Neither Condemning nor Condoning: Speaking the Truth in Love

A sermon delivered at Trinity Anglican Church (Aurora, ON) on February 9, 2014.

Text: John 8:1-11

Today’s sermon is the final in our “Creating Healthy Boundaries” series. To be honest, I feel completely unqualified to speak about “Letting Others Be Wrong” for three reasons:

One, at my high school dinner graduation I was named “most likely to be a world famous lawyer who has everyone in tears because he never backs down from an argument”. How could I argue with that?

Two, there are books written by people who are far more intelligent than I addressing this topic; people with degrees in psychiatry, organizational behavior, and business administration. This means I cannot offer you a five-point plan on how to let others be wrong.

Three, I can’t resist beating Ian in our recent debates at youth group.

All I can do is turn to the Scriptures with the expectation that God will speak to us if we have ears to hear.

Before we turn to our Gospel reading for today, I should be clear that when I talk about letting others be wrong, I’m not talking about letting your 3-year-old be wrong when she says “God lives in my heart and God eats the food in my tummy”. That is a theological error I will have to let slide for the time being.

And I am not talking about letting your wife be wrong when you are arguing about what year a particular movie came out. Isn’t that why we have Google and Wikipedia?

I am talking about lettings others be wrong when the other is a loved one, a family member, a fellow church-members,  who is doing something that is clearly wrong, something that is hurting others, themselves, or yourself.

Should we even let others be wrong in a situation like this?

John 8:1-11 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. The story is interesting for a number of different reasons: why is this story not found in the earliest manuscripts? How come the man was not brought before Jesus? Today, I want to focus on Jesus’ response to scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who had been caught in adultery.

She was not caught previously and then brought at a convenient time to test Jesus.

She was caught in the very act.

Do you see what has happened?

This woman probably did not come willingly. After all, who would go willingly, knowing that the penalty for adultery is death by stoning?

This woman probably did not have time to get dressed and make herself presentable. She stands before the mostly male crowd naked…embarrassed…ashamed…guilty.

The crowd is hostile, hurling insults, calling names, armed with stones, ready to kill this woman, to make an example of her. After all, she is guilty of adultery, guilty of breaking Torah – caught in the very act.

Now stop for a moment and place yourself in this scene in its first century context.

Of course, our inclination is to automatically place ourselves next to Jesus, after all, who wouldn’t side with Jesus?

But let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Here is a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. She is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

What insults would I be yelling at her?

What names would I call her?

What would I be holding in my hand?

This is an uncomfortable exercise. And yet, it is directly translatable to situations we often face today. While we may not throw physical stones, often our response to people who’ve been caught doing something wrong is to throw insults, gossip and names. After all, who among us doesn’t relish the opportunity to be right, to stand above others in condemnation? Judging others is easy, especially when they are wrong.

Like the crowd in today’s Gospel reading, we are speaking the truth! This woman is guilty and therefore everything we say or do is completely justified.

But listen to Jesus’ response.

His initial response is silence.

He says absolutely nothing to the yelling crowd and insistent questioning.

Rather, he bends down and writes on the ground. What a strange response, especially since we don’t know what he wrote.

When Jesus does finally speak, he tells the crowd that anyone who is without sin is actually permitted to throw a stone at her.

Do you hear what Jesus is saying?

He is calling everyone in the crowd a hypocrite.

He is telling them that they are so focused on this woman’s sin that they are forgetting their own. In their moral indignation, they refuse to see that they too stand guilty.

He is telling them that in spite of their belief that they’ve taken the moral high ground, they are equally guilty, if not more so, than the woman.

Jesus is protecting the woman by charging the crowd with sin.

Then Jesus continues to silently write on the ground.

You can hear the hush come over the crowd. You can hear the sound of rocks being dropped to the ground. You can hear the sound of sandals shuffling on sand as the crowd disperses.

With everyone gone, Jesus stands up and questions the woman – where are they? Has no one condemned you?

Do you hear the way he responds to her?

Without moral qualm or worrying about social repressions, Jesus speaks with a woman, a woman guilty of adultery.

Yet, he does not wait for the crowds to leave so that he can condemn her.

Rather, Jesus addresses her as a person, someone worthy of respect. His initial response is to ask questions, giving the woman, previously silenced by the crowds, an opportunity to speak.

After her response, Jesus tells her that he does not condemn her.

Do you hear what Jesus is saying about himself?

Jesus is identifying himself as the one without sin.

Jesus is identifying himself as the only one who is able to legitimately condemn her, the only one who could throw stones at her.

And yet, in spite of her guilt, Jesus forgives her. He extends mercy to her. He sets her free from her guilt. He refuses to throw a stone.

With this word of forgiveness, Jesus tells her to sin no more.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that this woman, let alone of those in the crowd, could follow Jesus’ command.

And yet, would Jesus’ response be any different if she was caught again?

Would Jesus’ response be any different if we were caught again?

In the end, Jesus neither condones nor condemns the woman’s actions.

Rather, Jesus speaks the truth in love.

The crowd was ready and willing to speak the truth, but they did so without love.

The wielded the truth as a weapon, ready and willing to use the truth to destroy somebody.

In the rush to take the moral high ground, it is easy to focus on how the other is wrong; it is easy to speak the truth without love.

To speak the truth without love is to make myself the judge over another person, to put truth before the relationship, to harshly unjustly condemn.

But what about the inverse, – speaking love without truth?

Letting others be wrong does not mean that we ignore the wrong being done.

To speak love without truth enables the other person’s behavior and justifies their wrong actions. It masks the hurt caused and permits it to continue.

Is this really love or is this really fear pretending to be love? Fear of offending the other. Fear that the relationship might end.

To speak love without truth is to allow fear to have the final say. It is a refusal to acknowledge that healthy relationships are built on trust and the ability to be open and honest with the other.

Whether it is between spouses, parents and children, siblings, friends, co-workers, fellow church members, relationships can be difficult.

They become all the more difficult when a loved one has done or is doing something wrong.

So what do we do? Do we jump to judgment? Do we accept the behavior?

No. We speak the truth in love.

Speaking the truth in love is difficult.

There is no 5 step-strategy to follow.

Speaking the truth in love requires that I refuse to condone or condemn.

Speaking the truth in loves requires that I recognize the plank in my own eye, that I confess our own guilt and receive Christ’s mercy for myself.

Speaking the truth in love requires that I address the other as a person worthy of love and that I give them the opportunity to respond.

Speaking the truth in loves requires that I follow the example of the one who is the embodiment of both truth and love.

May we drop our stones.

May we be slow to speak and quick to listen.

May we accept the grace and forgiveness that Christ extends to us.

May we neither condone nor condemn those who are wrong, and may we always speak the truth in love.

Amen.

Advent 3 Sermon – Jeremiah

The following sermon was delivered at Trinity Anglican Church, Aurora, ON on December 15, 2013 as part of an Advent series on the prophets.

Text: Jeremiah 2:4-13

No one likes prophets; and, I might add, no one likes preaching on the prophets.

They talk about things that make us uncomfortable.

                        They see everything in black-and-white.

                                    They are religious fundamentalists of the worst kind.

                                                They are joyless spoil-sports.

So why talk about the prophets in the midst of our Christmas preparations?

Why allow them to play Scrooge in the midst of our festivities, to listen to their repeated cry of “Bah, Humbug!”?

We need to listen to the prophets precisely because they tell it like it is.

            We need to listen to the prophets because they speak God’s truth. 

Unfortunately, hearing the truth is like Buckleys: it tastes awful, but it works.

And yet, it is truth we need to hear because it conveys not only the problem but also the solution, both the illness and the cure.

The prophet Jeremiah doesn’t mince words.

            Like a Prosecuting Attorney, Jeremiah brings his indictment against Israel:

                        – they “went after worthless things” (v. 5)

- they “defiled [God’s] land and made [God’s] heritage an abomination” (v. 7)

                        – the rulers of Israel “transgressed against [God] (v. 8)

                        – the false prophets “went after things that do not profit” (v. 8)

- the entire nation has “changed [its] glory for something that does not profit” (v. 11)

- the people of Israel “have forsaken [Yahweh]” and have decided that they know what is best for themselves

Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, is making the case that the Israelites, God’s covenant people, are breaking the first commandment to love and worship Yahweh alone and to not make any idols.

By breaking one of the Commandments, the Israelites were breaking all of the commandments.

By breaking one of the Commandments, the Israelites where breaking their covenant with God.           

These are harsh charges. And when we consider the context in which Jeremiah spoke these charges, things become even more complicated.

Jeremiah is speaking during a time when Josiah, the King of Judah implemented sweeping religious reforms by outlawing all worship of other gods except for Yahweh. He renovated the Temple in Jerusalem and returned the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple.

And here comes Jeremiah telling the people that they will soon be in captivity to a foreign power, exiled under Babylonian rule.

Here comes Jeremiah telling the people that this captivity will be their own fault precisely because they broke their covenant with God through their idolatry.

Here comes Jeremiah with his harsh words of judgment and condemnation.

No wonder people don’t like prophets! Can you imagine Israel’s reaction to these charges?

Jeremiah, what are you talking about!? Look at all this great stuff we are doing! We are getting rid of the altars to foreign gods and we are starting to take care of the Temple again! There is no way that God is going to do anything to us. Jeremiah, you are crazy!

Naturally, the people were offended at Jeremiah’s message. Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks, thrown into prison by the king, threatened with death, and thrown into a cistern.

Jeremiah and his message continually met opposition. The people did not like what he was saying; they found it uncomfortable and offensive.

Short of killing him, they did everything they could to silence him. It was only until the Babylonians conquered Judah that King Nebuchadnezzar ordered Jeremiah released from prison and treated well from then on.        

When we hear of Jeremiah’s treatment, we are naturally outraged. How could such a thing happen to one of God’s prophets?

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that our reaction would be little different from that of the Israelites.

We don’t like to hear that God is judgmental. We don’t like to hear that God is angry. After all, isn’t God all about love, inclusion, and happy things?

However, I want to suggest to you that the rejection of God as judgmental and wrathful is precisely part of the problem faced by God’s covenant people then…by God’s covenant people now.

Listen once again to the conclusion of Jeremiah’s charges: “for my people have committed to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (v. 13).

The purpose of a cistern is to hold water. A desert society, like the kingdom of Judah, would rely on cisterns for its very survival.

            If a cistern did not hold water, it meant certain death for that society.

                                                Yahweh is living water, the source of life and abundance.

Israel is a cracked cistern, a reservoir for water that cannot hold water.

Do you hear Jeremiah’s message?

God has promised to provide for his covenant people, to give them what they need for life.

And yet, God’s people have rejected God’s gift of life because they assume that they can be their own source of life.

Do you hear the way that God promises to bless his covenant people and yet they stand in the way by insisting on going their own way?

            Do you hear the echoes with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

                        It seems that we humans just don’t seem to get it.

                                    We want God’s blessing, but we want it on our terms.

                                                We want God’s mercy, but never God’s judgment.

However, is it possible to receive God’s blessing on our terms?

            Is it possible to receive God’s mercy without God’s judgment?

                        The repeated refrain of the biblical prophets is “Absolutely not!”

                                    And this is exactly what makes listening to the prophets so difficult.

It is easier to simply ignore them and to reject their message.

However, if we ignore and reject the prophets because we get hung up on God’s judgment and wrath, we are claiming that God’s judgment and wrath are unnecessary.

But this is a dangerous claim to make because it exposes our desire to make God palpable, to make God into an image that we find suitable.

The rejection of God’s judgment and wrath is the position of the privileged – of those who are well-off enough to think that they do not need God, that they do not need to heed his commands or keep covenant with him.

The rejection of God’s judgment and wrath is to completely miss the overall message of the prophets, to miss what they are pointing to.

Prophets speak God’s truth.

They name sin and in so doing they express God’s judgment and wrath; they express God’s pathos.

And what is the object of God’s pathos?

Death, evil, injustice – the things that destroy God’s good and beloved creation.

No wonder John the Baptist fearlessly called the people to repentance, reminding them of their covenant calling to be a blessing to all nations in the midst of a world broken by corruption, greed, and violence.

No wonder Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet” as he called Judah to end their idolatry and return to the loving embrace of Yahweh.

No wonder Jesus wept at the death of his beloved friend Lazarus.

No wonder the prophets refuse to mince words or compromise God’s truth.               

Death, evil, and injustice – through the prophets, God is saying loud and clear “these things should NOT be!”

And yet, as the prophets remind us, these things are the fruit of what happens when we turn our backs on God and go our own way.

When we ignore and reject the prophets, when we refuse to repent and turn back to God, we are putting ourselves in the place of God.

When we ignore and reject the prophets we are admitting that we are complicit in injustice, deaf to the cries of the oppressed and victimized, and ignorant of those who need justice to be served.

The message of the prophets is that God is a God of judgment.

            The message of the prophets is that God is a God of justice.

But what does God’s judgment and justice look like? Is God’s justice retributive, seeking an eye for an eye?

When we listen to the prophets, we hear that God’s wrath and judgment are not retributive.

When we listen to the prophets, we hear that the ultimate aim of God’s judgment and justice is restorative. God refuses to let death, evil, and injustice have the final word.

Listen to God’s promise spoken through Jeremiah:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:5-6).    

                        Do you hear Jeremiah’s message, a message echoed by all the prophets?

Do you hear the Good News that God’s justice is coming? That it is coming in a king who will rule with wisdom and justice?

Advent is a time in which we listen to the prophets with open ears, even though this is difficult because the prophets expose our idolatry and name our complicity in injustice.

Yes, Advent is a time in which we prepare for this coming of this king, in repentance and confession. But Advent is also a time in which we wait with hopeful longing and joyful expectation because we know that we await the coming of a king of mercy and justice.

O come, Desire of the nations,

Bind in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid every strife and quarrel cease

and fill the world with heaven’s peace

 

            Amen.

Solomon: So Goes the Glory of the World

A sermon delivered at Trinity Anglican Church (Aurora, ON) on November 17, 2013

1st Reading: I Kings 3:3, 5-6, 9-14; 10:23-24

2nd Reading: I Kings 11:6, 9-13

                                                                                                                                                           

I speak to you in the name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Over the past nine Sundays we’ve been exploring some of the most well-known stories of the Old Testament. We’ve read these stories with adult eyes not to dismiss them as irrelevant myths from a distant past, but to re-engage them as stories that continue to matter because they bear wisdom for our spiritual journeys.

Today we conclude our “Not Sunday School” series with King Solomon. But, before we get to Solomon, it is important to take a moment to summarize our journey so far – not in terms of the stories we’ve explored, but rather in terms of how we’ve read them.

We read the Old Testament, indeed the entire Bible, through the eyes of faith. Our primary focus in reading this way is on who God is and what God has done. In other words, we read the Bible as God’s story where God is the primary character. All of the humans we meet in this story are important because they help to tell God’s story.

Reading the Bible through the eyes of faith does not mean that we simply take the text literally in every instance nor does it mean that we avoid difficult questions that arise from the text. Rather, we read with sensitivity to the cultural context and to the genre in which the text was written. By reading this way, we are being faithful to the text itself and are therefore able to better grasp the story that God is telling.

So, it is important to take a moment to reflect on the context and genre of today’s readings.

Although the narratives of the Old Testament look like historical accounts, we should not impose a modern understanding of history onto the text. The authors of 1 & 2 Kings were not interested in given a purely objective and dispassionate account of the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah. They are re-telling history to make a particular theological point. This is exactly why in the Jewish Bible 1 & 2 Kings is considered a book of prophecy.

The message of the biblical prophets in a nutshell is this: trust in the God who liberates captives and brings the dead back to life.

1 & 2 Kings was written during a period when the Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon, some 400 years after the reign of Solomon. No longer were they a free and sovereign nation; their kingdom is divided and they are subjects of a foreign power. You can imagine that there was a profound sense of despair and disorientation. People were asking: Why did our kingdom fall apart? Are we not God’s chosen people? Where is God?

1 & 2 Kings is a re-telling of history with the purpose of explaining what went wrong, of explaining why God’s people were in exile. This is what we need to keep in mind when reading the story of King Solomon.

Solomon was the Son of David. So, as you would expect, there were some very high expectations for Solomon. In the first verse of our reading, we are told that Solomon “loved [Yahweh] and walk[ed] in the statutes of his father [David]”.

So far, so good.

However, when we continue reading, we get a very clear foreshadowing of what is to come. Listen to the rest of the verse: “only [Solomon] sacrificed and offered incense at the high places”. In other words, Solomon thought he could worship both Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the gods of the Canaanites.

Remember, the first commandment?

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…you shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:1-3, 4a, 5a).

Do you hear the way the authors of 1 & 2 Kings are subtly explaining what went wrong with Solomon’s rule from its onset?

Solomon’s rule was the beginning of the end of the Kingdom of Israel. Ultimately he did not follow in his father’s footsteps. Solomon’s failure brings to mind the message of the prophet Samuel to the Hebrew people when they asked for a king. Samuel’s response? God is your only king. Are you sure you want a human king? OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

But wait a minute – what about Solomon’s wisdom? His fortune? His fame? Didn’t God give him these things?

Yes. But let’s not forget the point the authors of 1 & 2 Kings are making: it is because of Solomon’s fame and fortune that his reign fell apart. When God offered to give Solomon anything he desired, Solomon chose wisdom and refused glory. For this reason, God gave him wisdom and glory. However, Solomon’s glory soon supplanted his God-given wisdom. Solomon starts with wisdom and yet he ends up a fool.

Following God’s rejection of Solomon, the word ‘wisdom’ is never again used in the rest of the book.

The critique of the authors of 1 & 2 Kings is clear: the wisdom of monarchs will always fail to deliver when it is caught up in the glory of the world and forgets to glorify God alone. Royal wisdom cannot prevent a kingdom from falling apart. Therefore, we should not put our ultimate trust in the rulers of the world nor should we be surprised when they fail.

Solomon extends the empire of his father David.

He obtains immeasurable wealth.

He is world renowned.

He creates a powerful army.

He builds the great Temple in Jerusalem.

Solomon is successful by every worldly measure.

And yet, as the authors of 1 & 2 Kings argue, Solomon is a fool.

Solomon is a fool because he put his trust in the power and glory of the world and used these things to further his own fame.

Solomon is a fool because he assumes that by building the Temple he is guaranteed divine protection. Let’s not forget that this is the same Temple that will later be destroyed by invading armies.

Solomon is a fool because builds his empire on the backs of slaves forgetting that his people were once slaves to an empire. He forgets that the God he claims to love is the God who liberates slaves.

Solomon is a fool because he continues to worship idols.

Solomon is a fool because he breaks Torah, the law God gave to his people. Not only was the Torah meant to help God’s people be faithful to their covenant with God, its purpose was also to show God’s people how to live as a blessing for all people, how to cultivate God’s shalom in the world.

Solomon is fool because forgets that Moses, in explaining the Torah to the people, told them that their king “must not acquire great numbers of horses…or take many wives…or accumulate large amounts of silver and gold” (Deut. 17:16-17).

Solomon built an army of horse-drawn chariots.

He had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

He accumulated vast wealth.

He worshipped idols.

Solomon was a fool.

Do you see how Solomon has become a Pharaoh, a Caesar, a ruler of an Empire by ignoring God’s wisdom and trusting in his own power and glory?

Do you see why the authors of 1 & 2 Kings would take offense at Solomon’s rule? Why they would scorn his worldly wisdom?

Solomon’s folly was the beginning of the end of the kingdom of Israel. According to the authors of 1 & 2 Kings, his inability to lead God’s people in the way that God intended eventually resulted in their exile.

The questions that the Israelites were asking in exile are similar to the questions North Americans are asking today: what is happening in our governments? How do we live in the midst of a world where the economy is crumbling, the environment is declining, and everything is changing? Where is God?

The questions the Israelites were asking are similar to the questions of the Church today: what is happening to the church? Are we not God’s people? Where is God?

We live in a time of uncertainty about so many things which leads to an overwhelming sense of anxiety. However, the source of our anxiety is rooted in the same problem that faced Solomon and the Israelites: like them, we tend to put our trust in things that cannot deliver – in kingdoms that will inevitably rise and fall, in fluctuating bank balances and fleeting fame.

It seems that history has a tendency to repeat itself. Fast forward hundreds of years and we find the Israelites living under the rule of the Roman Empire asking the same questions: where did we go wrong? How did this happen? Where is God?

Then Jesus comes along.

The one who claims that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

The one who is the embodiment of God’s wisdom.

The one who identifies himself as the Son of God.

The one who is called the Son of David.

The son of David?

But Solomon is the son of David.

Do you see what has happened?

By calling Jesus the Son of David, Jesus is named as the fulfillment of God’s promise to David and to God’s people that David’s kingdom will have no end (cf. Psalm 89:3-4).

By calling Jesus the Son of David, the people are putting their trust and hope in him; they are proclaiming that Jesus is the one who will restore God’s people, end their exile, and bring them to life.

And Jesus does just that.

But he doesn’t do it in the way of the empires of the world; he doesn’t rely on military power, vast wealth, or personal fame.

He does it by telling his people to love God and their neighbors as themselves.

He does it by showing us a new way of life that exposes the wisdom of the world as foolishness.

He does it by dying on a cross, rising from the dead, ascending into heaven, and promising to return again when to restore the entire cosmos.

He does it by calling us to end our anxiety by putting our hope and trust in God alone.

Listen to Jesus’ words:

“I tell you, do not worry about your life…Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more clothe you?…Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:25, 28-29, 30b, 33).

Do you hear the echoes of God’s words to Solomon from our first reading? When God’s people put their trust in him and strive for the things of God, God promises to provide for them.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

It requires a radical trust that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar – and all the other rulers who come and go – are not Lord.

It requires a radical trust the Jesus Christ is the Son of David, a king whose kingdom is completely unlike the kingdoms of the world.

It requires that we live as citizens and ambassadors of Christ’s kingdom, seeking to bring God’s shalom to all people.

The question is: who do you trust? Solomon, the Son of David whose wisdom is foolishness and whose glory is fleeting or Jesus Christ, the Son of David, God’s wisdom in the flesh, to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever?

Amen.

 

Bibliography

Rob Bell. Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

Peter Leithart. 1 & 2 Kings. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

Richard D. Nelson. First and Second Kings. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987.

Faith in God’s Future

A sermon preached on Sunday August 11, 2013 at Trinity Anglican Church, Aurora.

Lectionary Texts: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40

In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard Jesus speak to a large crowd that, according to Luke, numbered in the thousands (cf. 12:1).

Jesus told the crowd the parable of the rich fool who selfishly hoarded treasure for himself, but failed to be “rich toward God” (12:21). The fool was too focused on his own prosperity and failed to acknowledge God as the provider of all things.

Following the telling of this parable, Jesus turns to his disciples and unpacks the meaning of the parable. Listen to Jesus’ words: “do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying…Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

I’m sure the disciples’ reaction to these words is the same as ours is: “Sure, Jesus. Easier said than done!”

Listen to Jesus’ next words:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

It’s almost as though Jesus knows exactly what is going through the hearts and minds of his disciples…through our hearts and minds.

But then Jesus follows these words of comfort with a harsh command: “Sell your possessions, and give alms”.

Jesus’ disciples have already given up their careers and left their families to follow him and now he is asking them to sell their possessions and give the profit to the poor?

This is an extreme demand.

This is an impossible demand.

Hearing the difficult words of Jesus makes us uncomfortable because we fear that Jesus might actually mean what he says.

However, the harshness of Jesus’ words should not distract us from discerning what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus knows how easily his disciples can be distracted by possessions.

Jesus knows how easily we can be distracted by possessions.

But, the question remains: what are possessions?

Possessions are not things that we own; possessions are things that own us.

Possessions are those things that shape our desire, form our imaginations, and demand our allegiance. Possessions are those things that we think we cannot live without.

In other words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34).

Jesus is concerned that his disciples do not become distracted from the mission he will send them on once he returns to the Father. To be clear, Jesus is not saying that things like food, clothing, and shelter are unimportant or that we shouldn’t enjoy the gifts we have.

Rather, Jesus is saying that the excess accumulation of things can too easily become a distraction, especially when we selfishly hoard these things rather than use them to bless others.

After all, the mission of the disciples, of the Church, is the same mission given to Abraham: to be a blessing to the nations (cf. Gen. 12:2-3), to be a blessing to all people.

Listen once again to Jesus’ words of comfort to his disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

In these words we hear Jesus comfort his disciples who are undoubtedly troubled with and confused about Jesus’ difficult words about material possessions.

In these words we hear Jesus comfort his disciples to prepare them for life without him, to prepare them for their mission.

However, in the context of the verses that follow, an additional meaning to Jesus’ comforting words is evident.

Jesus tells a parable about watchful slaves, slaves who are ready for their master when he returns.

Jesus is telling a parable about his second coming.

Jesus knows he will be leaving the earth, but, in the parable of the watchful slaves, Jesus indicates that he will be coming again.

Following Jesus’ ascension, his disciples expected his imminent return. They assumed it would be merely a matter of weeks or months, or possibly a few years before Jesus returned. This expectation was also held by St. Paul in his early writings.

Once we remember that Luke was the last of the four Gospels to be written, about 50-65 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection, we hear Luke using Jesus’ words of comfort not only to address his disciples then, but also to address the second generation of Christ followers, to give them comfort amidst their anxiety and uncertainty so that they may continue to fulfill Christ’s final earthly command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

Indeed, Luke uses Jesus’ words of comfort to address every generation of Christ followers since.

So, why should these words matter to us today, 2000 years later?

The matter because they address with our discomfort with Jesus’ command to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor.

They matter because they challenge our anxiety about the future.

They matter because they confront our doubts about whether or not Jesus will really return like he promised.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we avoid talking about Christ’s second coming and all that goes with it.

It’s not considered a topic for polite conversation and we certainly don’t want to sound like those who, time and again, claim to have the exact date and time of Christ’s return figured out.

Furthermore, we aren’t sure if we even want Christ to return, especially when things are going well in our lives.

And yet, Christ’s words, “do not be afraid, little flock” remind us that amidst the turmoil of life where suffering, death, and evil seem to have the last word, that we have a promise from Christ that he will give us the kingdom.

Christ’s words of comfort remind us that we know the ending of our story – that Christ will come again to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth and will restore all things such that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

These words remind us that the future second coming of Christ is anticipated and, in many ways, is embodied in the present life of the Church.

Christ’s second coming is embodied in the Church that follows Christ’s command to “be dressed for action” (12:35). The King James Version translates this phrase as “let your loins be girded”. It is a funny phrase. In the context in which Luke was writing, it meant to prepare oneself for battle. Although the imagery of getting ready for battle may be unsettling to some, the phrase underlines the urgency of Christ’s words.

The Church must be prepared for Christ’s return “in the middle of the night, or near dawn” (12:38), times at which it is most difficult to stay awake, especially when you’ve already been waiting for some time.

As disciples, as those slaves who are to be ready for the master’s return, we are baptized into the life of expectant waiting. However, our waiting is never idle. Our waiting is not idle for we are called to cultivate God’s Kingdom here and now. In so doing, the future of God’s kingdom becomes a present reality.

The life of discipleship requires patience and perseverance in the midst of anxiety and fear.

The life of discipleship requires vigilance that we do not become possessed by possessions or distracted by calculating the time of Christ’s return.

The life of discipleship requires faith, the same faith of Abraham who left his homeland because he trusted in God’s promise.

Of course this is all easier said than done. But once again, recall Jesus words to his disciples: “do not be afraid, little flock”. Jesus is not addressing his disciples individually; rather, he is speaking to them as a group. While Jesus’ words can and do offer personal comfort, we must remember that he is speaking to his disciples, then and now, collectively. This means that as Christ followers, we do not face our struggles and fears alone, but in the company of our fellow sheep, those who trust him, those who are entrusted with the task of cultivating the Kingdom.

In the Nicene Creed, we confess that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Likewise in the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that “Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead”.

The confession of Christ’s second coming remains central to our Christian faith. And, it remains central to the good news that we are called to proclaim – that through Christ, God will reconcile to himself all things (cf. Col. 1:19).

The challenge we face as Christ’s disciples is this: do we believe our fears about the future or do we trust in Christ’s promise that he will come again to set the world aright?

Do we trust that Christ is the master who will return and serve his faithful slaves, those who were waiting, watching, and ready?

Are we waiting?

Are we watching?

Are we ready?

Do not be afraid, little flock. May you find comfort in Christ’s words, trusting in his promise. And may you go from this place to patiently prepare for Christ’s return by loving God and your neighbor as yourself, as you pursue justice and invite others to participate in God’s kingdom of shalom here and now.

Amen.

Violent SOBs…

In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “I’m a pacifist because I am a violent son of a bitch.”

Regardless of one’s position on pacifism, I think we can all agree that all of us, at one time or another, are violent (to be clear, this is not limited to physical violence).

Perhaps the way our propensity to violence is most manifest is in our demand for retributive justice when we or someone else has been egregiously wronged or hurt.

It is at this point that I echo Jurgen Moltmann: I cannot be a universalist because there are some people I never want to see again (and, I would add, there are those whom I never want to see – tyrants from the past and present).

Such is the nature of our desire (and need?) for retribution – to strike back at our enemies in order to achieve justice. At some point in our lives, I think we are all wannabe vigilantes because we are often violent SOBs. We want justice, we want it now and we want it on our own terms.

Similarly, I want God’s justice to be retributive because I want to hurt those who’ve hurt me. I want those who’ve done wrong to burn in hell.

But is God’s justice retributive? Or is it something else? If Christ is the manifestation of what God’s justice looks like and if Christ is the realization of God’s justice, then God’s justice cannot be retributive precisely because retribution is not Christ’s modus operandi.

In the end, I cannot be a universalist because I am a violent SOB.

But, I hope, pray, and trust that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ is.

Musings on Evangelism in a Consumerist Society

Some thoughts on evangelism as the result of reading a quotation by Paul Ricoeur (cited below).

1) We in the West live in a consumerist society.

2) A consumerist society is one in which everything is potentially for sale.

3) Because we live in a consumerist society, we are used to being constantly bombarded with sales pitches in various forms.

4) Because of this bombardment, we’ve become very cynical – we know there is always fine print in every sales agreement.

5) Christian evangelism often operates along consumerist lines. The Church tries to “sell” salvation (not via indulgences, mind you. We’ve already tried that with some, well, mixed success). There are a range of sales strategies employed – from the creative, to the outlandish, to the absurd.

6) The fine print of Christianity, at least as typically conceived by the most ardent of consumer-style evangelists, is that refusal to buy-into salvation is a rejection of God that results in “eternal conscious torment” in the fires of hell. (In this regard, I have to give credit to those evangelists who put hell-fire front and center – unlike those who quietly subscribe to doctrines like double predestination, this sort is willing to make the fine print bold. It’s still a base form of fear-based manipulation, but at least its honest about what it holds to be true). In this mode of evangelism, Christianity is essentially a doctrine of hell-avoidance.

7) Evangelism in a consumerist mode in a consumerist society is bound to fail due to the cynical ethos of our culture and because what is being sold is a false bill of goods.

8) Enter Paul Ricoeur: “Christianity is a life-giving and life-transforming story before and after it is a doctrinal system.” If evangelism is the telling of God’s story, the story of God’s reconciliation of/with the cosmos through Jesus Christ, then there is no fine print (afterall, when God says ‘all’ and ‘everything’, that is precisely what God means.

9) Therefore evangelism is also the telling of our own personal (and ongoing) stories of transformation. It is a witness to what God is up to in/through our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit.

10) Evangelism is an invitation to transformation and to participation in God’s kingdom of shalom on earth as it is in heaven.

Yes? No? Maybe so?

Conversion & Co-mission: A Sermon on Acts 9

Another sermon I did for my preaching class:

(You can watch it here)

My cousin, Eli, just arrived from Jerusalem with terrible news.

Saul is on his way to Damascus.

Yes, that Saul.

Saul, the one who happily watched as the crowds stoned Stephen to death.

Saul, the one who caused all kinds of turmoil for our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem by ravaging their houses, arresting women and men alike, and throwing them into prison.

Saul, the one who breathes threats and murder against all those who follow the Way.

Saul is on his way here.

He has letters from the High Priest granting him the authority to have us arrested and brought to Jerusalem to stand trial for blasphemy.

I know that Jesus always told his disciples “Do not be afraid”. But the truth is that I’m terrified of Saul and what he will do to us.

How are we supposed to follow Jesus’ command to make disciples when the disciples are being persecuted?

What are we going to do?

                                                                                                                    

Although this short vignette is fictional, it is easy to think about what might have been going through the hearts and minds of the first Christians in light of Saul’s persecution of the Church.

How could they not be afraid?

While the text gives us no clear motivation for Saul’s actions, it is clear that Saul is convinced that the followers of the Way pose a threat.

         They claim that Jesus was crucified and rose again.

They claim that Jesus is the Son of God.

         They offer a different interpretation of Torah.

         They are blasphemers and heretics.

Therefore they must be dealt with harshly.

Do you see Saul on a mission, a holy crusade to destroy the Church?

Luke wants us to see that Saul is an enemy of God, someone who does not deserve God’s grace.

                 

Saul assumes that he is doing God’s will.

But then God stops him in his tracks.

Listen to Luke’s description of what happened: “Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him”.

Do you see the irony Luke creates?

Saul is on the road with what he thinks is a God-ordained mission to destroy the followers of the Way. However, it is on the road that he is confronted by the one who calls himself the Way.

Listen to Christ’s words to Saul, the persecutor of the Church.

Listen to Christ’s words to Saul, an enemy of God.

                  “Saul, Saul”

Do you hear Christ call Saul by name?

Do you hear the echo with others whom God has called: “Abraham, Abraham” (Gen. 22:11), “Jacob, Jacob” (Gen. 46:2); “Moses, Moses” (Ex. 3:4)?

In the past, God has called a liar, a cheat, and a murderer to fulfill his purposes.

And now we hear God calling a persecutor and an enemy to fulfill his purposes.

Why would God call a liar, a cheat, a murderer, and, later, someone who would deny him, to fulfill his purposes?

Because God is a God of transforming grace.

Listen to Jesus’ words to Saul and notice what he does not say. Jesus does not say “Why do you persecute my Church?” Jesus says “Why do you persecute me?”

Do you hear Jesus identifying himself with his Church?

The Church; those who are Christ’s body on earth; those who are called to be his hands and feet.

The Church; those whom Christ calls blessed;

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you…on my account” (Matt. 5:11).

The Church; those who were once God’s enemies, but have been called and transformed by God’s grace to fulfill God’s purposes.

Now, listen to Jesus’ instructions to Saul: “Get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do”.

Do you hear Jesus calling Saul to end his persecution of the Church and to await a new mission?

Saul could have pushed back and argued his case. He could have, like Jonah, tried to run away.

But Saul and his companions are at a loss for words. Saul, blinded by Christ’s light, gets up, goes into the city and waits for further instruction.

Do you see Saul’s response of trustful obedience and patient waiting?

Gone is the merciless wrath. Gone is the hatred.

Clearly Saul is a transformed man.

Saul could no longer carry out his original purpose in Damascus; rather he had to be carried into the city for a wholly different purpose.

Listen to Luke’s description of what happens next:

“Saul got up from the ground and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they lead him by the hand and brought him into Damascus”.

Do you see the irony Luke creates once again?

The divine light leaves Saul blind. And yet, as the story continues, we know that when Ananias restores Saul’s sight, Saul is commissioned to bring Christ’s light to the world.

When we are converted, when we are transformed by grace, we learn to see the world through the eyes of the one who is the light of the world.

In Saul’s encounter with Christ, do you hear Christ calling Saul to conversion? Do you hear Christ calling Saul to change his convictions about who Christ is?

         Christ, the one who identifies himself with his people.

Christ, the one who identifies himself with the persecuted.

Although this story is often called “the Conversion of Saul”, there is little in this text that we can identify as a conversion, at least in the typical sense in which it is understood.

Saul does not make a conscious decision for Christ and he does not “get saved”. Saul’s conversion is entirely based on an encounter with the risen Christ.

It is an encounter that transforms Saul’s identity.

Conversion occurs when Christ calls us to himself. Conversion is not something we do; it is something God does to and through us.

Saul’s conversion is pure gift and pure grace.

Saul, who was once an enemy of God, is now forgiven. His past is not held against him. Such is the nature of God’s grace.

         God says to Saul: your failure to follow me is not the final word.

                  God says to us: your failure to follow me is not the final word.

Rather, God says, my grace is sufficient for you. My grace is the final word.

Saul’s conversion, his transformative encounter with Christ, will later allow him to proclaim “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Ga. 2:20).

But Saul’s conversion is not simply about conversion. Saul’s conversion is about a commission. You see, conversion always results in a commission.

Listen to what God tells Ananias, who remains skeptical of God’s purposes for Saul. God tells Ananias that Saul “is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

Do you hear Christ giving Saul a commission to proclaim the gospel?

Do you hear the echo of the commission given to Peter in our Gospel reading for today?

Feed my sheep.

Do you hear the echo of the commission given to all who follow the Way?

Take up your cross and follow me.

It is when we take up our crosses that we follow Christ’s commission to the Church.

In taking up our crosses, we identify ourselves with Christ and, therefore, we identify ourselves with those who are persecuted.

In taking up our crosses, we learn to love our enemies with the same love God showed to Saul.

         In taking up our crosses, we remember that Christ died for the persecuted and the persecutors alike.

In taking up our crosses, we anticipate and participate in the transformation of the universe, a transformation that began on Easter morning.

Conversion and commission are both the results of God’s transforming and electing grace, where the Holy Spirit forms us into Christ’s body and sends us to proclaim and embody the good news of God’s love, a love that transforms enemies into friends.

My friends, may you experience the transforming love and grace of Christ Jesus and may you boldly go from this place, taking up your crosses and following Christ to show that same love and grace to the world.

Amen.