Knowing Who We Are
2011-02-03 by Stephen Schuette

Matthew 5:13-20; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

You are salt and light!  It seems so straight-forward and direct.  And Paul’s assertion that, “We have received…the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” affirms something powerfully essential about us too.

We have, perhaps, taken to heart something that Paul has also suggested, to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought.  But these passages also seem to say that we make an equally terrible mistake by thinking of ourselves more lowly than we ought.  For can an emphasis on our sins, our flaws, our failures begin to settle into us in a way that locks us into place so that we become even more of what we believe, or at least rehearse about ourselves? ….I am a sinner…I am a sinner…I am a sinner…

In contrast think of Psalm 8.  And most 12-step programs have switched their customary introduction from "I'm John and I'm an alcoholic," to "I'm John and I'm dry 12 years."

To be sure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer heard in the Sermon on the Mount a word against cheap grace – the idea that we don’t need to do anything more than receive grace and then go about our business again.  (See The Cost of Discipleship)  But could it also be that cheap grace cheapens us, cheapens our whole value and worth, cheapens what God not only made us to be but then further redeemed and empowered us to be?

The last half of the Matthew passage, beginning in vs. 17 may seem hard.  And it smacks of a little defensive/competitive PR in relationship to the developing post-temple Judaism in the community to which Matthew is preparing this gospel, since this is unique Matthean material.  Did those continuing in strict Judaism view the followers of Jesus as sliders and slackers in their new relationship with the law?

But this passage, too, in its own way affirms the ability and potential to not only fulfill but “exceed” in righteousness.  Not, however, because of our effort, but through that spirit of grace that empowers us for this.  Ever work harder and get further behind?  A healthy drive isn’t bad.  But it matters a great deal what is doing the driving.

I hear, finally, a message of hope for who God made us to be in all these passages.

From this week....
2011-02-02 by David Howell



Preaching Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)

There are many homiletical paths into this text, most of them well worn and reliable. The images alone provide a dozen different doorways. Over the years, preachers have entered the text by following "yoke," "wicked fist," or "light" to its logical and theological conclusion. Others have developed "trumpet," "bulrush" or even "rear guard" for their context. Third Isaiah’s images are irresistible, evocative, multivalent, and a real gift to a preacher.

Footholds on larger themes are also well-marked. Acceptable fasts, the nature of true humility, and a theology of prayer are just a few of the important topics raised. Questions such as "what is the difference between what pleases God and what pleases human beings?" and "where have our own rituals become empty?" represent well explored avenues which may yet hold a few surprises. Isaiah 58 is a dense passage, rhetorically ingenious and full of substance. It offers many tempting roads.

However, it is the liberation themes that cry out from the page. Contemporary preachers will be hard pressed to look past them. On its primary level the text is concerned with social justice. In fact, if the text has ten layers of meaning the first nine of them have to do with justice. Whether the sermon focuses on verse 4 or verse 7, on the major themes or minor images, the bottom line of this passage is clear: oppression and worship don’t mix. Even a quick read of the text conjures up the cadences of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Romero, and Desmond Tutu. Isaiah 58’s thunder sounds uncannily like theirs. Nevertheless each preacher must voice this text in his or her own way and for his or her own particular context. There are a number of options.

Many preachers, unable to skirt the obvious, will preach the message the text preaches, justice. For these preachers only a "full-throated" (v.1, NAB) approach will do. For them the question posed by Isaiah 58’s showing up in the lectionary this week is not "Shall I preach one of the text’s social justice themes or something else?" but "Which social justice issue shall I address?" A number of the issues associated with the United States’ economy or role in the larger world—resource wars, climate change, secularization, inter-religious relations and economic globalization, for example—resonate strongly with the text’s themes.

At a national level we are a people who both worship and oppress. Last year, the country’s highest paid CEO (Occidental Petroleum) reportedly took home $52.2 million dollars and the second highest (Disney) netted $20.8 million. That same year, fast food workers earned an average of $18,000 and the U.S. mean salary was $43,000. "What’s wrong with the minimum wage that we can’t fix it?" I heard a preacher lament once, though she knew the answers too well. A preacher who can link our culture’s selfish bent with forces that hold the needy and poor in place can preach Isaiah 58.

However, before the preacher decides on an approach that applies the text’s message directly and specifically to his or her own congregation, it may be useful to consider a few speed bump questions. These are the kind of questions not meant to deter prophetic preaching but to provide a safe-guard against harangue. 1. Whose role is it to "shout out," "not hold back," "announce," or "trumpet" (v.1) this message? Identifying with a prophet is daunting enough. The preacher who preaches today’s text is taking the even bigger step of preaching a passage that is rendered entirely in God’s voice. 2. Who is rightly on the receiving end of God’s sarcasm? "Will you call this a fast?" Caricature, scornful language, and contemptuous remarks are among the strongest and most negative forms of speech. 3. How can the sermon’s focus be kept on the communal, systemic, or national/international level avoiding appeals that address listeners as separate individuals? 4. How will the sermon motivate the listener? How will the preacher avoid paralyzing the listener with guilt?

An alternate approach to this passage takes verse 4b as its theme, "such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high." This sermon focuses on the God-as-Bellhop problem on a tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo understanding of worship. Isaiah 58 makes it clear that God will not be manipulated. Even people who are seeking something as lofty as God’s nearness (v.2) cannot coerce or control God’s movement. The text reminds us that there are people who praise or credit God—or participate in a religious ritual—for what they can get out of it or because they are slightly afraid of not participating. Have you ever seen a football player drop for a quick prayer and wondered about his motivation? No one but him can say whether he is superstitious or sincere. No one can know for sure about the spiritual state of the Grammy winner ("first of all I just want to give thanks to my Lord and Savior") or the politician ("Thank you, good night and God bless America."), but Isaiah reminds us to ask the question. He also reminds us that there is a Simon-the-Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24) mentality afoot in our culture that cries out "Give me this power." The desire for control is strong in human beings. It is so strong, Isaiah suggests, that it causes us to delude ourselves about our own motives. It can lead us to believe we want God to be near when what we really want is God at finger-tip control.

Jana Childers

San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo, CA


Micah 6:6-8; Egypt
2011-01-29 by David von Schlichten

I posted my sermon on this passage. I hope you'll read it and give me feedback.

That passage stresses that God prefers justice, kindness, and humility over material offerings. People do, too. Material things can be valuable, but justice, kindness, and humility are far more valuable.

The Egyptians probably need some material relief, but primarily they are crying out for their government to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

That's certainly what God is crying out for.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Another Story
2011-01-25 by Stephen Schuette

Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

With three powerful, core texts how do you decide?  That may be the preacher’s biggest dilemma this week.  So, just a few comments…

First, in regard to Corinthians.  In the preceding verses Paul mentions the appeal of factions in the community to Apollos and Cephas, and then to Paul himself.  It seems there is a power struggle.  Perhaps we’ll never know the presenting issues.  Do the Greek and Aramaic names suggest a tension between Hebrew and Greek converts in which they are trying to triangle Paul?  Are they boasting to each other about their pedigrees?  In the end the presenting issue may not be that important anyway for Paul seems to see an underlying issue of power - winning and prevailing - contrary to the way of the gospel.

Crossan, in his video with Marcus Borg, Eclipsing Empire, tours a temple in Asia Minor dedicated to Caesar.  On the walls of the temple are inscribed the “Acts of Caesar.”   Crossan makes clear that the Acts of the Apostles is a story presented in self-conscious contrast to the prevailing cultural story of Roman conquest.  At any rate it seems that Paul is desperately trying to wean the new Christians in Corinth away from patterns deeply ingrained in human history and community life.  His appeal is to the cross which the Corinthians will come to believe is either full or empty of power.  The gospel still offers this choice.

Second, the Beatitudes in Matthew.  Jesus’ words are full of power and great beauty – hence their designation as Beatitudes.  But there is a turn.  In the beginning everything is third person.  “Blessed are the…Blessed are those…”  But in vs. 11 the beatitude is presented in second person.  “Blessed are you…  And what follows is not as immediately appealing or beautiful as being merciful or pure in heart, or a peacemaker.  And yet one senses that this application directly to the listener in second person is designed to bring a point home:  your following of this way will set you at odds with others not because of your own antagonism of others but simply because it is a different way.  It’s a little like a warning label on a medication which in the end may do you great good, but be aware what it might mean to be a follower of Jesus.

But also, behind this third person shift to second person is the implied first-person of Jesus.  This first teaching or discourse in Matthew already implies where the story is headed.  The plot is laid, the course is set.  Jesus himself is the embodiment of all this beauty but before it is completely revealed he will be reviled and persecuted and receive the utterance of all kinds of evil.  Yet he will remain committed to this course even while those committed to another way, dedicated to another story will seek to have their way.

So there is a link:  this alternative of the gospel that is both promise and challenge but which, ultimately, I only receive and accomplish by grace.

Preaching Matthew 5:1-12
2011-01-24 by David Howell

We share with you an excellent article this week from Gail A. Ricciuti.

There is an intriguing symmetry to the way Matthew’s Jesus launches his teaching ministry. In the picture he paints, we see opposites flowing into the empty spaces we might at first glance have interpreted as qualities absent or lacking in those who live in a state of want. Yet the longer we gaze, the more we begin to see that it is precisely these "empty" spaces Jesus is commending to his followers, in whose very poverty lies the potential to be filled by a richness rushing in. The old Chinese proverb comes to mind: "If I keep a bare branch in my heart, then the singing bird will come." Indeed, the bare branch avails here: Comfort comes to mourners (but note that the kind of mourning is not specified; could it be mourning over injustice, destruction of nature, bigotry against peoples, ravishing of the earth?). The whole earth comes to the meekest, who might be judged by our usual assumptions as the least likely to know what to do with such an inheritance. Righteousness comes to those hungry for it; mercy to those who show it; the capacity for perception of God to those without selfish agenda; and intimacy with God to those who make peace. Jesus’ implication seems to be that blessings are a gift, to be sure—but also something we create or draw to ourselves by the way we are in the world. To those who ask why evil always wins, the Beatitudes’ answer seems to be that at the end, it doesn’t.

The specific blessings upon mourners, the meek, the righteousness-deprived, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers are all future-oriented promises. Yet, while all of these blessings are specified as yet to come, with future-passive verbs (save for the future-active in verse 6), they are oddly sandwiched between two bookends of "real time." That is, the two blessings associated with receiving, or possessing, the kingdom of Heaven—upon the poor in spirit and the persecuted—are in the present, here and now: "for theirs is the kingdom of God." Suddenly we are led to recall the Jesus of John’s gospel, who in his high priestly prayer is reported as saying "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God..." (Jn 17:3). Eternal life there, like the kingdom of heaven here in Matthew’s gospel, is described by Jesus as being in the "now"—potentially present, wholly, in this life. All of the gospels, in fact, seem to agree with the claim repeatedly made in Matthew’s gospel–that the Kingdom of God is "near."

If the kingdom is a "now" in this teaching, it is so for two specific groups of people: the poor in spirit and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake; but the nuances of the Greek reach deeper than even the question to whom the kingdom is given. The literal translation in both verses 3 and 10 is not "theirs" as our English versions have it, but "...of whom is the kingdom of heaven." The question is whether Jesus’ intention is not so much a possessive but a prototype: that is, something akin to "the kingdom is made up of them" or "...composed of this kind..." Dr. Robert Hann, a colleague who teaches New Testament Greek, advises aspiring preachers to "Ask yourself: does the author intend both things? Is there something deeper here? When ambiguity is present, is it possible that...?"1 Following his lead, might preachers entertain the possibility that the Jesus of parables and rich ambiguities intends a double entendre in this teaching: the kingdom belongs to these [or comes to these], and at the same time is made up of such as these? The richness of a living Word, after all, is that it is not unidimensional or "flat" but a living, multi-layered organism capable of encompassing both "the kingdom is yours" and "this heavenly commonwealth is composed of you [pl] ." If this is so—if God’s realm is not something we wait to be given, but a reality made up of us, whose shape depends upon our daily work, our acts, our words, our lives—then the preacher has only to fuel the congregation’s imagination regarding what might grow in such fertile ground!

By his subtle shift of verbs, Jesus slips out of the grasp of those who would interpret his teachings as a way of keeping the meek, the poor, and the merciful in their places within earthly hierarchies of power by promising heavenly reward in the afterlife. This Jesus is the Teacher of a more radical wisdom, reminding us that the kingdom of God is not a fleshless, sublimated reward but a living reality among those who are living out his Way. In Latin American nations that have experienced the horrific chronicle of los desaparecidos (the "disappeared"), "Presente!" is the cry of those answering, in their place, to the liturgical roll call of the saints. Jesus’ community of radical justice and love is embodied (and cries out "Presente!") in the persons of "the blessed"—that is, among God’s own people.

1. From the author’s personal conversation with Robert Hann, 4/11/2010. subscribers have access to over 70 articles (like the above) on the texts this week. These articles are not just exegetical articles but essays (and sermons) on the texts from theological, pastoral, arts, and homiletical perspectives. All for less than $1.00!


Festival of Homiletics with Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, Krista Tippett and many more!

May 16-20, 2011, Minneapolis
Early registration ends on January 31.
Go to to register.

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