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.
Festival of Homiletics with Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, Krista Tippett and many more!
May 16-20, 2011, Minneapolis
2011-01-21 by David von Schlichten
Psalm 27 is the psalm scheduled for us (ELCA) for this Sunday. I'm going to preach on it. It troubles me that so many clergy dismiss the psalms, even though they are among the most beloved passages in the Bible.
This psalm presents a person expressing confidence in God, but also anxiety about h/her present crisis, as well as anxiety about God's silence. The psalmist does not have some glib, simplistic theology but takes seriously both human suffering and evil as well as God's power to intervene, as well as the fact that God does not always intervene as we would like God to.
People can relate readily to such a psalm. The struggle of the psalmist is a part of discipleship, isn't it?
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2011-01-21 by Stephen Schuette
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Paul is enigmatic, difficult to pin down, hard to turn into a formula. It makes him both intriguing and frustrating. I want him to be more clear and consistent. And maybe, maybe I want him to settle some matters that I’m uncomfortable leaving open.
The passage raises so many questions. What is Paul’s theology of baptism and why seemingly throw the sacrament out in making his point? Why mention by name the people who informed him, for how can identifying a tattle-tale work toward calming the obvious divisions in the community? Why include those who say they “…belong to Christ” in the list with those who belong to others? Isn’t Paul subverting his own point?
It’s clear that Paul did not take a contemporary mediation class to deal with conflict. There’s no rising above the argument in a therapeutic approach. He jumps in, both feet. But what he does do is point toward a whole different goal. And he urges his readers on by whatever means is at his disposal, no holds barred. Perhaps there are two levels to Paul’s message: the content and the way he expresses that content.
And for me this is the most interesting question of all: what’s with the attitude in his expression that seems counter-productive unless his goal is other than simply calming a conflict? Maybe Paul understands the positive nature of conflict and the energy that can flow from it. Maybe he just wants his hearers to be focused on the right conflict for the right reasons.
So there’s no, “Be a Christian, if you please,” or “I’m calm and confident because I follow Jesus (or whatever anti-perspirant-commercial language you want to use),” or any 70’s Godspell-version of Jesus being offered. He wants no lukewarm, nice, kindly followers in this enterprise of proclaiming Jesus crucified on a cross and risen. He wants to maintain the energy while turning it to constructive rather than destructive purposes. The community’s goal is how to be effective, not just to be calm.
It’s not an easy message to embody, much less preach. But it’s perhaps a very timely message in light of politicians that have embattled each other in ways counter-productive to any focus on a larger goal. And the church so easily takes in this style of engagement modeled in the culture around us. But is the goal to be just a little kinder and gentler, more civil? For Paul the absence of open animosity, a veneer of kindness, the appearance of civility is not yet giving your heart or opening yourself to each other. We have the advantage of knowing where this letter is leading. Paul’s hope is higher. Perhaps God’s hope for us, in Christ, is higher too.
Anna Carter Florence on Matthew 4:12-23
2011-01-18 by David Howell
Anna Carter Florence wrote this article for us three years ago. In fact, she wrote an article on the gospel lesson for each Sunday of Year A. Those articles can be found in Quick Access each week or in More Essays/Sermons.
Preaching the Lesson: Matthew 4:12-23
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Fishing for people. I’m not sure that’s the most pleasant or politic of metaphors for the life of discipleship. The fish is such a beloved symbol of Christianity (ichthus, et cetera) that the act of fishing is a bit romanticized—if our stained glass windows and Sunday School artwork are any indication. I’ve seen some marvelous art in many a church that features beautifully draped nets and gleaming jewel-like fish. I’ve also seen (and been a willing part of) some fishy carnage involving hooks and worms and a massive effort with the rod and reel. I love to eat fish as much as anyone. But I’ve yet to meet a fish that loved being caught and filleted for my supper. Fishing for people. I guess it’s a good thing that every metaphor contains an "is" and an "is not." Images are supposed to spark our imaginations, not chain them fast. So it would be a mistake to push the "fishing for people" metaphor too far, letting our evangelistic fancies take off into the ether ("What bait shall we use this time?! What are your youth biting on?!"). We don’t hook and land unwitting congregants, and we don’t cast our nets (either right or left!) in order to haul in another unsuspecting catch: obviously. I doubt Jesus had any such thing in mind when he called out to Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee.
On the other hand, he was starting a conversation with fishermen. Fishing was what they knew and did best. And Jesus begins right there: not with what he knows, but with what they know. "Follow me, you fishermen, and I’ll make you fish-for-men!" There’s even a sing-song, comedic appeal to the words, in some translations. It’s almost as if Jesus is opening with a good joke, something that only fishermen would truly appreciate. Something that only fishermen would understand, because it’s offered in vernacular code.
What a brilliant stroke: Jesus’ call to each of us begins not with what he knows, but with what we know. It begins not with what he does best, but with what we do best. On our turf and in our language, insider jokes and all.
Follow me, you fishing-people, and I will make you fish-for-people! Amazing, isn’t it? Before we hear a word about what’s involved in this following, he reassures us that we can do it, because it is not so different from what we have already done. In fact, we already have several of the job skills involved. We just have to adapt what we know.
I’ve been playing around with some of the other calls Jesus might have extended. How about these?
Follow me, you miners, and I will make you mine for people!
Follow me, you farmers, and I will make you farm for people!
Follow me, you bankers and tellers, and I will make you bank human life!
Follow me, you builders, and I will make you builders of God’s house!
Follow me, you shopkeepers, and I will make you keepers of God’s shop!
Follow me, you clowns and fools, and I will make you fools for God!
Follow me, you landscape workers, and I will make you landscapers of life!
Follow me, you seamstresses and tailors, and I will make you sew our lives as well as our garments!
Follow me, you cooks and chefs and butchers and bakers, and I will make you season and leaven and serve and preserve more than food!
Follow me, you insurance agents, and I will make you insure God’s agency!
Follow me, you instrumentalists, and I will make you instrumental to others!
Follow me, you friends, you parents, you children, you siblings, you neighbors, you strangers, you hosts and guests, and I will make you all these things—to every other human being!
It’s not as hard as you might think. Christ always starts where we already are.
Take a deep breath…and follow.
Anna Carter Florence
Thanks to Tom Steagald; Tucson Shooting and John 1:29-42
2011-01-14 by David von Schlichten
Tom has provided a substantive, theo-peutic post below, which includes sagacious reflections about the Tucson shooting.
Part of what comes to mind for me regarding the shooting is that it arose in part from a tendency for us American citizens to demonize, or otherize, politicians. We tend to see them as evil, corrupt. As scapegoats. They are one of the few groups in America it is still acceptable to make fun of and denigrate. Maybe we need to rethink that.
Granted, most of us are not going to shoot politicians, and politicians do indeed make many mistakes and are frequently guilty of corruption. But politicians are still people, and they are often a mirror of the society that created them. You and I are part of that society. Those politicians came from us.
And when someone attacks them, you know what? They get hurt, and so do their families, and so do many other people, including nine-year-old girls who have the "naivete" to believe in politicians.
How does all this pertain to the pulpit? I'm not completely sure, except to say that we Christians are called to love ALL people, including Republicans, Democrats, Pro-Lifers, Pro-Choicers, whoever, even if we disagree passionately.
Jesus says, "Come and see," and part of what we end up seeing is the God who washes human feet and commands us to do the same for each other.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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