Saturday, October 31, 2015

Priceless or Worthless

The story of the widow's mite from Mark 12:38-44 has long been a vehicle for stewardship sermons.  It hasn't worked very well probably because the story can be viewed, on one hand, as an excuse for people who give little and say, "See, in this story the amount doesn't matter," and on the other hand by others (mostly those of us who depend upon the offering plate for our wages!) who say, "See, she gave everything she had!"  Perhaps a closer look at this story will reveal that this story is about larger things like hypocrisy and faith, pretense and love, and the distinction between priceless and worthless.

(The following questions are important to Law and Gospel preachers as we attempt to "do" in our preaching what the text "does" in our hearing.  A complete explanation of this method can be found in my book Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The primary function of this text is hinted at in Jesus' first word: "Beware."  Later he talks about the "greater condemnation."  This is clearly the Law at work.  The text is lifting up our human tendency toward showy piety, our view of the world in which market value is assumed to be God's value, and our failure to recognize faith when we see it.  This word shows us clearly our bondage to sin and our need for God's grace.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Gospel is hard to find in this story, although I think there is a hint of it in Jesus' commendation of the woman's actions.  When he says that the widow "out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on," Jesus is pointing out the amazing freedom of this woman.  He is pointing out her confidence in God's provision. He is lifting her up as an example of one who is filled with faith, so although Christ's work is not shown in this story, it can perhaps be assumed.

3. With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question.  Our first choice is always those who are being addressed by the Word, whom in this case, are the hypocritical scribes.  Another choice, however, could be the disciples who are being instructed.  They, undoubtedly, would have assumed that the greater offerings were being given by the wealthy.  But finally, how about identifying with the woman?  Is it possible to identify with the person Jesus is commending?  This is always tricky, but it might be a vehicle for lifting up an anonymous individual of modest means who is an example of freedom in giving.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In a sense, this entire text is a call to obedience.  The call to obedience in the text is always the Word functioning to say, "Follow me." It is the call to discipleship which follows our experience of grace.  The call to live in the freedom of the Gospel is really what this text is about.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets readily come to mind:  hypocrisy/repentance, bondage to fear/freedom to give, worthless gifts/priceless gifts.  The final couplet could lead quite nicely into the Gospel word about Christ's priceless gift of his very life.

6.  Exegetical work?  A word study of the Greek terms in this brief story unearths a few nuggets that can become sermons in themselves:  The widow is described as one of the "ptoxos" - a destitute person, most likely subsisting by begging.  This word seems purposely chosen to contrast with the "plousioi" - the wealthy, who put large sums into the offering boxes.  Another term which is rich in meaning comes at the end of the passage where Jesus says she puts in "all she had to live on." The term is well known to us:  "bios." It means one's whole life.  This woman has put her "whole life" into the offering plate.

Another source of rich commentary that doesn't pertain only to this story, but to any that have to do with liberality is Ernst Kasemann's book Jesus Means Freedom.  In this book the author points out that "for [Jesus], the attitude that man has to express is primarily that of need, which is not surpassed even by worship." (p. 32). Kasemann also reminds us how "Luther spoke of  the man outside grace as the homo in se incurvatus, the man inescapably imprisoned and entangled in himself." (p. 39)  This work is a rich source of thought on freedom for any text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Lazarus model

All Saints Day is a unique festival in the Church's life.  It is the singular time each year that we name the dead.  We actually name, remember, and claim a place under God's reign for those who have died.  Who else does that?  Sure, it is common to hear people, who may not be active in any particular faith community to say of the dead, "They've gone to a better place," but we can do better than that.  We can and do claim that Jesus' victory over the grave is complete and those who have died live.  In the gospel text appointed for All Saints Day, John 11:32-44, we hear Jesus cry out, "Lazurus, come out!"  Jesus bids us come out of our tombs as well.

(The following questions will be of interest to Law and Gospel preachers.  For a brief, yet complete guide to law/gospel preaching you may purchase my book, Afficting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, by clicking the image on this page.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions quite clearly to set up both our need for Christ (law), and Christ's power to fulfill our need (gospel).  In verses 32-38, all the action is around the power of death:  Mary weeps, the Jews weep, even Jesus weeps, and we are told, "is greatly disturbed" by Lazurus' death.  This scene reminds us that death has a fierce grip on us, and apart from Christ our death will be our annihilation.  But then in verse 39 the action changes.  Even though Jesus is yet disturbed he says those around him, "Take away the stone."  Martha protests, but he challenges her to remember his power.  Shortly thereafter he calls forth Lazurus.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  If we can agree that the text is functiong as law when it makes clear our need for Christ, and the text is functioning as gospel when Christ is presented to us, then we have here an example of both Law and Gospel being present.  In the first half of the scene we are shown the power of death, and in the second half, Christ's power over death. This, then, is an unusual text in that both Law and Gospel are present.

3. With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have several options here.  We could identify with Lazurus, the dead man, or with the sisters who grieve their brother's death.  If we choose to identify with Lazurus, then our task as preachers will be to bring our listeners into the place of the dead man, and have them experience resurrection.  If we choose to identify with the grieving sisters, then our task will be to show the miracle of resurrection to the disbelieving loved ones of the deceased.  Either way, this will be challenging.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  I don't see a call to obedience in this text.  The call to obedience is the part of the text that exhorts us in how to follow Christ once we have received resurrection.  This portion of the sermon will have to find its inspiration in other texts.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets often come from the characters with whom we are identifying in the text.  This passage is no different.  If we identify with Lazurus, our couplets will likely be pairs like dead/alive, defeated/victorious, bound/free.  If we identify with the sisters, our couplets will be more like grieving/praising, doubting/believing, separated/united.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under 2012 Year B Gospel, All Saints Day, is Steve Albertin's fine work on this text.  He follows the drama of the text perfectly as his first move (D1) is entitled "Disappointed."  Then he takes up the question of doubt in the second move (D2):  "Disbelief."  In D3 we are are confronted with the result of our despair:  "Doomed."  The fulcrum of the story, vs. 39, is highlighted perfectly in Albertin's P4: "Defiant".  Jesus refuses to let the dead remain dead!  The result of this in P5 is "Believing," and finally in P6 we are urged to go out witnessing and "Unbinding."  This is a fine example of how this model can lift up the major moves in a text.  Go to to learn more.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic.  Henry Mitchell often exhorted his students to be "the first ones to experience ecstasy."  What better story than this to experience ecstasy? This story demands celebration as it unfolds. Go for it!

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Insulted by Christ?

Someone once quoted the words of Jesus in John 8:32 but added a line something like this: "the truth will make you free, but before it does it will make you wince."  We see this in the snippet from a controversary narrative between Jesus and some of his followers in the gospel text appointed for Reformation Sunday:  John 8:31-36.  Indeed if we look at much of what follows in John 8 we see that Jesus' audience is getting taken to the woodshed in no uncertain terms and they are not the least bit happy about it.  How about you, are you insulted by Christ's words?

(The following questions are a sample of the outline I use in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, which can be purchased by clicking on the image on this page.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus himself is the voice of the Word in this text and there is little doubt that the Word is functioning to insult the listeners.  When Jesus says, "the truth will make you free," his listeners reply, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.  What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free?'"  Clearly they are insulted.  And as the chapter goes on their umbrage turns to murderous fury.  This is a tricky text, because the main task of a Law and Gospel preacher is to "do" what the text "does" in preaching, so this means that, at some level, in our preaching will need to be willing to insult our listeners.  Needless to say this takes some skill.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Once we see clearly how the Word is functioning we can more easily discern how the Word is not functioning in the text.  Often a text functions either to accuse (law) or to bring faith and hope (gospel), but not usually both.  In this text, however, we have an example of the Word doing both things as Jesus announces that "everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin" (law), but also "if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (gospel).

3,  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those who are being addressed by the Word.  In this text it is tempting to want to identify with Jesus, thinking perhaps that we would never find Jesus' words to us insulting.  We should know better!  We are just as likely as Jesus' listeners to chafe at the notion that we are not free.

4. What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow me."  It is the call to discipleship.  In this text there does not seem to be any word that calls us to follow the Master in a certain way.  It will be our task to find other texts which support this important word.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  This passage is clear in that the couplet is explictly provided for us:  bondage/freedom.  We might think of other parallels:  guilty/forgiven, condemned/saved, lost/found.

6.  Exegetical work:  Translation work is often a source of insight into a text and this one is no exception.  We have in verse 31 a conditional phrase:  "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples."  From Greek study we know that there are three types of conditional phrases:  condition of fact, condition of contrary-to-fact, and condition of uncertainty.  The English translation does not always give us a clear idea of what we are dealing with, but the Greek does.  In this passage we have a condition of uncertainty.  This means that Jesus is saying, "If you continue in my word (and you might be or might not be), you are truly my disciples."  Or we might translate the condition another way: "Whenever you continue in my word you are truly my disciples."  Commentaries on this text are abundant. One of my favorites is the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures where we read Augustine's words:  "Our freedom comes when we subject ourselves to the truth."  And "In whatever measure we serve God, we are free.  In whatever measure we serve the law of sin, we are still in bondage."

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Servants of God

Mark 10:35-45, the gospel text appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, gives us one last look at the disciples prior to the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in Chapter 11.  Have they come to understand the nature of Jesus' reign, the call to take up the cross, or Jesus' concern for "the little ones"?  Sadly, they have not.  Undoubtedly, we as disciples of Jesus often find ourselves following their lamentable example.

(The following questions are taken from the method outlined in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  It is available through amazon or wipf and stock publishers.)

1.   How does the Word function in the text?  The Word is embodied in Jesus again, as in most gospel texts.  Jesus' first words to the disciples today are words of law in that they show clearly the disciples' need of repentance.  "You do not know what you are asking," says Jesus.  He might as well have said, "You are lost in your own futile pursuit of greateness."  Later in the passage he details what he means, saying, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant."  A word of gospel appears right at the end of the passage as Jesus says, "The Son of Man came... to give his life a ransom for many."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There is no doubt that we must identify with the disciples here.  We too, often are caught up in the hope that Jesus is simply the genie in the lamp, or our personal Santa Claus, and our only function is to demand, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."  Seeing the disciples behave this way in the text we are aghast, but this text gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves, "When have I behaved this way?"

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience - the word that says, "Follow me" - is clearly in this text and indeed, it forms the crux of this passage.  Jesus calls his followers to refrain from following the world's example of "lording it over" others, and instead asks us who would be great to be servants, and us who would be first to be slaves of all.  This call is not the call to faith, but the call to obedience.  We are first called to trust this One who has given his life as a ransom for many, and then, trusting that One we are freed to be servants of all.

4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Perhaps the state of the disciples can stir our imagination here:  false glory/real greatness; being lords/being servants; demanding power/ransomed to life.

5.  Exegetical work:  This text follows immediately after the third passion prediction, where Jesus says once again that he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, suffer and die, and after three days rise.  Amazingly, the request of James and John to have a place at the right hand and at the left in glory, follows this.  But if we look at the second prediction, lo and behold, we find the same pattern.  In Mark 9:30-32 Jesus predicts his death and immediately after that the disciples argue about who is the greatest.  What about the first passion prediction?  You guessed it!  In Mark 8:31-32 Jesus first predicts his passion and immediately following we have Peter's rebuke which Jesus terms, "setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  The gospel writer, Mark, seems to be setting up a pattern here:  whenever Jesus speaks about his suffering and death, the disciples follow it by ignoring his words and demanding greatness on the world's terms.  Is this a hint at how difficult Jesus' words are for us all?  No doubt.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

To fear, love, and trust God above all things

The story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-31, the gospel text appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, is paired with verses from Amos 5, which also reprove those of means.  For many of us who will preach these texts, and many others who will hear them, we long for a loophole - some way to convince ourselves that our wealth and our possessions are not a problem in our relationship with God.  Martin Luther would remind us of the meaning of the First Commandment:  We are to fear, love and trust God above all things.  How do we do in that regard?

(The questions below get at some of the concerns for Law/Gospel preachers.  For a detailed guide to Law/Gospel preaching, check out my book available from Amazon).

1.  How does the Word function in the text?   This is a rare text in that here we have Jesus, the Word, functioning in all three ways that the Word can function - a word of Law (You need Jesus!), a word of Gospel (Here is Jesus!), a call to obedience (Follow Jesus!).  The word of the Law comes most clearly when Jesus is speaking to the disciples, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" The word of the Gospel comes in this conversation as well: "For mortals it is impossible [to be saved], but not for God; for God all things are possible."  The call to obedience actually comes right at the beginning as Jesus addresses the young man:  "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is very important to identify with all who struggle with Jesus' words here.  If there was ever an opportunity for a preacher to come clean with his or her own struggles regarding money this is it.  We are all astounded by Jesus' words, just as the disciples were.

3.  What, if any call to obedience is there in the text?  As I said earlier the call to follow Jesus is explicit in Jesus' words to the rich, young man.  Because the young man asks a question regarding inheriting eternal life we might be tempted to think that Jesus' reply to him is the call to faith, not the call to obedience.  I think not.  For one thing his question is one about worthiness to be an heir.  He knows that eternal life is inherited, not earned, so he wants to make sure he's worthy of the inheritance.  Mark's comment, that "Jesus, looking at him, loved him," lets us know that this man is already beloved in God's eyes.  Jesus' command to him is the one that comes to us all in the wake of God's love.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several occur to me:  sorrowful/joyful, possessed by possessions/possessed by Christ, lost/saved, bound/free.

5.  Exegetical work?  M. Eugene Boring in his excellent commentary on the Gospel of Mark (The New Testament Library) notes how much evidence there is that readers have tried to water down Jesus' words in this text.  Note Boring's list:  1)  Scribal efforts to change the word 'camel' to 'rope', and other changes; 2) 'Needle's eye' refers to a Jerusalem gate (there is no such gate); 3) Restricting this text to a particular historical situation where a few people were called to this; 4) Restricting this text to certain individuals, not a general requirement; 5) This text was not meant literally - "the problem is not money, but the love of it"; 6) This is a second use of the law, i.e. Jesus intensified the demand here to bring the man awareness of his impotence for salvation; 7)  There are two levels of discipleship - the ordinary and the perfect, i.e. monastic. (pp. 292-293)   All of these attempts to water down Jesus' words to the rich, young man make it abundantly clear how much we resist Jesus' claim on us.

6  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steven Albertin, under the 19th Sunday after Pentecost for 2009 Year B Gospel gives us an excellent model for looking at this text.  He begins with the exposure of our desire to always have more stuff, and ends with the announcement of God's abundance.  Nice.  I would recommend the website, study for a look at how this model works.

Blessings on your proclamation!