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Bishop Michael Rinehart

Pentecost 11, Proper 16, Lectionary 21 – August 25, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10 – Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you. Do not say, “I am too young.” I will give you the words you are to speak for me.
OR
Isaiah 58:9b-14 — God’s chosen fast: Remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

Psalm 71:1-6 – In you O Lord, I have taken shelter. Let me never be confounded. I have trusted you since you pulled me from my mother’s womb.
OR
Psalm 103:1-8 – Praise the Lord who forgives your sins, heals your diseases and delivers you from the Pit.

Hebrews 12:18-29 – Jesus, mediator of a new covenant. The blood of Jesus replacing that of Abel.

Luke 13:10-17 – Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath.

 

 

 

Bent Over

 

This story of healing provides an opportunity to talk about healing and perhaps have a service of healing, ELW, p. 276. If you do leave plenty of time for it. Consider using James 5:13-15 as the epistle reading:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus conducted his ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee, home of Capernaum and Nazareth. In Luke 9:51 (which we read a few weeks ago), Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem. For now, we are on the Journey to Jerusalem, through Samaria and northern Judea. We will be in the road through October.  It will take ten chapters to get to Jerusalem: Luke 9 to The Triumphal Entry, Luke 19. For those of us in the Revised Common Lectionary, we have already read Luke 19, as the Processional Gospel on Palm Sunday. This week we have come to Luke 13:10-17. Here is the text.

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.
11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


Luke establishes that it is the Sabbath, and that Jesus is teaching. A woman appears. She has a spirit that has crippled her for 18 years. She is literally “bent over.” She cannot stand up straight. 

In Greco-Roman society is was common to associate outer, physical characteristics, with inner moral or spiritual qualities. This is called physiognomy. Luke scholar Mikeal Parsons has written a book about this. In Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, Parsons discusses the assumed relationship between pusillanimous appearance and character in Greek and Roman literature. This was commonplace from Homer to the fourth century A.D. 

Hippocrates said, “Those with a large head, large black eyes, and a wide, snub nose are honest.” Pythagorus chose his students based on their appearance. They drew conclusions about candidates’ character from their facial appearance. Zopyrus believed he could determine people’s entire character from body, eyes, face and brow. Parsons quotes Aristotle, Plato, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius and many others who demonstrate this belief in physiognomy. Handbooks were created to help people determine who was honest and reliable, and who was not. 

The physical characteristics of animals were believed to carry with them personality traits as well. So someone with features resembling a donkey might be considered to be stubborn. Parsons, quoting pseudo-Aristotle: “it is also evident that the form of the body are similar to the functions of the four, so that all the similarities in animals are evidence of some identity.” The lion was symbolic of the ideal male type: strong, generous and liberal. Foxes, because they are reddish, are of considered to be of bad character: sneaky, sly, deceitful, etc. 

These themes are not as prominent in Jewish literature, but they are present. Saul is described as handsome and tall. David is ruddy and handsome, with beautiful eyes. Animals sacrificed are to be “without blemish.” Leviticus 21 says no one with a blemish may enter the Temple. Likewise, neither can the blind, the lame, anyone with a mutilated face, a limb too short or too long, a hunchback or a dwarf. There is an assumed connection between outer appears and inner holiness. Priestly preoccupation with unblemished bodies is even found at Qumran. However, Isaiah promises in the coming age, eunuchs will be welcomed into the house of the Lord. Are we also tempted to judge people by their appearance today? Mom used to say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

In the New Testament, Jesus calls Herod a fox. Opponents are wolves. The religious leaders are snakes or vipers. Jesus says, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of life; but if it is not, your body is full of darkness.” One can see how this would reflect negatively on the moral character of the blind. Paul seems upset with the physical problem he has; it appears to be a source of shame for him. There is a sense in the ancient world that strength and beauty of the body are reflections of nobility and character. Slaves were considered inferior, physically, intellectually and morally. 

It seems this pseudo-science made its way into the modern era as people made futile and erroneous attempts to invent a science of race by classifying physical characteristics. White scientists showed how African physical characteristics indicated less evolution, lower IQ, poor character. Nazi scientists tried to prove the Jews had specific physical characteristics that proved their inferiority. 

Luke, however, according to Parsons, subverts this concept of physiognomy. Zaccheus is short, but repents and exhibits extravagant generosity. The castrated Ethiopian eunuch is baptized and brought into full community. Many people are healed, who end up praising God and serving neighbor. This brings us to this woman who is bent over and unable to stand up straight. 

She would be viewed as defective, physically, intellectually and morally. She is bent over, the posture of shame. Does not society’s indictment of her only compound the problem? Parsons quotes Pseudo-Aristotle: “Those whose back is very large and strong are of strong character; witness the male. Those which have a narrow, weak back are feeble; witness the female.” (p. 85) One cannot miss both the misogyny and the discrimination against the handicapped. 

They believe it’s likely her lot in life, because of something she has done. Keep in mind the question of the disciples about the man born blind. They are confused. He was born blind, so, did he sin in the womb or did his parents sin? Whose sin caused his blindness? Jesus shakes off this interpretation. 

Jesus does not shun her. He calls her over. He says, “Woman” – emphasizing her femaleness, her low stature in this patriarchal society – “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Immediately, we are told, she stands up straight, and begins praising God. This is the goal of Jesus’ ministry: to reach through our shame, and set us free, so that we might stand up straight and praise God. So: We begin with a problem, then, he heals her, her shame is removed, and God is praised. A pattern is established. 

Then we get a new problem. The leader of the synagogue is unhappy that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath. “Six days shall you do your labor…” Jesus has violated the Sabbath in order to set this woman free. He’s not happy this woman is set free. He is upset at the breach of protocol. Jesus rebukes them: You get water for your donkey on the Sabbath don’t you? 

Again, Parsons quotes Pseudo-Aristotle: “Those that have thick extremities to the nostrils are lazy; witness cattle… Those with thin faces are careful, with fleshiness are cowardly, witness donkeys and deer.” Donkeys are considered inferior because of their bulging eyes, long faces, stubborn braying. 

Jesus points out they have more compassion for their donkeys than for this “daughter of Abraham.” This honorific is used in 4 Maccabees and other places to depict a strong woman, with the strength and character of Abraham. Jesus praises the woman and honors her, while calling the religious leaders hypocrites. Jesus’ opponents are put to shame and the people rejoice. So: Problem, then he rebukes the synagogue leader, they receive shame, the people rejoice. There is inverse symmetry between his treatment of the woman and his treatment of the synagogue leader. 

This is a theme throughout Jesus’ ministry. In John 8 the woman caught in the very act of adultery is being set up for a stoning while the man with whom she supposedly committed adultery is nowhere to be found. Jesus defends the woman against the religious elite. 

It still happens today. A woman in Sudan is sentenced to stoning for adultery. It is ironic that women are sentenced to death for adultery at an astronomically higher rate than men. How can that be? What’s really going on?

A woman in Saudi Arabia is sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car.

A Norwegian woman claimed she was raped in Dubai. The court decided there was not enough evidence so instead she was charged with adultery and illegal alcohol consumption and sentenced to 16 months in prison. The deck is stacked. Everybody knows…

The World Council of Churches has encouraged us to draw attention to and resist the systemic pattern of violence and rape against women by wearing black on Thursdays.  

Parsons makes a final interesting point about the 18 years the woman had had this ailment. The number 18 appears only three times in the New Testament, all three in this 13th chapter of Luke, two in this story. The other is the 18 who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them. In Luke 13:11 it is δεκαοκτώ. In Luke 13:16 it is δέκα καὶ ὀκτὼ. In Greek numbers are written with letters. α=1, β=2, γ=3 and so on. So 18 is iota eta (ιη) with an overstroke (a line over the top). But iota eta is also an abbreviation for Jesus, the first two letters of his name in Greek:  Ἰησοῦς. Jesus’ name is often abbreviated as ιη in sacred literature. The number 18 had christological value for early Christian writers. Numbers are highly symbolic in Luke. In fact, Parsons points out that in P45, one of the oldest/earliest copies we have of Luke’s gospel, 18 is abbreviated as ιη in both Luke 13:11 and 13:16. What’s more, in 13:14 Jesus’ name is also abbreviated as ιη, making his name indistinguishable from the number. 

Parsons believes Luke is using this symbolism to say that the woman’s 18-year bondage comes to an end in Jesus. There is an alignment of history in Jesus’ encounter with this woman. 

 

Okay, what’s the point of all this?

  1. Don’t let the law get in the way of compassion. The law is a guide to help us love God and love neighbor. Keep the spirit of the law at the heart of your faith and practice. Jesus’ mission is to release the captive, free the oppressed, and to raise up children of Abraham. Make that your mission too. Be about the business of recognizing those who are enslaved, and respond to them with compassion and care. Don’t let your legalism get in the way of Jesus’ healing!
  2. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  3. Healing is about freedom from bondage. Ask yourself, how you are in bondage? What is the greatest bondage you face? To what are you captive? From what would Jesus like to set you free today?
  4. Remember, all of life comes to an end. Physical healing is temporary. Spiritual healing is eternal. Seek first the kingdom of God…
  5. Hold fast to this: Jesus is not interested in shaming, but in over-coming, over-ruling, and over-riding the shameful judgment. He does not stand over us in judgment, but Jesus stands under God’s judgment with us, placing his hands on the illness of our bent condition. Jesus is God’s compassion, the love of God in the flesh. His hands were outstretched on the cross because of this offensive grace, that overruled the rules and regulations of God’s law. By sharing in the deadly consequences of our sin, he has “shamed” sin, death, the devil, and even the law for its execution of God’s own Son; and by his resurrection, he has provided for us the ultimate healing: We are set free from our bondage, and freed to stand up straight, and praise God.

 

 

 

Jeremiah 23

 

The Jeremiah passage also captures hints of the gospel: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

 

 

Hebrews

 

The Hebrews passage continues the narrative of those who lived by faith, but it comes to a climax in the cross. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, endured the cross because of the joy that was within him. It was his joy that empowered him to walk the way of the cross. This too is echoed in the gospel reading, when Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” a clear reference to the crucifixion.

 

Luke 12:49-56: Playing with Fire 🔥 (and Swords)

 

Here is the text of Luke 12:49-56:

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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.”

 

54 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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 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?

This week’s gospel provides us with provocative (and easily misunderstood) images. Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth, hearkening back to Jeremiah. Not peace, but division. Actually, my title above notwithstanding, there is no sword in this passage. In some versions says he has come to bring a “sword,” probably to align it with the parallel passage in Matthew. In Luke, however, the word is διαμερισμός: division. There is no variant reading. So, there is no sword. 

The first part of this passage (verses 49-50) has no parallel in the synoptic gospels. Fire to the earth and Jesus’ upcoming baptism. There is, however, a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel discovered in 1945. Click here for a Scholar’s Translation of the Gospel of Thomas

Gospel of Thomas, Saying 10:

Jesus said, “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”

And Gospel of Thomas, Saying 16:

Jesus said, “People probably think that it is peace that I have come to impose upon the world. And they do not recognize that it is divisions that I have come to impose upon the earth – fire, sword, battle. Indeed, there will be five in a house. There will be three over two and two over three, parent over child and child over parent. And they will stand at rest by being solitaries.” 

Starting in verse 51, we have a parallel in Matthew 10:34-36:

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Since Matthew and Luke quote this passage, it is likely from Q, the Sayings (of Jesus) Source. But this raises the question, is the first part also from Q? Does this mean Thomas is also quoting Q? Does this mean Matthew, who clearly had Q, also had the first part of this passage, but intentionally omitted it? So many questions. 

This is most certainly raw source material. We are hearing the earliest recordings of the voice of Jesus emerge from the cacophony of later copies of copies. Jesus was most certainly a mystic who spoke in parables and enigmas, which we too easily attempt explain away by jumping to 21st century conclusions. Why not let the fire burn?

The average congregation probably doesn’t give a hoot about source theories or narrative criticism scholarship. I’m sure a gifted preacher can set the stage for a mystique about getting to the original voice calling to us down two millennia, but few congregations will tolerate a steady diet of this. I mention it to spark the imagination. What on earth might this wild, traveling exorcist have meant when he said he was casting fire on the earth?

 

 

Fire

So, what is this fire that Jesus came to bring? Our people may go to fire as hell fire. 

In the Jeremiah passage, the Fire seems to be God’s Word. 

T.D. Jakes equates the fire with passion.

Brian Stoffregen says the fire could be revelation and calling: Moses’ burning bush. Or it could be purification (the refiner’s fire). 

Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paieia series) points out that some interpret the fire to be the tongues of flame on Pentecost, part of Luke’s story in Acts. Parson’s take on it is that the fire is the eschatological judgment. Earlier in Luke (3:9), Jesus equated fire with judgment day: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” See also Luke 3:17. 

John Wesley, who attracted a huge following, was once asked how he did it. “I set myself on fire, and people come watch me burn,” he purportedly said. It’s fun to imagine a church baptized with fire. Even a small group of people on fire with the sacrificial love of God would shed a lot of light on the world.

 

 

Peace

Jesus says he has not come to bring peace. “No peace” also brings Jeremiah to mind: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:4) Jesus will set family members against one another. 

David Jeffrey (Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) points out that there are partial parallels in the other synoptics (Matthew 10 and Mark 10). Pointing to the impending arrival of eschatological judgment must clearly have been a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching. The entire Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) is given over to this theme. 

But what about no peace on earth? What about the song of the angels in Luke 2, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all…”? The peace Jesus brings is not the pax Romana, which is a false peace, based on a dominating dictatorship. In order for true peace to happen, there will have to be conflict, struggle. This is inevitable. This is clearly not a call to arms, however. Jesus obviously did not put together an army. He is speaking of the fire on the day of judgment. 

 

Families will be separated.

52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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.

Parsons invites us to hear the prophet Micah (7:6) here:

for the son treats the father with contempt,

    the daughter rises up against her mother,

the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

    your enemies are members of your own household.

Familial or clan membership cannot save you. Households will not be saved, Jeffrey points out. There is a sense of personal responsibility here. Luke’s Jesus is drawing heavily upon the Hebrew prophets. 

Also, following Jesus may very well result in family conflict. It did for Jesus. Mark 3:21 says,

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

Phyllis Tickle once remarked, “Intentionally giving up one’s life and its natural loves for the sake of being true at all costs to God’s logos and his prescribed way of mercy, justice, compassion, humility, and love of the other as of one’s self is a hard command.” If I treat the Samaritan as a neighbor, then is this a threat to my clan? If all people are my brothers and sisters then what of my family? The way of Jesus threatens all competing allegiances. Following Jesus forges a new family. Jesus is playing with fire. 

Jesus redefines family as those who are in mission together. Mark 12:46-50 says,

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.
47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”[c] 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus[d] replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Then Jesus invites the crowd to look for signs in the moral universe in the same way they read the weather. Parsons quotes Culpepper (Luke: New Interpreter’s Bible):

The “weather-wise” Palestinian farmers were able to read the meteorological signs, since their livelihood depended on it. Clouds from the west, from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea, foretold of impending rain;’ the prognosis of southerly and southwesterly winds, from the direction of the desert, was scorching heat.

No doubt Jesus would have drawn upon these Farmer’s Almanac images, but Francois Bovon (Luke and Acts, ed. O’Collins and Marconi) points out that Luke, unfamiliar with Palestinian geography and context, probably is inserting his own Greek weather images for his listeners. 

They are hypocrites because they can read the signs in the skies, but are missing the signs of the times. 

I am not sure why the pericope doesn’t continue to the end of the chapter. It clearly is the conclusion of this section. Chapter 13 begins with a fresh narrative. Here are the final three verses of Luke 12:

“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

Jeffrey likes to paraphrase “And why do you not judge…” as “How could you possibly miss this?” 

I have often felt the eschatological judgment in the future and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (beginning with the siege of 66) get conflated. Things were clearly building to a head in Jesus’ earthly lifetime. Later generations would see the destruction of Jerusalem as the prophets did: a sign of God’s judgment. 

This is not a happy passage. Jeffrey points out that “debt” is a euphemism for “sin” in Luke. Forgive us our “debts” means forgive us our “sins.” Being thrown into debtors’ prison is then like being thrown into sin prison. You don’t want that. Jeffrey points out that Palestinian jailers beat prisoners horribly to urge families to resolve indebtedness. Most did not survive jail. It was an expression of power then, as it is today. “You will never get out until you have paid the very last penny,” is an ominous phrase, perhaps known to Jesus’ hearers. Perhaps those who framed the lectionary didn’t want to end on such a tone of hopelessness. 

But there is grace here. We can look up. We can read the signs. Cyril sees in this passage an encouragement to seize the grace of Christ before it is too late. For Jesus, sin is a serious matter. It threatens to destroy the good in us, the image of God, and the good in the world as well. But in Christ, there is forgiveness of sins. 

Circling back to the beginning of Luke 12, don’t be like the rich fool who did not care for the poor, but hoarded his stuff, spending his life accumulating things for himself, and when the harvest was in, died and faced God. Instead, make heavenly purses that don’t wear out, where moths and rust don’t consume and where thieves cannot break in and steal. Practice prayer, faith, generosity, service. Follow in the footsteps of Christ, because the end, your end, is sooner than you think.

 

 

 

 

Proper 15, Pentecost 10C, Lectionary 20C – August 18, 2019

Isaiah 5:1-7I will sing to my lover about his vineyard: It produced wild grapes. Therefore I will make it a wasteland.
OR
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19Shepherd of Israel: You planted a vineyard, then tore down its walls. Support us again, and we will not turn from you.
OR
Psalm 82
– Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy…. Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for the nations belong to you!

Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2 – By faith the people passed through the Red Sea… By faith the walls of Jericho fell. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient… Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Luke 12:49-56 – I have not come to bring peace but sword. Read the times like the seasons.

 

Isaiah 5

 

In Isaiah 5, we have a song about a vineyard that produced wild grapes. “Therefore I will make it a wasteland.” Here we have images of judgment that provide a foundation for the gospel reading. Psalm 80 continues the vineyard imagery. Psalm 82: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth!” Images of judgment abound.

 

 

Jeremiah 23

 

The Jeremiah passage also captures hints of the gospel: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

 

 

Hebrews

 

The Hebrews passage continues the narrative of those who lived by faith, but it comes to a climax in the cross. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, endured the cross because of the joy that was within him. It was his joy that empowered him to walk the way of the cross. This too is echoed in the gospel reading, when Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” a clear reference to the crucifixion.

 

Luke 12:49-56: Playing with Fire 🔥 (and Swords)

 

Here is the text of Luke 12:49-56:

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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.”

 

54 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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 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?

This week’s gospel provides us with provocative (and easily misunderstood) images. Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth, hearkening back to Jeremiah. Not peace, but division. Actually, my title above notwithstanding, there is no sword in this passage. In some versions says he has come to bring a “sword,” probably to align it with the parallel passage in Matthew. In Luke, however, the word is διαμερισμός: division. There is no variant reading. So, there is no sword. 

The first part of this passage (verses 49-50) has no parallel in the synoptic gospels. Fire to the earth and Jesus’ upcoming baptism. There is, however, a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel discovered in 1945. Click here for a Scholar’s Translation of the Gospel of Thomas

Gospel of Thomas, Saying 10:

Jesus said, “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”

And Gospel of Thomas, Saying 16:

Jesus said, “People probably think that it is peace that I have come to impose upon the world. And they do not recognize that it is divisions that I have come to impose upon the earth – fire, sword, battle. Indeed, there will be five in a house. There will be three over two and two over three, parent over child and child over parent. And they will stand at rest by being solitaries.” 

Starting in verse 51, we have a parallel in Matthew 10:34-36:

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Since Matthew and Luke quote this passage, it is likely from Q, the Sayings (of Jesus) Source. But this raises the question, is the first part also from Q? Does this mean Thomas is also quoting Q? Does this mean Matthew, who clearly had Q, also had the first part of this passage, but intentionally omitted it? So many questions. 

This is most certainly raw source material. We are hearing the earliest recordings of the voice of Jesus emerge from the cacophony of later copies of copies. Jesus was most certainly a mystic who spoke in parables and enigmas, which we too easily attempt explain away by jumping to 21st century conclusions. Why not let the fire burn?

The average congregation probably doesn’t give a hoot about source theories or narrative criticism scholarship. I’m sure a gifted preacher can set the stage for a mystique about getting to the original voice calling to us down two millennia, but few congregations will tolerate a steady diet of this. I mention it to spark the imagination. What on earth might this wild, traveling exorcist have meant when he said he was casting fire on the earth?

 

 

Fire

So, what is this fire that Jesus came to bring? Our people may go to fire as hell fire. 

In the Jeremiah passage, the Fire seems to be God’s Word. 

T.D. Jakes equates the fire with passion.

Brian Stoffregen says the fire could be revelation and calling: Moses’ burning bush. Or it could be purification (the refiner’s fire). 

Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paieia series) points out that some interpret the fire to be the tongues of flame on Pentecost, part of Luke’s story in Acts. Parson’s take on it is that the fire is the eschatological judgment. Earlier in Luke (3:9), Jesus equated fire with judgment day: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” See also Luke 3:17. 

John Wesley, who attracted a huge following, was once asked how he did it. “I set myself on fire, and people come watch me burn,” he purportedly said. It’s fun to imagine a church baptized with fire. Even a small group of people on fire with the sacrificial love of God would shed a lot of light on the world.

 

 

Peace

Jesus says he has not come to bring peace. “No peace” also brings Jeremiah to mind: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:4) Jesus will set family members against one another. 

David Jeffrey (Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) points out that there are partial parallels in the other synoptics (Matthew 10 and Mark 10). Pointing to the impending arrival of eschatological judgment must clearly have been a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching. The entire Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) is given over to this theme. 

But what about no peace on earth? What about the song of the angels in Luke 2, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all…”? The peace Jesus brings is not the pax Romana, which is a false peace, based on a dominating dictatorship. In order for true peace to happen, there will have to be conflict, struggle. This is inevitable. This is clearly not a call to arms, however. Jesus obviously did not put together an army. He is speaking of the fire on the day of judgment. 

 

Families will be separated.

52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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.

Parsons invites us to hear the prophet Micah (7:6) here:

for the son treats the father with contempt,

    the daughter rises up against her mother,

the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

    your enemies are members of your own household.

Familial or clan membership cannot save you. Households will not be saved, Jeffrey points out. There is a sense of personal responsibility here. Luke’s Jesus is drawing heavily upon the Hebrew prophets. 

Also, following Jesus may very well result in family conflict. It did for Jesus. Mark 3:21 says,

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

Phyllis Tickle once remarked, “Intentionally giving up one’s life and its natural loves for the sake of being true at all costs to God’s logos and his prescribed way of mercy, justice, compassion, humility, and love of the other as of one’s self is a hard command.” If I treat the Samaritan as a neighbor, then is this a threat to my clan? If all people are my brothers and sisters then what of my family? The way of Jesus threatens all competing allegiances. Following Jesus forges a new family. Jesus is playing with fire. 

Jesus redefines family as those who are in mission together. Mark 12:46-50 says,

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.
47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”[c] 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus[d] replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Then Jesus invites the crowd to look for signs in the moral universe in the same way they read the weather. Parsons quotes Culpepper (Luke: New Interpreter’s Bible):

The “weather-wise” Palestinian farmers were able to read the meteorological signs, since their livelihood depended on it. Clouds from the west, from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea, foretold of impending rain;’ the prognosis of southerly and southwesterly winds, from the direction of the desert, was scorching heat.

No doubt Jesus would have drawn upon these Farmer’s Almanac images, but Francois Bovon (Luke and Acts, ed. O’Collins and Marconi) points out that Luke, unfamiliar with Palestinian geography and context, probably is inserting his own Greek weather images for his listeners. 

They are hypocrites because they can read the signs in the skies, but are missing the signs of the times. 

I am not sure why the pericope doesn’t continue to the end of the chapter. It clearly is the conclusion of this section. Chapter 13 begins with a fresh narrative. Here are the final three verses of Luke 12:

“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

Jeffrey likes to paraphrase “And why do you not judge…” as “How could you possibly miss this?” 

I have often felt the eschatological judgment in the future and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (beginning with the siege of 66) get conflated. Things were clearly building to a head in Jesus’ earthly lifetime. Later generations would see the destruction of Jerusalem as the prophets did: a sign of God’s judgment. 

This is not a happy passage. Jeffrey points out that “debt” is a euphemism for “sin” in Luke. Forgive us our “debts” means forgive us our “sins.” Being thrown into debtors’ prison is then like being thrown into sin prison. You don’t want that. Jeffrey points out that Palestinian jailers beat prisoners horribly to urge families to resolve indebtedness. Most did not survive jail. It was an expression of power then, as it is today. “You will never get out until you have paid the very last penny,” is an ominous phrase, perhaps known to Jesus’ hearers. Perhaps those who framed the lectionary didn’t want to end on such a tone of hopelessness. 

But there is grace here. We can look up. We can read the signs. Cyril sees in this passage an encouragement to seize the grace of Christ before it is too late. For Jesus, sin is a serious matter. It threatens to destroy the good in us, the image of God, and the good in the world as well. But in Christ, there is forgiveness of sins. 

Circling back to the beginning of Luke 12, don’t be like the rich fool who did not care for the poor, but hoarded his stuff, spending his life accumulating things for himself, and when the harvest was in, died and faced God. Instead, make heavenly purses that don’t wear out, where moths and rust don’t consume and where thieves cannot break in and steal. Practice prayer, faith, generosity, service. Follow in the footsteps of Christ, because the end, your end, is sooner than you think.

 

 

 

 

2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly

August 5-10, 2019

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Bishops, Vice Presidents and church council met on Sunday before the assembly.

We had a farewell banquet for Sec. Boerger.

Monday began with opening worship.

Meals together:

 

We kicked off the assembly, celebrated the capital fund appeal and took a first ballot for Presiding Bishop. The results will be announced in the morning.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

This morning I was congratulated for being “runner up” in the first ballot for Presiding Bishop. I was surprised it had been posted prior to the morning session.

Here are the results of ballot 1. 75% is needed to elect on this ballot. Our Presiding Bishop received 77%. However, we were soon to hear at the morning session that the ballot would be declared invalid.

We approved a Statement to the African Descent Community, and heard a detailed presentation on the budget.

We took the first ballot again, and Bishop Eaton was elected again.

Tuesday worship.

Synods sent 88 memorials to the Churchwide Assembly. https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Section_VII-Report_of_Memorials_Committee.pdf?_ga=2.22915379.904183109.1565048922-1241783794.1565048922

Quite a few of these passed en bloc. Those broken out of the block will be taken up tomorrow.

We heard a presentation on our Declaration of Inter-religious Commitment. Note the 12 commitments beginning on page 12.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

I’m appropriating some Milwaukee photos from Jim Gonia, Bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod, who has an incredible eye for photography.

We bade farewell to Secretary Chris Boerger and his wife Dee Dee. Well done good and faithful servant.

We took up concerns about migrants, refugees and sanctuary.

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Wednesday 11 a.m. Eucharist, sermon by Pastor Brad Schmeling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1UJ7n5FtEI

At noon, 700 of my closest friends and I walked down to the local ICE and Homeland Security office, held a prayer vigil, prayed and posted 9.5 theses on the door at Homeland Security.

 

 

 

The Rev. Marilyn Miller, President of Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), Pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, Milwaukee, WI:

Let us begin with these words from the Bible:

Hebrews 13: 1-3 Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

We pray:

Forgive us our ignorance and our forgetting, Lord.  Some of us never paid attention to how our people got to this nation.  We don’t know our history.

Some of us were already here and our ancestors were attacked, destroyed and the land taken from us.

Some of us came on our own from Africa, the Caribbean and other places. Others of us were forced here in chains, robbing us of life, dignity, and all of the possibilities of being our amazing selves.  Forgive us our ignorance and our forgetting, Lord. 

Many of us present today are here by way of our families migrating to this land.  And yet, we have forgotten from whence we came and have no empathy for others who are only trying to do the same as our ancestors, seek a safer and better life.  Forgive us our ignorance and our forgetting, Lord.

Selected and adapted from Justiceforimmigrantss.org Website by Fr. Jon

You are the God who bears the brunt of the question, “Why didn’t you stay where you belong?” You feel the embarrassment when we hear, “Keep your distance, you foreigner, with your different – colored skin and your strange-sounding speech, with your culture, food, religion, and clothing that are inferior to my own.”

You are the God who sits alongside those who work in sweatshops, with their bloodshot eyes and aching fingers squinting under the soul-less glare of a fluorescent light.  

You are the God who rises early in the morning with those who go to harvest fresh vegetables and fruits picked with fingers stained by the pesticide and fungicides that penetrate their skin…

Loving God, as we stand before you today, help us to remember that when we speak of immigrants and refugees, we speak of Christ.  Hear our prayers for necessary, just, and comprehensive immigration reform.  Make us strong in the work for immigrant justice and remind us that our work is no easier than the everyday work of our immigrant sisters and brothers.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen

 

In the afternoon session we heard from several visitors.

Cool art.

Sue Briner and I made a new friend.

Milwaukee Art Museum

Robert Moore and Mindy Makant

Lynnae Schatz, Caleb Parks and Ephraim Danforth from our Gulf Coast delegation.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

“Sexually-based violence is an epidemic. It has become a cancer… We join with churches of the world who reject gender-based violence.”

– Dr. Agnes Aboum, World Council of Churches

 

Archbishop Musa Panti Filibus, President of the Lutheran World Federation preached at worship today.

Clarence Smith, ELCA Church Council Member and Gulf Coast synod defector, was lector.

So good to be with colleagues like Kwame Pitts, who I was privileged to get to know when she did her internship in Texas.

 

How an experienced bishop survives a six-day meeting: Bishop Ann Svennungsen sports chocolate and three travel tumblers of coffee.

 

A Confession of our Complicity in anti-Semitism

Motion B: Resolution on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to Condemn White Supremacy Submitted by: The Rev. Kerry L. Nelson [Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, 4F]

WHEREAS, we are members of the Body of Christ called to love and serve a hurting world; and

WHEREAS, each of us is called through our Baptisms to proclaim that God’s love is for all people, not just for people who are white; and

WHEREAS, we have observed with alarm a rising tide of racist rhetoric, hate crimes, and domestic terrorism in the name of white supremacy in our nation; and

WHEREAS, we have now seen again the terrible consequences of violence visited on immigrants and people of color in the name of so-called “Christian Nationalism” or “white supremacy”; and

WHEREAS, we now grieve with the communities of El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, who have experienced terrible losses as a result of mass shootings or racist violence directed against their neighbors, friends, and loved ones; and

WHEREAS, we continue to grieve with and remember the communities of Charleston, South Carolina and Charlottesville, Virginia, who have also been victims of hate crimes in the name of white supremacy; and

WHEREAS, as Lutherans, we have a unique historical calling to recognize, name, and condemn racist acts, imagery, and violence that seeks to injure, demean, or marginalize persons who are not white or Christian; and

WHEREAS, we acknowledge with horror that Christians, including persons raised in congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have committed mass shootings in our nation; and

WHEREAS, we understand that interpretations of Scripture that seek to legitimize racism or white supremacy are false teachings that must be named and condemned as such by this Church with one, powerful voice; therefore, be it

RESOLVED, we the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America do hereby resolve and proclaim that:

1. White supremacy is racism and we condemn it;

2. Violent rhetoric against persons of color in the name of so-called “Christian Nationalism” is not a true Christian faith. It is idolatry and we condemn it;

3. The love of God is for all people, without exception, and we proclaim it;

4. The justice and mercy of God are for all people, without exception, and we proclaim this;

5. Our religious and political leaders have a moral responsibility to condemn racist rhetoric and to speak with respect for the innate dignity of all persons, regardless of their race, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status, or faith tradition and we call our leaders to honor this responsibility; and

6. Language that refers to people of color or immigrants with words like “invasion” or “infestation” or “white replacement” is racism and we condemn it;

7. We are called by Jesus to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” As persons called to love one another as God has loved us, we therefore proclaim our commitment to speak with one voice against racism and white supremacy. We stand with those who are targets of racist ideologies and actions. With them, we demand and will advocate for a more just, loving, and peaceful world where the gifts of all people are appreciated, and the lives of all people are treasured; and

8. We call all congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to engage in communal study of the structures and rhetoric that empower and fuel racism and white supremacy and to take to heart the teaching of Scriptures, so we may all be better equipped to speak boldly about the equal dignity of all persons in the eyes of God.

 

ASSEMBLY YES-893; NO-5 ACTION

CA19.04.18 To adopt Motion B as amended.

Pastor Kerry Nelson, Faith Bellaire, speaking to the motion:

Our synod dinner together. Sadly Robert Rivera and Deidre Hayes were not able to be with us this week.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Above, The Rev. April Larson, the first woman bishop in the ELCA, spoke this moving blessing:

“Proclaimer to the proclaimers, priest to priests, Christ bearer to the Christ bearers, you are and have been and will be a blessing to so many. Your Mothers raise their hands and bless you. Apostle Mary Magdalene, Evangelist No. 1 from Samaria, the Great Confessor Martha, the Widow who gave up everything, prophets of the Great Reversal Mary and Hannah, women of courage and vision Esther, Ruth, Debora, prophet, musician, liberator Miriam, women of justice, Syro-Phoneician women Shiphrah and Puah, Daughters of Zelophahad, models of Christ, and the unnamed priest anointing Jesus’s head, pastor to Jesus. Mothers in faith Sarah and Hagar, missionary Priscilla, to you dearest priests and pastors, your mothers in the faith bless you and give thanks to God for your call as priest, leader, mother in faith, shepherd to God’s people. We celebrate you and we give God thanks for your leadership.”

Today’s worship was the highlight of the week for me. Tears flowed freely as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women, the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first African American pastor, and ten years of ordaining LGBTQIA pastors.

 

 

The procession included The Rev. Maria de Jesús, 104 years old!

What a sermon! https://youtu.be/UaTWcO3fv4Q

Today’s Bible study was by The Rev. Dr. Niven Sarras, on Miriam.

Miriam is revered as a prophet in Micah, listed with Moses and Aaron. Miriam saved Moses. She cried out through the Holy Spirit, “My mother will bear a son who will be the savior of Israel.” She thwarts Pharaoh’s plan to kill all young babies.

Micah 6:4

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

and redeemed you from the house of slavery;

and I sent before you Moses,

Aaron, and Miriam.

Numbers 12:1-2

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it.

 

 

So good to catch up with friends and colleagues like Jim and Heidi Fowler.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Bishop Eaton’s sermon at closing worship: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmIgh3GKuqI

Proper 14, Pentecost 9C, Lectionary 19C – August 11, 2019

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20Yahweh condemns Sodom and Gomorrah’s sins: injustice and oppression to the orphan and widow.
OR
Genesis 15:1-6 – The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23The Lord calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people.
OR
Psalm 33:12-22 – Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God. By faith Abraham obeyed. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old.

Luke 12:32-40 – Have no fear. Sell your possessions. Give alms. Be prepared like the householder and thief. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

 

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah…

10 Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

One of the options for the first reading is Isaiah 1. Here Isaiah rails on Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah says, “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”

After giving them a thorough chewing out for being sinful and rebellious, he clarifies himself:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Isaiah says Israel’s religion is flawed if they can ignore the oppressed, the widow and alien.

 

 

Genesis 15:1-6: Reckoned as Righteous

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Abram’s righteousness comes apart from the law, which will not come until Moses, hundreds of years later. Abraham’s righteousness comes through faith: trusting God’s promises. Faith is not believing the Bible, creeds or doctrines. It is not intellectual assent to a proposition. It is trusting God.

 

 

 

Luke 12:32-40 – Where is Your Treasure?

 

How are we preachers inviting people to care for their souls on this side of the grave? How are we helping them prepare for that day when they claim their baptismal promise? How are we helping them live in the time between now and then? 

This Sunday our gospel reading picks up where last Sunday’s reading (The Parable of the Rich Fool) left off (12:32). Here is the text:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 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. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The stewardship issue is still on the front burner. In the gospels, Jesus depicts God as an absentee landlord who is on a journey. We are stewards taking care of the ranch while the landlord is away. When he returns, what will he find? What might he expect from his stewards while he is on holiday? How should we conduct ourselves, prepare ourselves, for the landowner to show up?

One cannot miss the overtones of the delayed Parousia. Luke’s community may be expecting judgment day to come any time now. The apostle Paul believed that Christ would come in his lifetime. These stories encourage the faithful to remain vigilant.

Last week’s message was clear. Don’t be consumed by greed. Your life is more than stuff. You can’t take it with you. The bad news is you can’t take it with you. The good news is you won’t be needing it.

This week we are told that God wants to give us the kingdom. In Working Preacher, Erick J. Thompson, Senior Pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota points out that this text is about vocation, not justification. You are justified. Now, how shall we then live? Now that you don’t have to do anything, what are you going to do?

The text begins with a promise, and then is followed by the command. “Have no fear little flock, for it is your father‘s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God gives the kingdom, freely. We cannot create it. We can however, participate in it. 

So, do not get caught up in materialism. Don’t spend your life, time and energy collecting things, stuff. Instead, spend your life, time and energy investing in heavenly treasures. This will no need doubt need to be broken down for the congregation. What could “heavenly treasures” possibly mean? I like to contrast the material with the spiritual. Spiritual things are those intangibles that matter most in life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and so on (Galatians 5:22).

Be like those waiting for the bride groom to return, waiting for Christ to return: alert, awake, attentive, hopeful, and focused on things that really matter. 

  • Not do I have enough cars, but do I have enough compassion? 
  • Not do I have enough toys, but do I have enough tolerance?
  • Not do I have enough property, but do I have enough peace of mind?
  • Not do I have enough junk, but do I have enough Jesus, justice, joy, jubilee?

 

Thompson also points out that Luke is not calling us to asceticism, but simplicity – a simplicity that keeps us focused on what is important in life. One of my favorite Yogi Berra quotes is, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Keep the main thing the main thing. 

It may be a good time to emphasize that the kingdom of God is not depicted in the gospels as a place you go after death: “Pie in the sky when you die…” The kingdom of God is something that God gives us. Freely. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for God’s kingdom to come to us, not the other way around. Jarring people out of an old metaphysical paradigm might help them hear Jesus’ words freshly, for the first time.

This free gift of God’s kingdom can be tied back to the first lesson (Genesis 15:1-6) in which Abraham believes God, and God counts that faith as righteousness. God’s grace is a free gift, apprehended through faith. The Hebrews text also touches on Abraham, and says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

So if the kingdom is a free gift, given by God’s good pleasure, rather than earned, how then shall we live in this interim time? Well, offload your stuff. Travel lightly. Sell your stuff and give the money to the poor. Less is more. Practice generosity as a way of life. Instead of accumulating earthly treasures, accumulate spiritual treasures, treasures in heaven, that no one can steal. Collect the intangible things that make life worthwhile: purses that won’t rot and that cannot be stolen. 

 

Brian Stoffrefen points out the importance of the word “possessions” (ta hyparchonta) in Luke/Acts:

  • Luke 8:3 – women provided for Jesus and the disciples out of their resources.
  • Luke 11:21 – When an armed, strong man, guards his castle, his property is safe.
  • Luke 12:15 – Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
  • Luke 12:33 – 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.
  • Luke 12:44 – Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.
  • Luke 14:33 – So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
  • Luke 16:1 – Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.
  • Luke 19:8 – Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
  • Acts 4:32 – Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

The author of Luke/Acts cannot imagine any following of Christ that does not care for the poor and involve some sort of constant divestment from possessions.

 

Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paieia series, professor at Truett Theological Seminary) offers us much food for thought. “Generosity is the best antidote for greed…” When Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Parsons suggests he seems to be saying, “follow the trail of the use of money and it will lead to the heart.” There is plenty to work with here for the homilist. Wave a checkbook in the air, and say, “Here is the book that reveals our true priorities.” 

At the end, our text pivots to the “be prepared” speech. Be ready to roll. Gird your loins. Mikeal Parsons invites us to imagine one in a long robe, gathering up the fabric to the waist in order to run. Don’t get caught with your pants down. Are you prepared for the householder to return? Is your soul ready? Will the poor give you a good letter of recommendation?

What will the master do when he returns? Here comes the surprise in this part of the reading: When the master returns, he will have the slaves sit down and… he will serve them. He will serve them. Classic Jesus.

“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27). As usual, Jesus turns a common image on its end. Jesus hints that he himself is the householder who is returning, and serving.

And here’s the rest of the surprise for his listeners, the master is already here, secretly in the form of Jesus, watching, serving. There is grace in this passage.

So if Jesus came to serve, what should be the church’s posture be as we await the master? What should be the attitude of those who follow Christ? When you return to your routine tomorrow, regardless of the hierarchy where you work or study, what will be your attitude? What will be your attitude toward your possessions? What will be your attitude toward those with less? What will be your attitude toward those lower on the totem pole, coworkers or underclassmen?

Here is the good news. It is God’s great pleasure to give you the kingdom, beloved of God. Christ will return, and he will be the one who serves. So rejoice! Have no fear. Live as if Christ is coming back tonight. Give freely, and care for those in need. 

 

Here are some ways you might connect the gospel to people’s lives and to the liturgy:

  • Invite someone to offer a temple talk or sermon about a time they were shown gracious generosity, and the effect it had on them. 
  • Sing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” or its adaptation from Setting 10 as the Hymn of Praise. 
  • Offer the children something they can share. Bread? Fruit? Help them see that they are given gifts freely, and there is plenty to share. 
  • Some congregations have taken the above children’s lesson to the congregation by giving each worshipper a $20 bill as they walked in, asking them during the sermon to use it to bless those in need this week. There’s something addicting about being given something to give away. It’s fun. Ask people to report back what they did during the week. Collect and share the stories. 
  • Give people an opportunity to respond to a message about God’s generosity and ours. Hold a special offering for people in need. Tell the story. Make a difference. Give people an opportunity to be generous and feel the joy.
  • Use Thanksgiving at Table X (ELW, p. 69), which mentions Abraham and Sarah receiving the gift of a child. 

 

Houston, Meyerland/Westbury and Salem, 2 years after Hurricane Harvey

It has been two years since Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. Harvey cost the same as Hurricane Katrina. These two most devastating storms, both in our synod, are tied for the costliest cyclones in U.S. history.

I took a walk through Meyerland today after worship at Salem Lutheran Church. Pastor Marvin Harvard tells me the neighborhood seems to be at about 50% occupancy.

The first thing I noticed was that the local elementary school is still under construction.

There were quite a few empty lots, where homes had been demolished, but nothing new had yet been built.

Some homes have hardly been touched.

Some homes were kept as is, but raised six feet, for the next flood.

Some homes were repaired, tastefully, but not raised. Some for sale. Some lived in. New constructions are required to be built higher, but not existing homes.

Some homes appeared to be at various stages of construction. The county requires constructions to be built two feet above the 500-year flood plain, which is six feet above ground in some cases.

Some, with resources, have demolished their old homes and built, expensive, new constructions.

Salem Lutheran, a diverse congregation in Southwest Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, is at a crossroads. Worship attendance has been in steady decline from an average Sunday attendance of 132 ten years ago, to around 50 now. All of their facilities flooded except their recently constructed worship space, which was built higher up. Some of the space is beyond repair, and yet they still owe $800,000 on the mortgage for the new worship space. Recently, they have had some generous offers on the property and some options to share worship space with other congregations. We will see how the Spirit moves.

Proper 13, Pentecost 8C – August 4, 2019

Hosea 11:1-11 Assyria will rule over Israel because they refuse to repent.

OR 

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23  Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

Psalm 107:1-9, 43 Consider the Lord’s loyal love. God delivers.

OR

Psalm 49:1-12 – Hear this all you people, rich and poor together. There is no amount of money worth your life. The wise and the foolish both die and leave their wealth to others. Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases. For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.

Colossians 3:1-11 – Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Luke 12:13-21 – The Parable of the Rich Fool. ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

 

 

 

Ecclesiastes 1-2: Vanity of Vanities

 

Ecclesiastes, קֹהֶלֶת (qōheleṯ), Ἐκκλησιαστής in the Greek Septuagint, was likely composed 450–200 BCE. Tradition holds King Solomon as the author, but the document is too late for that, historically. The book is anonymous. The author does not identify herself. Ecclesiastes is quoted by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln, Burns, Hemmingway, George Bernard Shaw, Ray Bradbury, and Pete Seeger and the Byrds in their hit, Turn, Turn, Turn. 

This week’s reading includes selections from the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes. This text is particularly appropriate, along with Psalm 49, if one is tackling the Luke 12 Rich Young Ruler gospel text. 

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity…

12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind…

18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

The theme is clear. Everyone dies, both the wise and the foolish. You work your whole life long and then end up leaving everything to those who have not had to work for it. This is pointless. 

Job ruminates on the same idea (Job 1:21):

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there…

Psalm 49 picks up identical themes. Note verse 10. The wise and the foolish die and leave their wealth to others.

1 Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,

2 both low and high, rich and poor together.

3 My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.

4 I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,

6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?

7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.

8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice

9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.

10 When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.

11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.

12 Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.

Abraham Heschel says the Jewish people invented the prophetic way of being in the world. He says it was an ethical breakthrough for the human species. This prophetic tradition calls for justice, concern for the poor and marginalized. These passages from Ecclesiastes, Job and Psalm 49 fall in line with that prophetic tradition. 

We work our whole lives, but in the end death comes, and much of our work comes to naught. We plant, harvest and gather our wealth into barns, but rich and poor come to the same end. So why not look to higher things?

The author of Colossians encourages the same thing. Set your sights higher.

2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:2-4)

Jesus talks about the birds in the Sermon on the Mount. They neither plant, nor harvest nor gather into barns, and yet God takes care of them. God will take care of you too. So don’t worry so much about your life. Stop scrambling, chasing after wind. Seek first the kingdom of God. Higher things.

 

 

 

Luke 12: The Rich Fool and Barn-Building

 

 

Let me start with a reminder that we are in the “travel narrative” section of Luke (roughly chapters 10-19). We are between his earlier ministry in Galilee to the north and moving toward the events that will take place in Jerusalem, in the region of Judea, to the south. Jesus has been rejected by a Samaritan village (Luke 9) and he has sent the 70 out (Luke 10). He has been questioned on how to inherit eternal life, and drawn out the answer: Love God and neighbor. He has answered the question of “who is my neighbor” by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Then Jesus encountered Mary and Martha, which focused on loving the Lord. The Good Samaritan focused on loving neighbor. Last week we had the teaching on prayer, and the story of the Friend at Midnight. 

Mikeal Parsons suggested that these were Jesus’ teachings on three classical virtues: 

  1. philanthropy (Good Samaritan), 
  2. hospitality (Mary and Martha), and 
  3. friendship (Friend at Midnight). 

This week and the next, we have teachings on stewardship, or use of wealth. I would suggest that we use these Sundays to talk about how we use our God-given resources for God’s purposes in the world. We need to have the courage to talk about one of the taboos in our society: money. If the only time we talk about money is when it’s time for the budget, people might think that’s all we care about. They might miss the reason Jesus talks so much about use of wealth: spiritual care. 

Here’s this Sunday’s story from Luke 12:13-21. As usual Jesus tells a story in response to an ethical encounter. 

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Our story begins with a classic triangle. We discussed triangles a couple of weeks ago in a story of two other siblings: Mary and Martha. Martha told Jesus to tell her sister Mary to come and help her. Jesus didn’t take the bait then, and he doesn’t now. He was gentle with Martha. Not so much in this story of two other siblings.

“Tell my brother to split my inheritance with me.” He has a case. His brother should share the inheritance. The boys would split the inheritance, with the elder brother, as the new patriarch, inheriting a double portion. 

Nevertheless, Jesus will not intervene. Jesus’ response is, to paraphrase, “Who made me the boss of you?” Well, he is a rabbi, a teacher, they are probably thinking. He’s too smart to get sucked into the family squabble. Too many families squabble about inheritances. It can destroy relationships. Parsons (Luke: Paieia series) says that in the Greco-Roman agrarian society, wealth was more likely to be inherited than earned. The death of a relative may be your only shot. Jesus chooses not to arbitrate a domestic dispute. 

Jesus recognizes the issue for what it is: greed. His response to the plaintiff: Beware of greed. Jesus is always warning us of the danger wealth and greed present to our spiritual lives – heck, to our lives, period. Instead of taking sides, Jesus does what any good rabbi would do. He tells a story.

A man (Ἀνθρώπου), perhaps better rendered a person, has a bumper crop, more than can be stored. What does one do when one has more than one needs? Save it for a rainy day. Can one ever have enough? Can one be completely financially secure? So, the wealthy landowner tears down old barns, and builds bigger ones, to store the (perishable) crops. Then the landowner sits back and tells his soul (ψυχη), “Soul, you’re set for life. Eat, drink and be merry.” How right he was. He was set for the rest of his life, which be only a few more hours.

God says, “Fool, tonight your soul is required of you.” The word translated “fool” is αφρον. φρονέω means “to think.” So αφρον means “unthinking.” From the Classical Greek of Homer to the Koine Greek of the New Testament, αφρον can mean thoughtless, mindless, senseless, arrogant, filled with pride, foolish, presumptuous. It is most often translated “foolish” in modern English. 

We never know when our lives will end. We don’t like to think about it. Even though everyone else in history has died, we prefer to think we will be the exception. A friend of mine, a beloved Methodist minister, recently received news that his cancer is back. It’s a tough blow. Some have time to come to terms with their mortality. Others will die instantly and never know what hit them. What if today was your last day? How would that affect the way you allocate your resources? Do you have a plan for how your assets will be allocated when you die? Do you have a will? If you want a say, you need a will, otherwise the state will decide for you. 

The story is about greed. We know this because Jesus said so: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Be. On. Your. Guard.

Against greed. 

Augustine translates it, “Be on your guard against all covetousness.” Think the 9th and 10th commandments. 

Jesus has already warned us, earlier in Luke’s gospel. Unlike Matthew, Luke’s Beatitudes are followed by woes (Luke 6):

‘But woe to you who are rich,

   for you have received your consolation. 

‘Woe to you who are full now,

   for you will be hungry.

‘Woe to you who are laughing now,

   for you will mourn and weep.

Nothing sucks the life out of our spiritual lives like greed. As Jesus will say later in this chapter, a text that we will read next week: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If you are going to love the Lord with all your heart, and your neighbor has yourself, your money will follow. Actually, Jesus says it the other way. “Follow the money.” Wherever your money goes, your heart will follow. That’s probably your god. Our spending choices reveal our priorities. More about that next week. 

Life does not consist of your belongings. Life is more than stuff. You are more than your stuff. Stuff is not bad, but if it becomes the center of our lives, God is dethroned. 

Jesus has just taught his disciples to pray for their daily bread: food, clothing and all we need from day to day. He now warns them that life is more than food and clothing. Consider the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest, and yet God cares for them. Matthew use the more general “birds of the air.” Luke chooses the raven, an unclean animal (Lev. 11:15). Coveting and greed will kill you in the end. In the next verses which we will read next week, Jesus will offer an antidote to our ever-so-natural tendency toward greed. 

Patristic commentary on this text supports this interpretation. Those who spoke the language in which the New Testament was written and lived in cultures similar to those of the authors, hear in this text a critique of greed. Our Catholic colleagues tend to reference Patristics more often than we do. Luther was immersed in them. If you would like to find the thoughts of Augustine, Ambrose, Cyril, Bede and others on Luke quickly, here is one website you might check out.

This commentary by Thomas Aquinas takes several verses at a time and then offers commentary by various ancient writers. 

“What shall I do? asks the farmer.” Gregory offers, “O adversity, thou child of plenty.” Adversity is the byproduct of plenty for Gregory. It does strike me how much anxiety we have in our culture. For a society that has so much, we seem to be in chronic distress. 

Gregory also adds, “If everyone receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”

Basil: “Art not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast received to distribute?”

Basil: “It is the bread of the famished that thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in thy possession, the money of the penniless which thou hast buried in the earth.”

Chrysostom: “Now it behooves us not to indulge in delights which fattening the body make lean the soul…”

Let us not over-spiritualize this parable. The earliest commentators on the Bible did not.

The rich farmer wants to store perishable crops, but it is he himself that is perishing. He would have done better to share his bread with the hungry. God calls him a “fool.” 

 

So what are you doing with your wealth? Are you storing perishables while you yourself are perishing? How are you giving to the needy, whom Jesus constantly brings up in the gospels? What do you do when you have a “bumper crop?” That is, what do you do when you get a bonus, or a raise, or a significant job opportunity that pays more than your current job? 

It stands, of course, that the preacher must lead by example. Our preaching about generosity, sharing, simplicity, and attending to those in need, will sound hollow if our lives preach a different message.

 

One last thought. 

Does Jesus discourage saving in this passage? It may seem like it at first brush. The Scriptures as a whole, however, encourage saving, just not hoarding. Joseph is commended, in the Genesis story, for interpreting the dream with the seven fat cows, and seven lean cows. He is praised for saving during the time of plenty, so that the people have food during the ensuing seven years of famine. If we are called to care for the poor, we need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus does not say anything bad about saving. He does, however, have a running critique of materialism. 

Save, but then use your resources to bless the poor. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus does not criticize the rich man for having wealth. He criticizes him for not using his wealth to bless those who suffering, right in front of his nose. Jesus is not addressing saving for a rainy day, in my view. More likely, Jesus is critiquing hoarding, and materialism. So don’t ditch your 401k just yet. If you’re following Christ, make sure you are serving those in need. 

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