Proper 23C: Faith that Makes Us Well

Proper 23C: Faith that Makes Us Well

Luke 17:11-23

By: Kristen Leigh Southworth

“Your faith has made you well.”  -Luke 17:19

Faith. The Greek word used here is pistis. And it doesn’t mean belief, as in “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…”  It doesn’t mean adherence to a certain religion, as in “I belong to the Catholic faith.” The Gospels are not a set of theological treatises and doctrines about God or Jesus. They are a collection of stories. In particular, they are stories about trust.

Pistis means “trust.”

Today in Luke, we have a story about trust. We hear about a motley crew of ten standing outside a village, crying out to Jesus for mercy. These ten had all been classified as “lepers,” meaning they had either contracted the bacterial infection mycobacterium leprae, for which there was no cure up until about 1940, and which caused a slow and irreversible degeneration of the skin tissue that eventually led to swollen deformities all over the body, or they had come down with psoriasis or some other skin condition that looked like mycobacterium leprae in its early stages, and got classified just the same. Folks designated as “lepers” were required by law to live in isolation, apart from their families, outside the city gates, wear torn clothes, keep their distance from others, and announce themselves to strangers by yelling “Unclean! Unclean!”

It sounds harsh, but nobody knew about bacterial infections back then. Leprosy was thought to have resulted from some kind of divine curse that was probably due to a sin on the part of the sufferer, or maybe their family. After all, it was pretty much accepted that people were responsible for their own fates.

We like to think we’ve come a long way since then. The World Health Organization announced in 2000 that global leprosy had been eradicated thanks to antibiotics. But I think we still have our “lepers” today. There are plenty of physical ailments and mental illnesses that still bewilder the best of modern medical practitioners, and those who suffer from them are often met with a similar attitude.

 

Take, for example, my mother, who has fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes her to experience debilitating pain all over her body, for reasons that no one is able to entirely explain. After nearly fifteen years, she has visited all manner of doctors, undergone all sorts of tests, and tried all kinds of treatments including prescription medications, vitamin supplements, hormone therapies, homeopathic remedies, yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, herbal teas, and special nutritional vegan detox smoothie cleanses. All along the way, rationally-minded neurologists and new age positive-thinking healers alike have suggested that her illness is probably the result of her psychological attitude, or some set of choices she made along the way.

Similar assumptions are often made about folks living with all manner of poorly-understood conditions, from depression, to multiple sclerosis, to cancer—even homelessness and systemic poverty. We humans are relentless in our need to oversimplify and assign blame when answers are elusive. We want control. And so in the absence of real scientific, psychological, or sociological clarity, we still tend to fall back on those same age-old assumptions, that people are responsible for their lot in life, and that in the end we get what we deserve. Hey, it’s karma, man.

But Jesus steps into that world of inevitabilities and says to Hell with causes and conditions. Whatever your circumstances, there is always an opening to new life, which you can access through pistis. This, for me, is the meaning behind so many of the miraculous healing stories we find in the Gospels. Over and over, we hear the same refrain: “Your faith has made you well.” This is not about belief. This is not the idea that if you just believed hard enough in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior that he would make the cancer go away. Pistis is about trust. Radical trust. Faith is the life that we choose to live into, when life seems impossible. Faith is placing the weight of your trust on the Goodness and the Lovingkindness at the center of all reality, regardless of your personal circumstances. Faith is what allows us to move even towards our own death, trusting in the crazy, radical promise of new Life in resurrection.

The Gospel stories show us that when we act with trust in God, in spite of how dire our circumstances may seem, we demonstrate real faith and we find true healing. In today’s story, Jesus sends the ten lepers back to the priests to be re-classified as “clean” without having healed them! They were required to step into the reality of their own healing, even before it had actually occurred and without any evidence that it would. They were made clean as they went.

One of my favorite books is entitled Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning. He writes:

The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of the pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future.

In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a recovery strategy called “acting as if.” It involves making the conscious decision to act in accordance with one’s own recovery, even when the person feels totally overwhelmed by the negative thoughts and feelings that would drive back into addictive behavior. The trick is not to lie to yourself about what you are thinking or feeling, or to try and repress it, but to simply make a choice to live into a new and different reality.

That is pistis. Sometimes it can mean acting without belief. Sometimes it can mean “acting as if” you trusted in God, even if you aren’t sure whether or not God even really exists. There is real power in this kind of trust. This is the kind of faith that can move mountains, the deepest kind of faith there is. Because the choices we make in our lives, with our actions, express our inner convictions far more authentically than any mental construct, feeling, or creed ever could.

Much has been made in recent years of the doubts that plagued Mother Teresa in the last half of her life. Time magazine called it a “crisis of faith.” And yet what is truly remarkable, what actually makes her a stalwart of Christian faith and worthy of sainthood, is that she continued to act with overwhelming trust in God’s reality and presence, even when she could not personally perceive or feel that presence. That is Biblical faith.

“To trust in the love of God in the face of the marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life,” writes Manning, “is to whisper a doxology in darkness.” Sometimes the darkness is all we can see, and a whisper is all we have to give. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain, or sickness, or danger, or grief, Jesus does not ask us to whitewash it, deny it, analyze who is responsible for it, or try to make it go away. The faith that Jesus calls us to only asks that we step into our own healing by continuing to move in the direction of life and love, even (especially!) when all hope seems lost. This kind of faith is not contingent on ideas, or feelings, or particular outcomes, but on the choices that we make in every single moment of our lives. This is the kind of faith that has the power to make us well.

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Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Southworth is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, where she focused her studies in theological aesthetics, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Greensboro, NC, where she offers workshops, performs music, practices archery, grows vegetables, roller skates, writes, and serves as Assistant to the Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Proper 22C: The Apostles’ Retirement Plan

Proper 22C: The Apostles’ Retirement Plan

Luke 17:5-10

By: Ryan Young

My wife and I are, by all accounts, yuppies. We are young professionals who live a fairly comfortable life in the suburbs of Atlanta. We have two cars, a mortgage, and a dog; the only things that seem to be left on our checklists are 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. And a healthy retirement plan. And good life insurance. And a good investment portfolio (…should I know what a mutual bond is by now?). And a bit more recognition in our work lives. And one of those cars is a little old, so we’d better start shopping for a new one. And I would love for another week of vacation. And I guess we really ought to start thinking about kids; most of our friends already have children in day care. Oh my gosh, we haven’t even started looking into day cares in our area; I hear they start taking reservations for the one-year-old classes 2 years in advance! What if it’s too late to reserve a spot for our future kids, and then they start off without the best educational foundation? How are they going to get into a good college? College! How are we ever going to pay for that! We’d better get started saving now!

The above, apart from being a fun look inside my grab bag of neuroses and insecurities, is where I think the apostles’ heads were when they beg Jesus for more faith in Luke 17:5. Jesus has just laid down an incredibly difficult teaching in verses 1-4; not only is Jesus clear about how seriously he takes it when one of his followers causes someone else to sin, but he says that no matter how often someone sins against you, if they are repentant, a disciple is commanded to extend forgiveness. The demands that Jesus is putting on the disciples are exhausting, so they begin thinking of ways that would make following Jesus easier on them.

“If Jesus could endow us with a greater portion of faith,” they seem to think, “then it would be easier for us to fulfill these commands.” I’m not sure whether the apostles hoped that Jesus would respond to their plea by reducing his expectations of them, or by equipping them with a superhuman faith that would make his expectations easier to meet. Whatever their hope, Jesus responds in a way that I don’t think they anticipated; he comments, not on their need for more faith, but on their lack of understanding of the nature of faith.

In his commentary on Luke, Fred Craddock writes that the “if” clause in verse 6 is conditional according to fact rather than contrary to fact, and thus might better be understood, “If you had faith [and you do] the size of a mustard seed…” Jesus is then not rebuking them for their lack of faith, but explaining to them that the measure of faith they possess is adequate to the calling which he has placed on them. The absurd image of commanding a tree to uproot itself, walk into the ocean, and replant itself, conveys the idea that nothing is out of the realm of possibility for God; that God works through faith in ways that are contrary to human expectations. Jesus is telling the disciples that they already have the full measure of faith that they need to live up to his expectations and example, but I suspect they already knew that. I think that the disciples were acting in a way that I am so often guilty of; they were looking for an easier way.

This is the point at which I find the disciples to be the most relatable. I am always looking for the path of least resistance. I am always seeking that one thing, that once I attain it will make the other pieces of my life fall in line. We are people for whom ease and comfort are the primary goals. So much of our culture is geared toward this idea; we are driven to achieve not for the sake of the achievement or work, but so that on some distant day we might be able to rest comfortably on our laurels. We work hard so that eventually we will have enough in the bank and we won’t have to work anymore. Like us, the disciples are looking for the path of least resistance; if they have an increase of faith, the difficult tasks of loving and serving become easier. Perhaps they are even hoping that an increase of faith might speed them toward a time when their period of service ends.

It is to the desire for an easier way that Jesus seems to direct the parable in verses 7-10. A servant does not anticipate to be lauded for doing those things that are expected of them, nor does a servant ever reach a time when their duty is completely fulfilled; once they come in from plowing the field they know they must till and reseed it. Likewise, there will never come a time when the work of Jesus’ disciples is complete; the needy must always be served, the mourning must always be comforted, the hurting must always be loved, those who have aggrieved you must always be forgiven. There is no respite to the work of love, for love is always and everywhere needed in as great a measure as it can be given.

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Ryan Young and his wife Rachael

Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael and their dog Zooey.

 

Proper 21(C): Glimpsing the Kingdom in the Other

Proper 21(C): Glimpsing the Kingdom in the Other

Luke 16:19-31

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Once upon a time, there was a rich man who ate and dressed very well. He lived in an opulent mansion surrounded by a large, secure wall. At the gate to the outside, there was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus. (Public Service Announcement: Luke’s character named Lazarus is almost certainly a different person than the other dude named Lazarus whom Jesus resuscitates in John’s Gospel). Lazarus was starving, and begged the rich man for food—not the food from the man’s table, but only the food from the floor; the dog scraps. Weeks went by. The rich man kept ignoring Lazarus, and Lazarus kept getting sicker and weaker and hungrier. Eventually, both men died. Fast-forward to the afterlife: Lazarus is in heaven, and the rich man is in Hades (which most Christians have amalgamated to mean Hell). So there you have it: the rich man who doesn’t care about the poor goes to Hell, and the poor man who is forced to beg goes to Heaven. The end.

Well, not so fast.

Parables in general and this one in particular can’t be summed up with a paragraph or two of quick and dirty exegesis that reduces the narrative to a simplistic binary between rich and poor. “The rich go to hell, and the poor go to heaven.” This text is far richer, more complex, and more engaging than reducing it to the tired old binary of morally bankrupt rich people against the innocent poor.

So what’s going on here? How are we to make sense of this text? Where is the Good News?

First, I think it’s helpful to remember that a parable is a unique genre of literature, set apart from fables, anecdotes, or allegories. That’s not to say that they can’t convey a moral message (fable), or illustrate a larger point (anecdote), or reveal hidden religious or political meaning (allegory). In fact, parables can do all of those things—but they can also do none of those things. More than simple literary devices, parables are meant to offer us glimpses into the Kingdom of God; snapshots of how God does things in God’s realm, as opposed to how we do things in our world. The difference between the two is often surprising, and even jarring at times!

On first hearing it, this parable may appear to suggest that the rich man’s sin lay in the fact that he ignored Lazarus, even when he was in grave and dire need. And I think there’s something to that. But did you notice what happens when the rich man cries out to Abraham? “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” The rich man not only recognizes Lazarus in the afterlife, he calls him by name! The problem here is not simply about the fact that the rich man ignored Lazarus or treated him as though he were invisible—although that in itself is problem enough. The deeper problem is that, even in the afterlife, the rich man denied Lazarus’s personhood; he denied that Lazarus had an equal share in God’s economy and even in the afterlife, the rich man reduces Lazarus to a place of servitude. As far as the rich man was concerned, the eschatological implications of the situation made no difference. Lazarus would always be less important; less valuable than he was. Lazarus would always be a servant.

A preacher hoping to breathe fresh air into this well-known text may wish to start here, inviting the congregation to think about Lazarus’s personhood, and all of the ways in which the rich man could not—or would not—see it. She may also wish to explore Abraham’s response to the rich man: “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Where in our own lives have we failed to heed the warnings of the prophets? How have we contributed to the distortion or destruction of another’s personhood? There are scores of poignant and timely examples: Equating “Muslim” with “terrorist”? Assuming that proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” means that other lives don’t matter? Confusing “immigrant” with “criminal”?

Another potentially fruitful avenue is to invite the conversation to practice listening so as to understand, rather than listening so as to respond. How might we hear one another’s stories across racial boundaries, socio-economic boundaries, or other cultural boundaries? Where might there be room to cultivate table-top discussions, or face-to-face encounters with those who differ from us? This can take many forms, and the preacher will know her local context best. The bottom line is that Moses and the prophets are still speaking; they’re still warning us of the dangers of seeing others as less than who God created them to be. Are we listening? Are we looking for the imago Dei—the image of God that dwells within each and every one of us?

The American author and playwright Tennessee Williams said it best: “The world is violent and mercurial. It will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent, being a writer, being a painter, being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”[1]

 

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

 

[1] Tennessee Williams, as recorded by James Grissom in Follies of God (Knopf), 2015.

Proper 20(C): Utilizing God’s Gifts

Proper 20(C): Utilizing God’s Gifts

Luke 16:1-13

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

When caught breaking his employer’s trust a manager realizes he’ll soon be out of a job. To set himself up for the future he ingratiates himself to his clients by getting them to forge new contracts. It’s a risky business and something that can leave them facing jail or worse, but by reducing their debts and passing counterfeits as the original contracts he enters their good graces and hopes to be paid back in turn. The conspiracy is revealed, but in an ironic twist, the owner is so impressed by the manager’s embezzlement he praises the manager for his cleverness.

The parable of the shrewd manager is a deeply problematic Scriptural passage. What are we to make of this story that apparently contradicts everything else we find in the New Testament? In this passage, we find no praise for honesty or doing good in secret. There is no admiration for dealing fairly.  Instead we find manipulation; praise for theft and involving others in deceit.  Here kindness is seen as something to be paid back.  How do we reconcile this with other teachings of Christ?  With not letting your right hand know what your left is doing?  With our charge to be good and faithful servants?  Although conflicting and esoteric at the first reading, spending time with this parable can open up and reveal important truths about our Christian faith.  As we unpack it we start to see why the manager is praised and not condemned.

The most obvious part of the parable is that God is the owner, the creator who delegates responsibility to his creation.  Just as Adam and Eve were charged to tend and care for the garden, throughout Scripture there is a theme of humanity as managers and stewards of creation. We see this also in Mark 12:1-12 with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. Like the shrewd manager these tenants have also been employed to care for something that does not belong to them, however when they are called to account they attempt a small coup d’détat and try to take over the vineyard. Like the tower of Babel these tenants trust in their own power and believe they can overthrow God. This is a powerful contrast to the shrewd manager; he is commended, in part, because he understands his role and his relationship to the owner. He accepts that what he has been entrusted with does not belong to him. He does not try to take over the business or deny he had done something wrong. He changes his behavior and uses his position to benefit those around him by dispensing the owner’s goods, thereby hoping to gain security.

However, this remains problematic. After all, when charity is given out of self-interest it’s no longer charity. It becomes an investment because there is an expectation involved: “I’ve done this for you now you owe me.” We must be careful about this kind of mentality. If, like the manager, we are kind to others because we expect a reward in the future then we have missed the point of our faith. If we engage in prayer and acts of charity only so we can be repaid later then we’ve forgone the transformation which comes from faith in Christ. This is true even if our kindness is meant to be seen by God alone. If we practice faith for our own benefit and to make sure we have a nice cloud in heaven, then we’ve become those whom Isaiah warns about who are “ever hearing but not understanding, seeing but not perceiving” (Isaiah 6:9). So what is it about the manager that lets him escape this fate? Here the parable breaks down and Jesus comes through the narrative wall, explaining that what matters is how we use the wealth entrusted to us; whether it was spent on our own comfort or to the benefit of those around us.

The dishonesty is in claiming ownership over something that is not ours. In this world and the one to come nothing truly belongs to us. Everything is a gift from God. It doesn’t matter if something is ours by right or given into our care, what matters is how, and what we do with it. The parable of the Shrewd Manager is not just about money, it’s about everything God puts into our care; our time, our work, our hearts, and so on. The shrewd manager presents us with a challenge to look at how we manage the responsibilities God puts in front of us. How do parents care for their children? How do we care for this earth loaned and borrowed from other generations? How do we care for our souls so that we may then care for others?

It is not a matter of how important we are or how big an impact we have, it is about how well we use what God gives us. This is where we find the connection to us, the universal teaching that Scripture offers for all generations: like the manager, we too will be called to account one day. There will come a time when we, like the manager, will have to stand before God and account for what was entrusted to us.  There will be a time when our words and deeds will be scrutinized by the Holy One who knows the innermost depths of our souls in ways we can’t understand. There will come a point when we will have to account for how we have used God’s gifts.  That is the heart of this story. The manager isn’t praised for trying to mislead the owner-the owner knows perfectly well what is going on. He is also not praised for the embezzlement—the owner is God who has no need or lack. The manager is praised because he is generous to others, even though it’s done for his own gain.

Certainly our intentions matter: it matters to the growth of our souls and development of our spirits. When we are kind out of self interest we’ve missed the opportunity to grow closer to God and the transformation offered through a life in Christ. But is the reason behind the deed really important to those who receive? Is it better to benefit out of someone’s self-interest than not at all? Does a starving person care if a meal comes from one charity or another so long as their dignity is upheld? The answer may depend on where your theology stands but in this parable, as in so many others, God directs us to care for those in debt. We are each other’s keeper and we are made to tend to the needs of others if we are in a position to do so. This is a message which frequently gets lost in a society of self-advancement. It matters what we do with the gifts God has put into our trust.

We cannot serve both God and money but we can make money serve God.

 

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The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff is a transitional Deacon serving at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky. He received his M.Div. from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and completed Clinical Pastoral Education at Massachusetts General Hospital. He lives in Winchester, Kentucky with his wife, The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff, and their three pets: Molly, Momo, and Jacob.

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.

ANSI-Safety-Symbols-Color-Chart-01-01

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.