Saturday, September 23, 2017

Things of God and Things Not

Matthew 21:23-32, the gospel text appointed for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, is a fierce condemnation of the enemies of Christ.  We are left no doubt about the trajectory of this story:  the enemies of Jesus will now stop at nothing in order to accomplish Jesus' death.  The triumphal entry is behind them, the lament over Jerusalem and Good Friday are on the horizon.  What is the warning to us?

(The following questions have been developed as part of a method for Law and Gospel preachers.  This genre of preaching has several fundamental concerns which this method attempts to deal with.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is little doubt that the Word functions here as Law.  The enemies of Jesus are portrayed as dishonest cowards, who finally will reject the Christ and call for Christ's death.  They will not answer Jesus' questions, nor will they admit their own sins.  Repentance is far from them.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little word of Gospel here.  I suppose that if the tax collectors and prostitutes were overhearing this conversation they might find some good news here, but there is no evidence that they are present.  This is a stark reminder of what we have read earlier in Matthew:  "The first shall be last, and the last first."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We must, even in this text, identify with those whom the Word addresses.  Since the Word addresses the chief priests and the elders, we must assume their position.  We are the ones who refuse to answer Jesus' questions.  We are the ones who are condemned by Jesus.  We are the ones called to repentance.  This is not a comfortable place to be, but this text is an opportunity to reflect on our own hypocrisy, dishonesty, and fear.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's work, is not present here.  The call to repentance is not the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In the second half of the passage, when Jesus tells the parable about the two sons, he gives us an obvious couplet:  disobedient/obedient.  We might extend that further:  unfaithful/faithful, unbelieving/believing.  The fact that the first son "changed his mind" is the fulcrum of these couplets.

6.  Exegetical Work:  A good exercise when considering this text is to use the analytical method outlined by Mark Allan Powell in his book, What is Narrative Criticism?  In this method Powell has us consider the events, characters, settings, and overall interpretation of this text.  In the appendix to his book Powell outlines his method and asks many helpful questions which bring insight to the scene described in the text.  Also Powell is helpful in his analysis of Matthew's portrayal of Jesus enemies:  "In Matthew's story, antipathy for the leaders is the rule.  There are no exceptions in this story - no wise scribe, no ruler of the synagogue whom Jesus helps, no member of the council who comes to bury Jesus.  Matthew's characterization of the leaders is consistent:  they are evil, they are aligned with Satan, and everything they do, say, think, and believe is wrong."  (What is Narrative Criticism?  p. 64)  Douglas Hare, in his commentary on this text, reminds us of our tendency to behave as the chief priests and elders did:  "As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing."  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 247)  We would do well to heed this warning:  God is always doing new things.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer, in his analysis, centers on the question of authority which is at the crux of the debate between Jesus and the leaders.  Who's in charge?  is the question.  Hoyer suggests that there are several answers to this question, but when we decide Jesus is not in charge, we, like the leaders, find the tax collectors and sinners entering the kingdom of God before us.  How much better if Jesus is in charge.  See Hoyer's entire analysis by going to crossings.org/text study.  It is archived under the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 2015.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

God's Agreement? Or Ours?

The workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, the gospel lesson appointed for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, are a varied lot.  Much speculation has been done regarding their laziness or industriousness, their availability or unavailability, and other traits.  One group, the ones who are hired early in the morning, are the only ones who speak.  We often identify with them. What if we identified with those who were hired at the 11th hour?  How might that change our reading?

(The following questions bring to the fore some central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which get at other issues.  To learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, you may see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This word generally functions as a rebuke, or as Law, since we most often identify with the workers who are hired early in the morning and grumble when they learn that those who worked only part of the day will receive the same wage as them.  The landowner points out that they have made an agreement with him which he is merely keeping.  We too, often may be accused of reducing God's actions to an 'agreement' we have made.  This leads to all sorts of problems.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning as Gospel is hidden in plain view once again in this text.  Although the landowner seems to be a tough customer, at the end the landowner reminds the workers of the generosity shown in the equal pay given to all.  Is this a gospel word?  Perhaps not, if we identify with the workers who believe  they deserve more than the others.  Is this a gospel word for some?  I would argue that it is, especially for those hired at the 11th hour.  I think of the repentant thief in Luke 23.  The word to him that he would be in Paradise with the Lord even as he hung dying on a cross was certainly a word of grace.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This, for me, is one of the crucial questions in this text.  Because the context of this passage appears to be Peter's question just prior to this story:  "Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?" we are naturally drawn to identify with the workers hired early in the day.  In that case, this text is a warning to our tendency to self-righteousness and to making deals with God about what is "fair" and what is not.  But if we identify with the workers hired later in the day, especially with those hired at the 11th hour, all of a sudden our perspective changes.  Suddenly the landowner's actions are welcome.  This text then becomes a text about God's generosity and how we stand ever dependent on that generosity.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is not present in this text.  That call is the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in our lives.  We will need to look elsewhere for such a word.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets depend on the tack we take in this text.  If we identify with the grumblers, then a couplet might be: grumbling/thankful.  If we identify with the other workers a couplet might be: fearing the worst/receiving the best.

6.  Exegetical work:  Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is often a treasure trove of insight and this text is no exception.  In the extended article on misthos, translated "wage" or "reward", we read:  "Because God is understood quite absolutely in the greatness of His being and the incomparability of His generous love, because He is in no way dependent on or conditioned by human action, the idea of merit is left behind and in no human action is there any place for counting on divine or human reward.  There is a reward only in so far as God in sheer love, which is unintelligible to mere justice, draws human obedience, for all its limitations, into the power and glory of the kingdom of God." (TDNT, vol. IV, p. 719)  Bernard Brandon Scott, in his commentary supports this reading with these words:  "The parable's strategy is not unlike Paul's argument that with God there is no distinction, that justification (making right) is through gift (Rom. 3:22-24)." "To insist, as the parable does, that invitation, not justice, is the way of the kingdom radically subverts the kingdom of God as a reward for a faithful and just life." (Hear Then the Parable, p. 297-298).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, in his analysis of this text for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost in 2015, writes of how dangerous it is when we count ourselves among the "firsts" believing we are better than the "lasts."  We become, as Jaster says, the grumbling ones, the ones with grudges against all those who have not "earned" God's favor as we have.  This finally leads to our growing mistrust in the goodness and generosity of God, and his final word to us is not a word of grace, but "Take what belongs to you and go!"  Thankfully Christ takes the burden of day upon himself, and rescues us from ourselves.  See crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mercy in the Air

Matthew 18:21-35, the gospel text appointed for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, has a clear message:  Now is the time to forgive.  Now!  We may discuss the various identities of all the characters in the parable, but the clear message remains.

(The following questions are provided in order to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, foremost, "How does the text function for the hearer?"  If you'd like to explore the genre of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text has a strong word of Law, encapsulated by the master's rebuke of the unforgiving servant in verses 32-33:  "You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?"  The text ends with a warning:  "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The word of Gospel is hidden here, although it is in plain view.  The Gospel word is that God is like the master who forgave the slave his entire debt, a debt that was far greater than anything he could have ever paid back.  Indeed, this complete forgiveness of the entire debt is wholly unexpected, bringing to mind the words of St. John, "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I Jn. 1:9)

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   This is an interesting question.  Looking at the context of this parable, we might assume we are represented by Peter, the one asking the question about forgiveness.  If we identify with Peter, then we would be the unforgiving slave in the parable: the one who though having been forgiven everything, will forgive his fellow slave nothing.  This is certainly an appropriate way to go.  But we might try identifying with the other slaves in the parable.  What if we identify with the one who experiences the merciless action of his fellow slave?  Or what if we identify with the other slaves who tattle-tale to the master the sins of their fellow?  It might be interesting to explore our own self-righteousness by stepping into that perspective.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Living mercifully, the theme of this parable, is a call to obedience.  Like any call to obedience, this is one of the ways we live in response to the gospel. We do not forgive in order that we can be forgiven, but because we have been forgiven.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The theme is clear; couplets that describe it are innumerable:  unforgiving/forgiving; merciless/merciful; indebted/debt-free.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of helpful commentaries on the parables of Jesus, and I would recommend the serious preacher avail him or herself of copies of each.  David Buttrick's Speaking Parables is particularly insightful in this parable.  He notes how this parable lifts up the fact that "if we refuse to forgive a neighbor, we are violating the merciful context of our lives." (p.111)  This suggests that we, like the unforgiving slave, often fail to see that as forgiven sinners, mercy is in the air we breathe, and when we fail to recognize this, our lives violate the context of  our life.  Luise Schottroff agrees with Buttrick's assessment and offers a rabbinic parallel to Matthew's teaching:  "Forgiveness between human beings is a sign of the presence of this God:  'Let this be a sign in your hand:  As often as you are merciful... the Almighty has had mercy on you.'" (The Parables of Jesus, p. 201)  "The content of the Gospel of Matthew is very closely related to the later rabbinic idea about the necessity of forgiveness between human beings and its basis in God's promises." (Ibid., p. 202)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Gospel A for 2011, Eric Evers reminds us that forgiveness is essential not only in personal encounters, but even more essential in our communal life in this post-9/11 world.  He speaks of the violence in our hearts that causes us to 'seize others by the throat' and demand they return to us what they owe.  Evers reminds us that if this is what we want, God will finally agree to this, which will in turn lead to our demise.  See the whole analysis at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Mesh God Made of Us

The Church can certainly be a messy place, so witnesses the gospel lesson for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 18:15-20.  Here we have words attributed to Jesus that have found their way into many a church constitution, which speak to the need for church discipline.  But the passage ends hopefully with the promise of our Lord's presence whenever we come together in his name.  What would that mean - to gather in Jesus' name?  There is probably more there than we first think.

(The following are from a series of questions which get at some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive in themselves.  They come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is clearly instructing the future church on its life together.  This is a classic example of the call to obedience.  This is instruction in how to live in response to the gospel.  The Law is present in this text as the need for such instruction implies that church members sinning against one another is part of our life together, and so forgiveness must be part of our life as well.  A word of Gospel comes right at the end as Jesus promises that the Father will work on our behalf whenever we agree together, and Jesus himself will be present whenever we gather in his name.  These are powerful promises.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit word of Law and Gospel in this text since the main intent of the text is to instruct.  A word of Law here would be a clear word regarding our need for Christ, and a word of Gospel would be a clear word about what God has done for us in Christ.  Neither is present here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are members of the worshipping community.  It is we who need forgiveness from one another,  we who need to seek reconciliation with those who have sinned against us, we who will stand with those who have been sinned against in the body.  This text is addressed to any who are members of a faith community.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The text gives us language for several couplets:  sinned against/regained into fellowship; not listened to/reconciled with the body; bound/loosed from sin.

5.  Exegetical work:  The words translated "bind" and "loose" have a rabbinic background.  They are terms used "to declare forbidden or permitted, thus to impose or remove an obligation.  Hence to impose or remove a ban, to expel from and receive back into the congregation."  (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, p. 60f). These terms may suggest that if you ban someone from the congregation on earth, that person is banned in heaven from the assembly of God's chosen.  And if you admit one, or permit someone to share the assembly on earth, it will be so in the kingdom of God.  (Ibid.) Augustine, in his writing, reminds us of our continual need to show mercy and charity to those who have sinned against us:  "Therefore, when any one sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves.  For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries.  Just set aside your injury, but do not neglect your brother's wound."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 77).  Augustine continues, reminding us that even when a person refuses to be reconciled by any means, our duty is still to love them:  "[When one has refused to be reconciled] we don't consider him now in the number of our brothers.  But not even is his salvation  to be neglected.  For even the heathen, that is, the Gentiles and pagans, we do not consider in the number of our brothers, yet we constantly pray for their salvation."  (Ibid, p.78)  I appreciate the perspective Douglas Hare shares in his commentary on this passage:  "There is a sense in which verse 20 interprets not only the immediately preceding saying but all the verses of the paragraph.  The risen Christ is 'in the midst' of each stage of the procedure of verses 15-17, and it is he who has conferred on the congregation the responsibility of binding and loosing.  If the Christian fellowship is to survive the strains imposed by human failure, it will be only because the risen Lord sustains it."  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 215)

 Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Throwing Away Your Life

Matthew 16:21-28, the gospel lesson appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, has been called a "hinge" passage in the Jesus story.  In other words, the door has now been swung open towards Jesus' death.  All that came before this has prepared for this moment, and all that will follow will lead to the Cross.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously said, discipleship means "adherence" to this One who is going to the Cross.  It is our decision every day as to how we will live out this call.

(The following questions are a way of getting at some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but simply supplement many other fine sets of questions available to preachers.  For a more extensive discussion of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is a strong word of Law in this text, starting with the rebuke of Peter:  "Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me!"  The Law is also active as we are challenged to consider what we will gain if we forfeit our life.  Finally, Jesus announces that "the Son of Man will ... repay everyone for what has been done."  These words announce to us our need for confession and repentance.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A Gospel word is absent here - a word that proclaims what God has done in Christ.  Of course, the presence of the Cross is felt throughout, but in this passage that presence is not felt as 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 that is first, Peter, who is rebuked, and then the disciples, who are challenged.  The preacher may choose to identify with one or both, but not with Jesus, who is giving this rebuke and challenge.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is much in this text which is a call to obedience.  Indeed this is what the call to discipleship is.  The call to deny self and take up our cross and follow is the classic call to obedience.  It is what we do in response to God's work in Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Perhaps we can imagine several scenarios that would lead to a gospel ending: rebuked/forgiven; stumbling block/building block; setting the mind on human things/setting the mind on divine things.

6.  Exegetical Work:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic Cost of Discipleship, had much to say about this text:  "To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.  When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity.  It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life."(p. 95f)  Miles Stanford, another writer on the theme of discipleship, writes that we will do anything to "bypass the death sentence" of self. (Principles of Spiritual Growth, p. 52)  We are very adept at trying to convince God that "self-improvement" rather than self death is the way to go.  Stanford lays out seven alternatives to self death, including self-mortification, self-conquest, self-training, revivalism, and religious busyness.  We barter, we bargain, we plead with God, "Just leave my life intact, and I'll follow you." (Ibid, p. 61f)  Martin Luther, in his Heidelberg Disputations, also addressed this call to suffering:  "He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.  Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil.  These are the people whom the apostle calls 'enemies of the cross of Christ,' (Phil. 3:18) for they hate the cross and suffering, and love works and the glory of works." (Luther's Works, Vol. 31, p. 53)

7. Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell always reminded us that celebration is part of any preaching of the gospel. This will be a challenge for the preacher this week as this text is bereft of a gospel word.  We will need to bring into play the results of Christ's cross to bring celebration to this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Rock of Christ

Matthew 16:13-20, the gospel text appointed for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, contains perhaps one of the most memorable confessions of all time:  "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God," the confession of Peter the disciple.  Immediately following this, Jesus announces that Peter is blessed because the Father has revealed his identity to Peter, and Jesus declares that upon this confession the Church will be built.  Our question is:  "Is this our cornerstone yet today?"

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to lift up some of the central concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a more extensive discussion of this genre of preaching, you may find helpful my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case, Jesus, functions as pronouncing blessed anyone to whom the Father has revealed the identity of the Son.  If you recognize Jesus as Messiah and Son of the Living God, you are blessed, says Jesus.  You are blessed because God, in mercy, has revealed this to you.  "Flesh and blood" has not revealed this - in other words, we have not figured this out ourselves, nor has another person convinced us of this, but rather the Father has had mercy on us. This announcement of blessedness is a gospel function.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  I don't see the Word functioning as Law here, that is to say, the Word lifting up our need for Christ.  There is mention of the gates of Hades, but it is clear that Christ has overcome them, so no threat is forthcoming in this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are Peter.  We are the ones who are called blessed because of our confession.  We are the ones who are given authority to forgive one another.  We are the ones who are given the secret of the Messiah.  How blessed we are!

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This is a strange text in that the one who is confessing is called blessed, but then at the end of the text, we are commanded not to be confessors.  It seems to me that being confessors is part of the call to obedience, a call we should follow.

5.  Exegetical work:  If we compare the Markan and Lukan versions of this story, we will note immediately that Matthew alone contains the blessing of Jesus following Peter's confession, and along with it, the announcement regarding Peter's unique place in the church. In Mark and Luke we simply have the confession of Peter followed by Jesus' charge to tell no one that he is the Messiah. Scholars commonly point to this extended saying regarding Peter as evidence of the beginning of the Christian community in Matthew's day.  In  18:18 we have further instructions regarding loosing and binding, so this seems likely.  For our purposes, this beatitude bestowed upon Peter is crucial for it is one that we, as God's people, may claim for ourselves.  Without it we are left with a confession followed by a prohibition and nothing else.  Theodore, 5th century bishop of Mopsuestia, understands Jesus' words to Peter as we Protestants generally have: that it is Peter's confession that is the rock which the church is founded on:  "Having said that his confession is a rock, he stated that upon this rock I will build my church.  This means he will build his church upon this same confession and faith." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p.45)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Ron Starenko, in his 2011 analysis of this text, shows how contemporary this text is.  We are in crisis because we have been duped into believing that 'flesh and blood' can reveal all things to us.  Christ confessed is the antidote to our madness.  Christ is the crux of our crisis.  Christ is the only true God who can truly deal with our God-problem.  See crossings.org/text study archived under Year A Gospel for complete analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Surprise, Surprise!

We say that we like surprises, but do we?  Especially when it comes to the subject of whom is admitted into the kingdom of God.  Perhaps the story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15:21-28, the gospel lesson for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, has more to teach us than we know.  It might also reveal to us surprises that come to Jesus.

(The following questions attempt to unearth some of the themes essential to Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not exhaustive; they come from the appendix in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock. com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a unique text in that the Word - in this case, Jesus - functions, first as Law and then, finally, as Gospel.  At the outset Jesus resists the woman's claim to his favor, announcing that his favor is reserved for the children of Israel.  After she refuses to take no for an answer, he relents and announces God's mercy. The whole story is a dialogue between one who cries, "Have mercy," and the One who will say, "Let it be done for you as you wish."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, the way the Word functions changes here. That's what makes this text so unique.  It is as if the writer is showing us the gradual unfolding of God's grand plan in our Lord's mind.  So in the end the Word does not function as Law, but as Gospel.  God's mercy is as wide as the world when all is said and done.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Usually it is important for us to identify with the ones whom the Word addresses, but here it might be important to identify with the disciples, for they are the ones who insist on excluding persons from the Lord's favor.  Like in the previous gospel story, (14:13-21) the disciples' words are "Send her away!"  If we are honest, this is also our tendency, to want to reserve God's favor for those we approve of.  It might be important to identify with both the ones who want to send the woman away, and the woman herself, announcing that it is God''s wide mercy that includes even us.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? The call to obedience is implicit in this text.  The underlying message is, "If God has had mercy on you, then you are called to have mercy on others.  If God has forgiven you, then you are to forgive others.  If God has not excluded you, then you must not exclude others from God's grace."

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets readily come to mind:  rejected/accepted; excluded/embraced; condemned/forgiven.  This is a Law/Gospel story.

6.  Exegetical work:  If we look carefully at the details of this story we see all kinds of surprises:  1)  Jesus goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  If we look at the Hebrew Scriptures we see that all the prophets condemn these two cities, especially Ezekiel, who declares that Tyre and Sidon would drink to the dregs "the cup of the Lord's wrath"; 2)  A woman from a strange country would approach Jesus. Women had no clout, no status, no voice, and yet she insists on being heard; 3)  This is a Canaanite woman.  The Canaanites were the poster children for what Israel was to avoid - idolatry, lewd worship practices, and the like; 4)  Jesus does not answer the woman's cries.  Note that this would not have surprised anyone present, or anyone hearing this story.  Jesus was under no obligation to even acknowledge this foreign woman; 5)  When Jesus does answer her, he says that God's favor is not extended to her.  Again, this would not have surprised the first century Jews - this is what they believed.  We, however, are surprised by this; 6)  The woman persists.  This really surprised the disciples; 7)  Jesus announces that she is no better than the dogs.  Again, this would not have surprised the witnesses of this event; 8)  The BIG SURPRISE:  Jesus announces that God's mercy does extend to her.  He announces that she, even she is a person of faith!  Wow!

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock always insisted that our job as preachers was to bring the experience of the  text to the listener.  What a wonderful experience for our listeners if they could hear the words as addressed to them:  "Great is your faith.  Let it be done for you as you wish."

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Overwhelmed by God's Love

Matthew 14:22-33, the gospel lesson appointed for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, is almost as well-known as the preceding lesson, the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  He "walks on water" is a phrase which has made its way into secular parlance for someone who is noticeably virtuous.  The real message of this text is not, however, that Jesus walks on water, but that Jesus reaches down to save us who don't.  This story is filled to overflowing with good news.

(The following questions are those that may be fundamental to Law and Gospel preachers.  There are many other fine sets of questions which attempt to unearth other concerns.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is full of good news:  1) Jesus comes to us in our distress, amidst the chaos of this world; 2) Jesus makes himself known and tells us, "Do not be afraid"; and 3)  Jesus reaches out his hand when we falter in faith.  These are all gospel functions.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Like the preceding story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, even though we are made aware of the disciples' faltering faith, we do not hear Jesus casting judgement on them for it.  Peter is called "you of little faith" but there is no condemnation in that, but mercy.  Even when the disciples fail to recognize Jesus and call him a phantom they are treated with love and compassion.  There is no word of Law here, which means as preachers we are also not called to berate our listeners for their lack of faith, lest we be untrue to this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are the disciples.  We are the ones forced to "get into the boat".  We are the ones who find ourselves  terrified in stormy seas.  We are the ones who doubt, who falter, who call out to Jesus, but who finally fall down in worship saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."  This is a story about God's people and the Lord who loves them.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The message in this text is clear:  "You can trust Jesus."  The call to trust Christ and fall down in worship is certainly here.  Beyond that we will need to go to other texts to discover what our call is as people whom Christ has saved.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There is only one that is obvious:  Terrified and anxious/At peace, safe, and assured.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is noteworthy that only Matthew's account of this event includes Peter's adventure on the water.  John has a brief account of this story (John 6:16-21), and Mark 6:45-52 includes a version close to Matthew's, but neither include Peter's wobbly faith.  If Peter is a symbol for the people of God, this story might well be a reminder to the early church of their need to reach out to Christ when all seems lost, and be assured of his ability to save.  One piece of this story that is common to all three accounts of it is the phrase, "It is I; do not be afraid."  A look at the original texts reveals that this is an "ego eme" moment, sometimes translated "I am who I am." It might be interesting to consider this as a response to the disciples' fears: "I am who I am; do not be afraid."  Another word which is present is translated "Take courage" by both Mark and Matthew.  This word is used sparingly in the NT, but when it is, it always signals good news:  To the paralytic,"Take courage, your sins are forgiven." (Matt 9:2)  To the bleeding woman, "Take courage, your faith has made you well." (Matt 9:22).  To the blind man, "Take courage, he is calling you." (Mark 10:49).  To the disciples, "Take courage; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)  Augustine, in commenting on this story, sees the boat as the Church of Christ.  His advice when stormy days assail us?  "Stay inside the boat and call on Christ."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 12)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Our Scarcity or God's Abundance?

The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is a story that has been heard and preached countless times throughout the history of the church.  In the lectionary, in the year of Matthew for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, it is found in Matthew 14:13-21.  It bears close resemblance to the same tale as told in both Mark and Luke. This story lifts up two contrasting views of the world:  scarcity or abundance.  Which is the lens through which you look?

(The following questions are an attempt to unlock some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this genre of preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available at wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here mainly as Gospel.  The Gospel proclaims the simple message, "Here is Jesus," and here the Word is doing just that:  "Here is Jesus, the one who has compassion on the sick and injured, the one who feeds the hungry, the one who takes the little that we have and multiplies it for the sake of the world."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is tempting to lift up the attitude of the disciples in this story as they tell Jesus to send the hungry away to fend for themselves, and to use this occasion to scold our congregation for their lack of compassion.  There may be texts which function this way, but this is not one of them.  Jesus does not scold the disciples.  Even when they insist that they have nothing to give the hungry crowds, Jesus does not scold them, but simply says, "Bring [your loaves and fish] here to me."  The upshot is:  there is no word of Law here, no word which lifts up our need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices:  the disciples or the hungry crowd.  The Word addresses the disciples, but the Word (i.e. Jesus) also feeds the crowd.  If we choose to identify with the disciples, then we will need to deal with our lens of scarcity.  If we choose to identify with the hungry crowd, our posture may simply be one of awe and praise.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience comes in two short statements:  "You give them something to eat." and "Bring them here to me."  These two statements encompass our call to serve the hungry and the method by which we do that: we bring our gifts to Jesus and let Jesus multiply them.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking the view of the disciples, several couplets come to mind:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith.  If we take the view of the crowd our couplet, of course, would be:  hungry/filled.

6.  Exegetical work:  Douglas Hare, in his commentary (Interpretation series) reminds us that this is the only miracle story which appears in all 4 gospels. (Matthew, p. 165)  In looking at the original language it is noteworthy that the vocabulary and grammar used are very close to the same, especially in the Synoptic versions.  One place where the language is nearly identical is the account of the distribution of the loaves:  "Taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds."  One wonders if this language was so close because it was an early liturgical formula for the eucharist/love feast.

The presence of numbers in this story has always puzzled me.   Why five, and two, and twelve, and five thousand?  Fourth century bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, interprets these numbers allegorically:  "We are invited to explain things by reasoning according to types.  It was not granted to the apostles to make and administer heavenly bread for the food of eternal life.  Yet their response reflected an ordered reasoning about types:  they had only five loaves and two fish. This means that up to then they depended on five loaves -- that is, the five books of the law.  And two fish nourished them - that is, the preaching of the prophets and of John." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol 1b, p. 7-8)  "The leftover fragments of bread and fish, after the people had their fill, amounted to twelve baskets.  Thus... an abundance of divine power, reserved for the Gentiles from the ministry of eternal food, was left over for the twelve apostles." (Ibid, p. 9)  "The same number of those eating proved to be the number of those who believed. As noted in the book of Acts, out of the countless people of Israel five thousand men believed." (Ibid, p. 9).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steve Kuhl does a superb job of lifting up the mindset of the disciples - futility - in the face of the needs of the world.  He points out how an attitude of futility makes us of little use to the world, and finally strangers to God.  Christ, however, breaks into this futility and sets us free for fruitfulness.  See the entire analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, by going to crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Weeds Galore!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, the gospel lesson appointed for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, is the second of the parables in this chapter which offers, alongside it, an allegorical interpretation.  Like the first parable in chapter 13, the accompanying allegory to this parable centers on God's judgement not God's patience.  Scholars have long argued that the allegorist was not Jesus, but rather, Matthew, representing voices in the early church.  If that is so, it might be helpful to lift up how quickly the church turns to concerns about "who's in and who's out" while Jesus seems unconcerned with that.  Wisdom for today?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but offered as a way to lift up some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a further understanding of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide to this genre, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Like the first parable in this chapter, the way the Word functions in the parable and the way it functions in the accompanying allegory are quite different.  In the parable the emphasis is on the forbearance of the Master:  "Let them both grow together until the harvest." This is certainly a gospel function as we are given a full view of the scandalous grace of the Master, when we, like the servants in the parable, wish to pluck up the weeds.  The Word functions as law, however, in the allegory, as the emphasis there is on judgement: "The Son of Man will send his angels... and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Even the assurance at the close, that "the righteous will shine like the sun" does not have a gospel ring to it; rather, it seems assuring only to those who can manage to live rightly.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The answer to this question will, of course, be tied to how we answer the first question.  If we center on the forbearance of the Master, then the Law is downplayed, even though, at the close of the parable Jesus makes it clear that the weeds will be collected and bound in bundles to be burned.  If, on the other hand, we center on the judgement in the allegory, the Gospel is downplayed, indeed it is hard to find at all.  A balance is needed.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the servants in the parable, who ask the Master how the weeds came to be in the field, and who, upon learning that an enemy has sowed them, ask, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?"  We are people who are concerned about the "weedy people" in our churches.  We are the self-righteous ones who so easily assume that we are the wheat and others are the weeds.  We are the ones who somehow insist that we are capable of separating the good from the bad, and seeing which people ought to be allowed to continue in Christ's church and which ones ought not be.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  If the call to obedience is the Word functioning to instruct us in the best ways to live in response to the Gospel, then it might be argued that this whole text is a call to obedience.  We are to bear fruit, according to the first parable in this chapter.  This fruit needs to be "wheaty" not "weedy".

5.  Exegetical work:  The word translated "weeds" in this passage has been more precisely translated as "darnel".  Darnel is an ancient grain that looks very much like wheat in its early stages, and reportedly was almost impossible to distinguish from wheat until the harvest was near. (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. IV, p. 826)  This would explain why the Master was reluctant to have the slaves attempt to pull up the weeds before the harvest.  David Buttrick, in his excellent guide to the parables of Jesus, speaks to the dilemma with which this text deals:  "[This parable addresses] a concern of the church: How can the church be morally pure and yet live in the worldly world?  If we try for purity, we lose our evangelical touch with the world.  If we give ourselves to attracting the worldly, we can become morally lax and lose our souls.  A perennial problem."  (Speaking Parables, p. 94)   Augustine has a solution to this problem, suggesting that perhaps people are not permanently either weeds or wheat:  "See what we choose to be in [the Lord's] field.  See which of the two we will be at harvest time... Let the one who is wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds be changed into wheat...  In the Lord's field, which is the church, at times what was grain turns into weeds and at times what were weeds turn into grain; and no one knows what they will be tomorrow."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1a, p. 277)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry always emphasized the need to move the listener into disequilibrium and then back to equilibrium.  This text might lend itself very much to that, as a preacher lifts up the discomforting thought that, while we easily assume we are wheat, we can readily see that we are not.  Similarly discomforting is the fact that we are not able to distinguish the weedy folk from the wheaty ones in our midst.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Prodigal Sower

Jesus' description of a sower sowing the seed is nothing if not the picture of a prodigal.  How else to explain the extravagance that describes the sowing, as well as the abundance that finally results, albeit with considerable losses as well.  This parable, found and explained in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, the gospel lesson appointed for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, challenges our view of God.  Could God be that prodigal?

(The following questions are meant to ferret out concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to supplement many other fine sets of questions that exegetes might use for their discovery.  For a more thorough discussion of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to the answer to this question.  Some argue that this text is Law, in that it warns us, especially in the allegorical interpretation, not to be those who choke off or neglect the Word in our lives.  Others argue that this parable is pure Gospel, reminding us that God is sowing seed everywhere, - even in places where growth seems unlikely - and finally abundance results.  I prefer the latter interpretation.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Obviously, the answer to this question will depend on our answer to the first question.  If we choose to see God the Prodigal Sower, then the focus is not on our fitness as soil, but on God's ability to overcome our unfitness.  If, on the other hand, we choose to focus on the voice of the allegorist, then the Word is functioning primarily as Law, and our unfitness to be "good soil."  In this latter case, the Gospel is not heard.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly the hearers of this parable.  We are the many listening on the shores of the sea.  How will we hear this?  that is the question.  One important note:  The parable itself focuses on the sowing of seeds, the allegory focuses on the "one" who is good soil or not.  This is important to note as we consider our place in this story.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This parable is about God's Word being sown in the world.  It is about God's abundance, and our response to that abundance.  In a word, it is about grace, or conversely, faith.  Obedience, in the sense of what is an appropriate response to living in God's grace, is not addressed here..

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets come to mind which may lead in fruitful directions:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith; failure to understand/ understanding.

6.  Exegetical work:  Luther, in his explanation about what draws us away from God, often referred to the triumvirate that we traditionally renounce at baptism:  "the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw us from God." (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 229)  It is worth noting  that these are precisely the things that the allegorist mentions in this pericope:  "the evil one comes and snatches [the Word] away", "such a person has not root" (i.e. is drawn away by sin), and "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word."  It might be fruitful to reflect on the fact that all of us are besieged by such enemies; there are none who are born "good soil", but in fact, it is God's grace that enables us rocky, thorny, hardened sinners, to hear the Word and believe it.  It is God's grace that makes us good soil.  One of the classic commentaries on parables I  appreciate is that of Joachim Jeremias.  His words regarding God's persistent sowing speak to Jesus' confidence in the power of the Word:  "To human eyes much of the labour seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in repeated failures, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence.... Consider the husbandman, says Jesus; he might well despair in view of the many adverse factors which destroy and threaten his seed.  Nevertheless he remains unshaken in his confidence."(The Parables  of Jesus, p. 150-151)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Joseph Justus Van der Sabb, in his extensive analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, argues that the verses which have been omitted from the pericope (vss. 10-17) are key to understanding this passage.  They provide the real life context.  In his analysis Van der Sabb shows how we are "soiled" by our complicity with the powers of this world.  Finally this leads to our death:  "I gasp. I sputter.  I wither.  I die."  Christ comes to "fertilize" us to life.  Christ takes our gasping, sputtering, withering, and dying upon himself, and in his death we are given new life. See crossings.org/textstudy for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Rewards of the Righteous

Matthew 10:40-42, the gospel lesson appointed for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, is an unusual text for several reasons.  First, it is only 3 verses, second it focuses almost completely upon rewards, and lastly it comes as an assurance to the apostles who are sent out "like sheep into the midst of wolves" (10:16).  As such it is hard to categorize in our traditional categories of law, gospel, or call to obedience.  The question is:  What is a promise of assurance?  Is it good news?  Is it the call to obedience?  Or is it actually a way of unmasking our fears?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but simply to lift up some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from the appendix to my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Since Jesus is clearly announcing rewards, this text functions mainly as gospel.  It is certainly good news to the disciples to know that the people who welcome them will be rewarded, since such people are apparently going to be rare given the "wolf-like" characteristics of those to whom these "sheep" are called.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is not a clear word of Law here - no word which exposes our need for Christ.  In the verses prior to these we hear all about the hardships likely to come upon those who are called to "take up their cross and follow" Christ, but here these hardships are not mentioned.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who are called to follow, and who are receiving assurances here that all who welcome us will receive their reward.  Even those who give us a cup of cold water are rewarded.  We too,when we do the same, are assured of a heavenly reward.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text assumes the call to follow has been answered.  The disciples addressed here, however, are not called to further obedience, but assured that as they follow, God will provide for them through those who welcome them.

5.  Exegetical work:  The NRSV translation is curious to me in that throughout the passage the word "whoever" is used:  "whoever welcomes you... whoever welcomes a prophet... whoever welcomes a righteous person... whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these."  This translation suggests the presence of a subjunctive (i.e. contingent) circumstance.  In the Greek text we see that this is not the case, except in the last phrase.  The RSV, though less inclusive, has it right:  "He who receives you receives me... He who receives a prophet... He who who receives a righteous man."  There is no contingency, only the thought that when this welcome happens, a reward comes.

Kittel has an interesting article on the word for reward (misthos):  "As agape is relationship to the neighbor, so its reward is connected with the final destiny in the kingdom of God of those to whom it refers.  Thus he who receives a prophet because he is a prophet, or a righteous man out of regard for the greatness of the obedience which he demonstrates (Mt. 10:41), or he who in the burning heat of the eastern sun simply gives a disciple a cup of cold water because he is a disciple (Mt.  10:42), will have a place with him in the kingdom of God (misthos lambanein)." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. IV, p. 700)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Lori Cornell's analysis, archived under Year A Gospel for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 2011, is a good example of interpreting this text as a call to obedience.  Cornell takes this text as an exhortation for us to welcome others, showing how essential that is, and what may be at stake when we fail.  See the complete analysis by going to crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Not Peace but a Sword

Matthew 10:24-39, the gospel lesson appointed for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, contains words of Jesus that challenge us to our core.  We who want only a Jesus who came to bring life, "life to the full", are brought face-to-face with a Jesus who brings division and the call to lose our life in order to find it.  What we are forced to consider is that "life to the full" always includes the way of the Cross, and we who would have Life without the Cross will have neither.

(The following questions are meant to lift up some of the central concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are meant only to supplement many other fine sets of questions available to exegetes.  For a more thorough discussion of Law and Gospel preaching see my brief guide to this genre, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The first function of the Word here is to assure us that, even though we are certain to experience persecution and hardship as followers of Jesus - since disciples can expect no less than their master - we should not be afraid, for we are of more value "than many sparrows."  This assurance is a gospel function. This Word assures us that the Father loves us and will not abandon us in our time of persecution.

The second half of the passage is a stern call to obedience.  We are reminded that following Jesus is serious business and with it, inevitably comes division.  Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells us that "you will be hated by all because of my name." (vs. 22)  Here we are faced with a choice: will we follow Jesus even when it means causing divisions in our families and circles of influence, or will we fail to acknowledge Him, and risk Him refusing to acknowledge us?  These are difficult choices.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law is not explicit here. The Word that says, "You need Jesus!" is not in this text.  Having said that, our fears and our loyalties at odds with Christ are fully in view.  Indeed, the repeated command "do not be afraid" is evidence of our tendency to do precisely that, and have that fear control us.  It is important to understand that this is text is not one that condemns us for being fearful.  Many a sermon has undoubtedly been preached with this as the underlying theme, but this is not how this text functions.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those to whom Jesus is speaking.  We are disciples of this Crucified One, who are afraid to take up our own cross and follow the master.  We are those who would do anything to avoid division in our family and circle of influence.  We are those who say we believe that the Father loves us more than many sparrows, but we live as though that is not true.  This text is very challenging to us.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The underlying theme suggests an obvious couplet:  afraid/fearless.  Other couplets are variations of the same:  cowardly/bold; unable or unwilling to take up the cross/willing to take up the cross.

5.  Exegetical work:  Translation of this text from the original language offers us some insights that may be important to our sermon.  The opening verses remind us that our master was maligned, so we who follow Jesus should expect no less.  Then in verse 26 we hear the word "so".  This is a translation of a word which more clearly means "therefore" or "consequently."  So the verse is saying "Therefore [since disciples are not above their master, and our master was maligned] have no fear of them [those who maligned Jesus and will surely malign you]."  The text then goes on to explain that "nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered."  The meaning of this is debated, but I take it to mean that people will eventually see that the way of Jesus is the way of truth and justice, and those who have maligned his followers are in error.  It is also important to note that the opening prohibition in verse 26 is not a present imperative, but an aorist subjunctive.  Present imperatives prohibit the continuing of an action already begun (i.e. "stop being afraid"); aorist subjunctives prohibit an action which has not yet begun. So Matthew is saying, "Because being maligned for following Jesus is simply part of the life of a disciple, don't let yourself even begin being fearful... for "even the hairs of your head are all counted."

6,  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, in his clear analysis, shows how we who disown Jesus for the sake of favor in the public arena, find ourselves "on our own" before God.  Thankfully we who are "on our own" before God are befriended by the very One whom we have disowned, and forgiven.  We are freed to once again turn from fearfulness to fearlessness.  We are freed to turn from being those who will not confess Christ to being those who do.  See Jaster's whole analysis at crossings.org/text study and looking under Year A Gospel archived under 2008.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry said that a sermon must always move the listener out of equilibrium into disequilibrium, and then, in the presentation of the gospel, back into equilibrium.  This text might be a great opportunity to try exactly that.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Summons

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few," is a phrase we in the church are familiar with.  It comes in the gospel reading, Matthew 9:35-10:8, appointed for the Second Sunday after Pentecost.  This is the context into which Jesus summons his disciples, instructing them to go to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel," proclaiming the good news, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons.  This summons continues to come to us, for we too have been given authority to continue in this joyful work.

(The following questions are a basic set of questions from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, which can be purchased through wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive for any exegete, but simply one lens through which to look at a text.  For more information on this genre, please see my brief guide.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The text begins with a word of gospel, as we encounter Jesus proclaiming the good news, curing every disease, and having compassion on all.  With Jesus' announcement, however, that the harvest needs workers, the function of the Word changes; we are now into a call to obedience.  The disciples are first named, and then given authority and instructed to go forth and continue the work of Christ.  Perhaps it is because Jesus has increasingly been under attack ("By the ruler of demons he casts out demons." 8:34), that he now sees it necessary to appoint others who will carry on his work.  In any case, this text functions mainly to announce Jesus' authority and then hear him hand it off to his followers.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  For the disciples - those being addressed by the Word in this text - there is no word of Law.  That is to say, they are not shown their need for Christ.  The needs of the crowd are clear, however, since they are spoken of as "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."  Even they, however, are not judged for their state.  Instead Jesus has compassion on them.

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 the text.  In this case, that would be the disciples.  We are the ones who Jesus summons.  We are those to whom he gives authority.  We are the ones he calls by name.  We are the ones who are to go to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," which, in our case, may mean those in the Christian fold who have wandered off.

4.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allan Powell, in his insightful commentary on the gospel of Matthew, says that there is a "communal focus" in Matthew.  He argues that Jesus does not assume the entire burden of the ministry, but makes disciples who will continue this work.  These disciples will necessarily be sinners, and Powell makes note of the fact that in the listing of the disciples in this text, Judas Iscariot is identified as "the one who betrayed him." This, says Powell, "serves as a paradigm for what Jesus claims to be an essential part of his mission: he has come to call sinners (9:9-13)." And these sinners Jesus "shapes into a community that he identifies as his family (12:49)." (God With Us, p. 14-15)  Powell's insight, that the call to sinners is not only the call to be saved, but the call to ministry, is an important one.  We might have little trouble assuming that sinners are called to be saved, but sinners called to serve?  Even though we should know better, we easily assume that those who are called to serve are somehow beyond sin, at least in some sense.  The listing of the disciples, with known foibles:  Peter the Denier, Thomas the Doubter, James and John the Ambitious Ones, etc, should put an end to any thought we might have that sinners are not called to ministry.  Perhaps the best news in this text is the clear naming of these sinners.  In that, we too find our calling.

5.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer, in his analysis, centers on the words "harassed and helpless".  He takes this description in new directions as he suggests that we are often harassed and helpless because of our belief that "everyone gets what they deserve" (i.e. if you are sick, it's because you have done something to cause this).  Hoyer shows how Jesus, the Good Shepherd, breaks into this desperate situation by seeking out the "lost sheep." To see the entire diagnosis/prognosis, go to crossings.org/text study archived under Gospel A, 2008.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Great Calling and Assurance

Long known as The Great Commission, the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20, are the gospel text appointed for Trinity Sunday in the year of Matthew.  Undoubtedly, they are assigned to Trinity Sunday because they contain the call to baptize  all "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."  It might be a good Sunday to ponder what it would mean for the Church if we were to cast aside trinitarian doctrine, as some faith communities have done.  What's at stake in this understanding of God?  Of Jesus?  Of the Spirit?

(The following questions are meant to get at some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to supplement many other fine sets of questions which help us exegete a text.  For a more complete look at this genre of preaching, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word - in this text, Jesus - is functioning mainly to call us to go forth and disciple other folks by baptizing and teaching them.  This is not a gospel function nor is it a law function.  It is a classic call to obedience.  It is the call to respond to the grace given us, by living in the way of Christ.

The Word also functions as gospel in two distinct places:  First, when Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," and then later when he assures us that he is with us "always, to the close of the age."  These are both gospel functions.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is hard in this text to see any word of Law.  Perhaps we gain a hint of our need for Christ when Matthew tells us that "some doubted."  What that means is unclear.  Some commentators suggest that that comment is simply a commonplace in describing post-resurrection appearances.  That we are all prone to such doubt goes without saying.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are the disciples, called to disciple others.  We are those who go about teaching and baptizing in the name of the Triune God.  We are the ones who are assured of the presence of Christ throughout all the ages.

4.  Exegetical work:  It is important to understand that there is only one active verb in the Great Commission, that is "to make disciples" or "to disciple".  The other two verbs present are participles, meaning they do not carry the freight that the active verb does.  One way of thinking about this is to make these participles which describe the means by which we disciple others.  In other words, we could understand the verse to be saying, "Make disciples of all nations, by baptizing and teaching."  Or we could simply understand this as a description of the act of disciple-making.  In any case, we will want to be sure we do not misinterpret these verses to say that we are to disciple, baptize, and teach, as though they are equivalent activities, independent of one another.  Douglas Hare, in his commentary, argues that the term "all nations" should actually be translated "all Gentiles."  Hare writes:  "What verse 19 explicitly does is remove the restriction of the earlier Galilean mission ("Go nowhere among the Gentiles," 10:5)." (Matthew, Interpretation series, p. 333)  John Chrysostom, the fourth century preacher, finds much to celebrate in these verses:  "[Jesus] promised to be not only with these disciples but also with all who would subsequently believe after them.  Jesus speaks to all believers as if to one body.  Do not speak to me, he says, of the difficulties you will face, for 'I am with you,' as the one who makes all things easy.  Remember that this is also said repeatedly to the prophets in the Old Testament."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol 1b, 313).

5.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice believed that helping listeners recognize their shared story in the text was crucial.  It might be helpful to understand other "commissions" our listeners have received.  How are our listeners' callings to their own vocation stories that resonate with this one?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

I Send You

John 20:19-23, one of the brief gospel lessons appointed for the Day of Pentecost, is a familiar story without the familiar figure of Thomas.  This brief lesson merely reports the giving of the Holy Spirit in John's simple way, and stops with the promise that our ability to forgive or retain sins is somehow contained in our reception of the Holy Spirit.  Is that good news or not?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to supplement other questions which an exegete may ask. These questions center on concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a more thorough explanation of this genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions in every way as gospel.  First, Jesus comes amongst the disciples despite their best attempts to lock him out.  Then he extends his peace to them and shows them his wounds, assuring them that he is the Crucified One.  Finally he breathes on them, inspiring within them the Holy Spirit.  All of this is gift, pure gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little Law here. One piece of evidence for the disciples' need of the gospel is the statement that "the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews."  This clearly shows their fear and their need for a visitation by Christ to quiet those fears.  Yet there is no condemnation of the disciples for this fear.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We always identify with those whom the Word addresses, be it gospel or law.  In this text we are the disciples.  We are those who cower behind locked doors, who need a word of peace, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  We are also those whom the Lord has sent out to bear the good news of Christ.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience here is the statement by Jesus that we are sent out.  We are equipped by the Holy Spirit for service and witness, and with that we are sent out into the world to continue the work that Christ began.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There can only be one couplet in this short text:  cowering behind locked doors/equipped and sent out boldly into the world.

6.  Exegetical work:  Peter Ellis, in his unique commentary on John's Gospel, highlights the parallels here between Genesis 2:7 where God breathed life into the first human, and here where in Christ "everything is being made new." (II Cor 5:17)  Ellis writes:  "Symbolically, John is speaking about the commission of the apostles as a new creation - a new beginning and a new world.  It is worthy of note that the Gospel began with a reference to the first creation in the prologue (1:1-3); here it ends with a reference to the new creation brought about by Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection."  (The Genius of John, p. 293).  Lamar Williamson offers an important commentary on the final verse in this pericope, regarding forgiveness of sins.  He reminds us that these words are to be understood in the context of the community of faith:  "This word of the risen Lord in the present text can therefore be read as descriptive:  if members of the community forgive one another their sins, those sins are forgiven and the community is living from and in the Spirit of Jesus; but if members of the community harbor grudges and resentment toward other members who have sinned against them, then those sins remain to spoil the bond of unity, and the Spirit of Jesus is no longer resident in the community.  (Preaching the Gospel of John, p. 283)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Being Longed For

The first half of the High Priestly prayer of Jesus is the appointed text for the 7th Sunday of Easter in the Year of Matthew.  The text is John 17:1-11.  In this text we are overhearing Jesus speaking to his Heavenly Father, and his words encourage us.  We are like children who are supposed to be in bed, who are overhearing their parents talking about their great love for them, and how they belong to them and will never let them go.  We are privileged to hear such good news!

(The following questions follow a pattern of inquiry I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions help answer some of the concerns we have as Law and Gospel preachers.  For a more complete understanding of this genre, please see my guide, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is no question that this text functions as Gospel in that we overhear Jesus say again and again that we belong to him.  We hear also that Jesus has been given authority by the Father to grant eternal life to all those who belong to him.  Finally we hear Jesus asking the Father to protect those who belong to him.  All of this is a gospel word.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  As in other John texts appointed for this season, there is little of the Law.  That is to say, it is rare that we hear a word which lifts up our need for Christ.  A hint of this is in the final verse of this text when Jesus says, "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one."  In this verse Jesus is acknowledging our need for protection, which, in verses following, is explained in greater detail.  It is clear that we need protecting.  But this word is not explicit in these verses.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the ones overhearing this good news.  We are the ones who need protecting.  We are the ones who belong to Christ.  We are the ones who have received the words of the Father through the Son.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is none.  The call to obedience comes to us as the Word functions to call us to respond to the grace we have received in Christ.  In the first lesson appointed for the day, Acts 1:6-14, we hear the call to be witnesses by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This task is a call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Law/Gospel couplets are hard to come by in texts which are primarily gospel.  Having said that, one couplet that comes directly out of this text is orphaned/belonging.  The orphaned term comes from last week (Jn 14:18), but this is certainly the reverse side of belonging.

6.  Exegetical work:  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary, has an interesting take on the business of belonging to God:  "In Johannine thought it is not the creation of a man (sic) that makes him belong to God but his reaction to Jesus.  A man cannot accept Jesus unless he belongs to God, and a man cannot belong to God unless he accepts Jesus." (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, p. 758)  It seems like a catch-22.  Lamar Williamson notes that "the voice of Jesus and that of the evangelist are frequently blended in the Fourth Gospel, but never more obviously than here.  Nowhere else in any of the four Gospels does Jesus refer to himself as 'Jesus Christ,' though the evangelist does so at Mark 1:1 and John 1:17.  This definition of eternal life - 'to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent' (17:3) - expresses in capsule form the theology of the Fourth Gospel..."(Preaching the Gospel of John, p. 220-221)  In a commentary that is in conversation with others, Gerard Sloyan quotes Ernst Kasemann, who said, "The speaker [of this prayer] is not a needy petitioner but the divine revealer and therefore the prayer moves over into being an address, admonition, consolation, and prophecy." (John, Interpretation Series, p. 196)  Kasemann is correct in that this is no typical prayer, but something much more profound than that. All of these commentaries are well worth reading in their entirety.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Year A Gospel for 2011, we have an analysis provided by Mark Marius, who takes several verses from the preceding chapter to complete the circle.  He notes that we belong to the world, and in that belonging, we do not know eternal life.  Jesus, who has conquered the world (Jn 16:33), claims us for himself, and so we know Him, and we know the Father, and so we have eternal life.  See crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Comfort for This Time

John 14:15-21, the gospel text appointed for the 6th Sunday of Easter in the year of Matthew, is a continuation of the text from last week, where Jesus is assuring his disciples that he will provide for them.  In the first part of that chapter Jesus assured them that he had made provision for them in the age to come, and in this text he assures them that they are provided for in this present life as well.  All of this is good news!

(The following questions attempt to answer some of the basic concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive.  They are part of a method of exegesis I have developed for Law and Gospel preachers.  To learn more about this way of preaching, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Like the first fourteen verses of this chapter, these verses function as gospel.  They comfort, they assure, they give hope.  The final verse, where we read of the assurance of the Father's love, the assurance of Christ's love, and the promise that Christ will reveal himself to us, is remarkable.  What a gracious God we have!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, like the preceding verses, there is little evidence of Law in these verses.  A hint in this text of our need for Christ are the references to "the world":  "The world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him."  "In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are, of course, those who are addressed by the Word.  We are the ones who are troubled (vs. 1), the ones who are afraid and doubtful (vs. 5), and the ones who want to control what Christ will reveal to us (vs. 8).  Because we are troubled in so many ways, we are the ones most in need of the Advocate, most in need of the Father's assurances, and most in need of Christ's love.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is an unmistakable call to love in this text.  This love is the fulfillment of the law, even as Christ said:  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matt 22:37-40)

5.  Exegetical work:  John Chrysostom, 4th century bishop, offers the following insights:  "Earlier [Jesus] had said, 'Where I go you shall come' and 'In my Father's house there are many mansions.'  But since this was a long time off, he gives them the Spirit in the intervening time.  They did not know what that [Spirit] was, however, and so they derived little comfort from what he said... And so he promises them what they required most: his own presence.  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. IVb, p. 142).  Luther, in his sermons on these texts, is careful to note the source of our love of neighbor:  "[Christ] says, 'I impose [these commandments] on you only if you love Me and gladly keep them for My sake.  For I do not want to be a Moses, who drives and plagues you with menace and terror; but I give you commands which you can and will surely observe without coercion if you love Me at all.  If love is wanting, it is useless for Me to give you many commandments; for they would not be observed anyhow.'"(Luther's Works, vol. 24, p. 102)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, in his analysis of this text, centers in the prognosis, on the workings of the Spirit amongst us, and in his diagnosis, on the divisive spirits amongst us .  His concern arises, undoubtedly, from the call to love, which we find so difficult to obey.  This analysis, archived under 2011 Year A Gospel, can be found by going to crossings.org/text study.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick was masterful in his understanding of the moves and structures needed in a sermon.  He always advised us to limit the number of moves we make in a sermon.  Good advice, to be sure.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Antidote for Being Distressed

John 14:1-14, the gospel text appointed for the 5th Sunday of Easter in the year of Matthew, is a well-known text primarily because it is often read at funerals, and for good reason:  it is a text of comfort. In this text Jesus speaks directly to the fears of his disciples: fears of abandonment, lostness, and lack of provision.  We too are prone to such fears.  The clear message to us is "Believe in Christ.  Rely on Christ.  Trust in Christ."  When we do this we do not lose hope.

(The following questions attempt to answer some fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but to supplement many other fine ways of inquiring into the meaning of a text.  For a more complete understanding of Law and Gospel preaching, you may purchase my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available through wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  At multiple points in the text Jesus brings a gospel word:  1) In my Father's house are many dwelling places; 2) I go to prepare a place for you; 3) I will come again and will take you to myself; 4) I am the way, and the truth and the life; 5) Whoever has seen me has seen the Father; 6)The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do; 7) If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.  We hear promise in all these statements.  These are all places where the Word is functioning as gospel. (i.e. Here is Jesus!)

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is not an explicit word of Law in this text, although both Thomas and Philip ask the questions that indicate how much we need Jesus.  Thomas says, "Lord we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?"  Thomas is verbalizing our fear of being lost or left behind. Philip says, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  Philip is verbalizing our fear of losing control of what's coming.  Both of these disciples personify our need for Jesus. In both cases Jesus replies, "Believe in me."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  From the context given in the previous chapter of John's gospel we know that all the members of Jesus' closest band are present when he begins these farewell discourses.  This means that we can choose to identify with any or all of the disciples.  Perhaps we will choose to identify with Peter, whom Jesus has pointed out will betray him.  Or perhaps we will identify with Thomas who is sharp in his criticism of Jesus.  Or perhaps we will identify with any of the unnamed women who were undoubtedly present or any other of the disciples.  In any case, we will be careful to identify with people who are prone to fear and uncertainty - those whom Jesus urges to "let not your hearts be troubled."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The consistent imperative in this text is "believe," but that is not a call to obedience.  The call to obedience is the call that comes after we have be given the gift of faith.  At the end of this text Jesus reminds us that we may ask anything in his name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  This asking is part of the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Depending on what fear we hear being addressed in this text, our couplet will go in different directions:  lost/found; abandoned/embraced; despairing/hopeful.

6.  Exegetical work:  The Greek is ambiguous in one particular place - verse 1.  Because the imperative construction and the indicative construction are identical, the second half of the verse may be translated either 1) "Believe in God, believe also in me" or 2) "You believe in God, believe also in me."  I like the second one.  This is also the one that Raymond Brown, classic Johannine scholar likes.  Also, it is good to note that the opening prohibition is a present tense imperative, meaning, "Stop letting your hearts be troubled."  Or better, "Do not continue letting yourselves be distressed."  Present imperatives address a situation that is ongoing.  This is reasonable since the disciples had just learned of the betrayal to come, as well as heard Jesus predict Peter's denial.  Logically they would have been distressed.  It is also telling that John uses the same word to describe Jesus' state earlier.  In 12:27 Jesus says, "Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say?  - 'Father, save me from this hour?'  No it is for this reason that I have come to this hour."  Also in 13:21 we read:  "After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared 'Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.'"  Clearly it was not only the disciples who were troubled by the events of Jesus' last days.  The antidote for all of this distress is "to believe."  Kittel's extensive article on the Greek word for 'believe' is helpful:  "As the Old Testament understands it, faith is always man's reaction to God's primary action." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VI, p. 182).  "In Greek, pisteuo means to 'rely on,' 'to trust', 'to believe.'" (p. 203).  "Trust in God is very closely related to hope." (p. 207)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry urged preachers to move listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium.  We might well ask in this sermon, how are the ways we and our listeners are distressed (in disequilibrium) and begin there.

Blessings on your proclamation!