Kingdoms and Questions
2008-07-24 by Tom Steagald
I note that you work at Vandy. I am from Nashville (Overton Hi, class of 1973) and am a Belmont alum. Know that part of town well!
Let me add one more onion to the soup, as it were. Christians did not invent the notion of theocracy. I do not know whether it would be fair to say that the Jews did, as many empires in antiquity hailed one or various "gods" as their leader. Can we say that the Jews had a distinctive theocracy at least while for the most part the biblical baddies saw the king not as a representative of the divine but divinity itself? That is one way to see it, if painted with too-broad a brush.
I am just suggesting that when Jesus used the term "Kingdom of God"--when he was hailed as "Son of David"--it is not surprising that some of those who heard him turned to that "old" theocratic understanding to aid their assessments of him and his message (as perhaps we also do in an attempt to understand the relation between the political orders and the "kingdom of God," whether on the right or left. Christians on the left see evidence and proof of the kingdom as one notes the presence of leaven, through, say, the gradual and mostly invisible impact of diplomacy and moral influence; the right see the kingdom in more hawkish and militaristic terms, as did Joshua and the Judges, as did many of Israel's own kings, good and bad).
Of course, Jesus had a "new" understanding of the Kingdom of God, which proved either dangerous or disappointing or both to the most of his audience. But there is that phrase again, "bringing out of their treasure both old and new." What does that mean? Continuity and change? Repitition and novelty?
Kingdom of God? Reign of God? Presence of God? God's will and way? These are all sticky images, thick with ambiguity and FULL of possibilities for misinterpretation, I think. That is why I find them so intriguing, and especially piled together like this, one on top of the other. Do the odd ones reinterpret the even? The even take away what the odd ones suggest?
All seem to connote change, and that the change begins with something that in itself is puzzling to conventional wisdom--and especially in light of the rest of chapter 13. For example, earlier in the chapter an "enemy" sows weeds--but as I understand it the mustard "tree" is itself considered a weed. Yeast is unclean. etc. WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT?
Be that as it may--and only for what it is worth--it seems to me that Paul held up the cross as a normative symbol for the faith far earlier than Constantine, but for him it is a sign of weakness and scandal, not strength and offense--offense, not OF-fense--as it were.
Good News in Kingdom of Heaven living?
2008-07-23 by Jennifer Fouse
David and Tom,
Thank you both for your comments and questions. Thank you for inviting me to go deeper both within the text and within myself. I thank you all, in advance, for where this conversation continues to go and for allowing me the opportunity to reflect.
I just returned from seeing the movie, "Constantine's Sword." http://constantinessword.com/. It is based on the book by James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, and directed by Oren Jacoby. It is the story of Carroll and his journey to reveal some harsh truths about the role of religion both in violence and in war throughout church history. One of the questions at the forefront of this documentary is, "Where did anyone get the idea that it was all right to kill people in the name of God?" Nevertheless, the heartbeat of the film (at least for me) was the role of the Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) church WITHIN the state throughout church history. Images of priests hailing to Hitler. Phone calls being made by the National Association of Evangelicals to the White House (President Bush) every Monday morning for a briefing. Is this theocracy what Jesus meant by the kingdom of heaven?
In the film, Carroll, as the narrator, says that for the first few hundred years of Christianity, the cross wasn't used as a Christian symbol. Rather, the Christians used symbols of love such as the ichthus. When Constantine took over Rome and then became a Christian, herein lies the birth of the cross as the Christian symbol and the marriage of the cross and the sword. Or the marriage of church and state.
Stay with me...I'll eventually get to my point. A friend and colleague of mine invited me to go see this movie today. Afterwards, we both begin to process the film, and these parables about the "kingdom of heaven" began to eat away at me. No, rather, they haunted me. When we think of "kingdom" we often think of power. We think of politics. We think of who is in and who is out. And yet...I don't think that's what Jesus means by "kingdom" in these parables. I don't know for sure what Jesus meant by THESE particular images, but I don't think his message was one of power or political views. I don't think it was a watered down or feel good message. When we think of "heaven," many think of a place to go when we die. Or...earning our way into God's good graces. But maybe Jesus wanted to remind us that we aren't citizens of where we live but rather citizens of heaven...children of God. And with that title comes responsibility and reminders of who and whose we are. We don't worship Caesar. We worship the living God.
What struck me today in this film and in this pericope is how many of us, as Christians, tend to serve the other (the power, the politics, the who's in and who's out) instead of serving the One who calls us to be set apart. Shane Claiborne has written two interesting books on this very topic, Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President. Claiborne reminds us that it's often easier to serve the empire than it is to serve a God who teaches and speaks in parables. Tony Campolo has also written a similar book about Religion and Politics called Red Letter Christians, where he tries to write about and live out the words of Jesus. Both Claiborne and Campolo warn of the dangers in making major decisions on war and poverty as a country...all in the name of God. The danger in living as Christians in America is that we get caught up in "empire" living instead of "kingdom of heaven" living. As my friend asked today, "Are we American Christians or Christian Americans?"
Maybe the Good News of these parables is that we don't have to figure out what the kingdom of heaven is like...today. That's Jesus' job. Maybe our job is to serve the One who calls us to live counter-culturally...to question what is being done...all in the name of God?! Maybe it's about risking to follow Christ and to love God and our neighbors...as we continue to grow, rise, seek/find, catch/disregard in the kingdom of heaven here on earth?! Thoughts? I hope that this wasn't too random!
Puzzled by the Parables
2008-07-23 by Tom Steagald
One of the things I struggle with is assuming that I already know what the parables mean. I have been thinking this week that surely, surely, in three years of ministry Jesus said a lot more than the red letters record. The fact that the gospel writers remember what they do means that these words were distinctive, memorable, maybe crazy. What was shocking?
Birds mess up your car and eat the fruit off your trees. Yeast is unclean, of course. WHO would have hidden the treasure and what was the occasion of discovery? Pearls begin as a foreign substance and irritation. The culling of fish here seems to stand in contradiction to the inclusiveness of John 21.
I am just trying to figure out why THESE images. Do I understand enough the scandalous and/or disjunctive nature of these metaphors to determine how they translate into our idiom? DO they?
Jesus' use of parables is his most distinctive speech. And yet our overfamiliarity with and love of them surely blunt them of their original point. My fear is that I preach them as a kind of moralizing, a self-affirming rather than church-challenging kind of metapor.
Also, I am wondering about the last sentence--the scribe trained for the kingdom. The old and new treasure...is this a catchword to the parable of treasure hidden in a field? To pearls? Is this a clue Matthew gives us for interpreting not only those two but perhaps all five of these parables?
Politics and the Good News
2008-07-22 by David von Schlichten
I am preaching a sermon series on controversial topics and the controversial Good News. For my primary text I am using Song of Solomon, but I am also drawing from the lectionary texts. This Sunday's topic is politics and the Good News.
What do you think the five parables on the kingdom of heaven say about politics and the Good News?
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Some thoughts on July 27th lectionary texts...
2008-07-21 by Jennifer Fouse
Genesis 29: 15-28- The Family Dysfunction continues...
I love Genesis. I recently met a woman in a church where I was the guest preacher, and she was complaining about her bible study. "I don't like Genesis at all," she said. Upon asking her why, the woman replied, "I just can't relate to the stories." Puzzled, I asked her if she came from a dysfunctional family. She confirmed that she, like all of us, comes from a dysfunctional family, and I encouraged her to go back and to read Genesis while thinking of her own story and family in the midst of God's big story and family.
This week's lectionary text in Genesis is rich and it's no different than many of the previous Genesis stories these last two months. Dysfunction among families runs deep. In this particular pericope, there is betrayal by Jacob's uncle, Laban. Also in this text, there is no voice for the women, Leah, Rachel or Zilpah (Bilhah is mentioned in vs. 29). Leah and Rachel appear to have no say in the arranged marriage to Jacob nor Zilpah in the transition to being Leah's maidservant.
In the opening of these verses, Laban is asking Jacob to name his price for all the work he has been doing. Notice that immediately after the question of wages due, there is a statement made. "Now Laban had two daughters." Leah and Rachel. In those days, two daughters equaled two pieces of property, if you will. The role of these two sisters, both the wanted and unwanted, and their maid servants is very important in God's redemption of Israel. As all four of these women, each with a different story, are the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
As we move through this story, Laban betrays Jacob, and Jacob ends up marrying Leah after seven years of labor, instead of Rachel, the daughter he wanted to marry. So Jacob stays and works for Laban another seven years for Rachel. Why did Jacob stick around? How could Jacob know that Laban wasn't going to cheat him again? I don't know, but I find it interesting that right before this chapter, we find Jacob having wrestled with God and making a vow, a conditional promise- but a promise still- before God and himself. "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God" (Gen. 28:20).
There is a continuing theme of God's redemption of Israel amidst family dysfunction. We may not see it directly in these verses, but as the story of the people of God in Genesis unfolds, we know that God is at work and determined to redeem the people of Israel, regardless of their brokenness. If God continues to work and move in the midst of this broken family, imagine how the redemptive love of God works and moves within our broken families?!
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b- Being mindful of God's presence and covenant with us...
These are the phrases that stick out to me in this psalm.
Sing to God, sing praises to God
Looking for God- be on the lookout for God at work in the world, whether in the miracles or in our mundane, everyday living. Are we really seeking God's presence continually? What does it look like to seek God's presence continually in today's world? In the silence? In the busyness? Are we mindful enough to catch God's presence and to give God glory?! Are we mindful enough of the covenant that God has made with us and us with God?
Romans 8:26-39- Nothing can separate us from God...
This is a rich passage. In our weakness, the Holy Spirit helps us. Even (and especially) when we don't know how to pray as we ought...the Holy Spirit intercedes "with sighs too deep for words." Have you ever been in a place where you don't know what to say to God? And yet, God, who searches the heart and knows the mind of the Spirit, sends the Spirit to intercede for the saints. Thanks be to God!
I was sharing some thoughts with a friend of mine, who is not clergy, on this passage. I often times forget to ask my non-clergy friends what they hear in the scripture. Even with all the comfort that this pericope can bring, she had a difficult time with vv. 28-30. Even though God through Christ is for us, she was snuck in these three verses. Recent events in her life (a long illness) had caused her to stop on these words. There, in these verses, are the words- the ones that cause some of us to be uncomfortable- "predestined," "called," "justified," and "glorified." These words cause many of us to take notice and to be confident or confused. These words often bring about a conversation of who are in and those who are out in the kingdom of God. Maybe you don't have that reaction upon reading these words but what about those in the pews/chairs? Are these words comforting?
Personally, I didn't have the same reaction that my friend did; nevertheless, these verses (and their difficulty for some folks) should not be ignored. They are wonderfully thick theological words that should be explored.
Nothing in all creation- will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. When the rubber meets the road, these words are the words that stand out to me in this passage. No matter what I can do with or say about those thick theological terms above. These words- of God's unconditional love and sacrifice- have always been the glue and foundation of my faith. Even our inability to communicate with God cannot separate us from God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for that we are more than conquerors through God who first loved us!
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52- The kingdom of heaven is like...
Five parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like. Five, somewhat confusing and random parables. Random and parable may be an oxymoron?! Five parables that could easily be divided up and preached separately. The kingdom of heaven is like...1) a mustard seed, 2) yeast, 3) hidden treasure, 4) fine pearls and 5) a net thrown into the sea. At what length will God go to in order to seek us out, communicate God's love for us, etc.? Jesus, once again, uses everyday things in his explanation of what the kingdom of heaven is like and many of us don't get it. How do we communicate these parables today using these everyday things? How do we communicate what the kingdom of heaven is like in our everyday lives?
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