Each week, the Sunday sermon by Rev. David Haley, pastor of Skokie Central Church, will be posted. As the archive of sermons is completed, we will link to the archive from the blog as well.
Central United Methodist Church
The Problem with a Partial View
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 13: 10 – 17
August 21st, 2016
“Jesus was teaching in one of the meeting places on the Sabbath. There was a woman present, so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up. She had been afflicted with this for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her, he called her over. “Woman, you’re free!” He laid hands on her and suddenly she was standing straight and tall, giving glory to God.
The meeting-place president, furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the congregation, “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.”
But Jesus shot back, “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”
When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and redfaced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” – Luke 13: 10 – 17, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
As an entrance to today’s story of the “Woman Bent Over,” I would like to use an idea suggested by Alyce McKenzie, Professor of worship and preaching at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Professor McKenzie has suggested that one way to think about the “Woman Bent Over,” is as a woman with a “partial view.”*
All of us who are theater or concert goers and especially Cub fans know what I mean by a “partial” or “obstructed” view. Week after next, my son Chris and his family are coming to visit and in the tradition of my baseball-loving family, 3 generations of Haley’s are going to a Cubs game. As you know, with the Cubs doing well right now tickets are ridiculously expensive, and I agonized to find a balance between decent seats and reasonable price, especially when one of us – at 4 1/2 years old – is likely to lose interest before the end of one inning. My concern is that I am going to discover I have bought seats with a “partial” view, meaning one of Wrigley Field’s support pillars will be between me and home plate. How can I yell at the umpire, if I am as blind as he? In the old days you could always start in at partial view seats and later move to more “front row” seats, but now they don’t allow that anymore.
On the other hand, sometimes “partial view” seats can be a good deal. When Michele and I go to see Chanticleer at Fourth Presbyterian Church each December, our choice seats are the reduced price balcony seats, which – though they are partial view – are so close that the sound is excellent. Who needs to SEE singers sing, as long as you can HEAR them sing?
Understanding this concept of “partial view,” we can appreciate the plight of this poor woman in the synagogue, who – due to her physical condition AND resulting social status – was restricted to a partial view, not just occasionally, but ALL the time.
Reflecting the understanding of the time, the text uses the strange expression “spirit of infirmity,” interpreting her condition to be a physical effect of a demonic power. In reality, who knows whether it was a congenital deformity, degenerative arthritis, the result of back-breaking labor, or even physical abuse. I have seen – in Africa and India – women like that, bent over carrying heavy loads on their backs, which over time takes its toll on your body.
Whatever it was in this unnamed woman’s case, it controls her, burdens her, bends her like a human pretzel, and blocks her. Such that for 18 years this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For 18 years she has been accustomed to looking down or slightly ahead but never up, not without difficulty. For 18 years her world has consisted of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with a glance. For 18 years she has lived a life with a partial view.
Though the text doesn’t say so – given what people believed then – that physical infirmity was connected to moral and spiritual failure – quite likely her condition also relegated her to a back seat in the synagogue as well, perhaps behind a wall or a pillar. After all, women couldn’t worship with men (as they still can’t in orthodox synagogues or mosques), and her physical condition likely made her more marginal, easy to exclude and ignore.
Given the woman’s status, don’t you find it incredibly revealing that out of all the people there that day, Jesus sees her, calls to her, invites her to come to him? She does not approach Jesus nor make any request of him; nor does Jesus say anything about repentance or faith. All Jesus says, is: “Woman, you’re free!” The text said he laid his hands on her; how do you think he did that? Do you think he put his hands on her back, or do you think he got down on the floor on his knees, to look her in the face, the only way she’d easily be able to see him?
Suddenly, the woman stood up straight and tall, giving glory to God. The Greek word for “raise up” is also used for the rebuilding of a house. That is what Jesus does; he raises people up, restoring them to their original beauty. She must have felt like I feel in the morning when I get the kinks out of my back and stand up straight, although I can’t say I always remember to give God the glory. Not only was her posture changed, but also her perspective on life: “Thanks and glory be to God!”
Truth be told, most of us thank God alright, we thank God we’re not like that poor woman. But if not physically deformed, don’t many of us feel like we are bent out of shape? That the burdens we bear in our hearts and minds, show in our bent backs and furrowed faces. Like this poor woman, we too, need to hear the word of Jesus: “Stand up straight and be free!”
And what of those who may be deformed or disabled in body or mind, or – if not deformed or disabled – still know the pain of being marginalized and alone. As often the case, do we exclude and avoid them out of our own fear and anxiety, or do we do as Jesus did to this woman: acknowledge them and pay extra special attention to them, treating them with compassion and respect, even if it means we have to deform ourselves, and get down – as Jesus may have done – on our hands and knees.
You’d think everyone there would have been thrilled at this miraculous turn of events; after all, they were in a synagogue, where a woman was praising God after being miraculously healed after 18 years of suffering. Who could have a problem with that?
Well, it turns out there was one (there always is), the leader of the synagogue, who as it turns out is a poster child for people with a partial view. (Did you see the picture I posted in the weekly email, by the Rev. Glenda Skinner-Noble, an ordained Elder in the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church: “Jesus, The Woman Bent Over, and the Leader of the Synagogue as painter Edward Munch’s ‘The Screamer.'”) If you think the woman had a partial view due to her physical condition, he had an even worse one due to his limited perspective, his tunnel vision. Even though a woman who had suffered for 18 years was miraculously healed, his problem with it was not that it happened in synagogue, but that it happened on the Sabbath. It was a scheduling problem (as if you can schedule a miracle). “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath,” he said. Makes you wonder if there was a sign on the wall, saying: “No Healing Here, sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.”
In some ways, we get it, don’t we? After all, for those of us who try to follow the rules, keeping the Sabbath is one of the 10 commandments, or at least it used to be, before malls were open and school sports were scheduled on Sunday. While we may barely observe it at all, we should remember some still take this rule very seriously. When we were in Jerusalem a few years ago, driving a rental car, it was important to not to accidentally drive into Mea Shearim, a haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood on the Sabbath, unless you want to literally be stoned. (Don’t want to take your rental car back in that condition!) Even here in Skokie you see them, observant Jews walking to temple on the Sabbath. Sometimes – when I see them – it makes me feel irreligious.
Rules are important, but sometimes – for the greater good – rules must be broken. The trick is the moral discernment to know when to FOLLOW rules, but also when to BREAK rules; again, for a greater good.
For this, Jesus had not a partial view, as did the woman and the leader of the synagogue, but a FRONT ROW SEAT. For Jesus, the rules of the Mosaic Law and the Jewish social holiness code were important; after all, he was an observant Jew in a synagogue on the Sabbath. But in the end, this was what made him trans-formative: all those laws were subordinate to the greater VALUES of justice and mercy. So if helping a stooped woman in synagogue on a Sabbath creates a crisis, then crisis it has to be.
And so he says to the protesting synagogue leader, in a “play on words” which Eugene Peterson captures:
“You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”
I like how Eugene Peterson translates what happens next: “When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and red-faced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” What the text does not say is this: at the end of this story, the woman walks out of the synagogue erect, dignified, and joyful, to the cheers of the crowd.
Let’s face it, all of us have a partial view, and we should acknowledge that. We are products of our upbringing, our history, our culture, even our white privilege; we are also sometimes victims of our own pessimism and cynicism. Sometimes we get stuck in the rules, so stuck in the tall grass that we fail to see the amazing things God is doing in the “BIG PICTURE,” right before our eyes.
So today – through what we have learned from this story, let us move – even if a few rows at a time – from partial view seats to front row seats with Jesus.
- Even though people are imperfect, poor, rude, rough, and sometimes even objectionable, Jesus receives them.
- Even though people are on the fringes of society, even though they are non-elite/working people, or foreigners ordinarily avoided, Jesus receives them.
- No matter their background or status, Jesus receives them with the same equanimity, respect, and concern.
And so Jesus notices this woman and respects her, he deals with her tenderly and lovingly. He summons her out of the isolation into which she has withdrawn, out of a sense of shame, and sets her free – both physically and spiritually – such that she stands upright and praises God.
So it turns out – for Jesus and for Luke and for us – that the best way to celebrate the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day – is to raise up men and women to their original form, to delight in our divine dignity and to praise God, the creator of human dignity. When we do this, we all go on way more upright.
So it turns out, a partial view seat might not be the best bargain after all. Not when it obstructs our view of God’s desire that all God’s children be restored to dignity and community, whatever day of the week it is.
*Alyce M. McKenzie, “Partial View Seats: Reflections on Luke 13:10-17,” Edgy Exegesis, August 15, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Partial-View-Seats-Alyce-McKenzie-08-16-2013
Central United Methodist Church
Fire on the Earth
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 12: 49 – 56
August 14th, 2016
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
“father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12: 49 – 56, the New Revised Standard Version
Fire? Did Jesus say fire? How have I missed this before? I know something about fire; no wonder it caught my attention.
My guess is that – for most of us – as we look back at our lives, we shake our heads in wonder at the twists and turns they make, which – in retrospect – seem providential. That’s the case with me and fire.
One of those twists and turns for me was a day in the late eighties, when I was pastor of Berry Memorial UMC in Lincoln Square in Chicago, living on Winnemac Street. One day my son Chris – around 6 years old at the time – came in the house and said, “Dad, there’s a fire out back.” I went out to look, and sure enough, one house away across the alley, the rear stairs of a two flat were on fire. We called 911 and heard the siren of Engine 110 on Foster Avenue start toward us, about 6 blocks away. Soon there were engines, trucks, and fire hoses all over the street. And there was also a guy standing there in a white coat and fire helmet, with a cross on the front. It was Father Tom Mulcrone, the Chicago Fire Chaplain. I thought, “They have people who do that?” I decided if I ever moved out to the suburbs, I would do that. And so, in 1990, when I moved to West Chicago, I did that, and have been doing it ever since, now as the fire Chaplain in Des Plaines and also at NIPSTA (Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy.) As the saying goes among firemen, “I’m not saying I want anybody’s house to burn down, but if it does, I want to be there when it happens.”
Like water, fire is one of earth’s most basic elements. While fire has served us humans well – providing light, keeping us warm, and cooking our food – fire out-of-control can be the “red devil,” both destructive and deadly. I hope none of you have ever been through a house fire, and I pray none of us ever do. Your whole house is trashed from ceiling to floor, from soot and smoke and fire. Many if not most of your possessions are ruined, if not from the fire from the water used to extinguish it, which runs through your house in waterfalls. Plastic objects like phones and light fixtures are melted, pets are dead in their cages or under the bed (where they try to hide); and yes – sometimes people die, sadly, including children. As a Chaplain, when I stand with someone in their front yard watching this – as long as everyone escaped and no one got hurt – I try to gently help people keep things in perspective, as devastating as it may sometimes appear. The house can be rebuilt (sometimes better than before); things can be replaced; but the people you love cannot. Thank God nobody got hurt and everybody is safe.
Do you think any of this was in Jesus’ mind when he said he came to bring a fire upon the earth? Surely, in his life he had sat around fires and seen grass fires and brush fires and maybe even house fires. Perhaps he had seen children burned by fire, a common occurrence in poorer countries where food is cooked over open fires. Did Jesus think about any of this before he said he came to bring fire on the earth? So let’s be clear here, Jesus is not saying anybody should be literally getting burned.
Please note, the clues and the context make it clear Jesus did NOT mean this literally, but metaphorically, as we must interpret much of the Bible. Remember, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and he has a pretty good idea of what will happen there. At this point, he is seized with anxiety and urgency, in the sense of “let’s get on with it.” Just as we might resort to colorful and exaggerated language at such an anxious time, so did Jesus.
And if – as I believe – Jesus used images such as fire this way, he did so based not upon what’d he seen, but what he knew, which was that there was plenty of precedent in the history and Scriptures of ancient Israel to do so. For example, was he thinking of fire as God is a pillar of fire, leading God’s children out of bondage in Egypt and through the wilderness, as in Exodus? Was he thinking of fire as the fire of God’s judgment, which destroyed the false altars of Baal at the prophet Elijah’s God contest on Mt. Carmel, as in 1 Kings? Was he talking about the refiner’s fire, as Malachi spoke about in the book of the same name, burning away the chaff of sin or fruitless branches? And – yet to come – what of fire as the sign of God’s Spirit, and the tongues of fire that would dance over the heads of Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost? Were any or all these the fire Jesus was talking about?
Jesus resorted to what we might call prophetic hyperbole, using images such as fire and baptism and division and even the weather, to express the fear and urgency and determination he felt to change the world, to shake up the status quo, to bend the moral arc of the universe God’s way, even if it cost him his life. I’ve always liked Albert Schweitzer’s image of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, a young man who threw himself on the wheel of history in an attempt to stop it from turning, but instead it crushed him.
So the reason speaks in this exaggerated way is because for him it WAS a time of crisis – not in the sense of emergency – but in the sense of a time of truth and decision; not just for him, but for everybody. I think it is true to say that still – even on a sunny Sunday morning – how we hear and respond to the words of Jesus presents a moment of crisis for us, a moment to hear and decide and act, like sparks falling in kindling, either igniting a fire or dying out.
For this reason – because it brings about a crisis in our lives – the words and work of Jesus can go either way for us. He can show mercy, or he can bring judgment. He can immerse us in the comforting waters of baptism, or he can light a fire in our hearts. He can be a peacemaker, or he can be a divider. He can be a Gentle Shepherd or the Conquering Lamb. As Julia Ward Howe wrote in the Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1861, “In the beauty of the lilies he was born across the sea,” but he is also the one who “sets loose the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.”
Not that this is something we want to hear. In fact, if we were to list the ten hardest sayings of the Gospels, this one would undoubtedly be on the list. The statement that Jesus came to bring fire, a distressful baptism, and division – even among families – are hardly welcome words for any congregation. We are far happier with Jesus as peacemaker than as home breaker. (Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C).
And what are we to make of the divisions about which Jesus speaks, in families? One could say that what he says is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. That is, it was not Jesus’ purpose to set children against parents or parents against children, but that these sorts of divisions can result from the changes Jesus brings, in lives and in families. It brought disruption in Jesus’ own family, when they came to get him, seeking to take him home, thinking he was “beside himself.” Remember, also in Luke’s Gospel, the story of the Prodigal Son, a parable about a father and a son estranged from each other, who were reconciled. But even that reconciliation causes disruption between the elder son and his father. Keep this in mind: even a ministry that reconciles long-standing enemies will inevitably rend relationships, if those relationships depend upon the old status quo. Ready to let the fire of God burn in your life? Get ready for the disruptions it will bring. I will warn you right now; somebody is going to throw a bucket of cold water on you, and hopefully nothing worse.
I remember the day I came home and told my parents I was switching from medicine to ministry. I was pre-med in college, for the first two years. I was working in the local emergency room. I had respected doctors who had spoken for me. And now I was going to throw it all away to become a Methodist preacher, which is I think the way they put it. (It took them awhile to come around, but after they did, they supported me all the way.) Some days, I wish I had listened to them. Maybe these were the kinds of things Jesus was talking about, when he talked about a fire being kindled, a baptism to undergo, and divisions that would arise, even among people with whom we are close. Something we might want to keep in mind, in this election year.
As difficult a saying as fire on the earth may be, our consolation is this: as painful as both real fire (I wouldn’t wish burn injuries on anybody) and metaphorical fire may be, in the end, it can sometimes be regenerative. There are certain seeds that can germinate only through the high heat of forest fires, resulting in new growth. Sometimes when your house burns, you get a bigger and better house (Don’t even THINK of torching it!)
In ancient Greek mythology, the Phoenix was a bird of colorful plumage that was cyclically reborn, by dying in fire and then arising anew from the ashes of its predecessor.
Like the Phoenix, today the church is going through a “fiery trial” (some might even say death), and we are waiting to see what will be born. As our friend Vivian Mathews once put it (or something to this effect): “We know what we HAVE been; we just don’t know what we’re GOING to be.”
Some of us may feel like we are going through a fiery trial or purification at this time of our life, and we don’t know yet what’s going to emerge; what we’re going to be like on the other side.
But what we know is this: Jesus fiery baptism is followed by a resurrection; entering into the fire with us, he emerged as the Risen Christ. May God be with us through the fires of our life, with the hope that out of the ashes will arise healing and new life.
“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”
So may it be.
Central United Methodist Church
Close to our Heart
Luke 12: 22 – 34
Pastor David L. Haley
August 7th, 2016
“Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12: 22 – 34, The New Revised Standard Version
The day of the Lord is coming; the day of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. No – I’m not talking about the Last Judgment; I’m talking about the next time we have to move, most likely downsizing, definitely purging ourselves of lots of stuff, some of it junk and some not, in fact some of it even dear to us.
If we have not had to do this for ourselves yet, we have likely had to do it for someone else, like our parents, or perhaps even a friend (they would have to be a VERY CLOSE FRIEND.) As the baby boomer generation (of which I am one) ages and downsizes, there are millions of people and couples and families going through this day-by-day.
If you have done this, you know how hard it is. In fact, I think it is harder to do for ourselves, than for others. Because it is easy to throw away somebody’s else’s junk; not so easy to through away our TREASURES. Which is why – if we are wise – we always ask for help – whether paid or volunteer – someone who doesn’t have the association or nostalgia or sentiment we do, and can more objectively decide whether any given thing should “stay or go,” whether it is junk or treasure.
Due to the demand, one of the hottest self-help books in this area has been that of Marie Kondo, entitled, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” (I know we have a copy in the house somewhere, if only I could find it in all the junk.) Ms. Kondo’s decluttering theory is interesting and helpful, and – risking oversimplification – can be reduced to one basic idea: “Discard everything that does not “spark joy;” after thanking the objects for their service, give them the “heave-ho.” Some might find this a strange thing to say to a T-shirt of pair of jeans or old socks. And – for those of us in text-intensive professions – what about papers? As Ms. Kondo says, “There is nothing more annoying than papers,” she says firmly. “After all, they will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them.” Which is why I like the guy who said – according to this theory – that he had already thrown out his tax form and several piles of bills, as they sparked no joy whatsoever. Good luck with that. (Penelope Green, “Kissing Your Socks Goodbye; Home Organization Advice from Marie Kondo,” The New York Times, October 22, 2014)
We arrive at this topic today because in today’s Gospel Jesus continues to talk about the danger of wealth and possessions, and the anxiety and distraction they cause in our lives, whether from having too much or too little. And the worst distraction is this: both anxiety and greed distract us from our real riches in life, God’s gifts to us and God’s purposes for us. In today’s text, Jesus puts it is this way: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Which raises the question: where is our treasure? What is close to our heart?
If you were here last Sunday, you may remember Jesus’ comments on these subjects came about when someone asked him, “”Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” Being the wise man that he was, Jesus refused to intervene in this domestic, but he did go on to warn: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” And then he told a story, about a rich farmer who decided to build a bigger barn. The good news was that the rich farmer’s harvest was so good he needed a bigger barn; the bad news was, he died that night, so he never got to see those barns. Thus he wound up looking and being pretty foolish, because while rich in many ways, the sad thing was that he wasn’t rich toward God.
He wasn’t rich toward God because he had no insight into his life, knowing what most of us have come to know, that our lives are fleeting, leading us to think about what is important. He never seemed to understand what most of us have learned, that others have contributed to our assets, and others can benefit from them. It never seemed to dawn upon him that which is most important to us, that whatever we have, it is worth nothing without people who love us and whom we love and who make our lives worth living. Perhaps most importantly, he never seemed to understand what most of us are learning, that what being “rich toward God” really means, is to care and to share what we have with those who are hurting and needy. Which is – in the end – what we seek to avoid – why God called him foolish.
What about us? We may or may not be rich, but does our anxiety about what we don’t have, or our preoccupation with what we do have, distract us from being rich toward God, from seeing what God has given us and what God intends for us? “Stop being so anxious and distracted about what you have or don’t have and look around,” Jesus says. As you hear how Eugene Peterson renders it, keep in mind that Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Imagine that as they walk and talk, birds fly overhead, or sing in the trees, just as – even when we are discouraged or anxious or distracted – they also fly over our heads, or sing around us:
“Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more. “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance — but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do best for you?”
Ever hear the story about the boy, who while walking, found a quarter? Ever after, he walked with his eyes down and his back bent, on the lookout for more money. And, sure enough, through his life, he found some $2,500 in loose coins and bills. What he didn’t see was, the blue sky, the green trees, the beautiful flowers, or the faces of the people he met on his way. That’s what happens, says Jesus, when we get too distracted by our stuff or our things or our money.
I know, if we were there, we might want to raise our hand to say, “Au contraire, Jesus!” Because Jesus’ words and his whole idea of simple trust seem so out of step with our society and the way we live, the way we have to live. As someone once said, “What Jesus said could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on a beach in sunny Galilee.” Obviously Jesus never had to worry about the rent or insurance or a retirement pension. I guess that’s one good aspect to getting nailed to a cross at the age of 30. (“Always look of the bright side of life.”)
On the other hand, the way we live is not working out that well for us, either. In fact, the stressful, anxious, way we live is literally killing us, either causing or exacerbating many of the disease processes that take us down. Constant anxiety depletes our immune systems, it keeps our bodies in a constant state of alert, it raises our blood pressure and constricts our arteries, it squeezes off the blood flow to our heads, our hearts, and yes, our pocketbooks.
So I like what Jesus says next, as Eugene Peterson renders it:
“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works . . . Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bank robbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”
Karoline Lewis is a Lutheran pastor and professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Each week, for preachers like me she writes a commentary on the Gospel at WorkingPreacher.org. This is part of what she had to say about this week’s – and last week’s – Gospel, illustrating the intertwining of our stuff with that which is dear to us:
“We are moving my mom into a nursing home. We are getting closer, but the sorting and the sifting and the sadness persist.
And so, the biblical text yet again lives my life is such a way that this column has to be a “part two.” The biblical story just won’t let me go. And I guess I am glad it won’t – because it reminds me of what the life of a preacher, of a believer, should be.
You know what I mean, right? You try to find something else on which to preach. You imagine going rogue, and wow, is that ever a ride! Outside of whatever lectionary you are using. You consider justifying a chosen text for a situation when really, all of the machinations are just escapes to avoid the ways in which a text comes way too close to the truth.
Two weeks in a row. Luke, you are killing me.
So, here I go again on possessions.
What is close to your heart?
In last week’s column, I talked about how our possessions matter if they matter to another – if the meaning of the object can be lodged in how it means outside of yourself.
This week, it’s a 180, friends. What is close to your heart?
Driving back on Sunday night from a day of packing, I called a dear friend. I needed to talk, to process. I needed help. How do you decide? What do you keep? My friend told me, “When my mom died, I kept just a couple of things, a few things close to my heart.” (Karoline Lewis, Treasured Possessions, Part II, Working Preacher.org, July 31, 2016)
It’s a good question, the same question Jesus raised, a question to think about long after we leave this place. What is “close to our heart?” “What brings us joy?” Because if we can figure out where our treasure is – what is close to our hearts and what brings us joy – what changes might that make in our jobs, in our lives, even our giving? I’m going to think about this; will you also?
Central United Methodist Church
Rich Toward God
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 12: 13 – 21
July 31st, 2016
“Someone out of the crowd said, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus replied, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Speaking to the people, he went on, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, “Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods — who gets it?’ “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” – Luke 12: 13 – 21, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
From time to time, during this election year, I think about Father Abraham. Not Father Abraham of the Old Testament, but Father Abraham (Lincoln) of Illinois. If Abraham stepped out of his grave in Springfield, I wonder what he would have to say about what has happened to his “Party of Lincoln” today. I would love to hear what he would say, and especially what story he might tell. As we know, Lincoln loved to punctuate even the most solemn and serious of subjects with some remotely connected story, which used to drive the members of his cabinet wild.
No, I did not know Abraham Lincoln (I am not that old), but I can say with some certainty that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton (both millionaires) are no Lincolns. But because – historically speaking – Lincoln and his times were not that long ago, in many ways he is still accessible to us.
As an example, one of the best places in Washington D.C. to feel close to Lincoln is his summer cottage at the Old Soldier’s Home in NE Washington, which my family has visited twice now. In the sweltering summer’s of Lincoln’s presidency, the area around the White House was full of soldiers, cattle, and disease, so President Lincoln and Mary lived at the Old Soldiers Home in the summer, with Lincoln commuting back and forth to the White House on horse, believe it or not. On one occasion he even had his hat shot off, which he made the soldiers who with him swear never to tell Mary, for fear that she would worry.
When you visit the Old Soldiers Home, not only are you putting your hand on the handrail Lincoln put his hand on to go upstairs, the guides there also tell you Lincoln stories, recreating the scene.
On our recent visit, my family had a good laugh as our guide was telling a Lincoln story about Kentucky and a preacher, and as he did, to my surprise he pointed straight at me! (How did he know?) The story was that a preacher once asked Lincoln, “Mr. President, aren’t you concerned whether God is on your side?” To which Lincoln answered, “I would like God on my side, but I MUST have Kentucky.”
Whenever I hear today’s Gospel about the man who asked Jesus to help him with sorting out the family estate, I think of Lincoln. First, because as country lawyer Lincoln probably could have helped him (for a small retainer), and secondly, I’m sure it would have reminded Uncle Abe of a story, as it did with Jesus.
You heard what happened: while Jesus is talking about weighty things, at least one man in the crowd was not listening, because he was worried about something else. But he must have thought Jesus was a smart guy, a fair guy, a good guy to have on your side, because when the time came for “Q and A,” the man raises his hand and out of the blue says, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”
Though maybe not the right time or place, or person, we get it, don’t we? How many families have we seen (maybe even our own) blown up over who gets what after Grandma dies, haggling over furniture, dishes, silverware, house, land, and savings.
And so Jesus answers, in one of my all-time favorite Jesus quotes: “Man, who made me an umpire over you?” What do you think this is, small claims court? And who do you think I am, Judge Judy?” (At least he didn’t say, “Get him outta here!”)
Perhaps knowing it was a “teaching moment,” Jesus turned to the crowd: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” And then – as Lincoln might have done, to make his point Jesus told a story, about a rich real estate mogul – no wait, a rich farmer.
Once there was a rich farmer whose farm did so well, he said to himself: “Self, what can I do? My barn isn’t big enough.’ “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’”
In all fairness, we should not caricature the farmer. After all, there’s no indication he put his name on the barn, in big letters. There’s no hint of graft or theft, no embezzlement or mistreatment of workers. I mean, just read the story without prejudice:
“A rich farmer had terrific crops — so big he needed larger granaries to store it all. So he decided what to do: he’d build bigger granaries so he wouldn’t have to worry anymore, and then he’d be able to retire.”
What’s wrong with that? Haven’t frugal people always stashed excess food and supplies in pantries, silos, barns, and basements? Isn’t that just good estate planning?
What’s wrong with that? “Everything,” says Jesus. “You fool!” God says to the man in the story. Kids, don’t try this at home, even though some politicians may do in public. This is strong language in this story, and intentionally insulting! But it is only a story; don’t try it in real life.
Why was the man a fool? Because: (1) Being mortal, he hadn’t figured death into the equation; and (2) judging by the language of the story, he didn’t think about anybody but himself.
I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but unfortunately, the man dropped dead. Or as Jesus says in The Message (slightly paraphrased further by me, “Just then – somewhere between Mr. T and the Grim Reaper – God shows up and says: “Fool! Time’s up; tonight you die. And your barnful of goods — who gets it?”
Jesus ends his short story by warning us: “Be careful: that’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”
But like a story told by Lincoln whose point was obvious to only to himself, what did Jesus mean? The story drives us to the edge of a cliff and leaves us there. What does it mean to be “rich toward God?”
Some preachers – including myself over the years – have taken this to be a good stewardship story; never mind that it doesn’t play well on a summer Sunday in July. Many are the sermons on this text – and I have preached a few – that boil down to: “Remember, you can’t take it with you, so be generous with your gifts – and especially to the church!”
But what if this story isn’t about money, or wealth, or even our need to give to Church? What if it’s about the man’s isolation from community? What if it’s about his narcissism, as revealed in his conversation with himself, about himself, and only himself? What if it’s about his distraction – due to his stuff and his money – from whatever else is going on in the world, including in his own life? Was this rich man distracted with his money, as Martha was distracted with the dishes a few weeks ago, when Jesus visited Martha and Mary’s home?
What does it mean to be “rich toward God?” It means to have insight into our lives, to know that they are fleeting, to reflect about what’s important. To be “rich toward God” means to know that whatever we have – whatever assets we have accumulated – others have contributed to it, and it is only valuable as others benefit from it. To be “rich toward God” is to know that whatever we have, it counts as nothing without those who love us and whom we love and who make our lives worth living. Money cannot buy us love; who wants to sit on a big pile of money lonely and alone? To be “rich toward God” is to care and share what we have with others who are hurting and needy. To be “rich toward God” is not to live and accumulate wealth in solitude; it is to live in solidarity and community and to share with others.
Which is – in the end – why God calls him foolish. Because, he forgot, not only is he not immune to death, which none of us are; but because he will die alone, as none of us want. Despite all that he has, it cannot comfort nor will it protect him, but will go to others, like dust in the wind.
So perhaps this story Jesus told is not so much about wealth as it is about community, in which we find sustenance and comfort and help and hope. After all, the story began with a break in a community, in a family: one brother seeking Jesus’ intervention in a family squabble about an inheritance. No wonder Jesus will have none of it. What should have been an occasion for celebration, remembrance, and gratitude, has been turned instead – as it sometimes does – into a time of bitterness and division. And so – as a cautionary tale – Jesus tells the story of a man who wound up right and rich alright, but died all alone.
Now we might ask, “Who was Jesus talking to? The man who raised his problem? The man’s brother? His disciples? The crowds? How about us? Yes, all the above.
Now is an especially important time for us to hear Jesus’ words, because – as you know – there is a message out there that we should not and cannot trust each other, because the world is increasingly dangerous and we should therefore be afraid, especially of the stranger. We should work hard and accumulate our own piles of money, paying the least taxes that we can, and especially not sharing with the welfare queen and the freeloader and the immigrant, needy though they may be. That might indeed be a rich life, but that would be the kind of life Jesus was warning about, and not the kind of life he was commending, a life that is rich toward God.
When Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington in 1861 to become President, he arrived with his wife Mary, and three sons: Robert, 17; Willie, 10; and Tad, 7. Another son, Edward, had died 10 years earlier. While we know of his humble beginnings, by that time Lincoln had practiced as a lawyer for 17 years and was worth about $15,000. A year afterward, Willie died, most likely of typhoid fever, usually contracted by consumption of contaminated food/water. That was one of the reasons the Lincoln’s enjoyed the relative solitude of the Old Soldier’s Home, because they were grieving the death of their son Willie and just wanted to be alone, as far as possible, even in the midst of the raging War.
By the time Lincoln was assassinated four years later at the age of 56, his estate at his death was worth $85,000, with the additional coming principally from his $25,000 yearly salary as President. Of course there were no book deals, no speaking fees. In our time when politicians and Presidents are routinely multi-millionaires, don’t you find it amazing that the greatest President of our country was financially worth only $85,000. (Harry E. Pratt, Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Monographs, Chicago, IL: Lakeside Press, 1943; Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2006.)
But what did he leave? The Emancipation Proclamation, and an end to the curse of slavery. The Gettysburg Address, the greatest memorial to the 665,000 who died in the War. The First and Second Inaugural addresses. A unified nation and a new birth of freedom, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, should not perish from the earth. Though poor in things, I would say Lincoln was rich toward God, wouldn’t you?
Though no Lincolns, with however little or however much we have, let us heed Jesus words, and strive to be “rich toward God.”
Central United Methodist Church
The Prayer That Shapes Us
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 11: 1 – 13
July 24th, 2016
“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
– Luke 11: 1 – 4, The New Revised Standard Version
The things you learn when you prepare a sermon every week; I highly recommend it.
This week while thinking about prayer and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, a version of which we hear in today’s Gospel, I was looking for a graphic to use in the weekly email update. I immediately thought of that picture posted in Fellowship Hall, to the left of the kitchen window, which if you remember portrays an elderly man praying. It’s right next to our AED (Automated External Defibrillator), which I’ve always thought to be an appropriate placement, as that’s what we’re all going to be doing should we ever have to use that AED, God forbid. I confess that I did not know the story of that picture until this week, so if you do, bear with my telling of it. I think, after learning the story, you will never look at the picture in the same way again.
The picture is entitled “Grace,” and was taken by Minnesota photographer Eric Enstrom in or around 1918. According to the story, it came about when a bearded “saintly-looking” old man showed up at the door of Enstrom’s photography studio in Bovey, Minnesota, selling foot-scrapers. Supposedly, like Enstrom himself, the man was a Swedish immigrant named Charles Wilden, about whom local stories centered more around drinking and not accomplishing much, than being saintly. But then again, who says they can’t go together?
At that time, Enstrom was preparing a portfolio of pictures to take to the Minnesota Photographer’s Association convention. He said, “There was something about the old gentleman’s face that immediately impressed me. I saw that he had a kind face … there weren’t any harsh lines in it.” Said Enstrom, “I wanted to take a picture that would show people that even though they had to do without many things because of the war (WWI) they still had much to be thankful for.”
So, on a small table, Enstrom placed a family book (which was a dictionary not a Bible), some spectacles, a bowl of gruel, a loaf of bread, and a knife. Then he had Wilden pose in a posture of prayer, with his folded hands to his brow, as though saying grace before a simple meal.
As soon as the negative was developed, Enstrom was sure he had something special. It was a picture that seemed to say, “This man doesn’t have much of earthly good, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.”
Enstrom first licensed the photograph to Augsburg Fortress in 1930; in the 1940s, his daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, colorized the photo by hand, which became the most widespread and popularly known version. Enstrom earned a modest sum from the photograph for the remainder of his life until his death in 1968.
As for what happened to Wilden after the photograph, no one knows. In 1926, he was paid $5 by Enstrom in return for waiving his rights to the photograph, and he disappeared thereafter. After the photograph became popular Enstrom attempted to track him down but was unsuccessful, as family members and local historians have been ever since.
And yet, still today, Wilden’s image in “Grace” hangs in homes, restaurants and in churches like ours, not only in America but around the world, still inspiring us to pray. (You may read more about Eric Enstrom’s “Grace,” at the authentic website of the family of Eric Enstrom http://gracebyenstrom.com/, or also on Wikipedia, Eric Enstrom, “Grace,” (photograph): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_(photograph)
If you like that story, here’s an even better one: in today’s Gospel, it is not a picture of someone praying that inspires us to pray, it is the example of Jesus. And not only does Jesus inspire us, he teaches us how to pray, in the words of that prayer we pray together every Sunday and which most of us pray every day, the Lord’s Prayer
In the Gospels, there are actually two versions of The Lord’s Prayer, one in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 6 (the one we most commonly use), and another slightly different version in Luke, chapter 11, which we read today. In this version, Jesus shares the prayer because his disciples often saw him praying, and – inspired by his example – they asked him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
Though there are two versions, there are of course even more translations. Remember, Jesus spoke it in his native language of Aramaic, but it was translated and transmitted in the Gospels in Greek, and – unless Koine Greek is your language – therefore has to be translated again. In Jerusalem, The Church of the Pater Noster (Latin, “Our Father”), has plaques of the Lord’s Prayer in 100 different languages.
When you pray it in a Catholic Church, you may have been surprised that they omit: “Thine be the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.” That’s because, in both of the Gospel versions, that ending is not included, but was added later. At funerals, I can usually tell if those gathered are Catholic or Protestant, by how long they pause to see whether I will add the doxology.
Just last Sunday, while praying it with Presbyterians at Lou Haase’s memorial service at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, I said “trespasses” while all those Presbyterians said “debts.” As a Presbyterian friend of mine once said, “I prefer ‘debts’ because I always had more debts than trespasses.” Perhaps, to keep it fresh, we should do what Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C. does, which I discovered when I worshipped there a few years ago: they have in every pew a “Lord’s Prayer card” with seven different versions of the Lord’s Prayer, which they alternate praying. Another alternative would be to do what I’ve always wanted to do, just memorize it in Greek or Aramaic. Perhaps some of our Assyrian brothers and sisters could teach us.
But as we know, it is not the details of the Lord’s Prayer that make it so meaningful and important to us, it is the substance of it. It is a prayer, deeply rooted in the Jewish faith, that shapes us in our faith even as we pray it.
We don’t begin with ourselves, but with God, our Heavenly Father. The word Jesus used is “Abba,” more like “Papa.” And it is not a personal prayer but a communal; we do not say “My Father”, but “Our Father.” According to Jesus’ prayer, we can’t even pray to God without remembering our connection to our brothers and sisters. After that, it’s still not about us: first we pray for God’s holiness, God’s kingdom, and God’s will to be done on earth – in my life – as it is in heaven.
I once heard Zan Holmes, the former Pastor of St. Luke Community UMC in Dallas, Texas, say he’d once saw a bumper sticker which said, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Texas.”
In contrast, what we’re praying is the exact opposite: that God’s will be done in Texas, and in Illinois, and all over the earth, as it is done in heaven. Only then, after we ask for God’s holiness and God’s kingdom and God’s will to be done – only after we get that right – do we pray for ourselves. Which is likely the exact opposite of how we’d likely pray if left to ourselves, apart from Jesus’ example.
Even then – when we pray for ourselves – Jesus teaches us to pray not for what we want, but what we need. Not – “Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz” – but bread for the day; forgiveness for the past, TO THE DEGREE THAT WE EXTEND IT TO OTHERS (got to watch that fine print!); and – for the future and whatever may come – deliverance from temptation and evil, in whatever forms they present themselves, both personally and socially.
Because the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that shapes us, both as a community and as individual followers of Jesus, have you found – as I have found – that one of the most inspiring of spiritual experiences is to say the Lord’s Prayer with Christians in churches around the world, even when spoken in other languages? Do you find – as I find – that our praying of the Lord’s Prayer together every Sunday is one of the most inspiring parts of our service? Do you find – as I find – that regardless of whatever tradition or form of prayer I am using in my personal prayers – whether spoken or unspoken – it is the praying of the Lord’s Prayer that makes me Christian, a follower of Jesus, praying not for my will but God’s will to be done.
A few years ago I had the privilege and honor of meeting the British New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright in London’s Westminster Abbey. In his book, The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright said this about the Lord’s Prayer:
“The more I have studied Jesus in his historical setting, the more it has become clear to me that this prayer sums up fully and accurately, albeit in a very condensed fashion, the way in which he read and responded to the signs of the times, the way in which he understood his own vocation and mission and invited his followers to share in it. This prayer, then, serves as a lens through which to see Jesus himself, and to discover something of what he was about.”
Thus inspired – not by a PICTURE of someone praying as in “Grace” by Eric Enstrom – but by the example of Jesus and the prayer HE gave us, so we pray, even in the crazy times in which we live. We name God as our God. We yearn for God’s reign. We ask for that which sustains us. We ask for the hard stuff, like forgiveness and forgiving others. As we pray, we expect to be held, challenged, blessed, lead, and changed by the Holy Spirit of God. So may it be – Amen and Amen!
Central United Methodist Church
The Main Course
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 10: 38 – 42
July 17th, 2016
“As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” – Luke 10: 38 – 42, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
Martha and Mary. Do you feel – as I do – that we have known them most of our lives? If not living in our houses, at least in our heads, and in people we have known?
There’s Martha, always at work in the kitchen. My grandmother was a definite Martha (who – coincidentally – named two of her daughters Martha and Mary).
For those of you who have experienced meals in southern homes, as in other cultures, you will know that, traditionally, southern women are great Marthas, and proud of it. They have refined hospitality to such an art that they never sit; they hover. Plates are never allowed to go empty. Guests are continually asked if they need anything. The hostess keeps working, running around the table, a trickle of perspiration running past the string of pearls on her neck. She also misses most of the dinner conversation, having given herself to serving.
Up until modern times, such hospitality was almost exclusively women’s work, as it was with my grandmother. To add insult to injury, not only were women EXPECTED to do this work, they were at the same time EXCLUDED from male circles of education and power; as is still the case, in some cultures.
Having come such a long way, baby, most women would not be willing to go back to such ways, no matter how much men might wish.
Years ago a friend sent me a story about three men sitting around bragging how they had given their new wives duties. The first man married a woman from Alabama, and bragged how his wife was to do all the dishes and housecleaning at their house. He said that it took a couple of days but on the third day he came home to a clean house and the dishes were all washed and put away.
The second man married a woman from Florida. He bragged how he had given her orders that she was to do all the cleaning, dishes, and the cooking. He told them that the first day he didn’t see any results, but the next day it was better. By the third day, the house was clean, the dishes were done, and there was a huge dinner on the table.
The third man married a Chicago woman. He boasted he told her that her duties were to keep the house clean, the dishes washed, the lawn mowed, the laundry done, and hot meals on the table. He said the first day he didn’t see anything, and the second day he didn’t see anything, but by the third day most of the swelling in his left eye had gone down such that he could begin to see a little. Enough to fix himself a bite to eat, load the dishwasher and washer, and telephone a landscaper.
But to get back to the story, Martha has a sister, and her name is Mary. If Martha is the practical one, Mary is the student. She sees her opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and takes it, ignoring her sister as she hustles about. In fact, some would say that this is the significant point of this text; unlike in Judaism, where women could not sit at the feet of a Rabbi; Jesus welcomed women. Could it be that Luke’s point with this story was that women were not expected ONLY to serve, unseen and unheard, but were also welcome to be students of the Word?
In the story, overwhelmed, finally Martha has had enough, and protests: “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” And Jesus replies, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”
Peterson catches the play on words. When Jesus says “only a few things are needful, really only one,” is he talking about how many dishes are needed (open a can of sardines?), or is he talking about life, and what’s really important: “The Main Course,” capital M, capital C?
From that day to this, this story of domestic intranquility has provoked argument and discussion. Does it pose, in story form, the tension we still experience between the contemplative versus the active life, between being and doing?
To put it in context, last week Jesus met a man who had trouble hearing the Word of God, and offered him an example, a Samaritan. This week Jesus visits a woman so busy serving she does not hear the word, and Jesus offers her an example, her sister. To the man, Jesus said to go and do; to the woman, Jesus says, “Sit down, listen, and learn.” There is a time to go and do; there is also a time to listen and learn.
After all, we can and do serve God in both ways, through both action and through contemplation. Both Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus, and responded to his presence, one by serving, the other by listening and learning. It is still true: some of us live out our discipleship by doing what need to be done: preparing meals, counting money, caring for the homebound, organizing outreach. Others of us live out our discipleship in service to the Word: study and prayer, worship and preaching, evangelism and teaching. In the church, we need both Marthas and Marys. As someone once said: “There is a need occasionally. to get the visionaries in the kitchen and the kitchenaries in the vision.”
Some of us may feel that Mary and Jesus were too hard on Martha. Surely, if Martha had not done all she did, Mary could not have taken her seat at Jesus’ feet. Giuseppe Belli’s 19th century sonnet “Martha and Magdalene” ends with Martha snapping back at Jesus when he tells her that Mary’s choice is more important: “So says you, but I know better. Listen, if I sat around on my salvation the way she does, who’d keep this house together?”
Most churches I know would cease to exist if it weren’t for the Marthas, both men and women, who take care of details. Services would never be held, the bills would never get paid, the grass would never get cut, food would never get served, the ceilings would literally fall down upon our heads. What anyone can do, someone must do. Thank God for the Marthas of the church.
On the other hand, others of us side with Mary. What an opportunity! If only we could have been there, for a day or even an hour, to listen to Jesus, to hear what he had to say, to ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask. Surely that would be worth letting the place go for a day! “Come on, Martha, order out, for God’s sake!”
And yet, aren’t there times when we are all like Martha, whose problem may not have been that she was serving, but that she was seriously distracted from that which was better? Mindfulness, as some traditions call it: attention to the moment. And yet why is it that mindfulness in life – as we experience it – is so hard?
I think of a friend whose father drove the family to the Grand Canyon, but when they arrived, spent the whole time looking under the hood of the car. I think of couples at their weddings, so spaced out by details, that they almost miss one of the most important moments of their lives. I think of people I’ve seen at some of the greatest man-made and natural wonders of the world, so intent on getting it on video, that they almost miss experiencing it “in person.”
I think of parents (including myself) who missed precious moments when children were growing up. The late Erma Bombeck once told of two such moments in her husband’s life. She said there was a time when their children were growing up that her husband used to go and look at the back yard. Surveying the muddy patches where the lawn should be, he wondered: “Will the grass ever come back?” Then came the time when the children were grown and gone, when her husband would look out over the beautiful green lawn, immaculate from lack of use and wonder: “Will the children ever come back?”
Is there anybody here who doesn’t look back and regret experiences wasted and opportunities lost, because we were distracted at the time by that which we now know was insignificant, trivial, or unimportant?
As you may have guessed, I side with Mary, who makes the most of her opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet, to listen and learn, to think and reflect about that which is most important. To me, this is what religion is all about. Religion provides us with the opportunity to participate in what medieval philosophers called “the long conversation,” a conversation in which we can talk about what matters: life and death, love and hate, the way things are and the way things are not.
It is what we do when we come to worship. Even though Sunday might be our only opportunity to sleep in or spend time with the family, if we miss worship we lose an opportunity to sit at Christ’s feet and engage in this conversation about what is important in life. Jesus made it clear that what we’re talking about here is not the appetizer or the side-dish, it is the “Main Course.”
In worship, if we fail to engage in this conversation, then we miss what’s important. Services might be held, bills might get paid, grass might get cut, food might be served, and our building be in the best shape it’s ever been in, but we’d still be missing the Main Course. This is why we have as our church slogan, the motto: “Keeping God Central, in hearts, minds, and lives.”
I believe we most often err by being too much like Martha, and not enough like Mary. Let’s face it, there is always plenty that needs to be done, places to go, deadlines to meet, kids to raise, 500 channels of TV to watch, all those new cat and dog pictures on Facebook, and possibly a text or email that just arrived in the last 2 minutes, not to mention Pokemon Go. So we find ourselves so seriously distracted that we do not spend enough time in prayer or meditation or even in conversation with the people who matter most to us, about God and about life and about what’s important, in this short life that we have here. When we do this we are like Martha, distracted, missing the Main Course.
Many years ago I visited a family in Caen, France. I didn’t speak much French and they didn’t speak much English, so when we sat down for the evening meal it was a gastronomic guessing game as to what would happen next. The food wasn’t served like we do – all at once – but in courses. First there was bread, then soup, followed by a salad. Next came some cheese, then some meat, followed by a fish. You never knew which was the main course, so you never knew how much of any one thing to eat. Is there more to come, or is this it? When the brandy showed up, I knew the meal was over.
The older I get, the more I feel my life has been like that meal in France. First there was this, then there was that; each and every chapter of my life has been full of experiences and people who still live and breathe in my memory. I confess, too often – at the time – I was distracted, by that which I now know was less than important. Which makes the question Jesus poses to each of us today all the more compelling: “Am I missing the main course?”
“You’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and this is it — it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from you.”
Central United Methodist Church
Who is My Neighbor?
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 10: 25 – 37
July 10th, 2016
“Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”
He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”
He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence — and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”
“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”
Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define “neighbor’?”
Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill — I’ll pay you on my way back.’
“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” – Luke 10: 36 – 37, The Message
It has been another week that makes us thankful that we are church going people, which gives us a time and a place to reflect on the events of the week, to collect our thoughts and to pray, not least for the victims of this week’s violence.
From Sunday through Thursday, I was in DC visiting family. With 10 members of my family present, I was engaged from morning to night, and had no idea what was happening in the world. Also, during that time I had computer problems, which shut down my usual means of keeping up with the news.
On Thursday – thanks to our daughter Becca’s summer internship with our Representative Jan Schakowsky – we were walking the halls of the Capitol. Sad to say – from all appearances – the Capitol seemed as unaware of what was happening in the world as we were.
After arriving home and beginning to catch up, like everyone else I was filled with horror and grief at what happened this week:
– On Tuesday, the shooting by a police officer of Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge, LA, after being approached by police for selling CDs outside a convenience store.
– On Wednesday, the shooting by a police officer of Philando Castile, 32, in Falcon Heights, MN, after being pulled over for a broken tail light.
– On Thursday, the shooting of five Dallas police officers – Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa – apparently in self-appointed retaliation for the previous shootings – by a former Army reservists named Micah Johnson.
All three of these events were either captured on video, or live streamed on Facebook, and went viral. The other common denominator was guns. With increased open and concealed carry and public access to assault weapons, this is only going to make police officers jobs harder and more dangerous, as the incident in Dallas illustrates, regardless of what the NRA says or doesn’t say.
What to say? I have read many insightful and expressive commentaries, but none of them alleviate the mix of anger and sorrow and frustration most of us feel, and especially black Americans on the one hand and police on the other. As Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department in Vermont, said, “One of the worries that cops have is that no cop can control what another cop does, but all cops will be judged by what the other cop does.” (Michael Wilson and Michael Schwirtz, “In Week of Emotional Swings, Police Face a Dual Role: Villain and Victim,” The New York Times, July 9, 2016). There is too much hate and injustice and violence in America right now – and there are way too many guns – and it is both volatile and frightening. You are not going to get any grand pronouncements from me; this is not a simple problem. It has been a long time coming, and will take a long time to fix. Rather than speaking out like the Biblical prophets Isaiah or Jeremiah, I feel more like Job, who covered himself with sackcloth and ashes in mourning and went for days without speaking.
What you will get from me is a steady diet of Gospel, challenging us in our attitudes and actions as followers of Jesus. In fact, it would be hard to find a more appropriate Scripture that the one we read today, the familiar but challenging story of the Good Samaritan, posing to Christians throughout the centuries as well as to us today, the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Even if you didn’t grow up in Sunday School, you likely know this story. It is a story whose main character we know so well, we’ve named hospitals, nursing homes, relief agencies and philanthropic organizations after him. We have even created a law in his honor: any modern-day “good samaritan” who stops to help a stranger in distress – which, in at one time or another, almost everyone of us has done – has certain legal protections for our trouble.
But while we know the story, we know it so well we may miss its challenge. As Amy-Jill Levine says in her study of Jesus’ parables, Short Stories by Jesus”: “If we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”
The story begins with a question asked of Jesus by a religious scholar: “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?” Isn’t it interesting Jesus didn’t answer the way we think he might, or at least as others have led us to believe? Jesus didn’t tell him to be born again as he told Nicodemus; he didn’t ask him to go and sell all he had and come and follow him, as he told the Rich Young Ruler. What Jesus said was, “You’re a lawyer; you tell me.”
So the lawyer comes up with an answer, a good answer, one that we’ve been quoting and even living by ever since: “Love the Lord your God with heart, soul, strength, and mind – and your neighbor as yourself.” “Good answer!” says Jesus. A+! “Do that and you will live.”
But the lawyer has a follow-up question (don’t they always?) “Who is my neighbor?” Really, what the lawyer is asking is this: “Who is not my neighbor? How much love we talking here, Jesus? Where do I draw the line? I mean, there is a line … isn’t there?” Is it outside my front door? At the edge of my neighborhood? Is it my family, my friends, my people, my race, my country?
Perhaps the lawyer was using the tactic of talking to put off getting his hands dirty (we’ve all done that); but Jesus doesn’t take the bait, but instead tells a story, one of his best stories.
A man walks the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and gets mugged. Stripped of his clothes and beaten, he is left in the ditch for dead. A priest comes by, passes by on the other side of the road. A Levite does the same. But then a Samaritan – a hated Samaritan – comes along. Seeing the victim, he goes to him, gets down on his knees in the ditch and helps him. He gets him to help, pays the bill, and promises there is more if needed.
The moral of the story is easy: “So, which of the three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” Along with the lawyer, we all raise our hands to answer: “The one who showed mercy!” “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus. Show mercy. Extend kindness. Don’t think love; just do it! “Do this and you will live.”
Makes sense to me; doesn’t it to you? But here’s the problem; we are not challenged by that answer, so what are we missing?
Debi Thomas*, in her excellent commentary on this story, “Go and Do Likewise,” notes that the story changes according to where we locate ourselves in it. On bad days, we are the Priest and the Levite who pass by, feeling guilty, because we are too busy or too scared or to overwhelmed to act. On good days, we are the Good Samaritan, the hero of the story.
But what if he is not? What if Jesus’ parable is not an example story, but a reversal story, intended to blow up our categories of who is good and who is bad? Maybe the whole point of the story is that the hero is not us.
When Jesus told this story, the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was old, entrenched, and bitter. They disagreed about everything, and hated each other for it, to the point of avoiding social contact. So Jesus’ choice to make a Samaritan the hero was shocking to 1st century hearers, even scandalous. Think about it: Who is the last person on earth you’d want to call a “good guy,” the very person who might save your life?
Debi Thomas suggests some possibilities:
“An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A liberal Democrat is robbed, and a Good conservative Republican saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life.”
Somewhere in those possibilities, couldn’t we fit also both police and young black men?
What Jesus did when he called the Samaritan “good” was radical and risky; stunning his Jewish hearers. He was asking them to dream of a different kind of world. He was inviting them to consider the possibility that people might be more than the sum of their political, racial, cultural, and economic identities. He was calling them to put aside everything they knew, including the prejudices they nursed. He was asking them to leave room for divine and world-altering surprises. Sound familiar?
Last Tuesday morning I dropped the family off near the Lincoln Memorial to visit the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, which Michele’s parents had never seen. I parked and walked back, stopping in briefly to hit the bathroom at the Lincoln Memorial. I couldn’t leave without saying “Hi” to Abe, but then, when I walked out, there was the spot where Dr. King spoke, marked with an inscription. That’s a place that gets to me, as I stand there and look out, on the panorama that Dr. King saw, filled with people. It’s a place where Dr. King shared a dream not that different from Jesus’ dream, of a world where people respect each other and love one another and care for one another, regardless of the color of their skin. We have made progress, but we still have a ways to go, to this dream real in every town and village and neighborhood in our country.
If we haven’t gotten it yet, perhaps we find ourselves in this story not in the priest or the Levite or even the Good Samaritan, but as the wounded man, lying in the ditch. He is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief, only by his naked need.
In fact, maybe we have to occupy the victim’s place in this story or any story, for that matter, to appreciate the compassion of the Good Samaritan. Because only when we occupy the victim’s place do all the “isms” that divide us fall away; when we’re lying bloody in a ditch, bleeding out in the front seat of a car or lying in the middle of a city street. The only thing that matters then is not whose help you’d prefer, whose religion you like best, whose politics you agree with, what color your skin is. The only thing that matters is whether anyone will show us mercy before we die, or at least a measure of justice afterwards. The only thing that matters is whether we can swallow our pride and prejudice and reach out to take hold of the human hand we never hoped to touch. In Dallas, this week, both Black Lives Matter and the police are learning this lesson.
“Who is my neighbor?” Our neighbors are rich and poor, black and white, near and far away. Our neighbors are in Ferguson and Charleston, in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights; our neighbors are in Dallas. As the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us, if by the grace of God we can transcend our entrenched categories and the bloody boundaries that separate us with respect and compassion, then we will teach each other what it means to be “good.” If we can do this, we shall live.
*I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Debi Thomas’ excellent commentary on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, “Go and Do Likewise,” at The Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, July 10, 2016. http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1023-go-and-do-likewise
Central United Methodist Church
Wild Goose Chase
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20
July 3rd, 2016
“Later the Master selected seventy and sent them ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he intended to go. He gave them this charge:
“What a huge harvest! And how few the harvest hands. So on your knees; ask the God of the Harvest to send harvest hands.”On your way! But be careful — this is hazardous work. You’re like lambs in a wolf pack.
“Travel light. Comb and toothbrush and no extra luggage.
“Don’t loiter and make small talk with everyone you meet along the way.
“When you enter a home, greet the family, “Peace.’ If your greeting is received, then it’s a good place to stay. But if it’s not received, take it back and get out. Don’t impose yourself.
“Stay at one home, taking your meals there, for a worker deserves three square meals. Don’t move from house to house, looking for the best cook in town.
“When you enter a town and are received, eat what they set before you, heal anyone who is sick, and tell them, “God’s kingdom is right on your doorstep!’
“When you enter a town and are not received, go out in the street and say, “The only thing we got from you is the dirt on our feet, and we’re giving it back. Did you have any idea that God’s kingdom was right on your doorstep?’
“The one who listens to you, listens to me. The one who rejects you, rejects me. And rejecting me is the same as rejecting God, who sent me.”
The seventy came back triumphant. “Master, even the demons danced to your tune!”
Jesus said, “I know. I saw Satan fall, a bolt of lightning out of the sky. See what I’ve given you? Safe passage as you walk on snakes and scorpions, and protection from every assault of the Enemy. No one can put a hand on you. All the same, the great triumph is not in your authority over evil, but in God’s authority over you and presence with you. Not what you do for God but what God does for you — that’s the agenda for rejoicing.” – Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20, The Message
Today – on this Independence Day weekend – we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to celebrate the birthday of our country. Who doesn’t love Independence Day, the 4th of July? Parades and BBQ and fireworks and John Phillip Sousa! And – oh yes – the Declaration of Independence:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Don’t you just love it, surely one of the most stirring documents in the history of civilization! We’re off to DC again later today to celebrate the 4th and see family, and one thing we may do tomorrow is stop by the National Archives to see the original document.
But today, before we go off on our holiday weekend or on our summer travels or – for that matter – along our way in life, the Gospel of Luke reminds us that as followers of Jesus we don’t just go, but in reality we are sent: We are sent to proclaim and to practice the Reign of God, wherever we go.
You heard the story: As Jesus traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem, he selected seventy and sent them ahead of him, two-by-two, to every town and place where he intended to go. The mission on which he sends them is simple: Declare God’s reign in villages and towns, show signs of the reality of the presence of God’s kingdom, then come back. Perhaps, if Jesus had known the words attributed centuries later to St. Francis of Assisi, he’d have used them: “Preach the Gospel. Use words, if necessary.”
But if the mission was simple, the opportunities to mess it up were profound. Maybe that’s why Jesus gave instructions about what to take and what not take, what to do, and how to behave, whether they were received with hospitality or hostility (and it wasn’t to call fire down from heaven, as James and John proposed last week.) There are some interesting points to note, that remain applicable to us, as “sent” people today. The points I want to make are all in the numbers.
“The harvest is GREAT, but the workers are FEW,” said Jesus, and he wasn’t talking about church Clean Up day. You have to assume that if they were on their way from Galilee to Jerusalem, they were traveling through Samaria. Because the Samaritans had their own religion, you have to assume that prospects for evangelism and outreach might not be good; after all, in last week’s text they were already turned away from one village. But that didn’t deter Jesus: what he saw and said what this: “the harvest is great, but the workers are few.” Regardless of their religious affiliation, there were plenty of people in need out there, in need of people who act in such a way as to assure them that God still reigns.
It is easy to be pessimistic about the state of the Church these days, in decline across North America and Europe. Our congregations are aging, our youth are not returning, and more and more people are finding better ways to spend their Sunday mornings than at church. But wouldn’t Jesus look out and still say that the harvest is great, even if the workers are still few?
John Vest, the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary, says that the way we have to think of ourselves now is as “post-Christendom missionaries.” He says church growth strategies designed to attract members with better worship services and programs have a limited return on investment, because churches are essentially all competing with each other for a shrinking segment of the population; namely, people who like church. But what about the growing segment of the population described as “nones” or “spiritual but not religious?” For years, John Vest says, mission leaders have said that post-Christendom North American culture is our mission field, and it’s time we start acting like missionaries instead of church program directors.” Missionaries, that’s what we are sent out to be these days, to preach and practice the Reign of God in a post-Christian world.
The second thing interesting to note is – in the face of this great harvest – how many did Jesus send? Again, it’s all in the numbers. He sent out 70. Not 700 or 7,000, but 70. They were not given courses in ministry, graduate degrees, or any kind of certificate or ordination; he didn’t even give them T-shirts. They were people of humble status: members of his family, women, fishermen, tax collectors, people he healed or gathered along the way, people who chose to follow him.
And look at what they accomplished! Not just in that journey, but in the years ahead, as this group becomes the hundred gathered in that Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost, who would spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. In time to come, their descendants would build hospitals and orphanages and refugee centers and all kinds of institutions (like Northwestern University and Hospital, founded by Methodists) that would profoundly impact the lives of all the people around. Just 70 to begin with, but with faith and courage they truly changed the world.
Now here’s what interesting: do you know what the median worshiping attendance of most congregations in America is, according to the National Congregations Survey? 75. (We’ve got five extra!) It is easy to despair and feel helpless and say, “We’re not big enough to make a difference,” or “We’re not rich enough,” or “We don’t have the resources,” yet as the mission of the 70 remind us, God has this peculiar habit of accomplishing amazing things with small numbers of unlikely people, just like we are. (You may read a summary of the National Congregations Survey here: http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSII_report_final.pdf)
The final interesting significant number we should note is this: Jesus sent them out not one-by-one (after all, he could have reached twice as many towns that way) but two-by-two. With two, there is someone to be encouraging if one is discouraged, to keep faith if one is dispirited, one to carry on when another feels tempted to quit. This discipleship thing can be hard, which is why it’s always easier with a companion, or two or three. Perhaps this is why one of the most acclaimed studies we’ve ever done at Central was called, “Companions in Christ.” Then as now, we are dependent upon each other for companionship, and we rely upon each other for help, encouragement and support, as we seek to proclaim and practice God’s reign in our lives and in the world. Perhaps we should be celebrating Dependence rather than Independence Day, as two-by-two we are sent out. Who is your Companion in Christ? Your spouse? A friend? Someone at Central? Everybody needs a companion in Christ. Because, as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism once said, “There are no solitary Christians.”
If you are wondering whether the mission of the seventy was a one-of-a-kind thing, you should know that has been repeated through the centuries. For example, in the 5th through the 7th centuries, Celtic missionaries from the Isle of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, transformed England and northern Europe. The Celts had a name for the Holy Spirit – an Geadh-Glas – which means “the wild goose.” By this they meant that the Spirit of God can’t be put in a neat box, confined to a vision and values statement or tamed within a strategic plan. The wild goose – like the wind – is unpredictable.
Taking seriously the Spirit of God, Celtic missionaries went on “wild goose chases” into the towns, hamlets, and villages of 7th century England in the conviction that the wild goose was out there ahead of them. They were open to being surprised by the wild goose, prayerfully asking what God was doing and joining in it by naming the name of Jesus, dwelling among people and sharing the story of God’s love and grace. They gathered in church to be shaped by the life of Jesus, then went out, on wild goose chases, to transform northern Europe.
Like them, like the seventy long ago, Jesus sends us on a wild goose chase to all the places we go: to live lightly, to bring healing, to proclaim and practice the Reign of God, to bring a harvest of peace, joy, and justice in the world. Who will go? Who will go?
Central United Methodist Church
Keep Calm and Keep Plowing
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 9: 51 – 62
June 26th, 2016
“When it came close to the time for his Ascension, Jesus gathered up his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead. They came to a Samaritan village to make arrangements for his hospitality. But when the Samaritans learned that his destination was Jerusalem, they refused hospitality. When the disciples James and John learned of it, they said, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate them?”
Jesus turned on them: “Of course not!” And they traveled on to another village.
On the road someone asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.
Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”
Jesus said to another, “Follow me.”
He said, “Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father’s funeral.”
Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!”
Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.”
Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.” – Luke 9: 61 – 62, The Message
The late Fred Craddock, who died last year at the age of 86, was not only a professor of preaching, but a master preacher and story-teller. He once told the following story:
“In a lot of the mountain churches, when I was moving among them, there was on Wednesday prayer meeting time . . . Bible study and prayer meeting – very little Bible study and sometimes not much praying, but a lot of talking and visiting. It was a good time. There were testimonies: people give testimony of Christian experience. Some of the churches, in order to join, you had to give a testimony of some experience of God, or an experience of beating the devil, or something like that to be admitted to membership.
I remember one night at one of those churches, a man in the community, a small farmer, gave an unusual testimony. Essentially, this is what he said:
“I was plowing yesterday. And when I got to the end of the row, there was Jesus Christ sittin’ on a fence . . . At least I think it was Jesus Christ. It coulda been God. They tell me they look pretty much alike.
I thought he was getting ready for a joke. He was very serious. And one of the people in the congregation said, “Well, what did he look like?” This fella said:
“Well, he looked just like his picture.”
But did he say anything?
“No, he didn’t say anything. But I could tell by the expression on his face he wanted me to quit and go in the house and rest. And that’s what I did.” (Fred Craddock, as recounted at Winged for the Heart, 2002, Milk and Honey, April 2006)
Contrary to this story, this is not the advice Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel, in which he tells us to “Keep Calm and Keep Plowing.” But before we get to that, let’s pick up the story.
Luke 9:51 – which is where we are today – begins a section in Luke’s Gospel known as Luke’s travel narrative. It begins with these words: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (NRSV) Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “When it came close to the time for his Ascension, Jesus gathered up his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem.” Why would he need courage and resolve? Because he knows he likely to be killed. As the 18th century English lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, once put it: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it focuses the mind wonderfully.”
From this moment on, you get the impression that there will be no pausing, no relaxing, no tolerated interruptions, that the path has been chosen, the die cast, and every step will be toward the cross. And yet, within these chapters Jesus will visit friends, be a frequent guest in homes, and do much of his teaching at dinner tables. The best way from Point A to Point B is not always the fastest way.
At this point, nobody else gets what’s happening, least of all Jesus’ disciples, so almost immediately we run into trouble. Jesus gives them a task: go ahead into a Samaritan village and make preparations. In the village, however, instead of hospitality, they encounter hostility. Did they think this was going to be easy? Do we?
And how they respond? James and John ask, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate them?” (Like they could!) Don’t you love what Jesus says? “OF COURSE NOT!” says Jesus, shaking his head. I think it’s safe to say they have not gotten it yet, not gotten what the way of Jesus and therefore the way of God in the world is about.
It’s probably just as well Luke doesn’t tell us what else Jesus said. In fact, others couldn’t resist filling in the blank. In some translations, there is a textual variant here, almost certainly added later, in which Jesus adds: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of man came not to destroy lives but to save them.”
Sometimes, we modern disciples of Jesus still don’t get it either, do we? Like them, as we watch the deterioration of the world around us (international alliances (Brexit), government, education, church – especially church), it is easy to feel like Jesus’ disciples, and want to get angry and vengeful and even retaliatory, which seems to be the mindset of many people these days, even some so-called Christians. As Jesus’ disciples then and now discover when they encounter not the cultural Jesus but the real Jesus, this is not Jesus’ way, who comes not to destroy lives but to save them. Perhaps Jesus would tell us what my Dad used to tell me, “While others may act that way, we do not.
As we continue our journey, next come three quick encounters with “would be” disciples. In his responses to them, it may seem that Jesus is in a cranky mood. Given his disciples, this may be understandable. However, I think what it really demonstrates is Jesus’ own sense of urgency and single-mindedness that explains what he says to these potential disciples. Even so – let’s face it – Jesus’ words are still challenging.
“On the road someone asks if he can go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said. Sounds promising to me, but Jesus’ response is curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.” We know it best as it reads in the New Revised Standard Version: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Once again it reminds us that following Jesus is not a “place” we arrive it, but a lifelong journey, along the “way.” We can only wonder what Jesus might say to us, when we show up with all our “stuff?”
With the second “would be” disciple, Jesus takes the initiative and says, “Follow me.” And the would-be disciple says, “Certainly, but first excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have to make arrangements for my father’s funeral.” To which Jesus responds: “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!” Or as we best know it, “Let the dead bury the dead.”
Are you serious, Jesus? Are you saying serving the Kingdom of God is greater than the sacred obligation to bury one’s parent? Whatever happened to “Honor thy father and mother?” Let’s face it, given the love and respect we feel for our parents, most of us would be the man turned away. But maybe we don’t know the whole story.
The third “would be” disciple professes commitment, but combines it with a delaying tactic: “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.” To which Jesus says, as Eugene Peterson translates it, putting it into a modern idiom: “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.”
What Jesus actually says is, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, “Keep Calm and Keep Plowing.”
Why should we? Because, truth be told, we are often more like Jesus’ disciples, both his actual disciples and “would be” disciples, than not.
- Sometimes we want to use our faith to call down fire from heaven, on those who disagree with us, or ignore us.
- Sometimes we have accommodated the dominant culture of consumption, believing that “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” rather than learning to live – as William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas once put it – as “resident aliens” in the world.
- Sometimes our loyalties are divided rather than single-minded, confusing our loyalties to God and country and tribe and self.
- Sometimes in our lives that which is important is derailed by that which is merely urgent. And so – even today – Jesus’ words still prod and challenge us.
But Jesus’ words are unambiguous. To follow Jesus places demands on would-be followers. The way he invites us to walk involves uncertainty and discomfort, choices about priorities, and sometimes, a break with the past. Neither good excuses nor plausible distractions absolve us, nor should they deter us, from what Jesus asks of us: faithful, persistent, dogged, discipleship. In other words, “Keep calm and keep plowing.” No fire from heaven. No looking back. Walk Jesus’ way. Seize the day!
Central United Methodist Church
Off the Map
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 8: 26 – 39
June 19th, 2016
“They sailed on to the country of the Gerasenes, directly opposite Galilee. As he stepped out onto land, a madman from town met him; he was a victim of demons. He hadn’t worn clothes for a long time, nor lived at home; he lived in the cemetery. When he saw Jesus he screamed, fell before him, and bellowed, “What business do you have messing with me? You’re Jesus, Son of the High God, but don’t give me a hard time!” (The man said this because Jesus had started to order the unclean spirit out of him.) Time after time the demon threw the man into convulsions. He had been placed under constant guard and tied with chains and shackles, but crazed and driven wild by the demon, he would shatter the bonds.
Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“Mob. My name is Mob,” he said, because many demons afflicted him. And they begged Jesus desperately not to order them to the bottomless pit.
A large herd of pigs was browsing and rooting on a nearby hill. The demons begged Jesus to order them into the pigs. He gave the order. It was even worse for the pigs than for the man. Crazed, they stampeded over a cliff into the lake and drowned.
Those tending the pigs, scared to death, bolted and told their story in town and country. People went out to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had been sent, sitting there at Jesus’ feet, wearing decent clothes and making sense. It was a holy moment, and for a short time they were more reverent than curious. Then those who had seen it happen told how the demoniac had been saved.
Later, a great many people from the Gerasene countryside got together and asked Jesus to leave — too much change, too fast, and they were scared. So Jesus got back in the boat and set off. The man whom he had delivered from the demons asked to go with him, but he sent him back, saying, “Go home and tell everything God did in you.” So he went back and preached all over town everything Jesus had done in him.’ – Luke 8: 26 – 39, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
There is a legend that ancient maps contained the words, “Here be dragons”, referring to unexplored and uncharted regions “off the map” where – for all they knew – dragons may lie.
With last Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in America yet, I have felt this past week that as a society, we are “off the map”, into a region that no longer makes any sense to us, where predictable but apparently unpreventable dangers lie. Are you with me?
Does it make any sense to you, that a man for a time on the terrorist watchlist under investigation and surveillance, could go into a gun store, and legally buy a Sig Sauer assault rife, designed for U.S. Special Operations forces? As columnist Nicholas Kristoff pointed out in the New York Times: “The Orlando killer would have been legally barred from buying lawn darts, because they were banned as unsafe. He would have been unable to drive a car that didn’t pass a safety inspection or that lacked insurance. He couldn’t have purchased a black water gun without an orange tip — because that would have been too dangerous. But it’s not too dangerous to allow the sale of an assault rifle without even a background check?” (Nicholas Kristof, Some Extremists Fire Guns and Other Extremists Promote Guns, the New York Times, June 16, 2016)
Perplexity and frustration over this, however, doesn’t address the sorrow and loss of those victims and families, the fear it generates in the general population, or the mixed motives behind it. Was it a hate crime, a terrorist attack, or cold-blooded mass murder? Whatever the motive, the fact is that, due to one murderous killer with an assault rifle, 49 people are dead and scores of others are injured. All of us will be even more wary to attend any mass gathering, because how many other disturbed individuals will be inspired by this shooting? Truly, we are “off the map” of anything that makes sense whatsoever.
I like this “off the map” analogy, not only in regard to the state of gun violence in America, but because in today’s Gospel, Jesus is also “off the map.” He and his disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee, to arrive on the far side, into a non-Jewish but Gentile region, inhabited by a people known variously as the Gerasenes, the Gadarenes, or the Gergesenes, depending upon which Gospel and version you read. Not only is Jesus in a Gentile region, he is among pig farmers, an area not frequented by Jews.
What we find is that when Jesus arrives, casting out our demons and summoning us to our rightful selves, it presents great possibility for transformation, but also great challenge, leading to inevitable change. Like the Gerasenes, we have a choice: which will it be?
Jesus didn’t know it, but there was a reception awaiting him, about the kind of reception I would receive: not a band playing and balloons and the Key to the City, but a naked, crazy man, demon-possessed and out of control, blocking his way. If I had been Jesus, I would have turned around and gotten back on the boat. No place for a picnic here!
Although it is impossible to know how we would diagnose such a person today, we could think of him as not unlike many homeless people: many of whom are mentally ill, and thus unable to live a normal life with job, family, home, or even basic necessities. Homeless people are at greater risk of being victimized by assault, rape, and murder, the demons that plague our streets. The homeless are not ritually unclean like this man was, but many are physically “unclean” and therefore unwelcome in most communities, in some places around the country to a heartless degree. And yet, would we want them sleeping in our parks, under our bridges, on our doorstep? Every city has its Gerasenes – who whether we like it or not – are our neighbors.
The dark spiritual forces in the man recognized Jesus, before Jesus could expel them: “What business do you have messing with me? You’re Jesus, Son of the High God; don’t give me a hard time!”
“What is your name?” said Jesus. “Legion,” “Mob, “Many,” the man said. Isn’t that the truth? Like Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, the diagnoses and addictions and dependencies that cause us to be out of control, even to do evil, are rarely single or even dual but multiple. Do you remember what I said last Sunday, for example, about shame often being a major factor in tragedies such this one? For what I have read, that may well have been a factor in Omar Mateen, who may have been gay or even bisexual, for whom that would have been shameful, and thus he took his self-directed anger out on other innocent victims. Fear most, those who hate themselves; they have nothing to lose.
Confronted by this crazed man, Jesus comes to a show- down; the power of God versus the power of evil. Who will win? We know who will win. We know who always wins, if not in the short term, in the long run. It is some nearby pigs who pay the price.
We may say, “Wow, I’m glad it was Jesus, and not me, confronting evil like that.” But do you remember that you are pledged to the same thing? It is a very ancient part of our baptismal vows, almost from the time of Jesus, which we repeat and affirm every time we perform a baptism:
“On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? I do.”
“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? I do.”
Did you get that? We are “sworn in,” to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves? Whether standing up to a crazed man or to protect oppressed minorities from hate crimes – whether based upon ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or status, such as the homeless; whether sometimes utilizing armed intervention or at others time working to change gun laws to control access to deadly weapons, in order to save lives, we are sworn to the work of Christ in the world. Will you do that? Guess we should have read the fine print more closely when we signed up, right?
What happens next is more confusing. When it comes to the power of God vs the power of evil, we know who will win. But when it comes to the power of God vs the power of people, the verdict is still out. You would think people would have been grateful and hailed Jesus as a hero; instead, what did they do? They said, “Just leave, Jesus, just leave.”
Perhaps they realized what we have learned – in the church and in our lives – that when Jesus comes to town and starts changing things, where is it going to stop? For them, it brought fear, and economic loss; after all, it had already cost them a herd of pigs.
For us, the change Jesus brings might start with our spiritual life, but then it extends to our moral and even social life. It might begin with our prayers and with Bible readings, but the next thing you know it involves our checkbook and the votes we cast. The next thing you know we’re raising questions about the society we live in. So, as the old saying goes, paraphrased, “Sometimes we prefer the devil we know, to the change we don’t know. The Gerasene people are not praising God that a man is healed; they are counting the cost and find it too much. It is another small episode in the larger drama, posed by the question, “If Jesus was such a great guy, how come he got nailed to a cross?” It is because, in the real world – not the world we wished we lived in, but the one we actually live in – all our efforts at truth, beauty, goodness, and justice – are as likely to be met with contempt as with gratitude. As the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” If you don’t believe this, just go onto Facebook, advocate for common sense gun control, and see what you get called.
More humorously, there is the story of the woman who didn’t object to mowing the lawn, but preferred to do it with a lawnmower that worked. She kindly and subtly suggested that to her husband, as wives do, but the message never got through. Finally, she thought of a way to make the point. When her husband came home, he found her seated in the tall grass, snipping away with a tiny pair of sewing scissors. He watched for awhile, and then went into the house. He was gone only a few moments, and when he came out handed her a toothbrush: “When you finish cutting the grass,” he said, “be sure to sweep the sidewalks.”
“Just leave,” they said to Jesus, “just leave.” “Get off our property, and out of our lives.”
Except for one, the formerly crazed man, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “sitting there at Jesus’ feet, wearing decent clothes and making sense.” (I’d settle for that most days, wouldn’t you?) On the basis of his brief but life-changing encounter with Jesus, naturally, he wanted to accompany Jesus, but he is turned back at the boat. Instead, Jesus tells him to perform the one ministry for which he is qualified: “Return home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Which puts us, back “on the map,” of what we know, and what we can do, in a world that sometimes seems like it has lost its senses. “Return home, and declare how much God has done for you.” I can do that, can’t you?
- 24 Hours That Changed the World Series – 2010
- Advent 2010 – A Life Giving Christmas
- Advent 2011
- Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood Series – 2009
- Church at the Passages of Life Series – 2007
- Conversations with Jesus Series – 2008
- Eastertide Sermons from the Book of Revelations Series – 2010
- Fearless: The Courage to Question Series Lent 2011
- Five Practices of Fruitful Living
- Following Jesus: Do We Have What It Takes
- Heewon Kim – Pastoral Intern 2013 – 2014
- Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse – John Chapter 6
- Kelly Van Pastoral Intern 2011-2012
- Lay Sermons
- Lessons in Practical Christianity Series – 2009
- Lizzie Sherfey Pastoral Intern 2010-2011
- PoWeRSuRGe Series – 2009
- Psalms Series – Summer 2013
- Qualities of Jesus – 2015 Lenten Series
- Roll Down, Justice! A Lenten Biblical Seriew
- Season of Creation Series 2014
- Sermon on the Mount – 2011
- Stories from the Family of Faith Series 2014
- The Journey – Walking the Road to Bethlehem Series Advent 2013
- The Story of Job Series – 2009
- The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
- Worship Series – 2008