A Light for Revelation to the Gentiles: A Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

We’ve gathered this morning in this sacred space as people have gathered for155 years. Some of you have memories in this place that go back a third of that time or longer. A few of you have ties to families that worshiped here fifty or a hundred years ago. And although the interior of this space has changed rather dramatically over that time, it continues to give a sense of permanence, solidity, tradition, and most importantly, the divine. Continue reading

The Vanity of Self-Absorption: A Sermon for Proper 13, Year C

I’ve had occasion this summer to talk with a lot of people about their lives and journeys. Some of those conversations have been over lunch and I look forward to more of them. Others have taken place in more traditional pastoral settings—during pre-marital counseling, at a bedside in a nursing home, or as we discuss funeral arrangements either for themselves or for loved ones. Such conversations can become the heart of pastoral ministry, especially when we allow ourselves to open up and talk about our deepest hopes and fears. Crises like serious illness or death can become the opportunity to reflect on what really matters. Continue reading

Sitting at Jesus’ feet: Model Discipleship in Luke. Lectionary Reflections for Proper 11, Year C.

This week’s lessons are here.

A brief story from the gospel this week but one that has carried a great deal of freight in the History of Christianity. In recent decades, it’s been a particular focus of feminist interpretation and reflection. In the tradition, Martha and Mary have stood as ideal types for the active and contemplative life, or the contrast between social activism and single-minded attention on the love of God. It’s hard for us to read or hear this passage without projecting Mary and Martha on to our own experience, and ask our selves whether we are a “Mary” or a “Martha.” If we’re a “Martha,” should we stop and try to be more like “Mary?”

I’m reading this passage in light of an earlier incident in Luke’s gospel that caught my attention. After Jesus cast the demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, the villagers found him “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (Lk 8:35)  In this case, the healed man begged Jesus to allow him to go with him, but Jesus told him to go home and tell people what God had done for him.

Like him, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus commends her behavior to Martha, declaring, “she has chosen the better part.” We don’t see either Mary or Martha following Jesus but it’s important that Martha is described performing “diakonia,” service, in our translation that was the “many tasks” that distracted her. In Acts 6, a similar dynamic can be seen. The twelve complain, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). As a result, seven deacons were appointed to distribute food to the poor and widows. Martha is the deacon, Mary the servant of the word; but in our story, Martha has a voice, Mary remains silent (like other women in Luke and Acts), while Martha is silenced by the Lord (as Paul in Acts 8 silenced the slave girl).

Luke wants female disciples to be silent and sit at Jesus’ feet. He even tries to downplay the importance of their diakonia (service) as hosts, founders, maintainers of house churches in Acts. This story may partly be a projection of that reality and the tension that surrounded it from the Early Church back on to Jesus’ own ministry.

In the Gospel of John, Mary and Martha appear as the sisters of Lazarus. They are friends of Jesus. In John, Martha is not silenced. She makes one of the great Christological statements, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Do these different stories offer insight into the way Martha and Mary were understood in the first decades of Christianity? Do they provide evidence of Martha not just as a disciple but as a deacon (a minister of hospitality and the Eucharist) but also as a preacher of the Gospel? And did Luke try to suppress that tradition?

Seeing with the eyes of Christ: A sermon for Proper 10, Year C

A few years ago, I was on my way to celebrate at the midweek service at the parish church I was then serving. I was running late, probably because I was coming from another commitment at my other job. St. James is on top of Piney Mountain, which is actually something of a hill, and the road that leads to it, like most roads in hilly territory, was curvy and windy. Continue reading

Reading the Good Samaritan in the Context of Luke’s Gospel: Lectionary Reflection on Proper 10, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

Working through the lectionary’s gospel readings this summer, I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which Luke interweaves various themes, ideas, even vocabulary, throughout the gospel (and even Acts). The many resonances with the whole of his work create rich resonances and invite new interpretations. Looking at particular texts from the wider perspective of both Luke and Acts helps us to see new things in old and familiar stories.

I would like to highlight several elements that I’m pondering this week as I work on my sermon for Sunday. First of all, Samaritans. Luke’s gospel includes three references to Samaritans; all of them take place in the central travel section (9:51-19:27). The first we’ve already seen, the Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus. The third takes place near the end of the journey, when Jesus heals ten lepers (17:11-19). Only one of them turns back, praises God, and thanks Jesus. Luke adds the comment, “And he was a Samaritan.” Is Luke making a comment about the inclusion of Samaritans within this new community? In the latter two instances, the actions (and faith) of Samaritans are contrasted with those of observant Jews.

The second intriguing item is that the word “inn” appears in only two contexts in Luke’s gospel–in the nativity story and here. Should that open up the possibility of a Christological interpretation of the parable; i.e., that one way of reading it is to see Jesus as the man who fell among thieves? An interesting article by Mike Graves (available here to seminary alumni) develops the Christological themes–both Jesus and the man were beaten, stripped, abandoned.

A third bit is the reference to Jericho. Jericho appears again at the very end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus. And where Jesus “goes up to Jerusalem” (a phrase repeated throughout the travel narrative), the parable begins “a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”

And finally, Jesus says the Samaritan was moved with pity when he saw the man, using the same word Luke uses of Jesus in 7:13 of the widow who is about to bury her son, and of the father in the parable when he sees the prodigal son returning.

Crooked furrows, a straight gospel: A Sermon for Proper 8, Year C, 2013

Proper 8_YrC

Grace Church

June 30, 2013

My dad grew up on a dairy farm. Although he became a carpenter and contractor, his life, our lives like most people in small Midwestern towns, were dominated by the world and ethos of farming in which we lived. His church was surrounded by cornfields. Most of his friends still were farmers. He used to joke in the summers that you could tell how the crops were doing by the prayers that were offered at Sunday morning church services.

As we drove through the countryside, he would often comment not just on how the crops were doing, but also on the skill and work ethic of the farmers. That area of northwestern Ohio is almost perfectly flat, so the grid system that was laid out in the early nineteenth century continues to dominate the landscape. It’s easy to tell if a farmer plowed a straight furrow. And my dad was as likely to comment on a crooked row as he was on a poorly framed house. My dad knew that to plow a straight furrow, whether with a team of horses or a powerful modern tractor, needed keen focus and single-minded attention on the field in front of you.

Today’s gospel brings together several sayings of Jesus that seem intended to emphasize the importance of such single-minded focus on the reign of God and following Jesus. But it begins with a different sort of reminder of Jesus’ single-mindedness: “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

It’s an ominous and important statement, marking a geographical and thematic shift for Luke. Jesus had been traveling about Galilee, which is north of Jerusalem. As we saw last week, he occasionally made forays into neighboring territory, in that case across the Sea of Galilee to Gentile territory on the other side. But from now on, he will be single-mindedly focused on Jerusalem, and as he nears it, the cross will loom ever larger on the horizon.

This little verse is significant for another reason, however. It marks another shift in Luke’s gospel, as he begins to diverge from the outline and content of the gospel of Mark and introduces much material that is unique to his gospel, including many of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables.  I would like to point out one other significant aspect of Luke’s depiction of Jesus. I know I’ve mentioned it before but it’s worth repeating. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ continuity with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. In particular, he draws several parallels between Jesus and Elijah/Elisha. What’s interesting here is that Luke subtly distinguishes between Jesus and those two ancient prophets.

It’s rather obvious in the story of Elisha’s call that we heard today. In the story from I Kings, Elijah watches as Elisha passes by him while plowing. Elijah covers him with his mantle, denoting Elisha’s call to be a prophet, but Elisha says, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Jesus tells the one who wants to follow him but first say good-bye to his loved ones, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Elisha throws a farewell feast but Jesus turns his back on those who would acknowledge their ties with family and loved ones.

The other allusion to the Elijah/Elisha cycle is in the story about the Samaritan village. It’s quite odd, really. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, but the first village they come to, a Samaritan town, doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. In response, John and James ask whether they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the village. It’s almost word for word a repeat of a story in I Kings where Elijah calls down fire to destroy his enemies. The point here is that while there are similarities between Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, there are also significant differences. All of this helps to contribute to the sense of urgency, the sense that now we are on the way toward the cross, toward Jesus’ crucifixion. The sayings about discipleship heighten that sense of urgency. These teachings about discipleship confront us in our contemporary lives.

These hard sayings of Jesus, sayings that seem to call into question the things and people we hold most dear, often seem utterly disconnected from our lives in the twenty-first century. While we may know of people who given up everything to follow Jesus either in the present or the past, our own lives and our commitments tend to be much less focused on following Jesus. In fact, it’s likely that all of those other commitments–work, family, hobbies–leave little time or energy for following Jesus. We worry about paying bills, our own and our children’s futures, aging parents and loved ones, and so many other things. Leaving all of that to follow Jesus seems inconceivable.

So what do these words have to say to us today? Are they so alien as to be meaningless, or might they help to provide some perspective on everything else we do? We tend to hear them as directed to us individually, or to those ancient would-be followers of Jesus, but is that the case? The sayings are introduced differently. In the first instance, someone comes up and says, out of the blue, “I will follow you wherever you go.” In the second instance, Jesus says to someone, “Follow me.” In the third, again someone offers to follow Jesus but only if he can say good-bye first. And we don’t know whether the first person followed Jesus–the text is silent what happened after he heard Jesus’ response. For that matter, we don’t know whether the other two followed Jesus, either.

One way to read these sayings is to see them in their ancient cultural context. The obligation to bury family members was one of the most sacred obligations of all, in Jewish law deriving from the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. We see in the third saying another example of the power of family ties. But Jesus is creating a new community made up of people who are following him, committed to his message and to the reign of God. That new community takes precedence over traditional family ties and offers new relationships, based ultimately on one’s shared commitment to God and to Jesus. I think the question for us is not whether we can imagine giving everything up to follow Jesus, but whether in the new community gathered by Jesus, we experience life that is as rich and meaningful, as abundant and grace-filled, as our other relationships and commitments, jobs and hobbies? If not perhaps instead of blaming the institutional church, we should look inward at our own level of commitment to Jesus Christ.

At the same time, it’s important to ask whether the joy and fulfillment we get from these other pursuits, even our deepest relationships, can ever attain the fullness of life lived fully in the presence of and commitment to Jesus Christ.

There was a piece on the New York Times website yesterday entitled “The gospel according to me.” In it, the authors argued that Americans have replaced the gospel of the New Testament with a gospel of self-realization and authenticity. Looking at new age spirituality and the wild popularity of self-help books, they write, “well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself.”

Following Jesus is not a means of self-actualization. As we shall see in the coming weeks, following Jesus comes at great cost. Jesus asks us to focus on him, looking ahead with our hand on the plow, being willing to experience our relationships with others in light of, and subsidiary to our relationship with him, or to put it another way, to love God with our hearts, souls and minds, and our neighbor as our self.

Are we living among the tombs? A Sermon for Proper 7, Year C

When we read stories of Jesus casting out demons, we come up against the great chasm that separates western secular culture from the worldview and culture of Hellenistic Palestine. There are some in America who believe in the reality of demons, Christians who seek through prayer and other rituals to cast evil spirits out of people they believe are possessed by demons. There was even something of a media stir a few weeks ago caused by speculation that Pope Francis had performed an exorcism on someone at a service in Rome. Some Vatican officials were quick to deny it. Most of us, however, regard the notion of demons and evil spirits as relics of a pre-modern, pre-scientific worldview and we’re probably pretty quick to interpret the symptoms of someone like the man in our gospel story today as some form of mental illness.

So when we hear a story like this one of the Gerasene demoniac, we probably dismiss it, don’t even pay close attention to it, because it is so alien to our worldview and context. Some of us, if we want to make sense of it, will try to psychologize it—to seek some deeper meaning in the contours and details of the story and interpret it as having to do with our “inner demons” or some such. While there is some merit in such approaches, it is important to recognize that for the gospels, the fact that Jesus cast out demons was an absolutely central aspect of his ministry. It was clear evidence that he had power over the forces of evil. It was also a sign that his ministry was ushering the reign of God.

This story operates on several levels. First of all, geography. While the precise location of the city isn’t clear (Matthew calls it Gadara), Jesus is clearly operating in Gentile territory—for the first time in Luke. The presence of a herd of swine is evidence of that. He and his disciples have crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and at the end of the story, they will return to Galilee. It’s almost as if the point of the journey was this encounter, this healing.

The second level is that of the demoniac. His description, naked, living among the tombs, is the description of someone who has lost his identity. He has no home, no family, no place in society. He might as well be dead, which may be one reason he’s living among the tombs.

The third level is that of the demons, and the herd of swine. When Jesus asks the demon for its name, they reply, “Legion, for we are many.” Fearful that Jesus might return them to the abyss, which in the ancient world was the dwelling place of demons, they ask him to cast them into a nearby herd of pigs, and promptly stampede into the sea to perish. The name Legion brings to mind the Roman army and while it’s likely that we are meant to think that there are as many demons as soldiers in a legion (6000), it’s also possible that the story as a whole is meant to convey a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Empire. Coincidentally, one of the legions stationed in Palestine had as its figurehead a boar, and more generally, a fertile sow was one of the ancient symbols of Rome. So while Jesus is confronting the powers of the demonic, he is also confronting imperial power in this story.

The story ends in an odd fashion, completely consistent with its overall strangeness. The man is restored to his senses Luke describes him sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. When the people see him healed, they are fearful and beg Jesus to leave them. He does so, returning by boat with his disciples to Galilee. But before he departs, the healed man begs Jesus to allow him to come along. Jesus tells him no, instead, he should proclaim what God had done for him, so the man returns to his home, “proclaiming throughout the city all that Jesus had done.”

There is a great deal that is intriguing in this story, but what I’m most struck by this week is the fear of the city’s residents. They see the demoniac clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet, and they are afraid. Now many commentators will say that their fear was caused by the news of the pigs being drowned in the sea, or by the possibility that their economic livelihood was at stake if Jesus continued to perform such mighty acts among them. I’m not so sure.

Jesus is a foreigner here, an outsider. He comes for no apparent reason, or perhaps only for this reason, to encounter this man who was possessed by demons. He heals him, restores him to his senses and to his community and in so doing he isn’t threatening a way of life or economic well=-being, he is threatening the very order of the universe. He demonstrates his power over the forces of evil, demonstrates that many of the assumptions the inhabitants of this place held dear, can no longer be taken for granted. If the demons obey him, what else might he be capable of? What other trouble might he stir up?

Now the story begins to challenge us and our assumptions. As hard as it may be for us to believe that Jesus cast out demons, it may be even harder for us to believe that Jesus Christ continues to work in that way in the world today. It’s almost unimaginable to us that the reign of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ nearly two thousand years ago and demonstrated with his mighty acts, may be in our midst already. It’s hard to believe that our faith, our community can work miracles like Jesus did; that we have power over the forces of evil in the world; that we can restore people to their right minds.

In fact, of the characters in this story we’re more like the Gerasenes than the possessed man. We’re more like those people who saw evidence of Jesus’ power and proclamation, grew fearful, and asked him to leave their country. It’s likely that we’re more comfortable in the place we are, whether as individuals or as a congregation, than we would welcome the frightening, world-changing power of Jesus Christ in our midst.

As a congregation, we are at a crossroads. In a sense, we may even be living among the tombs, if by tombs we mean the monuments previous generations built for themselves. Jesus comes to us, comes among us, and offers us new life, the vision of a way forward into the future. Will we risk following him into the unknown, with no signposts to lead us forward? Will we risk the possibility that as we follow him into the future, we will experience new forms of life, new ways of being, encounters with all sorts and conditions of people? Or will we ask him to leave us alone, so we can continue to live among the tombs?

Living among the tombs: Lectionary Reflections for Proper 7, Year C

This week’s readings are here. My sermon from 2010 is here.

Late last night, a homeless man sleeping on Capitol Square was severely beaten. According to news reports, he suffered life-threatening injuries. I learned about this while I was studying and reflecting on the gospel story for Sunday–Jesus’ exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac. He too was homeless, without a house. In the ancient world that meant he was without family or property, a given identity, and a place from which to exercise his personal and communal rights and responsibilities, his moral obligations.

The possessed man is described in pitiable detail–he wore no clothes; he didn’t live in a house but in the tombs. He was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles but when the demon overcame him, he would break his bonds and run into the wilderness. To twenty-first century readers, this description sounds like mental illness.

On one level, the story of this exorcism is very alien to us. Most of us don’t think we inhabit a world in which demons possess people or could be driven out and forced to possess a herd of pigs. But at the same time, this man’s description is not all that strange. We are accustomed to see people dressed in rags and tatters on the streets of our city. Sometimes they have mental illness that creates awkward moments for us when they begin speaking to us as we pass by. We would prefer that they be anywhere except on the busy sidewalks of downtown Madison.

There’s more to the story I heard today that I’m sure we will learn in the days to come–who the victim was, perhaps who attacked him and why. And I don’t want to imply in any way that the victim could be compared to the possessed man in the gospel story, except in this way: both were homeless and outcast from society.

Jesus does much more in this story than cast out a demon. He restores the man to society to his family. He is healed, saved, made whole. The text describes him clothed, of sound mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet. The latter tells us he has become a disciple. He wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him that he has a different mission–to return to his home and declare what God has done for him.

Today, as I was thinking of homeless men and possessed men, and about living in tombs, I was reminded of another reference to tombs in the gospel–not the burial place of Jesus, but rather Mt. 23:27

For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth

In this verse and the discourse from which it comes Jesus is contrasting the outward appearance of righteousness with internal hypocrisy. My question this afternoon is: Who is living in the tombs? Is  it the homeless man, the demoniac, or is it us?

Do we see this woman? A homily for Proper 6, Year C, 2013

It’s a familiar story; versions of it in the other gospels. Full of drama, more than a little eroticism. Listening to it, we become spectators to a drama that is playing out. We are almost voyeurs, but also perhaps a little embarrassed by the woman’s actions which seem inappropriate and out of place at a dinner in the home of a respectable leader in the town and probably the synagogue. But its drama and intimacy pull us in as it has enticed Christians for nearly two thousand years. We want to know who this woman was, what sin she committed. We also want to know what happens next. And so in the history of interpretation and the history of Christianity, she becomes Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned penitent, with the long flowing hair. Over the centuries, this wasn’t invented by Dan Brown, we speculate that there was some sort of special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Continue reading

Bad Girls of the Bible–Well, No! Lectionary Reflections on Proper 6, Year C

This week’s readings are here. My sermon from 2010 on these texts is here.

In our readings this week, we encounter three women. One, Jezebel, is clearly understood to be evil. She has already encouraged her husband, King Ahab of Israel, to worship and promote Baal. Now she subverts justice and orchestrates the murder of  the owner of a vineyard simply because Ahab covets the property.

In the alternative reading from the Hebrew Bible, from the track we will be following this summer and fall, we hear the end of the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband and of Nathan’s prophetic judgment against David and his house.

And the gospel story is Luke’s account of Jesus’ anointing. An unnamed woman, a sinner, interrupts the dinner at Simon’s house, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, and wipes them with her hair. After Jesus’ host Simon questions her actions, Jesus tells a parable that sheds light on what she has done. He concludes by saying, “Her sins are forgiven,” and tells her, “Go, your faith has saved you.”

The lectionary’s coupling of the David/Bathsheba story with the anointing presupposes us to imagine that the woman’s sin was sexual. That inclination is strengthened by the highly sexualized act of wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. The tradition has named this woman Mary Magdalene (although Luke makes no such connection) and has also generally understood her to be a prostitute. But leaping to that conclusion is going much further than the text permits. There are lots of sins that aren’t sexual and we ought to remember that in 1st century Judaism, “sin” meant breaking Torah, which could have been any of the 613 commandments listed by the later rabbis.

There’s something even more curious in the text. The way the gospel writer describes her suggests that something else might be going on. As one commentator translates it, “a certain woman was in the city a sinner.” The word order seems to imply that she was regarded in the city as a sinner. That is to say, we cannot be certain that she is a sinner. All we know is that the city thinks she’s a sinner. This might help to explain Simon’s internal response to the woman’s actions. He wonders why Jesus doesn’t know that she’s a sinner. Her sins are or were not obvious. And the verb tenses suggest that whatever her sins might have been, she is no longer sinning; she has been forgiven already. Her actions in anointing Jesus are expressive of the her love and gratitude at having been forgiven of her sins.

Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Simon saw a sinner; Jesus saw a forgiven and loving woman, a disciple. Is that what we see, a woman who, like the women Luke mentions in the first verses of chapter 8, women who followed Jesus alongside the twelve and the other disciples, women who ministered to him and the others out of their resources?