Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday 2 October 2016 - Ordinary 27

Theme(s): Faith // Obedience // Obedience has its own rewards

Sentence: Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

Collect:

Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal,
keep us under the protection of your good providence,
and help us continually by the power of the Spirit
to revere and love your holy name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Readings, related:

Habbakuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Tim 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10


Commentary:

Habbakuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

These passages set out the great issue in Habbakuk: when will justice prevail? At first sight the expected 'relationship' between this reading and the gospel reading today may be hard to spot. But the connection lies in 2:4, '... the righteous shall live by their faith.' 

In other circumstances, especially in relationship to debates over the meaning of Pauline theology of justification in Romans and Galatians, we might discuss this phrase at great depth and length. Here we simply note, looking ahead to Luke 17:5-6, that Jesus expects his disciples to have faith, to be a people who trust in God through Jesus that mighty transformative work will take place in the world.

Psalm 37:1-9

In part the psalmist could be in dialogue with Habbakuk: don't fret about the injustice you see about you, instead trust in God, do good, and you will find the unjust get their comeuppance.

These verses emphasise the importance of faith ('trust in the Lord', v. 3; 'take delight in the Lord', v. 4; 'commit your way to the Lord; trust in him', v. 5; 'be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret', v. 7; 'wait for the Lord', v.9). 

Faith is exemplified in the face of evil when we 
(a) do good (and do not join the evildoers in their wrongdoing), 
(b) wait patiently for God to act against evil, 
(c) do not fret or be anxious about the terrible situations around us, 
(d) refrain from anger and forsake wrath (v. 8). 

Easy to say, difficult to do! But the psalmist is very clear and insistent about the way of faith. Its importance is tucked away in a phrase in v. 8, 'it leads only to evil:' in other words, the price of not having faith, for instance, of letting our anger and wrath dictate the course of our response to evil, is for evil to be multiplied rather than ended. Sadly we see this unfolding daily before our eyes in war-torn countries around the world.

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Only a very few thoughts - well, half a dozen - here as time does not permit a full commentary on a passage with multiple themes, topics, and teachings. Each point below could be the front and centre of a sermon on its own!

(1) The importance of family upbringing for passing on the faith (v. 5).

(2) The ancientness of ordination (laying on of hands) (v. 6) - to say nothing of the role of the Holy Spirit in bestowing ministry gifts through ordination ... that could be quite a point of discussion after a sermon mentioning it!

(3) The character of the Spirit of God within us: exemplified by power, love, and self-discipline (or sound mindedness), not by cowardice (v. 7).

(4) The purpose of God for our lives (v. 8-9).

(5) The faithfulness of Christ (v. 12)

(6) Our call to hold to the 'standard of sound teaching ... with the help of the Holy Spirit living within us' (v. 13-14).

Luke 17:5-10


After a certain consistency in a connecting theme through Luke 16 (money), chapter 17 has more of a 'miscellaneous' or 'pot pouri' feel as Luke gathers up sayings of Jesus, determined, it seems, that none be lost to his readers.

If today's reading had continued to v. 19 then it would begin and end with a similar theme, faith.

To the reading itself:

Luke has begun the chapter with Jesus addressing 'his disciples' (v.1) but our reading begins with a selected group within the disciples, 'the apostles' who ask the Lord to increase their faith. It is possible that Luke reports the apostles asking this question as an encouragement to all disciples: See, implies Luke, even the apostles struggled to exercise great faith!

Jesus reply is typically enigmatic. He does not tell them how to increase their faith but says that if they had the tiniest amount of faith amazing things would result. (An alternative translation is 'Grant us faith' rather than 'Increase our faith). 

Note that the amazing possibility here is twofold: that a tree with deep roots is uprooted, and that it is planted in the least suitable of environments to plant anything, the sea.

What do we infer from this mysterious reply? 

First, reading Acts alongside Luke's Gospel, we see that the apostles would later preside over a miraculous work of God, the 'uprooting' (so to speak) of the 'mulberry tree' of allegiance to God by Israel and the 'planting in the sea' of the spreading church of God throughout the Roman Empire: faith on the apostles' part indeed triumphed with mighty deeds. 

Secondly, that faith may by a qualitative rather than quantitative attribute of disciples. We simply need faith not a certain amount of it. Here is one illustration: a learner swimmer, clinging to the side of the swimming pool does not need a large amount of faith (that they will not sink) in order to let go of the sidewall or bar; they just need faith. 

There are aspects of this story which are frightening for 21st century people brought up to value themselves, project self-confidence and such. How dare Jesus tell us to say, 'We are worthless slaves'! But whatever we make of the details in the story which seem uncongenial to our ears, a simple and salutary point is made. For the kingdom to work, the citizens of the kingdom (disciples) need to obey directions from the king (Jesus). This is an ordinary feat of discipleship and should occasion no great congratulations or celebrations. 'We have only done what we ought to have done.'

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Sunday 25 September 2016 - Ordinary 26

NOTE TO NZ READERS: Daylight Saving Begins Sunday, 25 September 2016!

Theme(s): Dangerous riches // Warning against wealth // A cry for justice

Sentence: 'For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.' 1 Timothy 6:7-8

Collect:

Almighty God, you alone are our true judge,
for you know what we are,
you know what we should be,
and with you there is mercy.
Give us feeling for what is right;
set us on fire to see that right is done,
through Jesus Christ our Lord 
in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Readings (related):

Amos 6:1a, 4-7;
Psalm 146;
1 Timothy 6:6-19;
Luke 16:19-31

Commentary:

Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Amos is the prophet par excellence on social and economic justice matters. Here he takes aim at the complacent wealthy who enjoy their luxuries without a care in the world let alone a care for the world. A perfect entree passage to the gospel reading about the rich man who complacently let poor Lazarus suffer at his door.

Psalm 146

The God who commands us to act justly, who favours the poor and suffering over the rich and indolent, and who calls us to use wealth generously is the God who is front, centre and star of this psalm.

Praise the Lord! (indeed) ...
Do not put your trust in princes (of course not) ...
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob (because he is the God 'who executes justice to the oppressed ... upholds the orphan and the widow).

1 Timothy 6:6-19

(I have no idea why the lectionary skips so much material in this important epistle between last week's reading from chapter 2 and this passage).

Although the epistle reading does not necessarily 'relate' to the gospel reading in the 'related' series, this epistle reading has quite a bit to say about being rich, the love of money, the danger of being rich re wandering from the faith.

Although the passage moves away from these themes through verses 11-16 (which is more or less a restatement of the great theological and christological concerns of this letter and the importance of faithfully 'confessing' true belief), there is a return to these themes in verses 17-19.

All readers can take seriously the call to be content with what we have (6:6-8). The rich have some special additional matters to consider, 6:9-10, 17-19. The practical directions and guidance here scarcely needs explanation.

If only the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 had read this passage and heeded it.

Luke 16:19-31

(Somewhat annoyingly the lectionary skips the challenging yet pivotal-for-this-chapter verses 14-18).

This parable admits of several readings.

First (because of the commentary Jesus himself gives to the parable), the parable challenges the Pharisees ('targets' of Jesus in preceding chapters, e.g. 15:1-2, also in Luke 16:14-15).

If the Pharisees cannot interpret their scriptures ('Moses and the prophets') to discern what God is doing in Jesus before their eyes, they will not discern in the resurrection itself the action of God in vindicating and validating Jesus as the Christ.

Secondly, the parable challenges comfortable assumptions (as the Pharisees seemed to have, noting they are described as 'lovers of money', 16:14) - assumptions such as wealth is good and deserved fortune for those who possess it and poverty is bad luck for those who experience it.

At the core of the judgment given to the rich man (torment) and to Lazarus (life with Abraham, without torment) is a judgment against the wealthy who ignore the poor. The parable incorporates a morality tale: the poor are loved by God and we should love them too; the rich are under close scrutiny by God and should take care to use their wealth wisely and generously.

In other words, it is all but impossible to read/hear this parable and not be moved by the heartlessness of the rich man and by the suffering of Lazarus to act generously, if not to work for justice. Cue current concerns in our society for the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Thirdly, the parable can be read as a story about God's judgment, the character of Hades (Hell) and the possibility of being saved from Hades and transferred to heaven.

Read in this way the story raises many questions (e.g. does it accord with what we read elsewhere in Luke's Gospel, let alone the remainder of Scripture about salvation?).

Important to remember here is a basic lesson about parables: they are not stories in which each and every detail accords with an aspect of God's reality.

Earlier in chapter 16, in the opening parable of the shrewd manager, 1-8a, we read a story in which it is difficult if not impossible to connect each detail with God's reality. Here we read a story in which it is tempting to connect each detail but the connections do not stack up: nowhere else in Scripture, for example, is anything to found which supports let alone endorses 'Father Abraham' being in the position of hearing a plea for mercy from someone in Hades (16:23-29), nor is it conceivable from Scripture that an ordinary deceased person could come down from heaven to speak to people (16:24, 27).

We could run through other details, I will draw attention to just one more. The blessing of the poor man Lazarus when he dies is suggestive that his own moral state or his own response to Jesus is of no consequence. But, again, nowhere else in Scripture do the poor receive encouragement simply to rely on their poverty for salvation. (Nevertheless there is a tie between this story and the first Lukan beatitude in 6:20 to consider).

Putting all this together, the parable actually strikes two notes in terms of responsiveness to God.

First, the importance of repentance now. Death can come at any time (and riches are no buffer against this end, see also Luke 12:16-21). Do not be caught on the wrong side of repentance when death strikes. Act now to reverse the course of one's life away from God and God's expectations in respect of just dealings with fellow humans.

Secondly, the importance of belief in Jesus. This is the importance of Jesus' own commentary at the conclusion of the parable. Belief in Jesus is pivotal for inclusion in God's kingdom.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sunday 18 September 2016 - Ordinary 25

Possible theme(s): Do anything to get into God's kingdom

Sentence: You cannot serve God and wealth (Luke 16:13).

Collect:

Almighty God,
fount of all wisdom, crown of all knowledge;
give us eyes to see
and minds to understand your marvellous works,
that we may know you through your handiwork
and use your creations to your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Readings (related):

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Tim 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13


Commentary

Amos 8:4-7

Amos is a prophecy claiming for justice and declaiming against injustice. In these verses we have an expression of the protest against injustice in the land of Israel. The manipulators of the economy, who overcharge for small measures are seen by God and God will not forget (v. 7). Israel will get its comeuppance.

Psalm 113

Typically this psalm begins with praise, offering words which lift the hearts and minds of God's people to bless and praise the name of the Lord. But in verses 5-6 the psalm takes a specific turn as it asks 'Who is like our God?' The God of Israel has a preference for the poor and downtrodden, which includes women unable to bear children (vss. 7-9). Thus the psalm fits neatly with the Old Testament reading. Together these readings form a background to the gospel reading, which is about money, potential injustice and shrewd business dealings, though, as we will see, the gospel reading does not specifically tackle the question of injustice.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Paul urges that all kinds of prayers and thanksgivings are made for everyone but mentions a special group, 'kings and all who are in high positions.' Why? Well, kings etc are not important in themselves but for what they influence, the course of human events. We pray for our leaders so that we may benefit! 'so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.'

Paul the practical giver of liturgical instruction cannot suppress his 'inner theologian' so verse three pivots from (my paraphrase) 'praying like this is good in God the Saviour's sight' to a brief but profound statement which covers (to get technical) soteriology (God's work in saving people) and christology (who Jesus Christ is).

Verse 4 makes the claim that God 'desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'. Potentially there is a lot to unpack here. God is (for example) universalist in desiring every human being to be saved. (That is not the same claim as God is universalist = God saves everyone). Consequentially, the mission of the church must be open to reaching all.

Verse 5 makes the claim that there is only one God and only one mediator between God and humankind, 'Christ Jesus, himself human.' There is only one mediator because only Jesus has given 'himself a ransom for all' (v. 6). On the one hand this verse underscores the significance of Jesus Christ: the only mediator, the only one to give effect to God the Saviour's plan for salvation open to all, the only one to have paid the ransom price that humankind might be set free to live true godly lives. On the other hand this verses challenges all proposals that there are other mediatorial figures in the purposes of God. Whether such proposals stem from consideration of the claims of other faiths (i.e. religions) or from internal Christian claims (e.g. re human or angelic figures), they are rebutted succinctly here: 'there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human'.

Verse 7 is about missiology (statement about mission) made in autobiographical terms. The stupendous, wonderful and unique claim about Jesus the saving mediator needs announcing to the world: Paul is a 'herald and apostle ... a teacher of the Gentiles' (verse 7).


Luke 16:1-13

This passage includes a strong candidate for 'most difficult to understand' parable (verses 1-8a). The commentary on the parable (vss. 8b-9) is only a little bit less difficult! Nevertheless some themes are fairly straightforward to grasp if we stand back from the passage and look for those themes above and beyond the details.

Theme 1: the urgency and importance of being in the kingdom of God rather than outside it. This is the simplest way to understand the parable and its interpretation (vss. 1-9) and it accords with other messages in Luke's gospel about the crisis of deciding for or against God's kingdom.

Theme 2: the connection between daily life and its realities and kingdom life and its responsibilities. Vss. 10-12 teach the importance of handling the things of everyday life well because they provide a clue about how we will handle much more important things in the kingdom of God.

Theme 3: nevertheless the possibility that handling money on a daily basis is preparation for handling responsibilities in the kingdom of God is not permission to worship money/wealth/mammon: one can only serve one master (vs. 13).

If we stop at this point and begin our sermon writing, life is (to be honest) a little easier. But if we press back into the parable and its interpretation, then life is trickier!

1. Simply as a story of human life, the parable makes good sense. The steward is in a spot of bother (in a context without a 'welfare state'). He thinks fast and acts faster in order to save his skin. We get that!

2. Our trouble as readers of the parable is that we long to make sense of the parable as a 'kingdom' parable. How does the steward's shrewd (and immoral) dealings translate into our securing entry to the kingdom of God?

3. The interpretations offered in vss. 8b-9 suggest that from the earliest times this was a difficult parable (but, paradoxically, not deleting the parable from the gospel record implies its genuineness).

4.1 In 8b, it is possible that we are being offered an interpretation in which the point of the parable is that 'children of light' are ordinary Jews who miss the present opportunity to enter the kingdom of God, not realising that entry to it is secured differently to normal expectations (e.g. keeping the law).
4.2 Alternatively, 'the children of this age' points to the people the 'children of the light' (i.e. Christians) do not expect to be in the kingdom. But, in fact, and as other stories in Luke make clear, the unexpected are precisely those who do enter the kingdom.

5. Verse 9 reads like an attempt to explain the parable in its own terms ('dishonest wealth' ... 'welcome you into ... homes') with respect to the kingdom ('eternal homes'). In this case the explanation involves the absurd: 'dishonest wealth' actually has nothing to do with entry to the kingdom which cannot be bought - 'you cannot serve God and wealth'. But it involves the absurd in order to make a hidden point: Jesus urges his hearers to make friends with God by any means that one can make friends with God in order to enter the kingdom. In the absurdity lies a challenge to think differently about what the kingdom is about, how we enter it, and what is different about the kingdom and the normal way of Jewish life.

Here is a much longer attempt to engage with the passage, prepared by me earlier this year for a course on preaching on Luke in 2013:

The parable of the Unjust Steward (16:1-8, 9-13) 22 September 2013
An exercise in listening to the text, or, if you prefer, closely reading the text.
In this passage we have a parable (16:1-8a, or 1-8) and a remainder which is a follow up to the parable. The least controversial observation we can make about this passage and the whole of Luke 16 is that it is mostly about the use of money.
Many have observed that Luke appears to like linkages or connections between stories, sayings, and similitudes (i.e. parables). That is, we find in Luke a number of sequences of material connected by either subject matter or catchword. But we need to be cautious: Luke does not always follow through consistently on this sequencing approach!
This observation helps to make sense of the larger framework in which Luke 16:1-8 is present.
 In Luke 15 three parables, linked by the common subject matter of ‘lost then found’, also include references to money in two of the three parables. This leads into further talk about money (which previously has been talked about in the sequence of story, similitude and sayings in Luke 12:13-34) so that Luke 16 ends with the long story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. For the rich man, his wealth has been a burden which has led to Hades or hell rather than to heaven. It’s no surprise then that Luke 17 begins with a saying about things which cause people to sin, which act like millstones around people’s necks.
(In passing, note that 16:16-18 sticks out like a sore thumb. It is very difficult to find a connection between these verses and the theme of money which is followed before and after their occurrence. Is the connection that broken marriages nearly always affect the wealth of each partner to the marriage?).
Once we start to think about connections and catchwords, aspects of the placement of Luke’s material open up to us. Luke 16:1-8, for example, is about a shrewd steward who uses money to escape from a difficult situation.
Negatively we can see that this story would not sit well back in Luke 12:13-34 where the themes include the dangers of accumulation and the blessedness of trusting God for supply.
Positively we can recognise that shrewdness connects the Prodigal Son with the Unjust Steward: in a difficult situation the Prodigal Son shrewdly estimates that even his father’s servants are better off than he is.
Another preliminary observation could be made. It goes like this. When we find parables in Luke not in Mark or Matthew, and we presume that Luke’s gospel is later than Mark (at least) and possibly later than Matthew (as well), we may be tempted to wonder if Luke himself has composed these unique-to-Luke parables. Well, we cannot rule that out (so some scholars will keep offering speculative proposals that this was the case), but we could ponder this: is Luke 16:1-8, despite its difficulty, included precisely because Luke received it as a genuine parable of Jesus? If so, was Luke on other occasions a careful preserver of genuine parables rather than a brilliant inventor of parables?[i]
The parable itself
Luke 16:1-13
Notes
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. (1)
Note that Luke does not use the word ‘parable’.
Is Jesus’ telling a familiar story from the surrounding culture but using it for kingdom purposes, or does he create this story?
“And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ (2)

‘And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. (3)

I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ (4)

So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ (5)

He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ (6)

Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat. He said to him, ‘Take your bill and write eighty.’ (7)

The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. (8)
Where does the story end? After the first sentence of this verse, or at the end of the verse?
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. (9)
Here is the application of the story – the sting in the tail which troubles commentators: how can the use of ‘unrighteous wealth’ lead to salvation?
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. (10)
Matthew 25:21, 23. Here and below Luke appears to continue Jesus’ speech with familiar teaching on faithfulness and on wealth.
If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? (11)

And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (12)

No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money’ (13)
Matthew 6:24

The story in itself, verses 1-8a or 8b, is unproblematic: it’s a story of how someone in trouble faced his troubles, albeit in a clever-but-dodgy way. The problem for us is determining its meaning in relation to life in the kingdom of God since the general stance of life ruled by God is that it is honest, truthful and fair!
The sentence in 8b, ‘For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light’, could mean that Gentiles are better at facing up to the claims of the kingdom than Jews presuming upon their own righteousness. But ‘sons of light’ could be referring to Jesus’ disciples, so the interpretation remains difficult!.
Verse 9 as the ‘official commentary’ on the story causes head-scratching!
‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.’
What does this mean in respect of salvation? What is ‘unrighteous wealth’ in terms of salvation? What is making ‘friends for yourself by means of unrighteous wealth’ as a means of securing salvation?
Can we make sense of this?
It could be difficult. Looking up a commentary or two does not necessarily help. As always with Scriptural puzzles, back to the text: we find there, considering all of 16:1-13, words which speak to us about three things:
(1)    Facing a crisis (so the parable, like some others, can be called ‘a parable of crisis’)
(2)    Handling wealth
(3)    The idolatrous power of money (or ‘Mammon’)
In the parable the man faces a crisis: he is about to be dismissed into a bleak future. What to do? Shrewdly he does something which provides him with a satisfying future. As readers we are intrigued because that future, in v. 9, is described in terms of ‘eternal dwellings’. Sounds salvific!
But therein lies a problem for most Christian commentators: salvation is generally speaking a gift from God, but in this story not only has the manager secured it for himself, but he has used a morally ambiguous means to do so. (To make matters worse, so to speak, for the commentator or preacher, the master commends the manager’s shrewdness – so it looks like God/Jesus is commending shonky business dealings).
On the one hand, we should not lose sight of the parable as a parable of salvation, just as the proceeding parables in Luke 15 have been, and as the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man at the end of Luke 16 will be. On the other hand we should take care not to seek to convert the story into a method of salvation.
The key salvific message is this: humanity faces the dismissal of God into a bleak future unless receiving salvation. Urgent action is required. The action actually taken in the parable is of no importance if we are trying to match it to how we can be saved (i.e. by repentance and faith in Christ).
But what the man does is very interesting in respect of a related issue to ‘salvation’ namely ‘the kingdom of God’, and it is this which drives forward the mixture of advice re handling money which follows in 16:9-13. As 16:13 highlights, everyone is ruled by something or someone, characterized here in terms of being ruled by ‘God or Money’. Thus, what the manager does is to utilize money (albeit immorally) in the cause of something other than Money and thus he begins to remove himself from the rule of Money over him. This is something we all need to do (i.e. break the power of Money over our lives) if we are to have a kingdom of God future when the kingdom of Money fails (16:9).
When we are not managers with clients whose accounts we can rearrange on terms which make them our friends, what does it mean to ‘make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth’?
We find in verses 10-12 the occasion is developed into some advice which is about living in the kingdom of God, rather than about salvation: verse 10 being a commonplace observation onto which verses 11 and 12 are built.
Mammon/Money may be ‘unrighteous wealth’ but it has its divine purposes, including providing opportunity to demonstrate care and responsibility in the discharge of duties, an opportunity which mirrors the care and responsibility in the discharge of kingdom duties which God requires.
A final question: in 16:1-8 does the master represent God? See below for an answer!
The point, recall, of this exercise is not merely to offer some insight into a difficult parable. It is that preachers might mimic the ‘close reading’ of the text which is exemplified here in the preparation of their sermons on the parables of Luke’s Gospel.
Incidentally, if preaching on Luke 16:1-13, note that the above approach yields a multitude of applications. Please select one or two for a punchy sermon rather than drown your hearers in a plethora of lessons!



[i] It goes without saying that many kinds of explanations of the source of the parables is possible, so additionally we could reckon with (e.g.) Luke as an improver of parables original to Jesus; Luke as preserver of some parables and inventor of others; Luke as preserver of parables from mixed backgrounds (e.g., as Jesus told them; or, invented by a master story teller after Jesus’ ascension; or, originals of Jesus which were improved in the process of oral handing down from one to another).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sunday 11 September 2016 - Ordinary 24

Possible theme(s): God welcomes sinners / the Blessing of Repentance

Sentence: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10

Readings (related):

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Collect:

Loving God
in Jesus you gather us into your family;
confidently we call you Father;
may your Spirit bring us to share
the glorious liberty of your children.

Brief commentary on readings:

Exodus 32:7-14

In the too hard basket I am going to park the question of what it means for the unchangeable God to 'change his mind' (v. 14)!

In this famous story of Israel's 'fall' as a nation called by God's grace into existence, God is rightly wrathful against Israel. They have betrayed God for a golden calf. A betrayal as wounding as adultery (see Psalm 51 below). How could they? How could they be 'quick to turn aside' from God's way?

In the context of today's readings about sin, confession, repentance and forgiveness, the importance of the reading lies in what Moses does about Israel's sin. He implicitly acknowledges Israel's sin and their deserving of obliteration by God but explicitly reasons with God that this should not happen, lest the reputation of God in the eyes of Egypt should suffer, and plays the trump card of appeal to the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In one way, Moses confesses to this sin but offers no repentance for it! That is not necessarily a model for us to follow. Repentance is important. The history of Israel subsequently shows us a mammoth amount of trouble Israel falls into because it continues to commit idolatry through many centuries to come. If only it had repented after that one egregious act of idolatry!

Psalm 51:1-10

This is David's confession after ... it would be tempting to say 'his adultery with Bathsheba' but it is more accurate to say (with the superscription at the beginning of the psalm, before it begins in v. 1) after 'the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.' That is, David is provoked into this confession by the divine word of conviction brought to him by God's prophet.

It is often the way with us too. We sin but do not repent and confess that sin until and unless God convicts us of our wrong-doing.

The power of the words in the psalm for us is the assurance of our sins being forgiven (cleansed, purged, washed away). Yet the assurance comes as an implicit promise within the appeal of the psalmist that God might have mercy on him, cleanse him and renew him. David prays in this way confident that God is this kind of God.

We might note, should we be tempted to an understanding of mercy as tolerance and forgiveness as pretending sin does not actually exist, that David accepts that God is right to pass sentence on him (.v 4). 'Fair cop,' David says to God.

For theological reflection is the first line of v. 4, 'Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.' Surely, we may say to ourselves, David sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, and indeed even against Bathsheba herself (the story of their adultery is not clear about the extent to which Bathsheba was equally culpable - today we would say there was a 'power imbalance' in their relationship). So, why does David make this claim that his sin is against God and God alone?

A quick glance at commentaries confirms that commentators recognise that David indeed sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba yet struggle to neatly and consistently explain why the psalm speaks of David sinning only against God. What makes most sense to me is that the psalmist is saying that ultimately sin (even sin against fellow human beings) is rebellion against God - it stems from our dysfunctional relationship with God. If we were right with God, if we lived a healthy relationship with God, we would not sin against our fellow humans. David was a man after God's own heart yet even he was not in a perfectly sound relationship with God. Out of sorts with God his eye roved and he saw Bathsheba. His lust for her led to one thing and another and then to (effective) murder of Uriah. In this confession the prime problem is confessed.

1 Timothy 1:12-17

In theory this epistle reading is independent of the gospel reading (i.e. not chosen to 'relate' to the gospel reading) but it fits very well with it. Paul sets out his career as a sinner and contrasts that with his vocation as an apostle. As a career sinner he was a blasphemer, persecutor and a man of violence, indeed the foremost or chief of sinners (vss. 13, 15). As an apostle he has been appointed by God, strengthened, judged faithful and granted mercy with overflowing grace (vss. 12-14). All for the purpose that 'Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience' in him, 'making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life'.

Sometimes Paul, Pauline theology and those parts of the church today which emphasise Paul's writings get a hard time ... the real gospel is found in the gospels ... Paul's instructions for church life (of which there are a few in 1 Timothy) too easily become a law applied with all the vigour of the Pharisees of old ... and so forth. But in this passage we meet Paul the man conscious of the reality of his life before God. He is the worst kind of sinner (because he has persecuted those sinners to whom God has been merciful) but has received God's grace, and a generous outpouring at that.

The heart of Paul's theology is expressed in v. 15 and introduced with appropriate solemnity ('The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance'). 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners' (v. 15).

The gospel is good news for all because all are sinners and Christ came to save us. Paul's role is to illustrate or 'display' God's gracious patience for 'those who would come to believe' (v. 16).

The significance of Paul and his theology, in the end, is not about the rules people draw down from his writings to guide the life of the church, but about his acute, precise, intense, and substantial understanding of the attitude of God towards humanity: grace. Nothing but grace. Grace alone. Why are we Christians? Because Christ came - full of grace and truth - to save us.

Luke 15:1-10

If we have read through the above readings to this point, it is no surprise to find that a grumble against Jesus was expressed in this way,

'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them' (15:2). Precisely!

Jesus responds to the grumble by telling three stories or parables, the first two of which form today's gospel reading.

The point of each parable told today is pretty simple.* God rejoices in the repentance (i.e. turning to God, away from sin) of sinners. Like a shepherd with one hundred sheep or a woman with ten coins, God treats every human as precious. To lose one to sin is like losing a sheep or a coin. That which is lost must be found. The family made incomplete through sin needs to be completed again.

*The third parable, of the Prodigal Son/Waiting Father, Luke 15:11-32, is a little more complicated as the second half of the story featuring the response of the elder son introduces a further point about which commentators have much discussion!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday 4 September 2016 - Ordinary 23

Possible theme(s): The Cost of Discipleship

Sentence: 'Choose life so that you and your descendants may live' (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Collect:

Servant God, grant us opportunity,
Give us willingness
To serve you day by day;
That what we do
And how we bear each other's burdens,
May be our sacrifice to you - Father Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Readings (related):

Deuteronomy 30:15-20;
Psalm 1;
Philemon 1-21;
Luke 14:25-33

Comments:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Sometimes we Christians debate the idea of 'covenant', especially in relation to 'old covenant', 'new covenant' and whether there is any difference between these two covenants. Reading Deuteronomy and Luke today, we see at least one clear difference between the 'way of life' envisaged under the old covenant (the story of which is told in the Old Testament) and the new covenant (the story of which is told in the New Testament).

This reading sets out how life is to be lived in terms of the law of God. Obey God's commandments then you will live and be prosperous. Disobey them and you will die.

In our gospel reading Jesus offers a completely different take on prosperous living in the era of the new covenant: life is found by dying to self; eternal prosperity comes through renouncing possessions; following Jesus involves giving up family rather than securing wealth and ease of good living for them.

Why the difference? Has God changed his mind?

Yes and no. Deuteronomy and Luke are jointly focused on God's blessing, how to secure it and how to maintain it. Through Jesus the boundaries of blessing have shifted from the time of Moses: 'the land' is now the whole of the world, if not the whole of life lived under God's rule, i.e. the kingdom of God and 'length of days' (Deuteronomy 30:20) is 'eternal life'. Geography and chronology go out the window!

Further, obedience is still determinative. No one is blessed who does not obey God. But through Jesus God now asks of us an obedience to the way of Jesus rather than to a series of commandments. This way (paradoxically when Deuteronomy's conception of blessing in terms of physical life is considered) includes 'carrying the cross' or being willing to die to the physical experience of life.

Indeed Luke 14:33 makes a very strong point in relation to Deuteronomy. The old measure of prosperity (increase in possessions) is replaced by the new measure of obedience (true obedience comes through decrease in possessions).

Psalm 1

If we take this Psalm as the first of the psalms, i.e. not simply as the one that randomly begins the collection, then this psalms asks us to consider the foundation on which the rest of the psalms proceed. Thus the theme of 'delight in the law of the Lord' is a marker for what is to come. Indeed we see in many psalms, most notably in Psalm 119 (but Psalm 19 is also important), the theme of delight in the law of the Lord explicitly and repeatedly expressed.

But a less obvious point to make is that the psalms that follow, with their mixture of lament and praise, of prayer and confession, as well as aspects of wisdom, history and testimony, work for the reader in relation to the law of the Lord. Standing on the law is the platform for praise, the basis for confidence in prayer, the reason for lament (because obedience should result in blessing, so why curses instead?), explanation of unfolding history of God's people and so forth.

Philemon 1-21

Paul wrote many letters, some similar to others in his collection. This letter is unique because it focuses on a single and personal (rather than collective and ecclesial) issue: the resolution of Philemon's slave Onesimus' future. (Whether that future is unresolved because Onesimus has done wrong by running away, or has simply been sent to serve Paul for a while is not clear. However the latter scenario begs the question why Paul puts so much rhetorical/persuasive effort into the letter).

What the letter does have in common with Paul's other letters is its beginning and ending in which Paul mixes practical concern for and interest in the lives of individual members of the church while setting out his theology of church, a people called into being by God through faith in Christ (vv. 1-7; 22-25 [not part of the reading today]).

How might we approach this letter for a sermon?

One approach is to dig into what Paul says in relation to the themes of slavery and Christian brotherhood. What Paul says seems to be a very subtle way of undermining the whole system of ancient slavery for Christians. Paul does not attack slavery head on but makes the point that in Christ we are all brothers and sisters (masters/slaves; freed and free men/slaves; see also Galatians 3:28). When we understand that, and apply it to how we treat one another, then slavery is abolished in all but name.

Another approach is to dig into what Paul says about how Philemon (and Apphia and Archippus) ought to act: choosing to do good rather than feeling compelled to do so because Paul has laid down the law to them. From this perspective the letter is a model for how Christians might request other Christians to act.

Luke 14:25-33

Last week we saw a very challenging vision of radical discipleship laid down: disciples should open their homes and tables to the people who we least naturally invite to dinner, those not like us and those unable to repay the favour. This week Jesus continues in similar vein.

Remember that the context of the readings through Luke in these chapters is the so-called Travel Narrative, Jesus on his way to the cross, Luke 9:51-19:28. So on this particular journey, with large crowds 'traveling with him' (14:25), Jesus turns and says a few things about intentional following of him in the deepest purpose of the journey.

'Whoever comes to me and does not hate [family, 'even life itself'] ... cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.'

Wow!

Our eyes may quickly read these words and our minds conclude 'That's pretty much what Jesus says in each of the gospels about dying to self.' Actually Luke includes here a target of 'hate' unknown to the other gospels: 'wife'. Also 'hate' is stronger than 'loves more than' in the most direct parallel, Matthew 10:37.

In one reading of this language, it is hyperbolic or exaggerated, so the point is (essentially the same as in Matthew 10:37): Jesus must have first place in our lives.

In another reading, however, there is only a trace of hyperbole, in the use of the word 'hate'. Literally, some followers of Jesus through the ages (and still today) experience separation from the most loved family members as a result of choosing Jesus. Some have even found following Jesus costly of 'life itself' when they are martyred for their commitment to Jesus.

Verse 27 offers an interpretation of verse 26: the key decision a disciple makes is not to divorce from one's spouse or to reject parents or children or siblings. The key decision is to 'carry the cross', that is, to live as one who is as good as dead (to self, selfishness, sin, distractions from the way of Jesus). Such resolute commitment to Jesus may have consequences: our families may hate us and reject us; a specific call to (say) overseas mission work may lead to physical and emotional separation from family (Luke may have had in mind, as he wrote, the example of Paul, see 1 Corinthians 9:5-6).

Jesus is a careful and caring master of his disciples and would be disciples. Through 14:28-32 we read his encouragement through easy to understand metaphors to carefully consider the 'cost of discipleship' (the title of a wonderful and important book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Slightly surprising, however, is verse 33. We  might conclude Jesus' speech at this point with 'So therefore none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up everything you have' or similar. But Jesus is quite specific: '... if you do not give up all your possessions.'

On the one hand this is consistent with Luke's continuing concern re riches, wealth, possessions: they are a serious rival to God. On the other hand, from a literary perspective, this is not a neat, matching ending to the beginning point of this sermon on discipleship which began with the rivalry of affection for family members (v. 26).

Finally, Luke records for us a saying of Jesus about salt. The everyday salt we use in the kitchen is pure and we do not reckon on it going bad. Ancient salt, less pure, could go bad through the impurities in it. So the coda to the sermon on discipleship is this: become more pure in your discipleship lest you become an unsatisfactory disciple, in which case you will be useless to God.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday 28 August 2016 - Ordinary 22

Theme(s): Radical hospitality // Costly inclusivity

Sentence: It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice (Psalm 112:5)

Collect:

God of nations, help us to reflect and share
the goodness that surrounds us.
Help us to win justice for poor and rich alike,
and to bring trust and friendship
to all our different races. Amen.

Readings (related):

Proverbs 25:6-7 [Sirach 10:12-18 is an alternative];
Psalm 112;
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16;
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Comments:

Proverbs 25:6-7

It is a matter of simple wisdom to wait to be raised up in status than to be put down.

Psalm 112

Sometimes the word 'righteous' invokes an assumption that we are talking about people who live a certain kind of morally upright life, perhaps marked by scruples and tight adherence to minor commands and rules. Here the psalmist expounds the virtues of the righteous in ways that go beyond that kind of assumption.

The righteous are those who fear the Lord (that is, trust in and reverence the Lord) and delight in his commandments (v. 1). Blessed by the Lord, they are 'gracious, merciful, and righteous' (v. 4) They are 'generous' and live justly (v. 5; also v.9). There is a solid stability to these righteous and they are not afraid of evil tidings because 'their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord' (v. 6-8).

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

After twelve chapters expounding his theme of the uniqueness, completeness and superiority of Christ as both High Priest and sacrifice, the writer turns her or his attention to practical matters.

'Let mutual love continue. Do no neglect to show hospitality to strangers ... Remember those who are in prison ... Let marriage be held in honor by all ... (vss. 1-4).

Each of these matters could be a sermon in its own right!

But the writer cannot let go of his main theme. So v. 8 states simply but relevantly, 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.' Every day is lived with Jesus, and Jesus expects us to live every day for him.

(Verses 9-14 are theologically profound and offer a restatement of interests central to the main body of the letter).

But what about the practical matter of Christians responding to God? In the light of the completed work of Christ on the cross, fulfilling and finishing all God's purposes in the Old Covenant, how are Christians to worship God? What sacrifices can now be offered meaningfully?

The Hebrews' answer was begun in our reading last Sunday (12:28). Now it is completed:

'Through [Jesus Christ], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. But that is not all. The vertical focus of this worship is joined with a horizontal focus to others. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God' (13:15-16).

All Christian liturgical work and social service is encapsulated in these two verses!

Luke 14:1, 7-14

(Sometimes the lectionary misses out verses and it is annoying as it raises questions about whether some kind of 'political correctness' or 'ecclesiastical correctness' is driving the omission. But in this case Luke 14:2-6 is omitted because it is essentially a repetition of last Sunday's gospel reading, 13:10-17.)

Jesus goes to a Pharisee's house to eat a meal (minor point: despite the great debates between Jesus and Pharisees, he was on friendly terms with some).

After healing someone and challenging his host and host's friends to a debate about it without success, Jesus moves on to another challenge (vss. 2-7).

This meal was more than a simple 'come back to my place for a bite to eat' - more a major dinner party, a banquet even. So in the custom of the day, some places 'at table' were more important than others. Jesus notices the scramble for these places and tells a parable directed at the scramblers (vss. 7-11).

Scripturally this parable builds from a passage such as our Old Testament reading and makes at least the same point: it is unwise to seek for a higher place lest embarrassment through demotion takes place. But is that sufficient explanation for why Luke tells us this story. Is there a 'kingdom of God' point to dig into these verses for? A cross-referencing Bible may tell you what mine tells me, that 14:11 is similar to 13:30 (and 18:40, Matthew 18:4; 23:12). Luke 13:30 is at the end of a passage which touches on the wide inclusiveness of the kingdom of God (and a feasting kingdom at that). An implication for Luke 14:7-11 is that in the feast of the kingdom of God those seated at the table will be those who otherwise would not expect to be there and those in the least honourable places (if not excluded) will be those who otherwise expected most to be in the best places (i.e. religious leaders).

Jesus is not finished. He goes on to make a devastating critique of his host and his mates.

This critique is the remainder of today's reading. Nothing is oblique here in vss. 12-14. Jesus does not tell a parable, he just tells the host, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner ..." But the host is us, all readers of Luke's Gospel. When we give a lunch or dinner, we should ... (1) Not invite the people we usually invite (friends, family, well-off neighbours, all of whom are able to repay the favour), but (2) Invite the people who cannot repay us (the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind).

Speaking personally, that is a challenge because 100% of guests at my table are able to repay me. (Technical matters, like inviting a person visiting from overseas whom I may never visit in their city does not, I suggest, count as inviting those who cannot repay me!)

It would be easy to displace the challenge in these verses, say, by doing good to those who cannot do good to you. This could be fulfilled by giving money to a charity which works with people who will never give back to me. But Jesus is quite specific. He does not say 'When you give money ...' but 'When you give a luncheon or a dinner ...' Our homes are precious havens. Jesus challenges that. In the kingdom of God, our homes are to be open to those not like us, not equal to us, and not otherwise deemed worthy of an invite into our home.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Sunday 21 August 2016 - Ordinary 21

Possible theme(s): Salvation is wholeness // God's holy love // Terrifying God

Sentence: If you offer your food to the hungry then your light shall rise in the darkness (Isaiah 58:10 adapted).

Collect:

Almighty God,
for the joy that was set before him
your Son endured the cross
and by his resurrection turned our sorrow into joy;
help us to rejoice in his power
that we may walk in his way with glad obedience;
in the power of the Spirit,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

     Isaiah 58:9b-14

     Psalm 103:1-8

     Hebrews 12:18-29

     Luke 13:10-17

Comments:

Isaiah 58:9b-14

The key to this passage is to identify who the 'you' is. The instructions to 'you' are pretty clear. And 'you' should do them. So, who is 'you'? For Isaiah it is the people whom God calls 'my people' (58:1). Those people are still around - you and me, for instance - so the reading here is directed to us. What will we do? What is required is straightforwardly just, generous, kind and fair, with great reward following.

There is a twist in the passage, one which connects it as a 'related' reading to the gospel. Verses 13-14 make special mention of the sabbath, of not trampling on it, not pursuing one's own interests, instead honouring it and taking delight in it. Why is observance of the sabbath singled out? Because it is 'the holy day of the Lord' (v.13). To observe this means special care is being taken by God's people to fulfill all aspects of God's will. Seven days a week, God's people do God's will.

In respect of the gospel below, the challenge Jesus brings is to a perception that the observance of the sabbath has been narrowed in such a way that the interests of other people are being ignored.

Psalm 103:1-8

These verses are among the most wonderful words written down in all Scripture. We should sing them rather than preach about them!

Hebrews 12:18-29

Fire begins and ends this passage. Why? The writer is at pains to emphasise who God is, the God to whom he is both encouraging his readers to draw nearer too, in confidence because of what Christ has done, and challenging his readers to not fall away from, lest they fall to a point of no return to God. Who is God? 'Our God is a consuming fire' (v. 29), a terrifying God (vss. 18-24), the judge of all (v. 23), a God who has sent Jesus to mediate a new covenant at the cost of his own blood (v. 24; and, effectively, chapters 1-10). In biblical and theological language, God is holy.

What are we to do with this passage? It is tempting to ignore it, to set it aside in favour of other 'nicer' passages, in which God is not terrifying, in fact he is our best friend forever, and offers comforting love of a touchy, feely kind. That would be a mistake. God is love is as true as God is holy. The trick is to keep them both together in our understanding of God. We could say that God is holy love. God loves us and the God who loves us is not like us (in our sin) but holy.

How then can we even think of approaching God? The long answer to that question is in Hebrews 1-10 (and Romans, Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 John) but the short answer, in terms of this passage, is 'the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel' (v. 24). That is, the holy love of God has found a way to 'make' (see v. 23) imperfect humanity perfectly righteous and righteously perfect: the blood of Jesus cleanses us from every sin.

There is more to be said (about the importance of 'not refusing the one who is speaking', v. 25) but I will close with two short observations. First, to take up God's invitation is to receive a 'kingdom that cannot be shaken'. That is worth having. Secondly, a proper response is that we 'give thanks'. Jesus dying on the cross is the one, perfect, final sacrifice. Only required now is to give thanks for what has been done for us. This is now the acceptable sacrifice we offer to God (v. 28).

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus had quite a few things to say on that sabbath day in that synagogue.

First, he was teaching (v. 10). Then, he spoke to the crippled woman (v.11-12). Thirdly, he rebuked the leader of the synagogue, telling him off for criticising this action on the sabbath. Along the way he made some explicit and implicit points about theological matters: what kind of deeds can and should be done on the sabbath; what is the ultimate nature of illness and disability (it is a bondage of Satan when compared with the salvation (wholeness) intended and now available by God); that teaching (words) can be illustrated and evidence by deeds.

But what is Jesus saying to the church today, when we do not have the difficulty about healing on the sabbath that the synagogue leader had?

We could note (and should not rush past) the possibility that there is 'hypocrisy' which Jesus would challenge us about. Just because we would be pleased to see a healing take place at church this Sunday does not get us out of jail on possible hypocrisy! Is there some other way in which we apply rules of church life to restrict Jesus from freeing people from things which 'cripple' them?

There is also a 'deep' lesson to consider about the nature of illness and disability. When Jesus speaks about the woman's condition in terms of '... whom Satan bound for eighteen long years ... this bondage ...' (v. 16) was he saying something we can receive in our day (when we generally use other explanations for why illness and disability occurs)? I suggest we can, especially if we pause to reflect on the great message of Luke's gospel, that Jesus came to save people in the sense of making people whole, in body, soul, mind and spirit. If the great purpose of God in Christ is to take a fallen, broken, frail creation and restore it (the kingdom of God), then the 'big picture' explanation of the situation is that the chief ringleader of opposition to God's plan for the world, Satan has bound people into fallen, broken, frail states. But Jesus doesn't make grand, general claims about the situation of the world: this woman is a victim of Satan's opposition: she has been bound these eighteen long years. Jesus can do no other than check the advance of Satan into God's realm. She has been set free from Satan's bondage which is the same thing as being straightened from her crippled state. Luke's description that the woman 'began praising God' tells his readers that the woman's transformation was not solely physical.

Then, we could move from 'depth' to 'width'. What is the nature of salvation of the saving work which Jesus comes to the world to do? Here Jesus begins with 'teaching' and moves to 'action.' A bound person is freed and a disabled person is made able. Salvation comes to the woman as a whole of life transformation. When we work for God in the continuation of that work, we are invited to work for transformation of the whole person, to work on change on many and varied aspects of the life of the world. Some people are 'bound' into poverty, for example, and we could work to free them through socio-economic transformation. Others are 'trapped' in oppression of some kind, perhaps in harsh working conditions. We could work to lift the oppression and set them free from the trap.

One clue to the direction of our participation in the work of salvation is whether it leads to the outcome described in this reading: God is praised!