death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying. Then shall my eyes behold him and not as a stranger. Then his kingdom shall come at last and his will shall be done in us and through us and for us. Then the trees of the wood shall sing for joy as already they sing a little even now sometimes when the wind is in them and as underneath their singing our own hearts too already sing a little sometimes at this holy hope we have.

The past and the future. Memory and expectation. Remember and hope. Remember and wait. Wait for him whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived, have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves. Remember him who himself remembers us as he promised to remember the thief who died beside him. To have faith is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have what we hope for already begin to come true in us through our hoping. Praise him.

For the occasional glimpse of the kingdom of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #792, There Is a Balm in Gilead; #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least


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Sermon: Division!!??

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 14, 2022, Pentecost 10C

Hebrews 12:1-2; Luke 12:49-56

Division!!??

Just one week ago, we were hearing Jesus talk about how “it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and how our true task was to be “dressed for action and keep your lamps lit,” but to wait for our Master to come to us. 

That’s all fine and good and even kind of encouraging. But no, it’s not so easy as it sounds. Situated here in Gainesville, Florida, as this church is, we are inevitably drawn to hear the words of the patron saint of this town’s musical history, Tom Petty, who reminded us in the chorus of one of his popular hits that “the waiting is the hardest part“: 

The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you get one more yard

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part

If Tom Petty doesn’t convince you, then Jesus’s words in today’s reading from Luke, just a few verses after last week’s reading, will make it terribly clear that the waiting to which we are called won’t be easy.

It isn’t necessarily all that clear just what got Jesus onto this theme; his discourse turns rather suddenly here, and even verses 41-48 don’t really give a great clue as to where this sudden outburst of frustration comes from. And that’s really the best word for what is happening here; Jesus is charged with the urgent task “to bring fire to the earth” and “a baptism with which to be baptized.”

Even for Jesus, the waiting is the hardest part. 

From there comes the verse that will scandalize countless hearers this morning: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” 

Wait, what? 

This from the one hailed as the Prince of Peace, the one who said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and all that. Divison!!?? 

The two verses that follow amplify that point by the example of the core family, held to be the irrefutable building block of Roman society and Judean society and pretty much any society you might name, then or now. In this case, the family relationships highlighted here were considered most crucial to the harmonious working of the household. The challenge of father/son relationships gone wrong might be demonstrated by the parable of the prodigal son. Mother/daughter and mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships pointed to the business of family and marriage, the letting go of daughters who marry into other families and welcoming of daughters-in-law who marry into the family. To cite these as locus of division wasn’t only to suggest division within the family itself; such division destabilized the very presumed basis of society.

One of the more noteworthy characteristics of Jesus as described in Luke’s gospel is that, where the end of his human ministry is concerned, Jesus knows what’s coming. From back in Luke 9, when Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem,” he has been painstakingly clear that what is ahead is going to be ugly and divisive and confrontational and he is headed right into it anyway.

He knows that his ministry has set some folks against him, religious authorities being chief among them. He knows that Roman authorities, while they don’t care about intra-Jewish doctrinal disputes, are absolutely intent on preserving that false peace that came to be known as the “pax Romana,” and will quash anything or anyone that threatens to disrupt it. Let’s not forget that his very first preaching appearance in his hometown almost ended up with him being thrown off a cliff. He knows there is opposition, and keeps going anyway.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that the greatest vexation to the work that he and his colleagues in the civil rights movement were doing was not the extremist. He said, quote;

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…

Don’t overlook what Dr. King has to say about “negative peace” and “positive peace.” The former is basically nobody fighting, but justice still denied to so many people and oppression running rampant. The so-called “Pax Romana” of Jesus’s time, in which no one could challenge the Roman Empire but countless thousands lived under its heel, was a prime example of “negative peace,” which, to say the least, is not what we are called to settle for. If that’s the only kind of peace we are interested in seeking, we should probably not look to Jesus for that, and it probably should not take up space in our prayers. There’s a reason that our Affirmation of Faith, taken from the PC(USA)’s A Brief Statement of Faith, orders its words the way it does when it declares that the Holy Spirit “gives us courage … to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” 

I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

The “baptism” here seems a direct reference to his forthcoming crucifixion; the “fire” might be a reference to the prophet Malachi’s words: “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” The fire that purifies, that burns away corruption and spoilage, that makes whole what is left; this seems a likely reference in this case, Jesus longing to purge away what corrupts and ruins and harms and oppresses.

Now here’s where that “waiting” part from last week comes in: the call to be “dressed for action” and “have your lamps lit” doesn’t involve sitting at home with the lights on wearing a cool tracksuit. It means doing the things Jesus taught us to do and showed us how to do. It means the stuff in that parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25 – feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, all that stuff. It means being the things named in the Beatitudes – even being a peacemaker, with the seeming contradiction implied with today’s verses. It means living the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness. 

The waiting we do is not a passive, unobtrusive thing. It compels us to live and act in ways that somebody out there is not going to like. I say “somebody out there,” but let’s be honest; clearly we don’t have only disagreement from outside the church to worry about. If we’re going to do the real Christlike waiting, large numbers of people who call themselves Christians are going to come after us, in word or maybe even in deed. 

And if you’re thinking this can’t possibly be true, remember this: even Mr. Rogers had protesters show up at his memorial. Back in 2003, when the children’s television host (and, never forget, ordained Presbyterian minister) was buried in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Rev. Fred Phelps led a group from his Westboro Baptist “Church” near Topeka, Kansas to protest Rogers because he never did publicly condemn homosexuality. I don’t know that Fred Rogers ever said much of anything about homosexuality publicly, but he never did hate it, so Fred Phelps and his bunch hated him.

I don’t enjoy saying this, but there isn’t anything Christlike you can do that somebody won’t give you grief for doing it. We won’t have peace just because we do good things.

Five years ago I preached from a parallel passage in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus says he came to bring “not peace but a sword” – a different but no less disturbing image. What applied about Jesus’s message there applies to Jesus’s message here as well: if you follow me, if you truly follow me and do the will of God and live into the kingdom of Heaven, the sword (or division, in this case) will find you. It’s not about creating division; it’s about doing what Jesus calls us to do, and division happens because of that. Ultimately it’s kinda foolish not to expect that.

As for the last verses, about not being able to read the signs of the times? Clearly we see that still being the case in everything from modern political punditry to our vastly worsening weather and the lack of will to do what must be done to put the brakes on a disastrously careening climate. We don’t know how to read the signs either. 

Folks, our job is to do what God calls us to do. If people attack us for it, so be it. That doesn’t mean we stop. After all, Jesus didn’t.

For a Jesus who warns us of what is coming when we do the will of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #365. God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!; #—, Do not pray for peace; #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said


Sermon: Dressed for Action

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 7, 2022, Pentecost 9C

Luke 12:32-40

Dressed for Action

Back in 1986, an unknown author by the name of Frank Peretti got a novel published that would create quite a sensation in the then fairly staid world of “Christian” literature. Titled This Present Darkness, the book took events in a stereotypical American small town as a shadowing of grand and epic battles between the angels of God and demon hordes intent on overthrowing the kingdom of God. 

The book spawned a sequel, Piercing the Darkness, and in one of the two books (I can’t remember for sure which, but I think it must have been the second) came a scene that, even at the still-youthful age I was then, made me stop, blanch with horror at what I had just read, and gather up both books and throw them away. 

In the scene, the aforementioned heavenly battle seems to be going badly for the angelic good guys. One of the angelic captains begins to sound an awful lot like he’s despairing and pleads out loud for the Christians in that small town to pray harder, lest the battle be lost and God’s forces overthrown. 

Think about that, folks. The kingdom of God would be overthrown unless one person started praying harder, whatever that means. I lack the words to emphasize how theologically and biblically wrong that is without resorting to words like “heresy.” 

I could remind you of our little jaunt through the book of Revelation in the Sundays after Easter, which pointed to the ultimate conclusion that no matter how badly things might seem to be going at any given point, God wins in the end. The Lamb is on the throne, the Holy City comes down, all that good stuff.

It would be remiss of me, however, to overlook the words of today’s reading from Luke’s gospel pointing us to the same basic thought. Indeed, the very first sentence found in verse 32 illustrates just how untenable and unviable that Present Darkness scenario is. 

Do not be afraid.” You can easily lose count of the number of times that God, or an angel, or Jesus (as in this case) says these words in Luke’s gospel, going back to the beginning of the book in which it has to be repeated multiple times to folks like Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds in the field. This sentence is good counsel enough, to be sure, but what follows is jaw-dropping, if we stop and think about it.

…for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Listen to that again: 

…for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Just give it away, apparently. It gives God pleasure to give us everything that is God’s. Let your mind be blown. And let this sentence inform those seemingly unbearably radical instructions that follow; if God is pleased to give away everything to us, can we not do the same for the world around us?

Does that sound like a kingdom that is going to be overthrown by some human weakness?

Or take the next section of the reading, the call to … waiting?

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” is reminiscent of one of those late parables in Matthew’s gospel, the one with the young women waiting for the wedding party when their lamps run out of oil. But, while “Dressed for Action” could probably be sold as a Hollywood action title, it’s also not exactly a call to storm the battlements. Jesus then follows this with a parable about slaves waiting for their master to return from such a banquet, with the wildly unfathomable promise that the master who finds those slaves waiting and ready would turn around and play the role of the servant and serve those slaves. If you ever visit Monticello, ask the docents how many times Thomas Jefferson did that for his slaves. 

But again, this outlandish reward is not for any harebrained act of whatever, but for nothing more than waiting and being ready – dressed for action and lamps lit. Not storming the Capitol or taking over the legislature to pass all manner of religious-oppression laws; only to wait for our Lord to come to us. Maybe even to give us the Kingdom since that apparently gives God pleasure to do. But the faithful response is to wait to be led by the Lord. 

For a God whose good pleasure it is to give us the Kingdom, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #396, Brethren, We Have Met to Worship; #402, How Lovely, Lord; #350, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning


Sermon: Do You Own, or Are You Owned?

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 31, 2022, Pentecost 8C

Luke 12:13-21

Do You Own, or Are You Owned?

Six years ago when this reading showed up in the lectionary and I didn’t choose another reading, I started with the question of whether anyone remembered the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the show with the host with the extreme British accent and lots of insanely wealthy people being paraded before viewers for little other reason than being insanely wealthy and willing to parade before viewers with all that wealth on display. Even the closing theme music – a tune called “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams” – was designed to make you the viewer jealous of what you saw. It ran for twelve years and featured all manner of very rich people, from celebrities to the more obscure but still wealthy to even a future President of the United States among its featured rich people. 

Anyway, that show itself (to its credit, I suppose) didn’t really pretend to be about anything other than ogling all the stuff. Sadly, though, the show proved to be a foretaste of future TV trends; the number of rich people who get on TV mostly for being rich has only gotten larger on more shows, although nowadays you’re likely to see more of their private lives than is frankly desirable. One such example is the so-called “reality TV” series Chrisley Knows Best, featuring an originally Georgia-based real estate sharpie and his family and their exploits in being rich and increasingly famous. As to the “reality” part, now that the husband and wife at the lead of the show have been convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion, I suppose we’ll see how much longer the publicity is something the family wants to seek. How much can you pass yourself off as a wise and trustworthy individual or role model with that particular conviction looming over you?

Maybe the lead character of the parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Luke isn’t quite on the level of a featured rich person on that show, but he is rich, and we are told this by Jesus before we even know that he got such a super-abundant harvest. And in Luke, to be honest, “rich” isn’t always a good thing.

For example: even at the very beginning of this gospel, in the Song of Mary upon her meeting with Elizabeth, we hear that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). In chapter 6, Jesus proclaims a woe” on the rich, “for they have received their consolation” (6:24). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in chapter 16, is particularly harsh. And then there’s the rich ruler of chapter 18 who, when challenged by Jesus to give it all away and follow, “became sad, for he was very rich” (18:23), an event that prompts Jesus to exclaim “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24), comparing the feat to getting a camel through the eye of a needle, but finally offering the hope that “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (18:27). Frankly the only rich person that really comes off well in this gospel is Zacchaeus, the tax collector in chapter 19, who pledges to give away for the poor and pay back any who have been defrauded.

So it’s not a surprise that this rich man here in Luke 12 is not going to turn out to be a good guy, but he does seem particularly tone-deaf, with his resolve to tear down perfectly good barns and build bigger and better, showier barns. Seriously, simply adding another barn would be a lot easier and quicker, and that’s before the moral calculus about a person’s responsibility with wealth. 

Note that Jesus tells this parable in response to a man from the crowd calling out to Jesus to settle a dispute with his brother over the family inheritance. After an initial “who do you think I am?” rebuff warning the young man not to expect Jesus to be a tool against his own family, Jesus turns quickly to warning the crowd against greed, saying “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). Immediately after the parable Jesus launches into teaching that is very specific in its extension of this warning, inviting his hearers and us to look at the ravens who don’t plant or harvest, the lilies that “neither toil nor spin” (12:27) and yet are more glorious than Solomon at his most glorious. At last Jesus gets to the point: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34). All of these taken together seem to point toward one harsh but fair conclusion: those who own great possessions tend to be owned by those possessions.

Now by this point, you may have already begun to draw a conclusion about where this sermon is going to end up. Ugh, another sermon bashing rich people. And there is definitely a moral peril expressed in this parable. The more wealth and possessions one has, it seems, the greater the danger of becoming attached to that wealth and those possessions in a way that clouds one’s spiritual judgment so that one forgets (as our last hymn today will remind us) that it’s all God’s anyway, a lesson we also see in Ecclesiastes 5:18-19. It may be a cliché to say that “money can’t buy happiness,” but clichés tend to become clichés because they are true enough often enough to get repeated over and over again, which seems the case here.`

Perhaps more significant than simply the insufficiency of money to procure happiness is the utter inadequacy of money as a substitute for a relationship with God, which seems to be where the man who decides to build bigger barns goes off the rails. As Presbyterian minister Meda Stamper puts it, “The parable of the rich fool … illustrates simply and memorably the futility of choices made in isolation from the love of God and neighbor.” Stamper continues to describe what is a central theme, not just in this parable but in the whole gospel of Luke: “the problem of wealth in the context of the holy kingdom where closeness to God is life and attachment to things reflects soul-stifling anxiety and fear.” 

The particularly damning part of the choice the “barn man” makes in this parable is that only one person seems to factor into it: himself. He doesn’t seem to get that there might be others in his town in need, no clue that his workers (which he would have had to have if the harvest was that plentiful; he wasn’t bringing in all that by himself) might benefit from some portion of that harvest. He sounds like a man who most definitely has come to be owned by his possessions, who never learned the basic lesson we expect our kids to learn by kindergarten: the lesson of how to share. You might recall the brief snippet from Colossians read earlier here and its blunt equation of greed with idolatry. 

But of course, this being a parable of Jesus, the simple answer is not quite the whole answer. The dirty little secret about us moderns, even us modern Christians, is that we don’t have to be “rich” by the standards of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or Chrisley Knows Best or other such popular measures to become attached to our stuff in a way that hinders closeness to God. Heck, you can even be homeless and be powerfully attached to your stuff. We can all find some element of that unhealthy attachment in ourselves.

For myself, my downfall would be books or music, of which I just added several more at that conference I attended a week ago. For you it might be some other possession – not necessarily a pricey thing, but some thing or things to which the attachment might be so strong that it has the power to cloud one’s spiritual discernment. Whatever might be the case, attachment to the things of the earth is a moral peril to the degree that it precludes or hinders attachment to the things of God, to the “treasures in heaven” we are encouraged to store up, to the neighbors around us whom God calls us to serve. 

Sometime soon, or at least some time this fall, you’ll be hearing from the Finance and Stewardship Committee, beginnng the process of discerning how we will steward our resources for the forthcoming year. The word “stewardship” can feel loaded and burdensome to us, but at its most basic it describes how we participate in the kingdom of God, as a church and as individuals, and how we make use of the resources we have been given – the harvest we have gathered, so to speak – to participate in that kingdom and its work. In that process the challenge before us is to do so without becoming attached to those possessions or resources themselves – not to be owned by those possessions – but to see them as gifts from God to be given in service to God and neighbor, the thing that “barn man” never seems to have grasped.

We don’t need to have crazy luxury around us, or Robin Leach ogling our stuff on behalf of millions of TV viewers, to fall into the trap of attachment to things that cannot give life. No one is beyond that trap. Only when we see what we have through the eyes of the kingdom, fully recognizing God and neighbor in our decision-making, do we begin to get free of that trap. Only then do we see that building bigger barns is not the answer.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #41, O Worship the King, All Glorious Above; #—, What things we own cannot give life; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own


Sermon: The One Who Showed Mercy

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 10, 2022, Pentecost 5C

Luke 10:25-37

The One Who Showed Mercy

It is such a familiar story, what’s a pastor to do with it? 

It is maybe the most well-known parable Jesus told, rivaled only by the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a full-fledged story, with plot and development and conflict and all the good stuff that makes a story compelling enough to hear. 

Well, one thing we can do is back up and remind ourselves that the story didn’t just come out of thin air; Jesus is – cue the dramatic music – being interrogated. By a lawyer. 

The lawyer is, as Luke tells the story, testing Jesus. Throughout the different gospels different parties at different times do just that, trying to trap Jesus in some kind of bind that would either set him up to be found in error theologically or cause him to fall out of favor with the people. The lawyer (not the kind of lawyer we think of nowadays but an interpreter of the law) seems to be probing Jesus for some kind of theological misstep about the commandments. 

Instead, Jesus (as he so often does) turns the question on his interrogator, who could hardly get away with declining to answer – it was his job to answer questions about the law. So, he answered, and did so appropriately, turning to words from Deuteronomy 6 (with the “mind” added to the heart and soul and might – here given as “strength” – found in that passage). That’s the part of the scripture reading covered in that first hymn we sang, and it also shows up in different contexts in the gospels of Matthew and Mark

In this case, with the famous parable coming right after it, it’s easy to overlook this summation of the “greatest commandment,” but we shouldn’t. While here it is quoted by Jesus’s interrogator, in those other gospel context Jesus himself states it as “the greatest commandment” and “one like unto it,” to use the King James style of speech. If you were seeking to summarize the faith in as few words as possible, this isn’t your worst possibility. 

Jesus more or less congratulated him and invited him to go his way in peace and security. This of course left the lawyer stewing in the same kind of humiliation that Jesus’s would-be interlocutors typically endured; their questioning turned against them, their duplicity exposed. 

But in this case the interrogator can’t leave well enough alone, and – using a long-favored legal tactic – tries to recover himself by questioning the terminology in the answer: “And who is my neighbor?” 

The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner offers this take on the lawyer and his question:

He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”

Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.

Well, not that I want to be in the position of questioning a Pulitzer Prize nominee like Buechner, but one small part of the lawyer’s response actually is recorded for us. And it’s a pretty revealing answer. 

Upon finishing the parable, Jesus again turns on his would-be interrogator. Having told the story in which a Samaritan steps up, above and beyond the call of duty, to aid a badly wounded man who had been passed over by members of the religious elite, he again questions the lawyer, asking him to identify which of the three travelers in the story had been a neighbor to the wounded traveler. Do pay attention to the lawyer’s response:

The one who showed him mercy.

On one level, of course, the lawyer has answered rightly. Now the way the Greek is constructed in this particular sentence, a more literal translation would read something like “the one who did mercy to him.” That’s actually a theologically superior way to put it, if not so wonderful grammatically. “Mercy”, like so many of the loaded theological words we use, is active. It’s not a feeling or emotion or empathetic reaction. Mercy is, even if English doesn’t quite capture it, something you do. And this traveler had indeed “done mercy” to the wounded man, unmistakably so. And Jesus’s answer to the lawyer acknowledges this, as he leaves him with the command “Go and do likewise.”

But notice the lawyer’s answer again, even in the theologically superior but grammatically awkward version:

The one who did mercy to him.”

The three passing travelers in this story didn’t get names, but they did get pretty clear identifiers that Jesus’s listeners would have immediately recognized. One was a priest, a religious authority, and the second was a Levite, a member of that tribe set apart since Moses’s time for service in the Temple. Two figures to whom would be attributed qualities of righteousness as a part of their standing among the people.

The third man was a Samaritan. And the lawyer couldn’t even say the word.

In the time of Elijah and Elisha, the prophets who figured into the scriptures and sermons the past three weeks, Samaria was simply a region of Israel, the northern of the two kingdoms that had resulted from the machinations of those who succeeded Solomon as king after his death (the other kingdom was Judah, which was centered in Jerusalem). The city of Samaria sometimes served as the seat of government of that northern kingdom, and a lot of Elijah’s activity was concentrated there. By the time of today’s story, though, all of the region is simply lumped into a larger Roman province called Palestine. Yet over the centuries a virulent schism had erupted between those Jews (whose worship was centered on the Temple in Jerusalem) and the Samaritans, who were, technically, Jews, but whose practice had evolved to worship on Mount Gerizim in their own territory. That site was, they claimed, the original holy place in Israel, dating to the time of Joshua, as opposed to Jerusalem, which only became prominent during the era of King David. In short, a disagreement over what might seem to outsiders an arcane theological point had become a hard-and-fast schism, with Jerusalem Jews literally going out of their way to avoid even passing through the region of Samaria, much less actually having anything to do with Samaritans.

For Jesus to invoke the third, merciful traveler as a Samaritan no doubt provoked agitated bristling, and probably an oath or two, among his listeners. That’s if they were a well-behaved group. And let’s be clear; had the parable been told in Samaria, and the identity of the third passerby been Judean, reactions would most likely have been extremely similar. Vitriol ran both ways.

It was a two-sided provocation that Jesus put before his listeners. By no means would any self-respecting Jew of what we might call the Jerusalem party even think of defiling himself by dealing with a Samaritan at all; being a neighbor to a Samaritan was out of the question. At the same time, no such self-respecting Jew would conceive of a Samaritan being a neighbor to a Jew. It would never happen, they might say, the way a plantation overseer of the 1850s might say that a member of the same skin color as the slaves he ruled over would never be President of the United States. 

Such was the vitriol that our lawyer couldn’t even vocalize that “the one who did mercy” could even possibly be a Samaritan. 

It’s easy enough for us to grasp the main point of the parable, and to apply to it Frederick Buechner’s point that a neighbor is basically anybody who needs you. But it’s not always easy or comfortable – or, frankly, desirable to us – to get Jesus’s point that “anybody” really does mean anybody. We live in a world that isn’t prepared to give up our grudges, our ancient hostilities, our prejudices or superior attitudes or whatever ruses we use to divide ourselves and keep ourselves set apart from and above others. It would never happen. It can’t happen. 

I won’t let it happen.

Our society is pretty good at demeaning and dehumanizing “the other.” The world out there calls them job-stealers and threatens to build a great big wall to keep them out, never mind who’s going to pick all those tomatoes and strawberries in south Florida. Or people call them terrorists and yell “go back where you came from” even if they were born here, never mind that they are much more likely to be the ones that the actual terrorists kill first.

Or, when they get shot, people just call them thugs.

Jesus has this nasty habit of not caring one whit about our preferences or prejudices or whatnot. The world tries to respond with “but Jesus, they’re…” and Jesus cuts us off and finishes the sentence “your neighbor.” Society protests “but he’s a…” and Jesus won’t let us finish but says “the one you should imitate.” See, the kingdom of God doesn’t honor those divisions we create. The kingdom of God sees need and moves to meet it. End of discussion. If we want to claim to be part of that kingdom of God, if we call ourselves disciples, we’d better move that way.

Which one … was a neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves?

The one who did mercy to him.

Go and do likewise.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #—, O love your God with all your heart; #707, Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord; #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples