Proper 19C: Becoming Unclean for the Gospel

Proper 19C: Becoming Unclean for the Gospel

Luke 15:1-10

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

Too often we work diligently to gather sinners and tax collectors in church to listen for the voice of God, and we are left with a group of religious leaders and experts who grumble. We study the life-style trends of the “nones” and “dones,” we research the latest findings on millennials, and we try to adapt worship to meet the research we’ve done. Each time, we are left with only ourselves: the grumbling religious leaders. In an attempt at fairness, I rarely hear that the church is too open to sinners. I often hear that the people not in church need to get their act together and just attend our church. And it is no wonder that people outside the church community are uninterested in joining these churches. We are so self obsessed. Our concern is rarely focused on the needs of the community; rather, we concern ourselves with our need for more people. It’s ironic really. We want people to come, yet we focus on our research rather than on our search. We observe census data and surveys with academic rigor without ever actually going out to search for a new friendship with the very people described in them.

As preachers and teachers attempting to discover insight in these words this week, I wonder how much of our sermon might be a confession? For my part, when I read gospel descriptions of grumbling religious leaders I find more empathy than distaste for them. My denomination is one that believes in a balance of personal piety and social holiness. The balance between the personal and the social is always difficult to navigate. If my practice included an element of ritual cleanliness like the first century Pharisees and religious leaders, then I too may have struggled with the implications of losing my ritualized cleanliness. I wonder if the religious leaders and Pharisees were trying to be close enough to hear Jesus’ words too, but grumbled when they discovered that they could not get close without becoming unclean.

The scandal of this passage is that the Pharisees are close to Jesus, and therefore close to the “sinners and tax collectors” that cause them to grumble. In my first reading of this text today I think I understand the plight of the religious leader. They had an apparent draw toward Jesus, otherwise they could have easily written him off and walked away. Lots of people eat with sinners and tax collectors. I doubt that the religious leaders offered commentary on it. They were preoccupied with ritual and cleanliness. They were preoccupied with personal piety. But, for some reason, Jesus was different. I’m not sure exactly what drew the religious leaders to the sinners’ table, but they showed up. They grumbled. They also listened.

The religious leaders had ordered their life in such a way that they limited any possible opportunity to become unclean got close enough to Jesus—who was surrounded by a sea of followers—for Jesus to overhear their complaint. That’s very close! In crowds I struggle to hear the person at my side. I wonder if the religious leaders were trying to understand. I wonder if they really wanted to hear this message from a man called Jesus who proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near. I wonder if they grumbled from a sense of indignation that there were unclean people or if they grumbled because it meant that their world had been too small for their whole lives. I know I grumble when I start to recognize that I’ve limited God’s grace. It would be so nice to have it all figured out! But I rarely do, so I grumble.

Which is why I think Jesus’ stories are such beautiful pastoral responses for all of us. We get ahead of ourselves, trying to map out comprehensive visions for our churches. We develop programs and systems to carry the church’s ministry forward. We study and research population trends and demographic charts to establish a means of outreach. The problem is that we struggle to put our sandals on and walk out the door in search of the lost sheep. We struggle to get ourselves dirty by walking through our towns and getting to know the people who live in them. As religious leaders, it would be so much easier to surround ourselves with good, clean church people and have them go do the work of the Gospel. We could stay clean. Jesus does not call us to that. Jesus reminds us through these words of scripture, to step out of our piety. He reminds us that the shepherd is intimately connected to her flock in such a way that she would know immediately if one of the sheep were missing. She would know the sheep so well that she would know exactly where to look.

Most importantly for me, the shepherd loves the sheep, not other shepherds. In the same way, the religious leaders cannot only be connected to other religious leaders or church folk. This text reminds me, even though it would be so easy to build my friendships with other clergy and religious leaders, that my relationships must be formed with people in the church and community that I serve. In a connectional institution like The United Methodist Church, it is very easy to become more connected with colleagues in ministry, which is a wonderful gift. But there is always a temptation to let that become the church for me. These stories of grumbling religious leaders and lost coins and sheep help me re-center myself. I see myself reflected in the grumbles, and I see my vocation in the search. May I always live into my vocation.

 

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber is the Associate Pastor of Congregational Care and Community Outreach at Decatur First United Methodist Church. He was recently commissioned as an Elder in the United Methodist Church after serving as a Local Pastor. Patrick is a graduate of Candler School of Theology with a focus in religious and non-profit leadership.

Proper 18C: Yada, Yada, Yada: A Cautionary Tale

Proper 18C: Yada, Yada, Yada: A Cautionary Tale

Luke 14:25-35

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

I recently found myself reviewing the comprehensive standards for ANSI Z535 (don’t ask). I had never heard of ANSI Z535 and would have previously guessed it to be the model number for a Battlestar Galatica Cylon raider if pressed. Turns out it is short for the American National Standards Institute and Z535 represents the committee within the institute that standardizes the American system for hazard recognition.

ANSI is the group that determines what safety words mean, assigning their colors and helping consumers identify things and situations that can kill them, maim them or simply ruin a perfectly good day (I’m looking at you, IKEA). For ANSI, these are not mere synonyms, but the difference between life and death. “Warning” could mean amputation of a leg; “caution” might mean a broken fingernail.

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Standardized safety warnings extends beyond ANSI of course. Homeland Security has its own color coded alert system (see below). Notice that the colors match the ANSI color system. Americans like color consistency.

This is just one example of a world filled with warnings and caution flags. You experience this everyday with much more insignificant things compared to heavy equipment safety or terrorism alerts. There may be no faster click-through than when I am met with a user agreement before downloading an app. Yada yada yada…click “I Agree,” let’s get on with it, download already.

I think in Jesus’ time, people weren’t much different. They could become numb from all ofdhs-threat1 the warnings. They lived in a rough-and-tumble world filled with precarious situations: dangerous wildlife, high infant mortality, Roman soldiers who could “go-off” any minute and abuse you, not to mention  the possibility of contracting any one of a variety of debilitating illnesses. There were warnings, rules, practices, and superstitions to follow to keep people safe from harm. It might have been hard to see red flags when so many people were so enthusiastic about Jesus’ teachings. After all, Jesus has been warning them all along, but the people were yada yada yada-ing over his precautions. No, Jesus says, we’re not headed to Jerusalem for a Tough Mudder run over the weekend, there is a cross to bear once we arrive! With that cross comes death—for some of us physically, but for all of us, a death to what was before. So, think about this. Heed the warning.

Caution. Warning. Danger.

Luke has often been depicted as a historian-theologian, but I most appreciate his ability to weave a good story. For this reason, his warnings on superficial discipleship don’t read like the warning labels on drug commercials. He writes that his audience might hear Jesus’ teaching in a more compelling, and in the case of this exchange, even shocking way.

The Gospel writer, along with his audience, knows what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem. Luke heeds Jesus’ warning on what uncompromising loyalty looks like by masterfully amplifying the warnings in a way the American National Standards Institute would appreciate.

  • CAUTION. In Lk. 8:19-21, Jesus offers a somewhat jarring response to news of his blood relatives on the edge of the crowd, portraying family as a response to communal obedience.
  • Jesus offers a stern WARNING to his closest of followers in Lk. 9:23-24, foretelling his suffering and the sacrifices following him will require.
  • And now, DANGER in 14:25-35. For Jesus, hasty discipleship is not discipleship at all.

Make the calculation. Count the cost.

Despite the audience shift in verse 25 from the guests at the Pharisee’s banquet to the large crowds traveling around the countryside with him, Jesus is essentially repeating the same warning he gave to the religious leaders (vv. 1-14). He responds to the enthusiastic and willing but perhaps casual, or even reckless followers with words that should stop a first century Jew in their tracks: “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciples” (v. 26).

That’ll get their attention. As preacher Fred Craddock reminds us, “To hate is a Semitic expression meaning to turn away from, to detach oneself from.”[1] It is not the same as our contemporary expression, “I hate you.” The term denotes action, not emotion. Jesus’ point is not how you feel about your family, rather, it is about who you will choose if and when it comes to choosing between family and the kingdom. Eugene Peterson’s popular paraphrase, The Message, reworks Jesus’ caution as a “refusal to let go” of father, mother, spouse, children…yada, yada, yada. I think preachers should be wary, however, of softening this phrase, dismissing Jesus’ warning as ancient hyperbole. This teaching would have cut deeply into the hearts of the mothers and fathers in the crowd. It would call into question the vows made to a spouse. Family was everything in first century Palestine. It was life. To cut oneself off from family would have certainly meant danger.

“What is demanded of disciples,” Craddock explains further, “is that in the network of many loyalties in which all of us live, the claim of Christ and the gospel not only takes precedence but, in fact, redefines the others. This can and will necessarily involve some detaching, some turning away.”[2]

To follow Jesus to Jerusalem, the pivot point of the entirety of Luke’s Gospel, means to redefine commitment, loyalty, and priorities. It means to let go of those demands that distract us from prioritizing God. Our commitments to family, job, and station in life can bubble up and take precedent over our commitment to follow Jesus.

Can you finish what you start?

Jesus practiced what he preached (Mk. 3:31-35). He understood the demands of family life and the crushing weight of the materialistic world on our focus and attention (Lk. 18-30). But, in this passage, he seems to desire that the people walk with him to Jerusalem with their eyes open. He hopes to remove their naiveté, using the parables of the tower builder (vv. 28-31) and the warring king (vv. 31-32) to further his warning against lighthearted agreement to the demands of discipleship.

Jesus’ final illustration (vv.34-35) brings it home with a story of domestication all can relate to. Perhaps even after laying out a fairly clear warning of the cost of discipleship, Jesus is still trying to help the unreflective crowd understand the cost. Just as salt loses flavor, so can the initial excitement and the early, passion-filled commitment, no matter how sincere or genuine, fade over time.

Jesus was gentle with failure, but sharper when cautioning against “jaunty discipleship and a merely impulsive loyalty.”[3] Playing “fast and loose” with the claims of Jesus is a cautionary tale for the contemporary hearer of Luke’s account. Is the cost more than I am willing to pay? Do I truly understand the cost of this pursuit? Can I finish what I started? As German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” You can’t yada, yada, yada over that.

 

 

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne (@kimkjenne) is currently the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. In this position, she is responsible for helping lead congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ. Prior to her most recent appointment, she served as the senior pastor to Webster Hills UMC in Webster Groves, an in-town suburb of St. Louis. And, before that, she worked in advertising where she sold a lot of beer for some very popular brands. She draws on that experience daily but is glad that she now gets to choose which brand to drink. Kim considers herself an inconsistent but persistent follower of Christ.

 

 

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary series, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1990): 181.

[2] Ibid., 182.

[3] Leander E. Keck, New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX, Luke, John, (Abingdon Press, 1996), 261.

Proper 17C: True Humility

Proper 17C: True Humility

Luke 14:1; 7-14

By: Jerrod McCormack

Humility: What does it mean to be a truly humble individual? This is a question that I suppose in some ways I have struggled with my whole life. For many years, I believed that it meant that I had to check every emotion before allowing it through the cracks in my well-honed and polite southern exterior, and every time the strongest of those emotions did make it through I felt guilty and carried shame because I wasn’t being understanding enough toward others. The ‘humility’ of much of my adult life wasn’t true humility at all. It was a masquerade of my own ego—not that I could have named it as such in the time. So what is true humility?

St. Augustine of Hippo says that, “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.”[1] That still doesn’t solve the problem of defining humility. Most definitions of humility involve some use of the word humble in them which isn’t very helpful. Many others define humility as the opposite of pride. For me, my best definition of humility is having in myself a profound understanding of my own reliance and need for God’s love and mercy in my life. This humility arises from the conviction that I need God’s love and mercy as much as anyone else. Humility is also about understanding our place in the cosmos. I am only one person among the estimated 7.4 billion people living on this tiny globe hurling through space in this little corner of the Milky Way.

My sense of humility today is profoundly different than it was only a few years ago. I have embraced a new way of engaging with the world. It is easy when we do not encounter those who are significantly different than us to assume that everyone must necessarily think the way we do. I think it is a natural thing for us to project our own way of thinking onto all humanity. In a culture where people of different religious faiths, spiritual practices, ideologies, social groups, ethnic identities, and origins come to live side by side, we cannot have the privilege of projecting onto the world our own ways of thinking. In post-modern thought, we need to bring a certain amount of humility to our interactions with the world. Post-modernists talk about this in terms of epistemological humility.

This idea of epistemological humility is actually fairly simple though the name makes it sound really complex. It means that we have to be honest about what we can and cannot know for certain. It means at the core of who we are that we must accept our own human experience as limited to the culture, religious faith, family of origin, ethnic identity, and nationality in which we’ve lived our lives. It is ultimately about honesty and integrity both spiritually and intellectually. St. Paul speaks of this humility when he says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)

When we understand that everything we know is but a fraction of the collected knowledge of humanity expressed in the faith of the Christian Tradition in our western culture, we can be more open to understanding the places from which others share their journeys in faith and doubt. It is this sense of our own place in the universe and in the world of God’s redeeming that allows us to approach others with understanding instead of judgement, with true humility instead of pride in assuming that we know what is right for them. Jesus tells us at the end of the first half of this reading that, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This isn’t about jockeying for a position at the table.

It is about the gospel that turns the world on its head. It’s about the young Israelite woman who at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel sings out, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:52-53) This call for the righting of all things has its roots in the hope for the messiah. Jesus connects this hope to the rewards of the resurrection. Reward will come on ‘the last day’ when God will give away seats at the banquet table to those who have humbled themselves first and then to those who have been proud and conceited. Notice that here in Luke’s gospel there’s no exclusion of the people who haven’t acted humbly. There is only a lesser place at the feast.

I can’t help but wonder what it means to have a lesser place at God’s banquet table. I imagine it to be quite contrary to the experience of being at the back of the line. Being at the back of the line brings with it a certain connotation that you will have to eat the crumbs and the leftovers after everyone has already had all the good stuff, but at the banquet in God’s kingdom there is no limit to the good stuff. The concept of limited resources doesn’t apply to the One who is boundless.

Jesus taps into the understanding of a radical hospitality when he says that when we invite guests to a feast we shouldn’t invite those folks who can repay us for our generosity, but instead we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. I can follow why Jesus would point us toward these marginalized groups. I have to wonder in what way it changes our perspective on the world when we hang out with the outcast, the friendless, and the downtrodden. Maybe it is here among the lowly that we embrace our own lowliness, explore our own disabilities, and find that deep sense of humility. I would say that when our lives intertwine with these marginalized groups we cannot be left the same.

One of the things I learned while I was in seminary was that the honor and shame culture of the ancient near east is a foreign idea to many western readers. It’s just something we don’t get because we aren’t embedded in a culture where honor is prized. I would argue quite the contrary. I am deeply a product of the southern culture in which I was raised. It is a culture with a hefty dose of honor and shame for all. In the small rural town in north Alabama where I grew up, honor was handed out primarily to those families that had been a part of the community for generations. Shame was heaped on the doorstep of anyone who dared to challenge the status quo and people who weren’t ‘like us.’ My experience of being an outsider in this culture has greatly shaped the way I have lived and the types of ministries in which I have invested my life. I worked or volunteered in churches, hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons, and long term care facilities. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the people whose lives I have been privileged to enter had as much effect on my life as I believe I have had on theirs.

[1] Augustine of Hippo, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologicae, Question 161: Article 2.

 

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Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is a Chaplain Intern at Bethany Care Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also the Youth Minister at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary. He is convinced that the cross is the greatest expression of God’s love for all people and that God’s love calls us to a life of hospitality, acceptance, and gives peace. When in search of fun, he can be found with a camera in his hand on some random mountain pass in the Rockies. He is married to Ali McCormack, and they live in Calgary, Alberta.

 

Proper 16(C): Freedom, Undiluted

Proper 16(C): Freedom, Undiluted

Luke 13:10-17

By: Dani Scoville

This is not how this goes. My shoulders tense and a pounding energy courses through my veins. This is not what I had planned. I am a Type A planner and this is how I react to unexpected change. I love a “to-do” list, a schedule, and coming up with a holy order to life. My practicality can border on rigidity and I see how it gets in the way of God at times — particularly God in the unexpected.

It is why I feel for the synagogue leader in this passage. Here is this follower of God, trying so hard to honor what he has read in the holy scriptures that he gets lost in the practices rather than the holy mystery of freedom Jesus offers in this scene. No wonder Richard Rohr calls Jesus a stumbling block to followers — many of Jesus’ actions invite those around him into a more nuanced way of believing and living.1 This passage is no exception. He doesn’t throw the law out, he complicates it. He doesn’t disagree with the leader that the Sabbath isn’t for work, he redefines his actions: not working but giving freedom to this woman.

The synagogue leader, though, is so tied to the law that he prioritizes it over freedom and justice. Maybe waiting one more day to heal the woman didn’t seem like a lot to him, but it certainly would have to her. Who doesn’t want freedom from their ailments immediately? Her ailment doesn’t take a Sabbath. The injustices and oppression of others don’t either. His rigidity is rooted in privilege, entitlement, and perhaps ignorance. The person who is objecting to the healing is 1) a faith leader, 2) male, and 3) not crippled. Even when I do understand that my Sabbath doesn’t have to follow a structured law, I sometimes use the structure itself as an excuse for my sense of entitlement with Sabbath. No I will not talk to that stranger on my walk from church, this is my Sabbath and I don’t want to deal with anyone right now.

On the other hand, I’m a huge advocate for Sabbath being counted as part of seeking justice— that it is not just self-serving. Particularly important is Sabbath for those in caregiving, spiritual, and activism work because burnout is real, it’s painful, and it takes a long time to recover from if ignored. Saying yes to everything and running myself ragged ends up hurting or exploiting those I am trying to help. Rest sets me up well to do better work in the world and be sincerely present to others. In other passages, Jesus retreats from crowds of people who also long for healing and freedom. So, I feel conflicted while reading this passage. How do I hold boundaries and live into this freedom for myself and be open to offering the same freedom to others? It feels paradoxical.

This is why, like the lawyer in Luke 10:25, I want defined terms: what is freedom? what is work? who is my neighbor? how much do I have to give of myself on the Sabbath? how much do I need to do the holy work of rest? how much entitlement do I need to release? Embedded in Jesus’ parable responses are some answers, but mostly mystery. Certainly not the Sabbath “do’s and don’ts” list I keep tucked away in my dresser. His answers show precisely the mystery I’m invited into while reading this passage. There are no structures to use as situational shortcuts—a kind of holy “one-size-fits-all.” There is untying and leading, touching and healing, and giving freedom. At other times there is retreating, disconnecting, using the holy word “no.” Discerning between the two requires patience, slowing down, and surrendering. No wonder many, myself included, long for the clear, defined rules—the alternative takes a lot of intentionality.

But I’ve lived the life of the set practices and absolute answers, and quite honestly, it didn’t work. It didn’t work for simply living life and it wasn’t consistent with my experience of God. Instead, these days it’s the paradoxical and mysterious edges that draw me, like the one that came out of this passage. As a spiritual director, I am trained to listen for moments of freedom in what my clients are sharing and what I am experiencing in myself in session. Freedom is such a spacious term, because it won’t always look the same, situation to situation. Spacious but certainly not diluted—freedom is such a rich, intense, and holy word.

1 https://cac.org/the-stumbling-stone-2016-06-14/

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Dani Scoville

Dani Scoville is a certified spiritual director practicing in San Francisco. She is particularly curious about spiritual developmental stages, individuals’ personal experiences, and the relationship between attachment styles and God images. To find more of her writing, visit her blog.

 

Proper 15(C): Embrace the Awkward!

Proper 15(C): Embrace the Awkward!

Luke 12:49-56

By: Jay Butler

I’m a youth minister, which obviously means that my job mainly consists of dealing with teenagers. Teenagers are inherently awkward and uncomfortable. I often revel in their awkwardness, because every teenager that has ever lived, including me, no matter how cool they think they are, has been or is awkward. One of the main reasons why teenagers are so awkward is because they’re starting to figure out who they are as a person. They start to figure out what they like, whom they like, and they begin to process what they want to do for the rest of their lives. However, their brains haven’t developed enough to reach the best and wisest decisions, and so sometimes awkwardness is the product of this exploration. As a youth minister, it is my job to help my teenagers explore, and to advise them on how to live a fruitful, prosperous life rooted in Christ.

Even as we grow older and more assured of ourselves, we encounter awkward moments all the time. Awkward situations don’t end when puberty does. In fact, awkwardness is part of the human experience. Sometimes when a person expresses certain political views or cheers for a certain team, situations with people on “the other side” can get awkward. Unfortunately, awkward or uncomfortable moments can also lead to arguments, insults, and even rejection. When a teenager is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or Questioning, and accepts their gender or sexual identity enough to the point where they want to be open to their family, too often parents throw their children out onto the streets, causing irreconcilable divisions within the family.

But there are also awkward situations that make us better people. When our brother or sister in Christ calls us out on a sin or struggle we refuse to acknowledge, it can be awkward coming to terms with that. However, it can make us better people by looking to fix that and growing closer to God in the process of sanctification. Jesus does that for us in these verses. He calls out the people following him to live better lives and to be truly transformed through Him.

To give some background for these verses, Jesus is traveling with some of the largest crowds He has ever had. Recall Luke 12:1: “when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another…” (NRSV). As with many crowds, there were people following who fell into different camps. Some were devoted followers, like the twelve apostles, and some were actively against Jesus’ teachings, like the Pharisees and other temple officials. However, a large majority of them probably fell into the category of just being along for the ride. They were there because Jesus was famous, or because they really liked the idea of taking on the establishment. Jesus, sensing this, starts to cull the herd, and says some things that might be hard for people to accept.

Jesus immediately speaks in powerful and dichotomous terms. In verse 49, Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” In the next verse, Jesus references baptisms, which are defined by their use of water, “and what stress [He is] under until it is completed!” Fire and water are naturally opposite, but both forces are used to accomplish the same thing for Jesus: purification.

For centuries, Christians have used both of these ethereal forces to talk about purification. Seminal hymns like “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” have allusions to fire and water in the lyrics. They both seek to do the same thing, though, which is to make us holier through growing closer to God through the Holy Spirit. It seems like Jesus intends for all of us to grow, but the means of growth are always meant to keep us on our toes and feeling a little awkward.

The purification received by Jesus is truly transformational, and not everyone will understand it. Jesus mentions in verses 52-53, that groups will be divided and even families torn apart by the work that Jesus is doing. Jesus’ work is meant to upset the oppressive systems and people in power. Jesus wants the transformation in our lives to affect the world as well. He emphasizes that point in verses 54-56, even to the point of calling His crowd, “hypocrites.” In calling them hypocrites, Jesus is saying that their sanctification isn’t just for the afterlife, but for transforming the present time.

God calls us to embrace parts of our faith that can be divisive. Too often we prefer a faith that is insular, piety-centered, and safe. That type of faith doesn’t promote growth and sanctification. Our faith is purified only when it inspires change—not just in ourselves, but also in the world around us. We must step out of our bubble to challenge and improve the world. Jesus predicted that the world would be divided because of the power of what He brought to the world. We are called to make the world feel awkward because of the way Jesus lived His life.

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Jay Butler

Jay Butler is the Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church in Durham, NC. He is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He is a die-hard University of Georgia and Atlanta sports fan, and would have Robert Downey Jr. play him in the movie centered on his life.

Proper 14(C): Anxiety and Faith

Anxiety and Faith

Luke 12:32-48

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

Faith. When I read today’s Gospel passage I am struck by the juxtaposition of anxiety and faith. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus counsels the disciples in the first verse. Here he acknowledges that fear is a real and present companion for his followers, then and now.

We need to hear this reassurance often. Do not be afraid. With “Brexit” and the possibility of a global recession looming, with xenophobic politicians spewing hate across television, with acts of international and domestic terrorism shaking our sense of security, we need to hear Jesus’ voice calmly inviting us to lay our anxiety and fear at the foot of the cross. Do not be afraid. In the lectionary text last week, Jesus gives the examples of the lilies of the field—who have no anxiety about market shares or college loans—who worry not, for God has provided for all their needs. “But God so clothes the grasses of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—ye of little faith!” (Luke 12:28)

Jesus followers were anxious. They were worried. Worried about Roman oppressors hurting them and their families. Worried about where their next meal will come from, and how they’re going to provide for themselves and the future. Worried about God’s anger. Worried about the state of the world, full to bursting with injustice.

Let me tell you something: I know a thing or two about worry. I was brought up on the firm ground of Murphy’s Law: If it can go wrong it will, so plan for the worst and hope for the best. But mostly just expect the worst. Brene Brown calls this the constant fear of doom anxiety, and it is a powerful block that keeps people from taking risks, from being authentic and vulnerable. I have caught myself daydreaming about getting married and having kids, but the day dreams aren’t happily ever afters. Someone always gets cancer, or dies tragically, or runs away. I don’t want those things to happen in my daydream future (or real-life future!), but my anxiety—my fear—invades my imagination and I cannot believe that I could have happiness without doom hard on my heels. Better to expect the terrible – cancer, illness, and suffering than to be blindsided by it.

Except, living in a constant state of anxiety steals your joy. When you are always worried, always waiting for the shoe to drop, you cannot fully appreciate the moments of happiness as they arrive. Holding my newborn niece is marred by my worry for the world she’s born into. Rejoicing with a friend’s pregnancy is tainted by my anxiety over all the health problems pregnancy can cause. Life is always bittersweet, since you mar your happiness with the overhanging sense of dread. And that fear is not what God desire for us. That fear—that need to control the variables to prepare for the potential doom–that’s not the freedom that Jesus gives us.

When Jesus tells us “do not be afraid,” he invites us to divest ourselves of our fear and our control. Sell our possessions, give the money to the needy, for those things will not save us. Our control over our wealth will not save us. Only God, whose good pleasure it is, will give us the kingdom. We cannot replace anxiety with inactive calm. We cannot replace fear with our desire to control outcomes. Fear must be replaced by trust and faithful action.

The second part of our Gospel reading us about action. It’s about being alert for the Master, even when we don’t expect him. I am again reminded that faith and action cannot be divorced. If we are to live in a way that is fearless, then we must do the work of the kingdom that God promises to give to us. We must have our lamps lit and be dressed to serve. We must be about the work of the faithful—of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and setting the captives free—even when we don’t feel like Jesus is going to come knocking anytime soon.

Faithful action is the result of laying down our fear and replacing it with trust. We trust that the Master will come, so we ready the house. We go about the tasks that the Master left for us to do. And if we are caught up in our faithful action when the Master return we will be blessed. In Jesus’ parable, the slaves who were up ready to serve the late-returning Master were rewarded with the Master cooking them a meal—a countercultural gospel indeed! We are reminded that we will not know God’s timing, so we should expect God always; work and live faithfully always. In this we shall be blessed.

We cannot control the world. We cannot manage terrorism away. We cannot protect ourselves by moving our global investments from Great Britain to India. We cannot protect ourselves from every act of gun violence, or every mutinous cancer cell, or every painful heartbreak. We have to loosen our grip on control, and listen to Jesus words, “do not be afraid.” Fear must turn to trust, and trust must grow into faithful action, building the kingdom that it is God’s good pleasure to give us.

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The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied History and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Masters of Divinity form Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

 

Proper 13(C): Craving God’s Love

Proper 13(C): Craving God’s Love

Luke 12:13-21

By: The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

When I think about greed—the excessive desire for more of something regardless of our need—I think about the Grinch from Dr. Seuss, Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, and Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, but I would never think about the Gospel of Luke.

In Luke 12:13-21, we hear the story of a man who is devastated by the fact that his brother does not want to share the family’s inheritance with him. As Jesus listens to this man’s dilemma, Jesus says to the crowd: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” Lk 12:15 (NRSV).

According the Synopsis of the Four Gospels edited by Kurt Aland, no other gospel has records of such encounter with Jesus, and yet the Greek word used in this passage for greed (pleonexia) is only recorded elsewhere in scripture a few times.[1]

In the context of Luke 12, pleonexia refers to the human sense of avarice, greed, craving, and covetous practices. Jesus illustrates this with a parable. Luke 12:16-21 says: “Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

In the biblical sense, pleonexia refers to those who have an excessive desire for power through material possessions. Although we have observed images of greed throughout human history, I wonder what pleonexia looks like in today’s world?

In todays world, it is not a secret that pleonexia has gone beyond the individual desire for more. Now, we are well-acquainted with corporate greed. We live in a culture in which pleonexia controls life itself, so much so that schools seem to value the idea of success over all else. We are obsessed with our physical appearance and with a ridiculous desire to have more money, more power, and more material things so we can succeed in life. Perhaps the problem resides on our eagerness to use pleonexia to control something that cannot be controlled: life itself. As Jesus says in the parable: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God,” pleonexia limits us from storing up treasures toward God.

Perhaps the only answer to pleonexia, is a different kind of pleonexia—one that is not focused on the individual, but rather is focused on a craving for mutual love. Take for instance the parable of the long spoons. “One day a man said to God, ‘God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.’ God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, ‘You have seen Hell.’ Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The man said, “I don’t understand.” God smiled. “It is simple,” he said, “Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves.”[2] Perhaps it is this kind of pleonexia—this craving for God’s love and grace that will bring us closer to the One who created us.

[1] Luke 12:15; Romans 1:29; Ephesians 4:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 2 Peter 2:3.

[2] The Parable of the Long Handle Spoons, attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok.

 

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The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo is an Episcopal priest serving as priest in charge of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (Diocese of Milwaukee). Oscar is originally from Bogota, Colombia and moved to the U.S. in 2004. He now lives in Wisconsin with his wife, The Rev. Elizabeth Tester, their puppy Amos, and kitty Batsheva.

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