2008-07-30 by David von Schlichten
I find heart-opening Jesus' emotions before the miracle: the implicit grief he feels over John's death, and his heart-breaking compassion for the crowd. It would be homiletically valuable, perhaps, to explore the relationshp between deep emotion and our ministries.
Also, it is good news that we have a God who feels at least the same emotions we do.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Feasting on Family Food Stories
2008-07-27 by Rosemary Beales
Rosemary Beales is in her last week of ministry at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, MD, where she has been associate rector for three years, and is about to begin a new position as chaplain to 400 children K-5 at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School and priest associate at St. Paul’s parish in Alexandria, VA. Her sermons have been published in Lectionary Homiletics and Sermons That Work. She is an active trainer in the Godly Play style of religious education, a practitioner of “performed” text, and a 2005 graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary. After 25 years telling stories as a journalist, she came to the preaching life because, she says, "I simply found a better story to tell."
Feasting on Family Food Stories
What are your family food stories? We all have them – those tales that seem to get told every time your clan gets together around yet another table.
In my family, we still talk about the time our father, who worked odd hours, brought home piles of a delicacy that was then unknown to us: fried shrimp from the carryout place on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington, DC. We kids clambered out of bed for a midnight feast, and I don’t know which was more delicious – the succulent shrimp, or the invitation to a spontaneous celebration that broke the bedtime rules.
My kids, I suppose, will tell tales of the time the Thanksgiving turkey, left on a counter to finish thawing, fell victim to the family cat – or perhaps they’ll tell their kids that they always knew when dinner was ready because the smoke alarm would go off (an only-slight exaggeration).
But family food stories like that ¾ of experiments gone bad, of extravagant holiday spreads, of stretching the soup to get through lean times ¾ those stories get handed down like favorite recipes, from generation to generation. From salving our grief to stoking our joy, food nourishes not only our bodies but our family connections.
This week’s gospel serves up one of our family stories about food – one so important that every family storyteller includes it in the saga we call the gospels. It’s a story so central that we re-enact it, in a way, when we gather as a family of faith, some of us every Sunday and others on special occasions. It’s a story I love to hear, and tell -- only this week’s teller (Matthew 14:13-21) leaves out some of my favorite details.
Those are entry points for me into a story so familiar that it’s hard to take in just how amazing it is. I am reminded of Tom Long’s comment that we often hear scripture the way we listen to “a senile dinner companion.” Oh, we think, that old story again, and tune out, missing the nuances of this particular telling--and the chance to connect with the teller. In the case of the gospels, we miss also the chance to connect with the Author of the story, to ponder again, Who is this Jesus, and what is he doing in this event, on this hillside?
So this week – even as I sit surrounded by boxes, preparing to move both home and office – I am going to do my best to listen to Matthew tell this family story his way. The best way I’ve found to really hear the text – to crawl around inside scripture and let it crawl around inside me – is to take the words into my body and my memory. That will be my work this week, learning the text by heart and discovering where it strikes a chord. I’ll let you know what I (by God’s grace) might hear, and I hope you’ll let all of us in on some of your family food stories.
P.S.: Isn’t it too bad we don’t have the Genesis lesson from three weeks ago (“Let me have some of that red stuff!”) paired with this gospel? But maybe you find a connection between this week’s wonderful wrestling story and the feeding of multitudes. Or maybe you’d like to comment on Isaiah’s exhortation: “Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread?”—a challenge that often rings in my head as I trek the aisles of processed supermarket food and wonder, What are we feeding our families?
At David Howell's request...
2008-07-26 by Tom Steagald
Here is my revised sermon (so that you need not write me)--TRS
Pow! Pow! Pow Pow Pow!
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Eleventh Sunday After the Day of Pentecost; FUMC: July 27, 08
Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then overconfidence at least. We who have been at this church business for a while now sometimes assume we know what the Bible means even before we look—and that is especially true when it comes to the parables.
“The Kingdom of God is like…” and before Matthew can get the rest of it on paper, we nod our heads smugly and say, “Ah, yes! Of course it is.”
Preachers are the worst at such presumption: we have preached and taught these little similes so many times we don’t pay that much attention anymore. And that is when it happens—find ourselves sitting on our blessed assurances, our heads spinning.
This morning Jesus tells us not one parable but five, fires off these images like a welterweight throws combinations, one after the other: Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow! The Kingdom of Heaven is like: mustard seed, leaven, treasure in a field, a pearl, a dragnet.
Jesus is not talking about the Kingdom of Heaven as in the place we want to go when we die, but the Kingdom of Heaven, as in the way God wants things to be while we live—and this is how God wants it to be: like a mustard seed, leaven, treasure in a field, a pearl, a dragnet. Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow!
Jesus offers no explanation. Matthew offers almost no interpretation. Suddenly we realize we have a real fight on our hands, are toe to toe with the Greatest of All Time, and he is pummeling us left, right and sideways. The parables themselves are like eight-ounce gloves: they soften the blows, but barely.
A couple of weeks ago, Jose “Bounce a Fly Ball Off My Head for a Home Run” Canseco took his juiced-up ego and his HGH physique into the squared circle for a boxing exhibition. Canseco was to fight a fellow named Vai Sikahema, a retired NFL running back who in his younger days was also a National Golden Gloves contender. Promoters called the charity event “The War by the Shore,” but it was no more than a skirmish. It would be charitable even to call the event a fight. Apparently, the steroids had turned Jose’s jawbone to glass while Vai once fought against Sugar Ray Leonard. Jose hit the canvass—which is more than he did to Vai—less than ninety seconds after the opening bell.
And I have to tell you: I kind of know how Jose felt.
Canseco claimed he had earned black belts in three different martial arts. I have three different religion degrees, diplomas on my wall, that would seem to suggest I can handle myself in a contest with the text. After all, I am a Master of Divinity—Ha! Ha! Ha! I am a Doctor or the Church—Ha! Ha! Ha!
Mustard seed, leaven, treasure, pearls, dragnet! Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow! An uppercut to my condescending chin! A left hook to my pristine preferences! A stiff jab to my self-determination! A haymaker to my complacency! A right cross—the knock-out punch—to my prejudice. Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow. There I am, eating canvass once again.
I suffer these beat-downs with some regularity. I do not always train well for a match against the parables—that to say, I don’t always study and pray as I should before I challenge the text. But that’s because I have faced this same Opponent so many times before, and in the vanity of my imagination I think I already know Him and his tactics—that I have seen everything He’s got.
I use the term Opponent carefully—Jesus is not my enemy, of course, but he is my Challenger. He squares off against my pride, fires these parabolic punches at my head and heart and mouth, just works me over till I throw in the towel and concede that He is the master—of humanity; that He is the Doctor of the Church—the Greatest of All Time.
I climb into the ring with God and his Word—which is to say I open the text and read—and sometimes we just spar. That is always good for me, a nice workout. It is good spiritual exercise to mix-it-up with the Word.
But if I take off my protective head-gear, if I dare slug-it-out with Jesus and the text, every time I am stopped dead in my tracks, thumped on the noggin and the wind knocked out of me. I receive a punishing reminder of my vanity and ignorance.
The Kingdom of God is like… a mustard seed, a tiny little thing, but it grows into a tall bush, 8-10 feet high, and all the birds come and rest in it. Small beginnings. Big endings. Isn’t that what it means? This parable, surely, is a comfort to us, isn’t it? In our little place, a blessing? Even small efforts will pay off with great dividends? Isn’t that what Jesus is teaching us?
Don’t get overconfident, because Pow! Mustard trees were like Jewish kudzu…skunk cabbage. Weeds more than bushes. Bushes more than trees! NOBODY planted wild mustard seeds, and especially in polite gardens. Who wants weeds in the Temple lawn? On the courthouse green? Weeds are ugly, and tear up the pavement, too!
Besides, these weeds attract all these birds. Lots of birds. Birds of every kind. Think Alfred Hitchcock. Or think about all those birds that nested over the back steps last summer and painted the steps white—birds are a nuisance! We take shotguns to birds. Or pellet guns.
I can still see my Dad on our back porch with a pellet rifle in his hand. He hated the starlings that ate the cherries off the one fruit tree he had in the back yard. He hated the mess—the starlings were not content to eat the cherries but insisted on bombing his car just about every day.
We don’t like the mess either—whether in the sanctuary, the basement, the parlor, or wherever. It really is no surprise that some churches will not, will not let outsiders use their buildings, and even insiders can’t use it for much. Don’t like the mess. Don’t like all the birds a building can attract.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, a bush of a tree. A place for the birds. Boy birds and girl birds and other messy birds! Pow!
The Kingdom of heaven is like leaven. Not yeast, exactly—literally, leaven is a chunk of old bread gone to mold. But even yeast is a fungus. The Bible invariably describes leaven as a bad thing, a corrupt, unclean thing: “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” Jesus said. But here the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that this woman took and hid it, hid it, in three measures of flower. “The Kingdom of God is like that,” Jesus says.
It is like a surreptitious virus planted on a computer’s mainframe: it changes the properties and priorities of what it infects. Meanwhile, we are the flour; we are the mainframe; and we don’t like change, tell the truth, and especially if it is a sinister surprise. We want things to stay as they have been, even if it means having the same difficulties we have always had. We don’t want change. But the kingdom of heaven is like leaven. Pow!
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure accidentally discovered in somebody else’s field. Pow! It was somebody else’s before it was ours. It is still theirs, really, this faith delivered to the saints. We owe them for what we have been graced to find. Real treasure comes to us by grace, at another’s expense—think here of Jesus and the saints—and not by our formulas or rules or designs
But the Kingdom is also like a pearl that a man wanted above all other things: it was his obsession. He sold everything he had to attain it—how will he live after this? What about food and clothing and a place to stay? We common sense church-goers laugh at those obsessed with the gospel, don’t we, keep our distance from fools for Christ. Pow! We have no such desire for God or his Kingdom, give up nothing, many of us. Give up a little some of us, but it’s not really sacrifice. Give up everything? We want other things, even if they are nothing.
The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet. It catches all sorts of fish—or should. But the church is not the same thing as the Kingdom of God, is it? Pow! Many churches drop their nets for only one kind of fish, and if something else gets accidentally snagged—well, we know how to deal with undesirable fish, just like we know how to deal with messy birds—we load our pellet guns (point to mouth), scare them away, wound them, throw some of them back… only that is the angel’s job, not ours; it is a job for later, not now.
I can taste the canvas. How about you?
In the three years of his public ministry, Jesus surely said more than the red letters record. So why did the church choose to remember his parables, especially? If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it is because the parables are thick and sticky, full of wonderful, occasionally comforting meaning—sometimes you climb into the ring with a parable and you just get a nice work out—but they are powerful, too, ever dangerous to the overconfident and self-satisfied.
Jesus told us many things in parables, Scripture says, and why is it that we are so inclined to imagine that they are there to confirm us, to feed our vanity in imagining that we are the good guys, the righteous, the champs? Quite the contrary: Jesus laces-on these parables to slug it out with our pride and presumptions.
When Jesus had finished these parables he asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they said. “Yes!”
Really? Did they? I don’t. I can only say I am more like Nicodemus, who came to Jesus smugly by night, but when Jesus jabbed him with a couple of images, birth and wind, Nicodemus conceded: “I don’t understand.” Jesus said, “You are a teacher of Israel and you do not understand? If I tell you of earthly things and you don’t understand, how will you understand if I tell you of heavenly things.”
I don’t know! I don’t know how I will understand. It is too much: Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow! Have you understood all this? NO! Maybe a little of it, at most! I am punch drunk, my head spinning, my heart racing. I fall to my knees…
Which is exactly, I think, where Jesus wants me. On my knees. Knowing I am overmatched.
But that is not the only place Jesus wants me.
When Jesus had finished teaching, he left that place—had someplace else to go. And the disciples, though perhaps a little woozier than they let on, followed him. That is what disciples do, I think. That is what Jesus wants me to do, too, where Jesus wants me to be when I have strength enough to stand up: on my feet and planting seeds in the search for birds. Leavening bread for the party to come. Plowing for treasure. Making a fool of myself for Christ. Fishing.
Not fighting with him, in other words, but following. We may never understand fully, but we can train faithfully in this sweet science of discipleship. We are contenders for the crown…but he is the Champ.
Pow! Pow! Pow Pow Pow!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Greetings and Revisions
2008-07-26 by Tom Steagald
I posted the second to last draft of my sermon for tomorrow. I have gone through it a couple of more times, deleting redundancies, tightening and condensing, etc. I think the final draft is much stronger (and shorter!) and I would be more than happy to send you a copy if you desire (rather than posting the whole thing again...I feel I already take up too much of GP's space).
If you are interested, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send the mss.
Praying all preach well on tomorrow.
Tom and Jennifer
2008-07-25 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to our guest blogger Jennifer, whose salutary posts you can read below.
Thank you also to Tom for posting his sermon, which is full of vivid, pugilistic language that reminds us of the humbling complexity of Jesus' parables, thanks be to God.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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