World Unraveling
2007-09-03 by David Howell

September 9, 07…14th Sunday of Pentecost

(Jeremiah 18:1-11; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33)

by Walter Brueggemann

    I would begin my pondering with the Jeremiah text, because Jeremiah’s time is like our own with a world unraveling. While the metaphor of “potter” is useful, too much should not be made of it, because the text moves beyond that image. The remarkable claim of verses 7-10 is that Israel (the clay) can impact YHWH (the potter). The accent point is that even though YHWH makes decisions about the future according to hard norms, Israel’s fresh decision can “change God’s mind.” In context, God has decided to “pluck up” (destroy) Jerusalem; but Israel can now decide differently. (The preacher can peek beyond the lectionary verses to verse 12 to notice that, in context, Israel refused a new decision that could have saved its life: “It is no use.” Stubborn resistance will bring divine trouble, according to the prophet.)

    If we read backward from Jeremiah we reach Deuteronomy 30, in which Moses enjoins Israel to decide for life or for death. The issue is a distinct Torah identity in an ocean of Canaanite technological manipulation and consumer indulgence (sound familiar?). The alternative is Torah that, in Deuteronomy, means viable neighborly relationships enacted as economic generosity toward the needy.

    If we read forward from Jeremiah, we come to the Gospel reading in Luke 14. In the middle of the textual unit, Jesus offers two examples of intentionality, the building of a tower (vv. 28-30) and a king going to war (vv. 31-32). The point of the two images should not be lost: intentionality in running risks for the sake of the future. These two images are sandwiched in the narrative in verses 27 and 33 by two summons to discipleship that consists in the sacrifice of the self on “the cross” and the divestment of “all your possessions.” Clearly Jesus is summoning “large crowds” to new intentional decisions that invite to a new life alongside Jesus.

The theme recurs: 

Jeremiah: new decisions can change God;

Deuteronomy: a decision is required for life or for death;

Jesus: a decision to follow a new life is on offer.

    The preacher can reflect, from these texts, on (a) the state we are in in our social crisis, (b) the past decisions—social, economic, political, military—that have gotten us there, and (c) the new decisions in the Gospel that might reverse the current mess. The text has immense implications for public policy; it also makes an ecclesial bid that the people close to Jesus have an alternative identity that has concrete implications. The awareness at the Jordan (Deuteronomy), in Jerusalem (Jeremiah), and with large crowds (Jesus) is that we may keep on doing business as usual on the way to a shriveled life. The preachable good news is that we can decide again…about Torah, about Jesus, about the way of our society and the chance to be different. The preacher could wind up talking about baptismal identity and life under the promise in obedience. It is a very hard word…but it surely is an urgent word among us just now.

We are having Communion this week
2007-08-31 by Rick Brand

We have begun having Communion monthly (a big debate) and so this is a Communion thought.

Text: Jeremiah 2:4-13 "went after worthlessness and became worthless."


September 2, 2007

First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, NC

Rick Brand, Pastor

Monkey see, monkey do. That is the way I was always told it worked. God is answering in Jeremiah the human response to his word of judgment. The human response is "Who me? What did we do wrong?" And God answers, "What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness and became worthless?"

That is the way it works in human lives. You hang out with the wrong crowd and you become wrong. "Garbage in, Garbage out." We are shaped by the things we follow. Every parent and adult knows that if you run in a rat race, you become a rat. If you join a gang, you become a gangster. Jeremiah says that is what happen to the children of Israel. They started worshipping worthless things and became a worthless people.

This is not a particularly unique theological truth. You do not have to be a believer in Christ to accept the reality that if you worship trash you will get trashy. There have been stories that the problem Michael Vick had was that he never left the friends he grew up with. He let them continue to shape and influence him. They went after worthlessness and became worthless. That is a proverb, a maxim that we understand and still find true.

The Bible knows where we live. It knows the harsh realities of our lives. It knows the way human beings are; the way the world works. Invest in shaky deals and things will fall apart. Follow worthlessness, you end up a worthless person. Jesus knows how it works in Luke. Machiavelli, in his famous work on power politics, could have given the same advice. If you are going out in public to a party where there is public seating, then play it smooth. Don't go up and grab the best seat in the house. If you grab the seat, there are no good consequences. People will see you grab it and resent your assumption that you deserve it, or the host will have to ask you to give it up for somebody else. Grab the lowest seat, and the consequences are all good. You will be asked to stay there or you will be asked to come up higher.

Because in this world where we push ourselves forward and promote ourselves, we will eventually be pushed back. Proverbs in the Bible has the saying about Pride goes before a Fall. People who fight their way to the top, grab the power bacon, will eventually be pushed aside and pushed out. There is no better example than Speaker of the House, Jim Black. He kept fighting for the top seat and eventually got pushed into prison. Jesus says, "You keep pushing yourself forward, you will get put down. That is the way it works in the world."

Ah, but that is not how the Kingdom of God makes itself known. The Kingdom of God does not conform or fit our expectations and our cliches. The work and wonder of the Kingdom of God move in ways that tickle and surprise us. The grace and love of God come at us in places and in ways we do not anticipate. In the 8lst Psalm, God is praying. "O that my people would listen to me, that they would walk in my ways for I would feed them with finest wheat and with honey from the rock I would satisfy them." Do you normally expect to get honey from a rock? That is not where I would first look for honey.

The Author of the book of Hebrews ends with the encouragement to let brotherly love continue. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Angels, those mysterious agents of God's purpose, those who bring messages from God, are frequently to be found in those who are strangers to us. Those are not the people most of us immediately turn to for a word from God. Follow worthlessness, become worthless; we get that. But to find the messengers of God's love in strangers? That one we were not expecting.

And of course Jesus goes on and says that if you really want to give a party where the Kingdom of God is discovered and enjoyed, then go out and bring in everybody who does not have a prayer of ever doing something for you. Tom Tewell from Fifth Ave. Presb. Church told us of the New Year's Eve party they gave for the people who slept on their steps in New York. They gave them showers, rented them tuxedos and evening dresses. The table was spread, and you could not tell the banker from the bum, the prostitute from the patron. And over the spread table there was talk of grace and blessings and the love of God for all of them.

Ann Lamott, who has had a number of great books, like Bird by Bird and Traveling Mercies, writes something in Plan B. She says she has discovered about prayer, we wouldn't expect it, "When God is going to do something wonderful, God always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, God starts with an impossibility." There are lots of "the way things are in this world" that work. They are good to know. Push your way to the top and you will eventually get pushed to the bottom. But those rubrics do not work in the Kingdom of God. What we get are lots of things that surprise and amaze us. There may be honey in a rock, there may be angels in a stranger, there is the kingdom in a block party. In the defeat of a Cross, there is victory. In the death of a grave, there is life. At this table of memory, there is the promise of a new banquet.

Come then to the joyful feast of all of us beggars and bums who know that we have no right to be here except for the unexpected fact that Jesus invites us to come.

Sermon for Sept. 2 (Luke 14)
2007-08-31 by David von Schlichten

 Humble Table Manner

(word count: 780)

text: Luke 14:1-14


Main Point: Jesus is not advising people to fake humility in the hopes of personal gain but is calling everyone to be genuinely humble and to care for the lowly. 


We hate being embarrassed, especially in public. We want to look good in others' eyes, don't we?

In today's Gospel reading, Luke 14:1-14, Jesus gives advice about looking good. When you are at a wedding banquet, don't sit at the place of honor. Otherwise, someone more important might arrive, and then you would be asked to move to a lower seat. That would be embarrassing. Instead, pick a lower, humbler seat. Then, the host might ask you to move up higher to a better seat, and wouldn't that make you look impressive? People would be talking about how special you are, because the host asked you to move up to a place of honor. That's Jesus' advice.

But there's something strange about that. It doesn't seem like advice Jesus would give, because he is usually telling people NOT to worry about impressing others or about worldly prestige.

Besides, just a few verses later he says to invite people who cannot repay you, so why would he be concerned about people repaying your humility by elevating your place at the banquet? It seems as if one minute he's worried about people honoring you, and the next minute he isn't.

Further, he says, in verse 11, “The exalted will be humbled, and the humble exalted.” Surely this profound statement, a major theme of his ministry, doesn't fit with something as trivial as donning humility in the hopes of getting a better seat at dinner. So then, what is Jesus really saying when he calls us to take the lower place so that we can be elevated? If he's not teaching us how to look impressive and spare ourselves embarrassment, then what is he teaching us?

Context is crucial when it comes to understanding any Bible passage. In our passage, Luke 14:1-14, Jesus heals a man of dropsy, as well as tells us that the humble will be exalted and that we are to invite people who cannot repay us. So then, the context is one that stresses God's mercy and helping people in need and not about making yourself look good. In fact, Jesus' whole ministry is about God's mercy and helping people in need more than anything else. Therefore, when Jesus says we should pick the lowly seat, he does not mean that we should do this so we can be exalted. Rather, he is using the seating analogy as a way of saying, “Focus on the humility that leads to helping people in need.”

Do rewards come from being humble? The Bible says yes, but we are not to be humble in order to obtain a reward; we are to be humble in a way that benefits others, because such is God's way.

We are to invite those who cannot repay us, checking our egos at the door, not worrying about what's in it for us, but just inviting the needy because that is what God wants us to do. Reward will come, but reward is not our goal.

Eternal life is certainly not our goal. Jesus has already won eternal life for us, so we need not help the needy in the hopes of gaining eternal life. Christ has gained it for us. Rather, we the baptized, who already have reservations in heaven's finest restaurants because of Christ, are to respond with humility that produces inviting the needy without concern for personal gain.

Do we do that? Do we make worshipers at St. James feel welcome? For the most part we do, thanks be to the Holy Spirit. Overall, we are friendly, welcoming, reaching to the needy.

There have been times, though, when we have not been very welcoming. I invited a local Muslim and his wife to speak to us about Islam after worship on August 5. The event was advertised for several weeks in the bulletin. On August 5, we had 111 people in worship. Only ten stayed to meet Farooq and his wife, three of whom were my family. How can we be more inviting, even more inviting toward people about whom we feel anger, mistrust or fear? It's difficult, but the Holy Spirit helps us.

Of course, no one shows humble hospitality better than Christ himself, who takes on humility through the cross as the supreme act of hospitality. Hospitality means caring, helping, and welcoming, and Christ stretches out his arms to embrace us to life eternal. Christ humbles himself so we can be exalted. Christ invites us up to sit in the better place, the place of the baptized, and to go and invite others to the Table.

Christ prepares the Table for us, and he says, “Go, invite others. Dinner is served!”

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier

All of them
2007-08-29 by Rick Brand

Taking a long look at some notes I made across a page on the four lessons for Sept. 2,  there appeared to me a question of expectations:

Jeremiah - you go after worthlessness, you get to be worthless. That works

Luke - you push yourself forward you get pushed down. Yeah, that happens

Those work. Those are valid,

but in Psalm you are offered "honey from the rock" (I am not a rural person, but I would not normally look for honey in a rock.)

Hebrews - in the stranger you find angels (not where I would first look for angels)

Luke - in a party of outcasts you find the kingdom (nope, not where my expectations first tell me to look)

In a cross you find grace. In death you find life.

Our normal expectations and rubrics don't work in the Kingdom.

I think I will circle around this for a few days.

Blog Entries, Ozzfest, and Luke 14
2007-08-29 by David von Schlichten

It is exciting to read such fine blog entries this week. See below for especially insightful entries by Dan Flanagan and Dee Dee Haines.

On Friday, August 24, my wife Kim, two teenaged stepchildren and I attended Ozzfest, a day-long series of heavy metal rock concerts held outside. The temperature was in the 90s, the humidity was high, and there was virtually no shade. Kim and I hate heavy metal, but our children, especially Michael, had begged to go. Fortunately, the tickets were free.

I knew I would dislike the event, but I didn't realize I would find it repulsive. Male-dominated bands called upon women to flash their breasts for the jumbo-screen. The f-word was shouted freely. Beer, pot, and cigarettes abounded. And crosses and other Christian images were used, not for religious purposes, but as decorations that somehow exalted the rockers and defied "the system." (One band announced that it was the beginning of - I am not kidding - the "a-rock-alypse.") 

One band was called Lamb of God. Naïve me, I thought, “Maybe they are Christian metal.” Maybe, but their vomitting of profanity certainly wouldn't suggest as much. With the noise and the lead singer's screaming vocals, lyrics were incomprehensible, so who knew what they were singing about, and how many people really cared? (The band used to be called Burn the Priest, and, in one interview, the members seemed to indicate that the name change does not indicate a change in views.)

I asked Michael, who is intelligent and devout, “What's with all the crosses?” Michael said, “I don't know. It's just an Ozzy thing. He's known as the Prince of Darkness.”

What does all of this have to do with our reading from Luke? Our reading speaks of welcoming the needy and outcast. Ozzfest was full of outcasts in need, people who are lost, angry (heavy metal is an angry genre), maybe scared and hurt (where there is anger, fear and pain usually lie underneath), turning to drugs and alcohol and violent music for fun, flashing breasts, being careless with religious imagery. So then, how can we the Church reach out to such people? How can we invite them to the Table and not just our friends or people who can pay us back?How many of them know who the Lamb of God really is?

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier

PS: There were good features of Ozzfest, as well. I may write a more in-depth piece about it for “That'll Preach!” in Lectionary Homiletics.

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