Archives For Preaching

lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517This Sunday I continued our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by looking at my visit to the dermatologist’s office through the eyes of 4th century theologian and mystic, Gregory of Nazianzus. The text for the Sunday was Paul’s in 2 Corinthians 5.17-21.

You can listen to the sermon here below, to the right in the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes here.

‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’

     So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.

It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck.

My wife, Ali, has been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. It’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.

I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.

To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until last summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.

Now obviously me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E), a moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.

Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.

 

But I digress.

The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool last summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.

Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.

But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.

Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.

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I called the doctor the next morning.

Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us communists.

No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.

The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.

First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month? Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.

Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’

‘Just about’ she replied.

‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’

Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.

 

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When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough. Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.

I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.

‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness. A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.

Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.

The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.

“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that. I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle. Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.

Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.

All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.

‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.

For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.

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She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but I’ve never been a patient before and most of the patients I do see are underneath sheets and blankets.

Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear one it is not as self-evident as you might think.

Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?

Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’

So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.

And, I was naked.

If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’

‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’

‘No, I’m fine,’ I said, my cheeks heating the room a degree or 20.

The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD. He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’

So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.

He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’

Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’

‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.

With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, and clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.

The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.

Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.

‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.

‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him, because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.

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Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.

But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.

‘I’m a minister’ I said.

‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.

‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.

Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop. You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.

John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’

Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.

The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.

Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.

She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.

Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.

‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.

She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’

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‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’

‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’

‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.

The doctor laughed too.

They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.

James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.

Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.

Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.

On the inside-

I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.

The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.

And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.

What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.

So I pretend.

I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my shit together even when my shit’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, faith when I feel doubt, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.

I don’t keep it real.

I pretend. I play-act. I hide.

And so do you.

And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Which is odd.

Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. And we don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.

No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.

All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.

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On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’ As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.

‘St. Gregory!’ I said out loud, mostly to myself.

‘Sorry,’ the doctor apologized, ‘maybe it’s not numb enough.’

He thought it was a curse- St Gregory. He thought I was referring to the pain in my skin.

But it wasn’t a curse. I wasn’t referring to the pain.

Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.

Gregory of Nazainzus.

The 4th century Church Father and mystic who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.

All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.

It has to be.

Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed. Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.

Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.

So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.

We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already. Says Gregory.

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With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’

‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.

Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.

Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born in us today.”

O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.

And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself that that is not our Gospel.

 

 

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”

lightstock_35237_small_user_274151710. The Form of the Text Should Determine the Form of the Sermon 

What holds true for preaching on scripture in general is particularly so for parables: the rhetorical form of the scripture passage should determine the rhetorical form of the sermon. A sermon on a parable should not be 3 points and a poem; it should be parabolic with a counterintuitive narrative turn that surprises and offends enough to make room for the Gospel.

9. For God’s Sake, Don’t Explain

When pressed by his disciples and his enemies, Jesus seldom resorted to the kind of utilitarian explanation that fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide. Instead Jesus most often told stories and more often than not he let those stories stand by themselves. Rarely did he explain them and rarely should preachers do what Jesus seldom did. A parable is not an allegory with simple equivalencies between its characters and figures outside the story. Besides dwelling too long on ancient near east paternal customs or the exact equivalency of a talent in order to ‘explain’ the parable is a sure way to kill the parable.

8. Show Don’t Tell 

Similar to #9, the converting power of Jesus’ parables is the emotional affect they elicit in the listener, and they hit the listener as ‘true’ even prior or without the listener being able to put the parable’s point into words.

Preaching on the parables should focus less on explaining what Jesus said and more on doing what Jesus did; that is, the sermon should aim at reproducing the head-scratching affect of Jesus’ parable rather than reporting on it.

7. Who’s Listening? 

Jesus’ closed parables, the stories he explains not at all, tend to be the ones told in response to and within earshot of the scribes and the Pharisees and, about, them.

6. Context is Key 

Where the evangelists have chosen to place a particular parable within the larger Gospel narrative clues one into how they at least took its meaning. Matthew places the Parable of the Talents, for example, just after a parable about waiting for the coming Kingdom but just before another about our care of the poor being love shown to Christ. So is the Parable of the Talents about anticipating the Kingdom? Or is it a harbinger of that story to come, that the 1 talent servant failed to do anything for the ‘least of these’ with his treasure?

5. Create Ears to Hear  

What has made parables powerful is also what makes them difficult to preach. No longer offensive stories, they’re beloved tales whose familiarity has numbed their subversive nature. Preachers need to create new ears to hear the old stories.

To be heard rightly, preaching on parables must play with them, changing the setting, modernizing the situation, positing a contrary hypothesis about the story, or seeing the story from the point of view of one of the other characters.

4. The Idiom is Important 

Jesus’ parables are largely agrarian in imagery because that was the context in which his listeners lived. Largely, listeners today do not share such a context. Not having the familiarity with that context as Jesus’ listeners did, it’s easy for us to miss the glaring omissions or additions that Jesus casts in his parables.

To do the work they originally did, preachers should rework Jesus’ parables into the idioms of our day and place so that we can hear ‘what was lost is now found’ in our own idiom.

3. Own It (Wherein ‘It’ = Hell, Judgment, Darkness) 

Many of Jesus’ parables end with arresting imagery of eschatological judgment: sheep from goats, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torture.

Rather than acting squeamish about such embellishment, preachers of parables should remember that Jesus was telling parables, stories whose truth is hidden in the affect of the narrative. Jesus was not mapping the geography of hell nor attempting any literal forecast of judgment’s content.

The shock at the end of many of these parables is what helps deliver the shock of the parable itself. Rather than run from such imagery or explain it away, preachers should own it and be as playfully serious about it as Jesus.

2. They’re about Jesus 

Jesus’ parables do not reveal eternal truths or universal principles about God that are intelligible to anyone.

The parables are stories told to Jesus’ disciples even if others are near to hear. They reveal not timeless truths but the scandal of the Gospel and what it means to be a student of that good news. As Karl Barth liked to point out, the parables are always firstly self-descriptions of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the son who goes out into the far country and is brought low.

As with preaching on scripture in general, preachers would do well to remember: It’s about Jesus.

1. Would Someone Want to Kill You Over a Story Like This?

The Gospel writers tell us that the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill Jesus in no small part because of the stories he told.

Preaching that renders the parables into home-spun wisdom, pithy tales of helpful commonsense advice or truths about the general human condition betrays the parables.

Preachers of the parables are not exempt from Christ’s call to carry their cross and preaching of the parables is one way in which we do so.

LifeTogetherI continued our community-themed series this past weekend with a sermon on Matthew 15, the passage where Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a b@#$%.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can download it in iTunes here.

 

How are you doing? How was your week?

I’ll tell you- my week was insane, crazy busy, exhausting. Sound familiar?

For example, just the other evening I spent a couple of hours at Mt Vernon Rehab sitting and praying with a family as their loved breathed her last few hours. It’s not like a ‘real’ job but still, that kind of thing, it’s emotionally draining, you know.

And then the next morning, after I sat in the Kiss-and-Ride line for about 53 minutes to drop my boys off for school, I went by the hospital to visit a few church folks. After that I stopped by the office here where our handful of regular pan-handlers gave me their latest sob story before hitting me up for a handout.

The day just got better and brighter from there though because then I had a district clergy meeting I had to attend where for 2 hours of eternity the powers-that-be harped on everything we were doing wrong, everything we were missing and how the future of a denomination in decline rested solely on our shoulders. So it was a fun meeting but, hey, at least it was long.

That afternoon I tried to respond to the like 500 unread emails in my inbox and I spent about an hour helping Dennis log in to his computer.

And after listening to him tell that 1 joke he likes to tell, I tried to carve out a little time to research this week’s scripture text and after that I schlepped everyone over the Waynewood to coach Gabriel’s baseball team.

All the parents on the team know I’m a pastor so they’re all as cloying and emotionally needy as church people so it was anything but relaxing.

So that evening I stopped at Starbucks, hoping for just a little quiet time to myself- a chance to recharge spiritually and gather my thoughts. I hid at a little table in the back where the homeless riffraff normally nap.

But, because I’m an idiot, I was still wearing my clergy collar, which is basically like wearing a sandwich board sign that says ‘Open for Business.’

Sure enough I hadn’t been sitting there for a minute- 60 seconds- when this woman comes up to me and sits down across from me.

Sits down. Doesn’t ask just sits down. Sure, she looked anxious and desperate and poor, but talk about pushy and rude. She didn’t even ask.

And then she says to me: ‘Father (I get that a lot with the collar) I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ That’s what she said: ‘I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ Which is just a passive aggressive way of saying ‘I’d like to make my burden your burden instead.’

Like I said, I was tired and feeling frayed and just needing not to be needed so I was little brusque with her.

     I said to her:

‘Look, not now. I’ve got a ton of people on my To Do List and they’re all more important than a b!@#$ like you.’

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No, of course I didn’t say that to her. Don’t be ridiculous. I know you think I’m like the Slim Shady of pastors, but I’d never say something like that to a stranger. And neither would you. I mean, we only talk that way to the people we love. Not in a million years would I talk that way to a stranger in need.

 

So how come Jesus does?

 

     “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”

     Jesus says.

If that didn’t make your sphincter tighten up a few notches when you heard it read, then you didn’t really hear it. You didn’t really hear any of it. Even my 3rd grader refers to this as ‘the mean Jesus story.’

Read it again. Jesus doesn’t just call her a dirty word. At first he ignores her completely, like she’s worse than a dog, like she’s not even there.  And then, after the disciples try to get rid of her, Jesus basically says there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU. I don’t have any spare miracles for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

For SOMEONE LIKE YOU I’m all tapped out. And when she doesn’t go away, Jesus calls her a dog.

The bread (of life) is meant for the children (of God). For the righteous. For believers. For the right kind of people like me.  It’s not meant for DOGS LIKE YOU.

Jesus, the incarnate love of God, says to her.

And you can be sure that in Greek to her ears ‘dog’ sounded exactly like ‘witch’ with a capital B.

Just like in 1 Samuel 17.43 when Goliath taunts David with that word.

Just like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches that you ‘never give holy things to dogs nor pearls to swine.’

     Now, like a pig, Jesus refuses to give anything holy to this woman and then calls her a dog.

 

Don’t you just love passages like this!

I do.

It’s because of passages like this one that you know the Jesus story is true. It has to be true. It’s too messed up not to be true. Think about it- if the Gospels were just made up fictions, then this passage today would never have made it into the Bible. Just imagine how that conversation would’ve gone. Just imagine the pitch among the writers:

     Hey, I’ve got this new idea for the story- whole new angle. 

     I was thinking we do a change of scenery, put the hero in Gentile territory, have him rub elbows with the undesirable type. 

    And then we have this woman come to him looking for his help. Just like the woman with the hemorrhage in the first part of the script. But I was thinking…what if we go the other way with it? You remember how we had that first woman grab at the hem of his garment for her miracle? 

     And how he looks around for who touched him so he can reward her faith- because that’s how compassionate he is. So this time I thought we could change it up. Have him ignore the woman completely. Pretend like she’s not even there. 

     But get this: we don’t stop there. I was thinking that after she refuses to go away- because she’s just so wretched and pathetic and everything- we can have him call her a b@!$%. 

     Yeah, a b@#$%. Isn’t that a grabber? Keep the audience guessing. He’s unpredictable. Is he going to respond with the love and mercy tack, or will he turn a cold shoulder and throw down an f-bomb?

You see- that would never happen!

     You know the Gospel is true because if it were just made up, this story- along with the cross- would’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

It never would’ve made it in the Bible. There’s no better explanation: Jesus really treated this woman like she wasn’t even there, not worth his time, and then called her a dog. So if he really did do it, then why? Why did he do it? How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus?

 

It’s true that Jesus is truly, fully God, but it’s also true, as the creed says, that Jesus was fully, truly, 100% human.

So maybe that’s the explanation.

Maybe this Canaanite woman caught Jesus with his compassion down.  He’s human. It happens to all of us.

And it’s understandable given the week he’s had. Just before this, he was rejected by his family and his hometown friends in Nazareth. That’s rough. And right after that John the Baptist gets murdered. And everywhere he’s gone lately crowds chase him more interested in miracles than messiahs.

So maybe this Canaanite woman catches Jesus in a bad mood, with a little compassion fatigue. Sue him. He’s human.

Except the way Jesus draws a line between us and them, the way he dismisses her desperation and then drops a dirty word on her- it sounds human alright. All too human.  As in, it sounds like something someone who is less than fully human would do.

So how do we explain it?

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You could say- as some have- that Jesus isn’t really being the mean, insensitive, offensive, manstrating jerk wad he seems to be here in this passage.

No, you could say, this is Jesus testing her.  He’s testing her to see how long she’ll kneel at his feet, to see how long she’ll call him ‘Lord,’ to see how long she’ll beg and plead for his mercy.

He’s just testing her faith. You could say (and many have). But if that’s the case, then Jesus doesn’t just call her a dog. He treats her like one too and he’s even more of jerk than he seemed initially.  WWJD? Humiliate her in order to test her? Somehow I don’t think so.

 

Of course, if you worked for the National Football League, then you could just blame it on her. Blame the victim.

You could suggest that she deserves the treatment Jesus gives her, that she has it coming to her for the rude and offensive way she first treats Jesus. After all, she comes to him- alone- a Gentile woman to a Jewish rabbi, violating his holiness codes and asking him to do the same for her.

Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.

So she gets what she has coming to her for bursting in on his closed doors; alone, approaching a man who’s not her husband, breaching the ethnic and religious and gender barriers between them and then rudely expecting him to do the same.

If he’s rude to her, then you could argue that she deserves it for treating him so offensively first.  And it’s true that her approaching him violates social convention. It’s true: she not only asks for healing, she asks him to transgress the religious law that defines him. All true.

But that doesn’t explain why NOW of all times Jesus acts so out of character. It doesn’t explain why NOW and not before he’s suddenly sensitive about breaking the Jewish law for mercy’s sake.

So, no, I don’t buy it.

 

     Jesus ignores her.

     Tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

     And then he calls her a dog.

 

A contemporary take on this text is to say that this is an instance of Jesus maturing, coming to an awareness that maybe his mission was to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike.

That without this fortuitous run-in with a persistent Canaanite woman Jesus might have kept on believing he was a circumscribed Messiah only. That she helps Jesus enlarge his vision and his heart.

I guess, maybe. But that doesn’t really get around the insult here.

Jews didn’t even keep dogs as pets- that’s how harsh this is. Dogs were unclean, scavenging in the streets, eating trash, and sleeping in filth. And in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a racist, derogatory term for Canaanites, unwashed unbelievers who just happened to be Israel’s original and oldest enemy. Even if she helped him change his mind that doesn’t explain away his mouth.

What’s a word like that doing in Jesus’ mouth?

     How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all but sounds a lot more like us instead?

 

 

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Of course, that’s it.

This is Jesus acting just like us.

To understand this passage, to understand Jesus acting the way he does, you have to go back to the scene right before it where Jesus has a throw down with the scribes and the Pharisees who’ve just arrived from Jerusalem to check him out.

Rather than attacking Jesus directly, they go after the company Jesus keeps. They take one look at the losers Jesus has assembled around him- low class fishermen, bottom feeding tax collectors and worse- and they ask Jesus the loaded question:

Why would a rabbi’s disciples ignore scripture? Why would they eat with unclean hands (and unclean people)?

Their pointing out how Jesus’ disciples were the wrong kind of people was but a way of pointing out how they were the right kind of people. Good people. Law-abiding people. Convention-respecting, morality-keeping,  Bible-believing people.

And Jesus responds with a scripture smack-down of his own, saying that it’s not obeying the rules that makes you holy.

It’s not believing the bible that makes you holy.

It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, Jesus says.

It’s what comes out of the mouth. And whether or not what comes out of your mouth is the truth about what’s in your heart.

That’s what makes you holy, Jesus says. Pretty straightforward, right?

Except the disciples don’t get it. They think Jesus is just telling a parable, turning the tables on the Pharisees to show how they’ve got it all backwards; it’s Jesus’ disciples who are the right kind of people and the Pharisees who are the wrong kind.

The disciples don’t get that Jesus’ whole point is that putting people into ‘kinds of people’ in order to justify ourselves is exactly the problem.

The scene starts with the scribes asserting their superiority and the scene ends with the disciples assuming their superiority.

 

Turn the page. What does Jesus do next? To drive his point home?

He takes the disciples on a field trip across the tracks. Into Canaanite territory, a place populated by people so unclean the disciples are guaranteed to feel holier than thou. And there this woman approaches them, asking for mercy.

She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy.

She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever.

She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.

But on her mouth, coming out of her mouth, is this confession: ‘Son of David.’

Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’

Which according to Jesus should tell you a bit about what’s in her heart.

But the disciples don’t even notice. The’ve already forgotten about what Jesus said about the mouth and the heart.

So what does Jesus do?

     He acts out what’s in their hearts. He ignores her because that’s what’s in their hearts. He tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU because that’s what’s in their hearts.  And because that’s what’s in their hearts, he calls her a dog.

     What comes out of his mouth is what’s in their hearts:

I’m better than you. I’m superior to you. I’m holier than you.

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Speaking of hearts-

That word on Jesus’ mouth is so distractingly shocking to us, we almost miss that she doesn’t even push back on it.

She owns it. And then she doubles down on her request for mercy:

     ‘Yeah, Jesus, I am a dog. I am a witch with a capital B. I am worthless. I am a loser. I am undeserving. I am a sinner. I am the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, but- hey- have mercy on me…’ 

     Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.

She embodies what Jesus says in Luke’s more white-bread Gospel, when Jesus says:

‘Who is justified before God? The religious person who prays thank you, God, I am not like that sinner, or the person prays Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 

     You see-

That’s what Jesus points out by play-acting, what he wants the disciples to see, what he wants us to see when he praises her ‘great faith.’

She doesn’t put up any pretense. She doesn’t try to justify herself over and against any one else. She doesn’t pretend that her heart’s so pure or her life is so put together that she doesn’t even need Jesus all that much.

No, she says: ‘Yeah, I am about the worst thing you could call me. Have mercy on me.’

After the scribes and the Pharisees have not gotten it and thought that it’s their fidelity to scripture that justifies them. And after the disciples have not gotten it and just flipped the categories and thought that it’s their association with Jesus that makes them superior. And after Jesus so plainly says that what makes us holy is whether or not what comes out of our mouth is the truth about what’s in our heart.

     She tells the truth about her pock-marked heart and she boldly owns up to her need.

     And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’

 

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If that’s great faith, then what it means to be a community of faith is to be a place for sinners.

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So the good news is-

     If you’re not fine but feel like everyone else is

If you’re selfish or petty or stingy

If you yell at your kids too much

Or cheat on your spouse

Or disappoint your parents

If you lie to your friends or stare at a loser in the mirror

If you gossip about your neighbors

Or think the worst about people you barely know

If you drink too much, care too little, fail at your job

If you think any one who votes for the other party is an idiot

If you’re a racist or an agist or a homophobe

If you’re a barely tamed cynic who thinks you’re smarter than everyone else just about all the time

If your beliefs are so shaky you’re not even sure you belong here

If you think the insides of your heart would make others throw up in their mouths

If you think you’re worthless, the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, that you warrant the worst thing someone might say about you…

Then the good news is: this is the place for you. Because Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

     While we were yet dogs, Jesus came to take our pock-marked hearts and fill them with his own righteousness.

To make us holy.

But he can’t do that until what’s on our mouths confesses what’s actually in our hearts.

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means that this is not a place where we put up pretenses, hide behind piety, pretend that we’re pure of heart, use our beliefs to justify ourselves over and against someone else.

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means this is not a place to act self-righteous or judgmental or superior or intolerant or in any way at all that suggests we think we’re the right kind of people.

Of course the bad news is-

That’s about the last thing people think of when they hear the word ‘church.’

What’s Heaven Like?

Jason Micheli —  October 9, 2014 — 4 Comments

In the last few years, thanks largely to the work of NT Wright, the Church has recovered the understanding that going to heaven when we die is not the point of believing in Jesus nor is it, even, a primary concern of scripture and seldom do our notions of heaven resemble anything in our scripture or tradition.

However, to say that Christianity is not about going to heaven when we die is not to say that reflection on and belief in eternity is inappropriate.

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When I worked as a hospital chaplain at UVA, one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to identify the bodies of their loved ones. I didn’t need hindsight to know it was a task for which I was wholly inadequate.

One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see her daughter.

She was waiting at the security desk when I found her- on occasions like that they’re easy to spot. She didn’t look any older than my mom.

Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. Her hair was matted from where her pillow had been just hours before. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.

When I walked up to her, she had her arms crossed- like she was cold or like she was holding herself. ‘I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night’ she kept whispering to herself.

A resident doctor, a med student no older than me, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.

The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room.

A nurse or an orderly pulled a little chain string to draw the paper curtain open, and when the mother saw her daughter she immediately lost her footing.

And then she lost her breath.

And then after a long, stretched-out moment, somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, she let out a bone-racking sob.

I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve always been wary of anyone who knows what to say in comfortless moments.

The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.

She kept looking at me, urging me with her eyes to say something. I ignored her, and the mother kept sobbing just as loudly as she’d begun.

But maybe I should’ve said something, because when I refused the doctor put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said:

That’s alright. She’s not here. That’s just a shell…’ 

I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.

Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried:

‘It’s not alright. That’s my daughter.

She’s not just anything. She’s Amanda. Until I say otherwise, that’s my daughter.’ 

Chastened, the doctor said I’m sorry and slunk away.

I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair and softly recounted memories.

In all that time, she hadn’t really acknowledged my presence until she turned and looked at me and asked me:

What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there. 

I need to be able to picture her there.’

I fumbled it.

I didn’t describe streets of gold exactly, or pearly gates and billowy clouds, but I didn’t do much better than that either.

I’ve been around death enough to know that almost every one of you is as prone to cliche as that terrified med student, and only a few of you would handle that mother’s question about heaven any better than I did.

I’ve buried something like 80 people and stood vigil at I don’t know how many bedsides.

But Amanda’s mother with the sweater on backwards, who’d just been kicked in the teeth by grief, she’s the only person who’s ever put the question to me straight:

What’s heaven like?

Given my line of work, you might expect that question to come up all the time, but she’s the only one who’s ever asked.

Which tells me that before trying to answer what heaven is, maybe I should’ve said what heaven is not.

I wish I’d had the wisdom to lay my hand on her daughter’s head, and find the right way to tell her no matter what anyone said Amanda’s body was more than just a shell because heaven is not the continuation of a person’s eternal soul.

No doubt that would surprise her.

After all for centuries people have taken comfort in the belief that you have an eternal, spiritual soul apart from your physical, embodied self.

But that isn’t a belief rooted in scripture.

God makes us embodied creatures, I wish I’d found a way to say.

We’re one in life, body and soul, and we’re one in death, body and soul.

When we say things like ‘Death’s nothing at all…her body’s just a shell…her soul’s just slipped away’ we may be offering words of comfort but we’re not proclaiming the Gospel.

I think she would’ve understood.

She would’ve known you couldn’t look at her little girl- at the scar on her right hand that she could tell you Amanda got when she was nine, helping in the kitchen- and say her body doesn’t matter.

Death is real, I wish I’d said.

But then she already knew that.

Just like it was for Jesus from noon on Friday to Easter Eve, our death is the end of us.

Our hope lies not in pretending otherwise, not in speculating about a detachable part of us Socrates called the soul.

Our hope lies in knowing that God promises to raise us to life everlasting and, just as he did with Jesus, God is determined not to leave any part of us behind.

And I wish I’d warned her about funeral homes- that the funeral home would most likely want to distribute memorial cards with Amanda’s name and dates on one side, and- odds were- the other side would have a terrible poem on it that said:

“Do not stand by my grave and weep. I am not here. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.” I wish I’d warned her to refuse a poem like that because heaven is not our becoming one with the infinite. We don’t disappear into the ether.

I should’ve warned her the funeral home would tell her that people found those to be comforting words, but that, for Amanda’s sake, she should care not just that the words are comforting, she should care that they’re true.

Her reaction to the lie the doctor tried to offer as comfort tells me Amanda’s mom already knew that.

She already knew our platitudes about heaven can’t do the heavy lifting because they offer an understanding of heaven in which God is completely absent or, worse, unnecessary. Jesus’ work on the Cross and victory on Easter don’t seem to have achieved anything.

Before I tried to tell her what heaven is, I wish I’d given her advice about Amanda’s funeral.

I wish I’d advised her not to allow any family member or friend or preacher to stand before a congregation and say something like: ‘I’m sure Amanda’s up there now playing field hockey just like she loved to do down here.’

Maybe that sounds obvious, but I hear it enough to make it worth pointing out.

When we say things like that, we’re assuming heaven is basically a continuation of our present physical lives in all their ordinariness.

Heaven is a physical existence; the Risen Jesus is tactile.

But heaven’s also somehow altogether different and more mysterious than our lives now.

Heaven is not simply the continuation of our earthly lives.

For her sake, I wish I’d been clear about what heaven is not.

What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there. I need to be able to picture her there.’

She let go of Amanda’s hand when she asked me. And squeezed my hand.

She squeezed it hard.

 

For a mother having to come claim her daughter- being able to distinguish between what the bible promises and what Hallmark cards promise really is a matter of life and death.

I’ve replayed that night a thousand times in my head. Instead of fumbling with images of billowy clouds and streets of gold, I wish I’d found the right way to tell her that the first thing heaven is is worship.

I wish I’d told her that when scripture pictures heaven it imagines a choir- not because heaven is all harps, organ music and polyester robes or even literally filled with music and praise.

I wish I’d told her to picture a choir because a choir is the perfect image for what it means for her little girl to have a body of her own but find her true self as part of a much greater body, a body where her unique voice sings most truly in harmony with the voices of others, where she rejoices at the gifts of others which only enhance the gifts that are hers alone.

I could’ve told her that the reason Christians put so much care and attention into the way we worship is because the way we worship is the clearest way we depict and anticipate the life of heaven.

So I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda enjoying what we hope for here in worship: that every ounce of her energy and passion is focused on the God, that every part of her that was is now lost in wonder, love and praise – that’s what heaven’s like.

And I wish I’d asked about Amanda’s friends.

If I’d had the presence of mind to ask about Amanda’s friends, then I could’ve told her that in scripture heaven is about friendship- that the heart of God is three persons in perfect community, and that heaven is being invited to the table of friendship of  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I wish I’d asked about her daughter’s friends, about the joy and fulfillment they gave her because, in scripture, heaven is about friendship, not just the friendship between you and God but friendship between you and me.

That’s what Isaiah sees when he envisions Jerusalem the new city, coming down from heaven.

The life we live here and now, as friends and neighbors- its not just for the time being.

It won’t be transcended by the coming of heaven.

There will always be community.

There will always be friendship.

That’s why we work so hard as Christians to be engaged in service in our community and around the world- because learning to live together as friends is at the heart of preparing to live in heaven.

Picture Amanda as she was with her best friends, I wish I’d said.

Because that’s what heaven is.

Instead of fumbling with streets of gold and pearly gates, I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda at a party, at a wedding maybe.

I wish I’d asked her to picture Amanda with food and wine and music and dancing because heaven is about feasting together.

Maybe the most common picture of all in scripture is that of heaven as a wedding banquet, where God the Father celebrates the union of the Son with God’s children.

Just imagine, I wish I’d said, a fabulous meal where there were no allergies, no eating disorders, no inequalities in world trade, no fatty foods, no gluttony, and no price tag.

That’s why John Wesley told Christians to share in the Eucharist as constantly as possible- not because the Eucharist grimly recalls Christ’s last meal but because when we gather together as two or three or twenty or two thousand and we eat together as friends we’re a little icon of the Trinity, we’re a little glimpse of heaven.

Heaven is where where food, friendship and worship all come together, I wish I’d said when she squeezed my hand.

Of course, there are questions that answer still doesn’t answer. It doesn’t answer whether heaven comes to us on the day we die or whether we lie at rest, awaiting our resurrection on the last day.It doesn’t answer how God will raise us or in what way we’ll be physical creatures.

It doesn’t answer whether only Christians or only Christians of a particular stripe get into heaven. It doesn’t answer those questions, but I don’t think Amanda’s mom would’ve cared all that much about those questions.

Like the cliches we so often use, those questions are all about us. 

And heaven is all about God.

Heaven is coming face to face with the only thing greater than the fear of death- the overwhelming love of God. That’s all Amanda’s mom wanted to know.

 

 

 

 

 

This Sunday we continued our Lenten series, 7 Deadlies, with #5: Greed. For the scripture text, I chose a parable (Luke 16.1-9) in which Jesus actually praises cheating, stealing and lying, which forced it to be an atypical sermon on the deadly sins.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app.

 

     “He’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

     When Diane said that to me, she was standing in her Florida-orange kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis or Diana or Frank Sinatra on them.

     I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen because that was the only place to sit.

     Diane’s new house was an unfinished, messy maze of boxes, sheet rock and plastic drop cloths.

Her yard outside wasn’t even unfinished. It was unbegun: no driveway, no grass- just a swampy stretch of mud from the road to the front porch (which was also unfinished).

Their mailbox hung over loosely in the mud like a pickup stick.

The mailbox had a blue and green mountain scape painted on it, along with their names: Tim and Diane.

Tim and Diane were members of the first church I pastored.

Diane was one of the ones who, after my first Sunday there, told me how much better she preferred the previous pastor’s preaching.

Nonetheless, they were good people and good church members, and, in the way of small towns and small churches, they were related to nearly one-third of the names in the church directory.

Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Pete to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town.

Pete who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church; Pete who was friends with Tim and Diane and whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation; Pete whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching.

Diane had missed church for several weeks of Sundays so on one afternoon I decided I’d drive out to their new, unfinished home.

In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. Because her front yard was a sea of mud, I’d had to take off my shoes.

Sitting in Diane’s kitchen, I quickly discovered how hard it is to strike an authoritative posture when you’re wearing nothing but socks and when those socks have holes in them and when your exposed feet are dangling above the floor like a toddler’s.

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As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper: that Pete had taken their money for their home and used it to pay off other debts and business endeavors, and now Tim and Diane’s savings were drained, their retirement postponed, their nerves frayed and their home unfinished.

I said something foolish about needing to hear Pete’s side of the story, and Diane pointed out to her young pastor that she’d been conned, cheated and swindled. There was no “other” side to the story.

If it’s true that contractors have a vocabulary all their own, then it’s axiomatic that those who’ve been cheated by contractors have an even more vivid vocabulary at their disposal.

Diane said a lot of things about Pete, mostly along the lines of what he resembled and where he could go and what he could stick where before he got there.

By way of conclusion she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to her pastor: “All I know is, when he meets the Lord, he’ll get what he has coming to him.”

diana-thumb

I said a lot of things about Pete too, mostly boring, predictable preacher things: that Pete needed to make restitution, do penance, seek forgiveness.

I said a lot of things about Pete, but it never occurred to me…it would’ve violated everything I learned in Kindergarten, my Mom would’ve grounded me…

     Diane would’ve cold-cocked me if I’d said something like:

     ‘Sure Diane, I know Pete’s a 2-faced, crooked SOB but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.’

     I never would’ve said something that offensive.

     Of course, that’s just what Jesus does.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus gets accused of consorting with tax collectors, who were no better than extortionists. Jesus gets accused of hanging out with easy women, and drinking with sinners.

They accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.

     And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.

He tells all the good, rule-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep too stupid to stay with the shepherd than he cares about those who never wandered far from the flock.

And then Jesus watches his stock drop further when he actually praises lying and cheating and stealing.

With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story just for them:

      An executive at Goldman Sachs gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company. 

     The boss calls him into his office, confronts him, tells him to clean out his desk by the end of the day. 

     As the manager is about to leave the office, the boss adds “And I’ll be coming soon to take a look at your books.”

     Riding back down the elevator, the manager thinks to himself: “I’m too old to start over again. I don’t have any other marketable skills and unemployment won’t cover the family budget.” 

     And before the elevator doors open, the manager has come up with his own severance package. 

     He’s still got the firm’s credit card so he invites some his best clients to a pricey dinner in the district, and over drinks and foie gras he tells them that he’s canceling the balance of what they owe his firm. 

     ‘Just write it off, and we’ll call it even’ he says. 

     He may not have a job but at least when the pink slip comes he’ll have a group of wealthy, grateful people to help him land on his feet instead of on food stamps. 

Jesus tells his huddled disciples this story and he doesn’t end it with a word of warning, a woe. He doesn’t tell them they are to give up their dishonest ways and follow him.

Instead Jesus says:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

     And all of God’s People say: ‘What the_______________?’

You know, I watched you all while the scripture was read this morning. You all sat there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense.

It troubles me that not one of you looked even a little bit tight-sphinctered with the idea of Jesus pointing to the crooked little liar in the police lineup and saying: ‘Way to go! Thumbs up!’

At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.

Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Anthony Wiener seem reserved, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

     Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity, which Julian argued taught its followers to be liars and thieves.

JulianusII-antioch(360-363)-CNG

      And St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable because Luke tacks all these other sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable.

      Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money.

True, but beside the point when it comes this parable.

Luke also warns us how the person who is not faithful in a little will not be faithful in much.

Again, it’s true but it’s not faithful to the scandal in Jesus’ parable.

      It’s like Luke’s obfuscating to get Jesus off the hook for violating our moral sensibilities.

And maybe getting Jesus off the hook is what you’re expecting from me.

Maybe you expect me to tell you not to worry, in the original Greek the dishonest manager is more like Robin Hood, ripping off the wicked rich to give the money back to the righteous poor.’

Yeah, not so much.

If someone like St Augustine didn’t figure out a way to short sell this parable then there simply isn’t one.

      What the manager did was to lie, cheat, steal, and lie some more.

      And Jesus points to him and says: ‘Gold star.’

hey-mary-heard-you-like-clowns-gold-star-girl

     “All I know is when he meets the Lord he’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Pete and Jane and the church lay leader.

The Book of Common Prayer contains an ancient worship service in it called the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and if I’m honest with myself that’s what I envisioned would happen.

With my keen powers of spiritual persuasion, Pete would repent. As a group we would draft steps towards penance. I would urge Tim and Diane to begin the process of forgiveness. It would all end, I thought, without permanent animosity or legal fees. Instead Pete some Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and without a dry eye in the house we’d end the service singing ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.’

And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtue, the sort of church you read about in the religion page of the Washington Post. And I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever.

OrdainThyselfImage

 

the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy.

What went down, though, was more Kramer vs Kramer than Doogie Howser.

3387759-7355170166-doogi

     We gathered in the church parlor. Tim and Diane sat in front of a dusty chalk board with half-erased prayer requests written on it.

Pete sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally tacky painting of the Smiling Jesus hung in a frame right above his head.

Jesus laughing2

I opened with what probably sounded to everyone like a condescending prayer. No one said ‘Amen.’ Instead Tim and Diane exploded with unbridled anger and unleashed a torrent of expletives that could’ve peeled the varnish off the church parlor china cabinet.

And Pete, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate- even boring- church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. There was suddenly an urgency to him.

With surprising creativity, Pete had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge.

I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Pete tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say: ‘I know Pete bled you dry and lied to your face and robbed you blind but there’s just something…wonderful…about the way he did it.’

No.

No instead, in the middle of Pete’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him:

‘It’s like from the get-go you just expected us to forgive you?!‘

Then they stormed out of the church parlor.

And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good.

Meanwhile Pete just sat there with a blank, guilt-less expression on his face and that offensively tacky picture of Jesus smiling right above him.

Jesus laughing2

     After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Pete: ‘I guess you’re probably wondering if we’re going to make you leave the church?’

He squinted at me, like I’d just uttered a complete non sequitur: ‘No, why would I be wondering that?’

‘Well, obviously, because of everything you’ve done. Lying and cheating and robbing your neighbors. It’s immoral.

     We’re supposed to be light to the world not just like the world.

     We can’t have someone like you be of the part of the church.’

I said in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.

And Pete nodded and then leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another shady business deal.

‘You’re seminary educated right?’ he asked. I nodded.

‘And of course you know you’re bible a lot better than me.’ And I feigned humility and nodded.

‘I could be wrong’ he said, ‘but wouldn’t you say that the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the scribes and the Pharisees?’

‘Yeah’ I nodded, not liking where this was going.

‘And back then weren’t they the professional clergy?’ Pete asked. ‘You know…like you?’

‘Uh-huh’ I grumbled.

‘And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but:

Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on?

Someone like me for what I’ve done?

Or someone like you for saying I’m not good enough to belong with Jesus?’

‘You slippery son of a…’ I thought to myself.

I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively tacky picture on the wall.

Maybe his smile gotten bigger because Pete was smiling too. And I wasn’t.

Jesus laughing2

     Look-

Stealing is a sin. It’s the 7th Commandment.

Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment.

Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments and the 5th Deadliest Sin.

It’s all there in scripture: it’s wrong.

The bible says so. Sometimes Jesus even says so.

So I don’t why Jesus says ‘well done’ to the creep in this parable.

Did Jesus want to puncture our flattering self-images? Maybe.

Did Jesus want to point out out how the energy we expend for him is nothing compared to the lengths we’ll go to save our own skin? Possibly.

Did Jesus want us to notice in the story not the crook’s crookedness but the Master’s mercifulness?

Could be. I don’t know.

Truth is, I can’t answer the question: Why did Jesus tell this offensive story? And I’ve been preaching long enough now that I don’t trust anyone who tells you they can.

I can’t answer the question ‘Why did Jesus tell such an offensive story?’ but the fact that that is always the question we ask when it comes to this parable I think proves that there’s another, better question we should be asking:

‘When Jesus says he’s come to seek and save sinners, why is it that we always imagine Jesus is talking about someone other than us?’

Other than me.

I honestly can’t tell you why Jesus told a story like this.

But if there’s any silver lining to a story like this it’s that Jesus is willing to make someone like you the hero.

 

 

UnknownIf you’re in the DC area, stop by Aldersgate (Collingwood) this Sunday to hear Bishop Will Willimon preach.

Actually, stop by Aldersgate Kingstowne at 10:00 to hear me preach.

THEN go over to our Collingwood location for a lunchtime forum with Bishop Willimon at 12:30.

You can get more details here.

I will be convening the forum, and I’d love to be able to pose your questions to Bishop Willimon.

 

You can email me at jamicheli@mac.com.

You can leave it in the comment section below.

Or-better yet- click on the ‘Speakpipe’ to the right of the screen and leave me an audio question.

 

Untitled3To prime the question pump, you can listen to the Tamed Cynic Podcast with Bishop Willimon here.

 

I thought I’d give you these gem quotes from Willimon’s book, Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question.

Bishop Willimon gets away with saying things that would get me in trouble with my own bishop:

 “A Living God gives churches two choices: grow (that is, change) or die (dead doesn’t change.’

 

‘Being surrounded by biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual superiority of Wesleyan Christianity.’

 

“The baptized have been all too willing to transfer their baptismal responsibilities on to the backs of clergy.”

 

‘What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution (the UMC) the ‘Body of Christ.’

All the Gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless, peripatetic.

Never once did Jesus say, ‘Come, settle down with me.’

 

“The test of my ministry is how well God uses me to challenge and to equip every church to make more disciples for Jesus Christ by taking more risks and changing more lives.”

 

“Change, especially when we don’t know where it is headed, opens space for the Holy Spirit to intrude and show us what God can do.”

 

“Whenever Jesus is busy, his work brings enemies out of the woodwork, some of whom are more adept practitioners of the gospel than I.”

 

“Methodism is church in motion. The Body of Christ atrophies when it is preoccupied with self-care…laity are called not to maintain the church, but to be part of the mission of  Jesus Christ in the world. Our great task is not to stabilize or harmonize the People of God but to put the church in motion.”

“Boredom is killing the church.”

 

 

 

This weekend we’re concluding our recent sermon series, Revolution of the Heart, with Luke’s second story of resurrection: the encounter on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24).

looking_01As I do, I’ve been spending several hours a day studying the text as well as what other saints and sinners have had to say about it.

I still haven’t discovered the sermon for Sunday, but, as I do, I’ve come across several exegetical nuggets that, while they probably won’t find their way into the sermon, shed more light on the text.

For instance:

Luke 24 parallels Luke 2.

Whereas Mark’s frenetic pace, apocalyptic tone and disarming hero reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, with his carefully arranged plot and neatly calibrated scenes, Luke is the New Testament’s Charles Dickens.

In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph are leaving Jerusalem after the Passover. They discover their little boy is not with them. They run back to Jerusalem frantic and fearful. Only on the third day do they find them where the precocious little twerp has the stones to reply: ‘It was necessary to be in my Father’s house.’

In Luke 24, another couple are leaving Jerusalem after yet another Passover pilgrimage. A man named Cleopas and a companion not named- most likely his wife. They’re despondent that Jesus is no longer with them. They meet a stranger who check mates their sorrow by showing how “it was necessary” that the Messiah should die and be raised.” It’s the third day. They recognize in the breaking of bread that this stranger is the Jesus who’d been lost.

Another nugget:

Luke 24 is where Jesus becomes the ‘Lord’ (again).

There are things you notice more easily if you read the Gospel straight through like you would a novel or short story.

From beginning to nearly the end, Luke constantly refers to Jesus as the Lord.

Pre-magnificat, Elizabeth welcomes Mary “the mother of my Lord.”

The many sick who ask Jesus for a little miracle working make their request by calling him ‘Lord.’

When the disciples go out in pairs Luke says it’s the ‘Lord’ who sends them.

Peter doesn’t simply deny Jesus, according to Luke he denies the ‘Lord.’

But in Luke when Christ’s Passion begins, his of the ‘Lordship’ ends.

Before Pilate, on trial for claiming to be King of the Jews, Luke makes no mention of him also being the ‘Lord.’

Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus is just ‘Jesus.’ So too when he’s before Herod. Before the crowd, it’s even worse. ‘Jesus’ is now just ‘this man’ while the other prisoner’s name, ‘Barabbas,’ means ‘son of the Father.’

On the way to the Cross, Luke calls him Jesus. He’s jeered and mocked and spit upon for feigning to be the Christ, the Messiah. No one calls him Lord, not even Luke.

Through the taunting of the one bandit and the petition of remembrance from the other, he is derided as “the Christ” or simply called Jesus.

It’s ‘Jesus’ who’s taunted by the thief on the cross. It’s ‘Jesus’ who gives up his spirit to breath his last. It’s ‘Jesus’ whom Mary and the Beloved watch die. It’s ‘Jesus’ whose body is taken down and buried.

rembrandt_emmaus-maaltijd_grtBut then the 3rd day later, the 8th day of the week, which is the first day, when the women come to anoint his body and discover it gone, they’re not scared that Jesus’ body is missing. They’re upset the Lord’s body is missing.

Having been killed and raised, Jesus is Lord again.

And when run back from Emmaus, they’re not screaming excitedly about ‘Jesus.’ They announce ‘The Lord has risen indeed.’

Luke does in chapter 24 what he has Peter do in his first sermon in Acts: You crucified ‘Jesus’ but God through his resurrection God has made him ‘Lord.’

This little nugget probably makes for a better Easter sermon:

Resurrection = God’s enthroning Jesus as King and Lord of the Nations.

However, that Luke has the ‘Lord’ go dark during the Passion story begs the question:

Who it is that dies on the Cross?

God (in the flesh)?

Or Jesus (just the flesh)?

So much of our theology eludes the depiction of God making someone else suffer and die on the Cross by arguing that it’s God’s own self who dies on the Cross (thank you Trinitarian theology).

Luke though seems to suggest otherwise.

It’s Jesus who dies on the Cross.

It’s God who vindicates him.

Twitterletics #10

Jason Micheli —  February 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

the-vision-after-the-sermon-jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-1888A while back I listened to a TED talk and then read an article about the A Visit from the Goon Squad author, Jennifer Egan, publishing a short story in the New Yorker via Twitter. Like the serial novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, she released her story 140 characters at a time.

I wondered:

Is it possible to construct a complete sermon out of 140 character parts?

You can see the earlier installments of the twermon here.

Text: Genesis 32

Entry 10:

#Twitterletics:

As Jacob knew it would, Esau’s birthright seemed an intangible thing compared to hunger.

But I still like Jacob.

UnknownThe guys at Homebrewed Christianity better watch out. We’re going to start doing a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

To kick things off, we snagged Will Willimon.

Jesus must have a sense of humor, and I love the irony.

A year ago I got in trouble with my bishop for posting about farts on this blog.

Last week I found myself on the phone with Methodism’s most famous and important voice, Bishop Will Willmon, making jokes about sex and mas%$#$@#$%^ (‘it’s sex with someone I love).

All sprinkled with a generous helping of curse words.

We edited some- but not all- of it.

The rest is vintage Willimon: pithy, deeply theological and as arresting as a slap across the face.

Which, by the way, is how he describes Karl Barth’s effect on him.

For those of you who don’t know Will Willimon, he was recognized by Baylor as one of America’s 12 Best Preachers. The Pew Foundation lists him as the 2nd most read author among Protestant clergy, selling over a million copies. Take that Beth Moore.0

The former dean of Duke Chapel and former Bishop of North Alabama he currently teaches at Duke and pastors Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. The very best of my preaching is just a shallow imitation of this master artist.

As a young seminary student, Willimon’s sarcastic, caustic demeanor freed me to be me in the pulpit.

You can find his blog and links to his books here.

Bishop Willimon will be our guest preacher on Sunday, March 30 and will host a ‘Lunch with the Bishop’ Forum that same day.

Be on the lookout for the next installments. We’ve got Kendall Soulen, Stanley Hauerwas, Thomas Lynch and others in the queue.

You can listen to the Willimon interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

Twitterletics: #7

Jason Micheli —  January 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

the-vision-after-the-sermon-jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-1888A while back I listened to a TED talk and then read an article about the A Visit from the Goon Squad author, Jennifer Egan, publishing a short story in the New Yorker via Twitter. Like the serial novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, she released her story 140 characters at a time.

I wondered:

Is it possible to construct a complete sermon out of 140 character parts?

You can see the earlier installments of the twermon here.

Text: Genesis 32

Entry 7:

#Twitterletics:

In a religion where names signify and portend everything it’s not clear that I’m meant      to but, nevertheless, I like Jacob too

Caravaggio_FlightIntoEgypt_detail_Joseph_and_angelHere’s the sermon from this weekend. I’ll post the video and audio from the sermon once it’s ready. As you’ll see below, I began with an updated rehearsal of Numbers 5 that’s better seen than read.

Joseph has gotten short shrift in the Gospels, Church History, Christian Art and Preaching. If you’d like to read more beyond the sermon, I’d suggest Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed, or Ken Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Matthew 1.18-25

     The sermon begins without explanation, with random volunteers from the audience performing updated parts of the ritual for the bitter waters:

First, barley is measured out of its package- 2 quarts worth- and poured into an offering plate.

Second, holy water is poured from the baptismal font into a large clay pitcher.

Next, the ‘indictment’ is written on a piece of parchment and then its burnt, its ashes put into the water and mixed together.

Then, the pen with which the indictment was written is unscrewed and the ink is poured into the pitcher of water.

Finally the floor of the altar is vacuumed and the suctioned dirt is removed from the bag and put into the pitcher. It’s all mixed together a last time and poured into a clear glass.

‘Does anyone want a drink?’

There’s something about this (the bitter waters) story, and there’s something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

But it’s not for the reason you might guess.

Sure it’s true that Jesus isn’t Joseph’s biological son.

It’s true that, like me, Joseph is an adoptive father.

It’s true that in Jewish tradition as soon as Joseph names him and claims him as his own- adopts him- Jesus is as much Joseph’s child as he would be had Joseph been the biological father.

And it’s true that I know firsthand how true that is and feels.

But that’s not it.

That’s not the something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

Matthew says that Joseph was a ‘righteous man.’

And that’s all Matthew has to say.

I know Matthew’s nativity sounds like a short, simple, straight-forward story, but that’s because we live on this side of Christmas. On the other side of Christmas it’s not a simple, straight-forward story at all.

And it all hinges on Matthew calling Joseph a ‘righteous man.’

     In Hebrew the term is ‘tsadiq.’ And it’s not just an adjective for someone.

By calling Joseph a righteous man, Matthew’s not simply saying that Joseph was a good man or a moral man or even a God-fearing man.

Tsadiq in Matthew’s day was a formal label. An official title.

Tsadiq was a term that applied to those rare people who studied and learned and practiced the Torah scrupulously.

Tsadiqs were those rare people who believed the Jewish law was the literal Word of God as dictated to Mose, and therefore, as the Word of God, tsadiqs believed the Torah should be applied to every nook and cranny of life.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was one of those rare, elite tsadiqs- righteous men- Matthew tells you everything you need to know to unlock this story.

 

Because when Matthew tells you that Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you, for example, that Joseph wore phylacteries, little boxes of scripture against his head and around his arm- as commanded in Deuteronomy 6.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a righteous man, he’s telling you that Joseph wore a prayer shawl at all times as commanded in the Book of Numbers 15. A shawl with tassels hanging from every corner, each tassel a tangible reminder of all the commands of God.

When Matthew tells you Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you that Joseph had a long, never-trimmed beard, a beard that would fill me with envy, a beard that would set him apart as different and holy- just as Leviticus 19 commands.

Joseph was a ‘righteous man,’ says Matthew. A tsadiq.

Which means there were specific things Joseph did and did not do.

As a tsadiq, Joseph covered his right eye and prayed the shema twice a day: ‘Shema Yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.’

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’

And as a tsadiq, you can bet Joseph had a copy of this prayer rolled up and nailed to his doorpost.

If Joseph was a tsadiq, then he gave out of his poverty to the Temple treasury.

He traveled the 91 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem every Yom Kippur to have a scapegoat bear his sins away.

He practiced his piety before others to remind them that God had called them to be perfect, as God is perfect.

Joseph was a righteous man, Matthew says. A tsadiq.

Meaning, there were specific things he did and did not do.

He did not violate the Sabbath, no matter what, because God created man for the Sabbath, for the glory of God.

And as a tsadiq, Joseph did not eat unclean food.

For that matter, as a tsadiq, Joseph did not eat with unclean people: gentiles or outcasts or sinners.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a righteous man, he’s telling you that Joseph was one of the rare few who could be called ‘righteous’ because they lived the righteous law of God to the letter.

Every jot and tittle.

If the Torah commands that you care for the immigrant in your land then a tsadiq does just that without questioning.

And if Torah commands that you avoid and dare not touch a leper, then a tsadiq obeys God’s righteous law and keeps his distance.

In Israel, in Matthew’s day, after being a priest there was no greater honor than being given the title tsadiq- a righteous man who follows every letter of God’s righteous law.

And that’s the incredibly complicated dilemma that Matthew hides behind that word ‘tsadiq.’

Because this tsadiq is engaged to a woman named Mary.

And she’s pregnant.

And he’s not the father- of course he’s not. He’s a tsadiq.

images

You see, in Mary and Joseph’s day, betrothal was a binding, legal contract. Only the wedding ceremony itself remained.

Mary and Joseph weren’t simply fiancees.

For all intents and purposes, they were husband and wife.

They were already bound together and only death or divorce could tear them asunder.

For that reason, according to Torah, unfaithfulness during the engagement period was considered adultery. Actually, according to the Mishna- which is Jewish commentary on the Torah- infidelity during betrothal was thought to be a graver sin than infidelity during marriage.

Matthew tells you that Joseph is a tsadiq.

Betrothed to an adulteress.

 As a tsadiq, Joseph knows what the Torah now requires of him.

 

Joseph can’t simply forgive Mary and forget. Only God can forgive sin.

No matter how much Joseph might love Mary, his love of God must trump his love of neighbor- they’re not equivalent. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph must take Mary to the door of her father’s house, accuse her publicly of adultery and say to her: ‘I condemn you.’ And if she does not protest or deny the accusation, the priests and elders of Nazareth will stone her to death. On her father’s front porch.

That’s what the Torah commands.

And Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a tsadiq. A righteous man.

Of course, if Mary does protest, if she denies that she’s sinned, if she’s foolish enough to tell people something as ridiculous as her child being conceived by the Holy Spirit then Joseph, as a tsadiq, certainly knows what course of action the Torah requires: the ritual of bitter waters.

According to the Book of Numbers, Joseph is commanded to take Mary before a priest, bringing an offering of barley with them. About 2 quarts’ worth.

After offering the barley upon the altar, the priest will compel Mary to stand before the Lord. The priest will pour holy water into a clay jar. Then the priest will sweep up the dirt from the synagogue floor and pour it into the jar of water. Then the priest will write and read out the accusation against her and Mary will be compelled to say: ‘Amen, amen.’ Finally the priest will take the accusation and the ink in which it was written and mix them into the water.

And then command Mary to drink it.

The bitter waters.

If it makes her sick, she’s guilty and she’ll be stoned to death.

If somehow it does not make her ill, then she’s innocent.

Her life will be spared though, in Mary’s case, her life still will be ruined because she’s pregnant and Joseph’s not the father.

She will be considered a sinner. Specifically, an am-ha-aretz, a term that was reserved for people like lepers and tax collectors and shepherds.

 

And as a tsadiq, someone who lives the Torah inside and out, Joseph certainly knows he’ll be considered an am-ha-aretz too if he marries Mary.

He’ll be a tsadiq no more.

On the other hand, if he does anything other than, anything less than, what the Torah commands he will be a tsadiq no more. He will lose his status as quickly as though it were emptied and poured out from him.

But that’s what Joseph chooses to do.

Matthew says in verse 19 that ‘Joseph resolved to…’ but Matthew leaves it to us to imagine just how long it must’ve taken Joseph to come to that decision.

And it’s not like Joseph’s happy about it.

That word in verse 20 that your bibles’ translate ‘considered,’ the root word in Greek is ‘thymos.’ It can mean ‘to ponder’ as in ‘to consider’ or it can mean ‘to become angry.’

It’s the same word Matthew uses in chapter 2 to describe King Herod’s anger at learning the magi have escaped him.

It’s the same word Luke uses to describe how the congregation in Nazareth responds to Jesus’ first sermon right before they try to kill him.

So it’s not like Joseph is happy about it.

But still, Joseph decides to violate the Torah by refusing to condemn Mary.

Joseph ignores his obligation as a tsadiq by refusing to have Mary’s guilt tested by the bitter waters.

Joseph forsakes his power and privilege as a tsadiq for Mary’s sake, for a sinner’s sake.

     He decides to divorce her in secret.

He chooses love over the letter of the law.

He chooses compassion over condemnation.

He chooses sacrifice over safety and self-interest.

And here’s the giant thing Matthew hides in these few, little verses:

     Joseph makes that choice before the angel Gabriel ever whispers a word to him.

     Joseph chooses this path before he finds out that Mary is anything other than exactly what people will assume she is.

joseph

 

Flash forward 30 years or so.

 

And the boy that Joseph made his own is all grown up.  And one day Joseph’s boy meets a woman at a well. Jacob’s well.

Even though it’s almost dark and Torah commands that they shouldn’t be talking with each other, especially at night, Joseph’s boy sits down next to her and does just that. The woman’s had 5 husbands and the man she’s with now, she’s not married to. Which, according to Torah, makes her guilty of adultery.

According to Torah, she’s exactly the type of person who deserves to be given the bitter waters.

But instead Joseph’s boy, who doesn’t even have a bucket, offers her something that sounds like the opposite of bitter waters: Living Water.

     Like father.

     Like son.

 

And one day, Joseph’s boy is at the Mt of Olives and a group of experts in the law- tsadiqs- come up to him, carrying stones and a woman they’ve caught in adultery.

She’s guilty.

And Joseph’s boy knows what the Torah commands. He can probably cite the chapter and verse: Deuteronomy 22.

It’s not an ambiguous case; it’s a dare.

And Joseph’s boy looks down at the ground and responds with a double-dare: ‘Whoever is without sin may cast the first stone.’

And when he looks up the tsadiqs have all left, leaving their stones on ground. Then Joseph’s boy kneels down and looks the woman in the eyes and says the opposite of what Torah commands: ‘I do NOT condemn you.’

     Like father, like son.

And one day as Joseph’s boy is leaving synagogue a leper reaches out to him and says ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’

Because he’s not clean, Torah is clear about that.  And Torah is clear about commanding that Joseph’s boy should put as much distance as possible between himself and this leper.

But instead Joseph’s boy reaches out to him and touches him and says to ‘I do choose.’ And Joseph’s boy reaches out to him and touches him and says that to him before he heals him.

And then Joseph’s boy flees to the wilderness.

He has to- because the leper’s uncleanness has become his own.

    Like father, like son.

And when Joseph’s boy returns from the wilderness he invites himself to dinner.

At a tax collector’s house.

And it’s when Joseph’s boy is seated around a table, eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors- people who were considered am-ha-aretz by good Jews- that’s when Joseph’s boy uses the word ‘disciple’ for the very first time.

But I can’t help but wonder if maybe Joseph’s boy was the first disciple.

I can’t help but wonder if maybe he was an apprentice in more than just carpentry.

 

When Joseph’s boy grows up, again and again, he chooses mercy over what the law mandates.

He reaches out to women Torah says he should reject.

He teaches ‘You’ve heard it said…I know Torah says this…but I say to you…’

He talks about the spirit of the law and not the letter.

He says the law was made for us to thrive; we weren’t made for the law to trip us up.

When he grows up, this son-of-a-former-tsadiq preaches ‘Blessed are those who…’ and in doing so he redefines ‘righteousness’ in a way that was all upside down from ‘right.’

    In other words, when he grows up Jesus acts and sounds an awful lot like his father.

     His earthly one.

I don’t know why that should surprise us.

After all, as Matthew points out, we call Jesus: ‘Emmanuel.’

God with us.

 

We believe that Jesus is fully God.

We believe that Jesus is God incarnate. God in the the flesh.

     But paradoxically, we also believe Jesus was fully human.

     As human as you or me.

Jesus stank and sweated. He spit up as a baby, and when he sneezed real boogers came out of his actual nose.

He was fully human.

And if you don’t believe that you’re committing the very first Christian heresy. Your thinking is what St John calls ‘anti-Christ.’

 

He was fully human.

He didn’t just seem human. He wasn’t God pretending to be human.

His humanity was not a disguise hiding divinity underneath.

His divinity did not steer his actions or control his thoughts anymore than you or me.

 

He was truly human. As human as you or me.

He got tired like we do. He got hungry like we do. He laughed and he wept like we do. He sometimes lost his temper and dropped a curse word like we do (Mark 7). He got constipated and everything else I can’t get away with mentioning in church.

Just. Like. We. Do.

    He was fully, completely, 100%, no artificiality, nothing missing, no faking it, human.

     And that means…

     that Jesus needed to be taught.

     Like we do.

Jesus needed to be taught how to pray.

Jesus needed to be formed by the practice of worship.

Jesus needed to be nurtured into his faith.

Jesus needed to be instructed in how to interpret scripture

Jesus needed to be trained to give and forgive.

Jesus needed to be discipled in what it means to follow God before he ever called his disciples to follow him.

     We believe that Jesus was truly human, as the creed says.

     You see, Jesus taught what he taught not because it was a satellite broadcast from our Father in heaven.

     No, Jesus taught what he taught because that’s what his father and mother taught him.

     And that’s the something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

 

Because if Jesus couldn’t be Jesus without his father, then my boys can’t possibly ever be like Jesus without theirs.

Without me. Without you. Without their mother. Without a community like this one.

Jesus needed to be apprenticed into the faithful person he became.

And so do my kids.

And so do yours.

And so do I.

And so do you.

     If Jesus wasn’t Jesus all by himself, then it’s ridiculous to think that we can be like Jesus all alone by ourselves.

That’s why we do what we do here.

Teaching the stories. Offering bread and wine. Baptizing with water. Serving the poor. Praying the prayer he taught us- which I’ll bet sounds just like the prayer his father taught him.

And that’s the reason we’re starting another faith community in Kingstowne.

Because if Jesus needed to be discipled before he could deliver the Sermon on the Mount, then we need to be discipled before we can live it.

And we can, you know.

Live it.

     Because if the incarnation is true, if Jesus was fully human, as human as you or me-

then the life of Christ isn’t just an impossible ideal we admire once a week.

It’s a life we can make our own.

Because if its true that Jesus was fully human, as human as you or me, then the logic of the incarnation works the other way too.

     If Jesus was as fully human as you or me, then you and I can become as fully human as him.

     If Jesus was fully human, then you and I become as fully human, as fully alive, as him.

It’s not just that Jesus got tired like we do, got hungry like we do, laughed and wept like we do.

No, if the incarnation is true, then we can forgive like he did.

We can serve and bless and welcome like he did.

We can receive those whom others would reject like he did.

Like him, we can turn the other cheek.

Like him, we can love our enemies.

Like him, we can give our selves to an upside Kingdom.

And like him, we can live such beautiful lives that God can’t help but to raise us from the dead.

But just like him we can’t do it by ourselves.

Twitterletics: #5

Jason Micheli —  December 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

the-vision-after-the-sermon-jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-1888A while back I listened to a TED talk and then read an article about the A Visit from the Goon Squad author, Jennifer Egan, publishing a short story in the New Yorker via Twitter. Like the serial novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, she released her story 140 characters at a time.

I wondered:

Is it possible to construct a complete sermon out of 140 character parts?

Text: Genesis 32

Entry 5:

#Twitterletics:

When she gives birth to them, Esau first, the youngest comes out clutching at the leg of the eldest, as if to say ‘me first.’

Twitterletics #3

Jason Micheli —  December 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

the-vision-after-the-sermon-jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-1888A while back I listened to a TED talk and then read an article about the A Visit from the Goon Squad author, Jennifer Egan, publishing a short story in the New Yorker via Twitter. Like the serial novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, she released her story 140 characters at a time.

Reading about Egan’s tweeted story, it hit me how new media forms force the evolution of new modes of communication and creativity.

I wondered:

Is it possible to construct a complete sermon out of 140 character parts?

Text: Genesis 32

Entry 3:

#Twitterletics: In a tradition where names foreshadow everything its not clear from the name Jacob we’re meant to root for this character.

 

Twitterletics #2

Jason Micheli —  December 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

the-vision-after-the-sermon-jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-1888A while back I listened to a TED talk and then read an article about the A Visit from the Goon Squad author, Jennifer Egan, publishing a short story in the New Yorker via Twitter. Like the serial novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, she released her story 140 characters at a time.

Reading about Egan’s tweeted story, it hit me how new media forms force the evolution of new modes of communication and creativity.

I wondered:

Is it possible to construct a complete sermon out of 140 character parts?

Text: Genesis 32

Here’s entry #2:

     In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t.

     In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow when God calls, Jacob doesn’t.