Pow! Pow! Pow Pow Pow!
2008-07-25 by Tom Steagald
This is my sermon for Sunday, sans at least two more rewrites (also want to be sure to check the facts about the Hebrew view of yeast/leaven). This is not nearly so profound as Dave's work, but it is not atypical of what I do Sunday by Sunday...
Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then complacency at least. Sometimes we all of us think 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 even get the rest of it on paper, we nod our heads knowingly and say, “Ah, yes! Of course it is.”
Preachers are the worst at such presumption: we have most of us preached and taught these little similes so many times that we forget the Bible is a living word, a feisty and even fire-breathing word. We forget that the Bible can interpret us quicker than we can interpret it, that it can pound us too—beat down our self-righteousness and kick our assurances.
The Kingdom of Heaven—and by that Jesus does not mean Kingdom of Heaven as in the place we want to go when we die, but the Kingdom of Heaven, which is to say the way God wants things to be while we live—the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, leaven, treasure in a field, a pearl, a dragnet. Jesus fires off these images like a fighter throws punches, one after the other: Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow!
These parables are like eight-ounce gloves: they soften the blow but barely. Jesus offers no explanation. Matthew offers almost no interpretation. Just, Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow! And I am overmatched, toe to toe with the Greatest of All Time, and he is pummeling me left, right and sideways.
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 got three different religion degrees, diplomas on my wall that would seem to suggest I can handle myself in a war with the text, a wrestling match with its meaning. After all, I am a Master of Divinity—Ha! Ha!—I am a Doctor of the Church! 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. And there I am, eating canvass once again.
Part of the problem is that I often climb into the ring over-confident—have not trained well, which is to say have not prayed or studied enough—but I often do that because I have faced this Opponent before, and in the vanity of my imagination I think I already know Him and his tactics, 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, throws these parables at my head and heart and gut, rapid fire, one after the other, before I have time to duck.
If I dare enter the ring, Jesus will hound me, stalk me, pepper me with parables, to make me see, to throw in the towel and concede that He is the master of true humanity; that He is the Doctor—the Greatest of All Time and also the Great Physician, whose eternal prescription for our souls is not just to tend our wounds but sometimes to give us a hard lesson in humility and respect.
I read the text: I climb into the ring with God and his word, and sometimes, many times, I am comforted—sparring with the word is always a work-out but many times I feel better after I am done. Healthier. My blood flowing and my heart pounding--it is always good to exercise my faith by mixing it up with the word.
But if I take off my protective head-gear, if I am courageous enough to slug-it-out with Jesus and the text, many times I am stopped dead in my track, thumped on the noggin and the wind knocked out of me. I receive a punishing reminder of my vanity and ignorance.
These parables come out of nowhere: which is to say I don’t see them coming: the point, the power, the pow-pow of what Jesus is saying. I assume I know what they mean, even before I read them, don’t really think or feel my way through them:
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed… a tiny little thing, just one of them and who can sow just one mustard seed, who can even see on little mustard seed, but it grows into a tall bush, 8-10 feet tall, and all the birds come and rest in it. Small beginnings. Big endings. Isn’t that what it means? That is a comfort, isn’t it: in our little place, a blessing? Our small efforts will pay off with great dividends. Isn’t that what Jesus is teaching us?
But mustard trees are like Jewish kudzu--a unruly weed more than a tree. NOBODY would plant a mustard tree in their yard where it might tear up the pavement.
Besides, there are birds here. 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—and we didn’t want the birds, did we? People take their shotguns to birds. We may like seeds and trees but we don’t like birds.
My Dad didn’t like birds, I mean! They ate the cherries off the one fruit tree he had in the back yard and he hated the mess—the tree was right near the car port and they bombed his car just about every day—and we don’t like the mess either, not in our church, not in the basement, or in the parlor, or wherever. I know some churches that will not, will NOT let outsiders use their building, and even insiders can’t use it for much. Can you imagine? They will not much let their own people and ministries use the building. I wonder if they have read this parable.
Maybe they have read the part about the seed and the trees, but Pow! There are those birds. The church is not always the Kingdom of God—all churches are exposed as imposters, pretenders, when they are afraid of the birds, resent the birds, try to get rid of the birds or keep them away, whether the birds are birds or boys or girls or whoever.
The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast. A fungus. And I thought Jesus said yeast was a bad thing: beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus said. But here the yeast is like the kingdom of heaven, and this lady took this fungus—Jewish law considered yeast unclean; they often ate unleavened bread—and with it she leavened three measures of flour, fifty pounds of flour, and who makes that much bread anyway? Except Sarah, maybe, when Abraham told her to make cakes from three measures of flour for the strangers who came calling that day at Mamre.
Be that as it may, “The Kingdom of God is like fungus,” Jesus says. It is like a virus on the mainframe…it changes the properties and priorities of what it infects, and we are the flour, we are the mainframe: we don’t like change. Don’t want change. Pow! We want things they way they have been, even when we seem to be having the same problems we have always had.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure accidentally discovered in a field. Pow! We can’t make it happen. Grace is not ours to control! Work hard as we might, using all the rules we can write, we may never find what we think we are looking for. Pow! The real treasure come to us by grace, by God’s guidance, not by our formulas or designs.
That said, the Kingdom is like a pearl that a man wanted above all other things. It may have started as an irritation to some oyster somewhere, but it was a beautiful obsession to this man. He sold everything he had, and only on account of that utter sacrifice was he able to secure it. Pow! We give up nothing, many of us, give up a little some of us, give up everything? We are so content with so much less.
The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet. It catches all sorts of fish—or should. But Pow! The church is not the same thing as the Kingdom of God. Many churches set their nets for only one kind of fish—and if something else gets accidentally snagged, those churches will find ways to release them again, to run them off, let them go…only that is the angel’s job, not ours; it is a job for later, not now.
When we do the sorting, when we throw some of them back…
In the three years Jesus spent among us, surely—surely—he 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, sticky—full of wonderful, sometimes comforting meaning; but powerful, too, even dangerous to self-satisfied egos when a believer takes them on.
You climb into the ring with a parable, much less five, and sometimes the parables will bless you, but if you assume you know, think a parable can mean only one thing—well, Matthew tells us that Jesus told us many things in parables and not always to prop us up. Not always to confirm us, and by that I mean not always to affirm us—we are so inclined to imagine that we are the good guys, the righteous, the heroes. But with the parables Jesus is slugging it out with our pride, our willfulness, our presumption.
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. Remember when he came to Jesus by night and they talked about birth and wind and Nicodemus said, “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. I don’t know what Jesus means—Pow! Pow! Pow pow pow! I am punch drunk, my head spinning, on my knees…which is exactly, I think, where Jesus wants me. On my knees. Knowing I am overmatched. Shaking my head while my heart, too, is shaking.
Have you understood all this? NO! Not even a little of it!
He left that place—had someplace else to go. And the disciples, presumably, followed him. So maybe he wants me on my feet after all, at least after a while, not fighting with him but following him. Diplomas to the contrary, I am not called to understand fully, but to follow faithfully. Not to make an A, but to keep taking the test. Not to duck or hide but to climb in there with him while he teaches me the tough lessons of discipleship.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ms. Song of Solomon for President
2008-07-25 by David von Schlichten
Because it responds well to this week's blog entries, I have posted my sermon below. I welcome feedback, ever yours in Christ, Dave
Sermon on Song of Solomon
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A,
for Sunday, July 27, 2008
Controversial Topics and the Controversial Good News
Part Three: Politics and the Good News
(word count: 1041)
Ms. Song of Solomon for President
Today we have part three of a four-part sermon series entitled, “Controversial Topics and the Controversial Good News.” To receive some sacred guidance throughout this series, each week we are calling upon one of the Bible's greatest women, the unnamed woman in the book called Song of Solomon. Song of Solomon tells us that this dark-skinned, gorgeous, and sexy woman is so in love with her man that she is willing to break rules and defy society's conventions in the name of love.
Today's topic is politics. What if the woman from Song of Solomon were running for President?
Good morning, my fellow Americans. I am the woman from Song of Solomon, and I want to be your next President. I am a member of the Agapic Party. As you can see, I am a knockout, but don't hold that against me. I have beauty, but I also have brains. More importantly, I have character. Also, as you can see, I do have dark skin, but don't hold that against me, either. Skin color does not matter. What matters is the person's skills and values.
Let me share with you my number one value that will make me a good President. I don't have a great deal of education or wealth. What I do have in abundance is love, and not just any love. I have deep, passionate love for my husband, and that love grows out of my even deeper and more passionate love for the King of Kings, the Ruler of All, the Greatest of Lovers, the Almighty.
That Almighty Ruler of Senators and Presidents loves you and me, all of us, with the ultimate, most fragrant, most muscular love. The Ruler of Rulers loves us with a love stronger than death, a love that conquers death on the cross so that we shall live forever, even though we are unworthy. The Heavenly Husband loves you and me with a passion stronger than hurricanes and forest fires. The Creator shows us this love by making us and providing for us. The Redeemer shows us this love by dying and rising for us, the supreme act of loving self-sacrifice. The Inspirer shows us this love by empowering and sustaining us to believe and serve.
This love – this ultimate love from the kingdom of heaven – has sown love in my heart and has provided sun, soil, fertilizer and water for my love. The Ultimate Lover causes love in me to grow, love for him, love for my husband, even love for my sometimes harsh and overprotective brothers. The Ultimate Lover teaches me and gives me the power to love one another as he has loved me.
More than anything else, it is this love that will make me an effective President. Sure, I have political experience, and I am smart, organized, practical, and a stronger leader. I have many of the skills that a President needs, but, most importantly, I operate my life wholly based on holy love.
Now, love is not something you normally hear a presidential candidate talk about. How strange and sad. Candidates talk about their economic policies, their foreign policies, their military policies. I understand that you need to know what I will do about gas prices and the economy. You need me to explain how I will respond to Iran and to terrorist threats. You need to know what I intend to do about the war in Iraq. I will get to all of that, but it is essential that I begin by explaining that every decision I make is and will be based on the love from the Almighty, which calls me and enables me to love him and to love others. Love is central to my campaign and will be central to my presidency.
For example, we hear in Matthew 5 that we are to love our enemies. I will be a President who will love her enemies. Does loving my enemies mean that I will be a weak, naïve bleeding-heart? By no means. My mama didn't raise no fool. The Bible tells us to be wise as serpents, and I am that. I get that some people will try to kill us. The Bible says that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. No, loving my enemies does not mean that I am naïve or wimpy.
However, loving my enemies does mean that I will strive to avoid violence as much as possible. Loving my enemies means that I will pray for them. Loving my enemies means that I will engage in war only as an absolute last resort when all other options have been drained. Loving my enemies means that I do not want revenge. Loving my enemies means I will strive to understand my enemies as best as possible, not so that I can excuse their sinful behavior, but so that I can respond to it as effectively as possible.
Undoubtedly some of you will say, “Woman of Song of Solomon, that turn-the-other-cheek stuff is a nice sentiment. I like love, too, but that's too soft, too wimpy, too weak, too, well, feminine. We need a President who is tough, no-nonsense, not a President who is all lovey-dovey.”
My response is that, for us who serve the Almighty, the one who died on the cross and rose again, love is not merely a sweet, nice idea. For us believers, love is not optional. For us believers, for us citizens of the kingdom, love is not something we do only when we feel safe. No, for us believers, for us citizens of the kingdom of heaven, holy, divine love is the great treasure, the mustard seed that blooms into a gigantic, life-giving tree. The two greatest commandments order us to love.
You may think it naïve and silly of me to focus on love, but what is really sad is that more of us so-called believers, so-called people of faith, don't have a life policy based on love.
Ask not, “Why does this woman speak of love”? Ask, “Why aren't Obama and McCain and all of us voters who claim that we serve and worship the Almighty speaking more about love? If the Almighty orders us to love above all else, then why aren't we doing that explicitly in our politics?”
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?
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