Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Urgency of the Harvest

The saying of Jesus from Luke 10:2, a verse from the pericope for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20) is one of his most well-known sayings:  "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."  What sometimes goes unnoticed is the urgency of Jesus' words.  When the crops are ripe they must be brought in - that is certain, lest they spoil in the field.  Every farmer and backyard gardener knows this.  When we are on vacation and the tomatoes ripen on the vine and are not harvested, or when the corn stands tall in the field, but the farmer cannot get it out, we all know the results.

(The following questions are a sample from my brief guide to Law/Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  As we know, the Word can function to bring the Law (i.e. You need Jesus!), or to bring the Gospel (i.e. Here is Jesus!) or to issue the call to obedience (Follow Jesus!).  In this text there is little doubt that the bulk of the text is a call to obedience, with all the specifics that come to such a call.  Jesus instructs the seventy he has appointed to carry no purse, greet no one on the road, remain in hospitable houses, etc.  He is instructing those who will carry the proclamation forward how to do that well.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Finding a word of Law or a word of Gospel in this text is difficult.  Is there a word which exposes our need for Christ?  Perhaps the fact that the harvest is plentiful is evidence of the world's need for Christ.  Is there a word of Gospel?  Perhaps at the end of the pericope where Jesus says that we should rejoice because our "names are written in heaven."  The preacher will do well to search out other texts for these functions.  For example, the first reading for the day is Isaiah 66:10-14.  Here we encounter God's promise that "as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you."  This is a word of gospel.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the sent ones, the seventy addressed by the Word.  We are the ones who are sent out without purse, bag, or sandals.  We are the ones given such a sense of urgency that we will not be able to stand and chat along the way.  We are those who will be provided for by the hearers of God's word.  This text is mainly about the relationship between the sent ones and those who receive them, and so preachers and their congregants have much to learn from this passage.  Mutual responsibility and mutual vulnerability are our call.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Law/Gospel couplets are designed to bring focus and imagination to a sermon so that there will be clear movement, from darkness to light, from weakness to wholeness, from death to life, for example.  Since this text does not provide such a movement, such couplets are not suggested by this text.

5.  Exegetical work:  Gerhard Kittel's monumental work, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) is often of great help in understanding a particular Greek term and its nuance in a text.  Today's text is a good example of that.  In this text are two terms, one rare and the other common, which give us insight into this passage.  The first one is translated "appointed" and it comes in 10:1:  "After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him..."  This word is used in the book of Daniel, in the Greek OT, where Daniel and his companions are appointed by the king to be wisemen in his court.  It is a word which can also be translated "ordained." (TDNT, II, 30). This suggests that one way a preacher might go about proclaiming this text is to do a teaching sermon on the relationship between the ordained and the people of God.  It could well be that a sermon that teaches the mutual vulnerability and mutual responsibility of the preacher and God's people could be very fruitful.

A second term which is also helpful in understanding this text is the word translated "send out" in verse 10:2:  "..therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."  This word is most commonly translated as "cast out" and it is most commonly found when Jesus casts out demons from people.  (TDNT, I, 527).  Used here it suggests an urgency that is not captured by the words "send out."  If one looks forward in the text and notes that those sent out are to go on their way without purse, bag, or sandals and to greet no one on the road, it does indeed seem like urgency is the posture needed.  The preacher might be well-advised to ponder what urgency is required of us when "the kingdom of God has come near."

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Blessed are the Fanatics

There is little question that Jesus' words in Luke 9:51-62, especially in the second half of this pericope, border on the fanatical.  "Let the dead bury their own dead?!"  "C'mon," we say.  "Let me first say farewell to those at my home," we say.  Jesus replies, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."  Ouch.  Who is this guy?  Has Jesus, the meek and mild, suddenly turned into a fanatic?  Yes, and maybe that's exactly what is necessary and blessed.

(The following questions are a sample from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is a bit unusual for a gospel reading in that the Word, in this case Jesus, functions only to issue the call to obedience.  This call is not a word of law, i.e. "You need Jesus," nor is it a word of gospel, i.e. "Here is Jesus." Rather, the call to obedience, the function of the Word here, is the word which functions to say, "Follow Jesus."  These are three distinct functions of the Word.  Here Jesus is issuing an uncompromised call to take the up the cross and follow him, including rebuking the disciples for their wish to call fire down from heaven against those who have not received Jesus.  In the second half of the text he offers his uncompromising call to discipleship.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is very clear that there is no gospel word here.  There is no word that lifts up the gifts of grace.  Also, there is no word which shows us our need for Christ, unless we want to understand as a word of law Jesus' rebuke of those whose excuses he dismisses.  This is an unusual text in that we are going to have to find additional scriptures to share with our listeners that fully lift up the law and gospel.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  No doubt we are those being addressed by Jesus. We are the disciples who understand following Jesus to be calling down fire upon those who fail to receive us as we would be received. We are those along the road who want a place to lay our head, a moment to bury our dead, and a chance to say farewell to those at  our home.  In short, we are those whose loyalty to Jesus is anything but firm.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because the text is not a law/gospel text, couplets are hard to find.  One we might try is:  failing Jesus/following Jesus.

5.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allen Powell has written a helpful guide to narrative criticism that often works well in asking questions of a narrative text. (What is Narrative Criticism?  Fortress Press 1990)  In this guide Powell lays out a series of questions to ask about events, characters, settings, and the overall interpretation of a text.  Using that method we can see that this text takes place as Jesus "sets his face to go to Jerusalem."  This is crucial, and indeed it will affect all the subsequent texts in Luke's gospel.  Now Jesus is turning towards his passion, and his words are becoming more and more urgent.  Because of this his impatience with both his enemies and his followers becomes more and more evident.  It is as though Jesus is saying, "Look folks, the time is drawing near for my death; let's quit horsing around and get down to business."  Jesus is now demanding action from his followers, and his words of rebuke to his enemies are becoming more strident.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice urged preachers to help listeners recognize their shared story in a text.  By this he meant that we need to connect God's story with our story, and the story of our listeners.  This text offers us a chance to ponder the difficulty we have in following Jesus in all the small and mundane ways we are invited to follow him.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Who is possessed? That's the question.

Luke 8:26-39, the gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 5 in the Year of Luke, is a marvelous tale, skillfully told.  It is a study in "being possessed" and we are surprised to learn that the villagers' reaction to Jesus' power over the legion of demons living within the demoniac is to ask Jesus to leave their country.  In an unexpected twist, when the people of the village see the man, previously mad, "sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind" they are "seized with a great fear."  We would expect that their fear would subside at the quelling of his madness, but not so.  Apparently the terror of Jesus amongst them outweighed the terror of a host of demons.  Interesting, to say the least.

(The following questions are a sample from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  In this interesting tale, Jesus, the Word, is clearly at work exorcising demons, yet the exorcism is reported almost as an aside:  "for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirits to come out of the man." (vs. 29)  What is front and center instead is the effect of Jesus' power over the demons, and the fear that comes as a result of that.  The demons themselves are terrified and beg Jesus "not to order them to go back into the abyss."  They know that, if ordered by Jesus, they must obey.  But even more interesting is the effect that Jesus' power has on the villagers who are reportedly "seized with a great fear."  The Word then is functioning more as law than as gospel for both the demons and the villagers.  It is a freeing word, to be sure, for the man possessed, but it is a Word of terror for the demons and the villagers.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It depends on which character you choose when answering the question of the Word not functioning.  The villagers are not given a gospel word, even though it is evident that Jesus frees. They see Jesus as someone to be feared. The man possessed does not receive a word of Law, but is only healed and freed.  And the demons who enter the swine are given only a word of Law, and are glad to be allowed to flee the presence of Jesus and enter the pigs.

3.  With whom are you identifying in text?   This is perhaps the most crucial question for the preacher preaching this text.  Since we always want to be identifying with those who are addressed by the Word, we have three choices here:  the man possessed, the demons, or the villagers.  If we choose to identify with the man possessed then our job as preachers is to help our listeners experience and celebrate the freeing power of the Word which leads us to be clothed, in a right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus.  The epistle text from Galatians 3:23-29 would work nicely in concert with this approach, as we are told that in baptism we have been "clothed in Christ."  If we choose to identify with the demons, then we have a difficult task indeed, as we are called to help our listeners see themselves as those who are afraid of the power of Jesus, afraid to live under his reign, and preferring even the unclean to a life with Christ.  Finally, we might choose to identify with the villagers, helping our listeners feel the fear that comes when we are in the presence of the power of Christ.  It will be our task to lead our people through a discovery of bondage to fear, and into the freeing Word of Christ.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word that functions to say, "Follow Jesus" is given only the man formerly possessed.  Jesus says to him, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." This is a good word for all of our listeners, regardless of who we have chosen to identify with in the earlier part of the sermon.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  I like some of the classic couplets for this text:  old creation/new creation; bound/free.  I also can see several others right in the story:  mad/in our right mind; driven into the wilds/sitting at the feet of Jesus.

6.  Exegetical work:  The second verse of this text opens up the underlying question.  The verse says, "As [Jesus] stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him."  Notice that it is ambiguous as to who has the demons: the man or the city.  Is it "the man who had demons" who met him, or the man of "the city who had demons" who met him?   These days we are recognizing more and more that just as "it takes a village to raise a child" so it takes a village to enslave one or abuse one or allow the regular discrimination of one.  In other words, the community can sometimes be just as "possessed" as an individual.  Another verse highlights the ambiguity of this construction even more:  In verse 29 we read that "many times [the unclean spirit] had seized [the man]."  In verse 37 we are told that the people who witnessed this exorcism "were seized with a great fear."  This is the identical term.  So again, we see that it is not only the man who has demons who is seized, but the community that is seized.  I have a hunch that Luke did not include these details unintentionally.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Joseph Justus van der Sabb, in writing his analysis for 2013 Year C gospel on this text cleverly shows how this text unveils our failure to take seriously those things we are "possessed by" until it is clear that these things lead to death.  He calls his analysis "This Little Piggy."  I'd recommend you go to study to see the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Two debtors

The gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 7:36-8:3, gives us a "mouse-in-the-corner" view of Jesus dealing with two people - one, Simon, a Pharisee, and the other, an unnamed woman "who was a sinner".  We overhear the conversation between Simon and Jesus, and we see the actions of the silent, unnamed woman.  In Simon's words, and in the reports of his thoughts which are also included, we see a man who is quite certain he is a debtor to no one, God or human.  In his view, his accounts are fully paid.  Through the woman's actions of extravagant love towards Jesus we see a woman who is certain she is a debtor, especially to God.  She cannot do enough to express her gratitude to the one who will forgive her sins.  But Simon shows no such inclination.  Jesus summarizes it accurately;  "The one to whom little is forgiven loves little. [But the one to whom much is forgiven loves much.]

(The following questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, Jesus, proclaims both law and gospel in this text.  To the unnamed woman, Jesus is pure gospel.  He allows her to express her love for him, as she washes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them with oil, and kisses them. Finally, he announces to her that her sins are forgiven, and she may go in peace.  All is gospel to this "sinner".  To Simon, on the other hand, Jesus is pointing out through a parable, Simon's great need for forgiveness,  He calls Simon a debtor, and calls into question Simon's lack of love for him.  Through Luke's eyes, we see Simon's smug self-righteousness, and his unacknowledged need for forgiveness. This is the Word functioning as law.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  The two recipients of Jesus' attention are both candidates for our identification.  If we identify with the woman, then we are acknowledging our sinfulness and coming to Jesus for forgiveness, thanking him for his mercy and love.  If we identify with Simon - and it seems to me that this is where we likely belong - then we are ones whose self-righteousness and hardheartedness are brought to light, so that they may be rooted out of our life.  We become the ones who, until Jesus brings it to light, will not acknowledge our need of grace.  This is often where we stand.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The main part of this text does not contain any specific calls to follow Jesus, but the end of this reading, which goes into chapter 8, includes several examples of people following Jesus and proclaiming the good news, as well as providing for others who do.  The call to proclaim, and to provide for those who proclaim the good news are both calls to obedience.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Perhaps obvious are several couplets:  debtor/debt-free; guilty/forgiven; entering in despair/going in peace.  Less obvious, but helpful is this couplet: blind to self-righteousness/enlightened and forgiven.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is telling that the conditional phrase in verse 39 is a simple contrary-to-fact type of conditional.  In other words, when Simon thinks to himself, "If this man were a prophet..." the construction reveals that he is thinking, "This man is no prophet."  This is striking because just prior to this we have heard the people of Nain proclaim "A great prophet has risen among us!" (7:16)  What this little phrase reveals to us is the depth of Simon's spiritual blindness.  We also see how Jesus so easily shows Simon his sin.  Jesus tells him a parable and at the end of it asks Simon which debtor will love him more.  Simon, thinking the answer obvious says, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus says, "You have judged rightly. [You are the one who loves little.]  John Calvin, in writing about this story has this to say:  "Here again we observe that out of  their ignorance of Christ's office, people immediately produce new stumbling blocks.  The root of evil is that no one examines his own miseries, which undoubtedly would awaken everyone to seek a remedy.  It is not at all surprising that real hypocrites, who grow careless with their own faults, should murmur about Christ forgiving sins, as if at a new and unfamiliar thing." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, p. 167).

Blessings on your proclamation!