Discipleship Transitions

A sermon for Proper 8: 2 Kings 2:12, 6-14, Psalm 77:12, 11-20, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

We live in highly contentious times. Daily we hear about Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ disruptive ways. Friday morning, we learned the surprising results of the Brit-ex vote for Britain to leave EU. It makes one wonder if Donald or Bernie followers have renewed hope? Locally times are contentious. We have strong industry; at the same time, we know the impact of cheaper gas as several hundred perhaps as many as a thousand jobs are gone, temporarily, we all believe – hope. The City of Blytheville has budgetary concerns. We need to do something about the county’s Court physical facilities. Violence is increasing across the Delta. There are continuing changes in our schools at the state level. Local changes hold great potential, but they are still change on top of change. There is continuing change in health care as Arkansas moves from Private Pay to AR Works. Times are changing, and it is contentious.

But the world has been here before. In his column, Another Age of Discovery Thomas Friedman draws on Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna’s book Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance. The years from 1450 – 1550 are known as the Age of Discovery. The changes, propelled by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Copernicus, and Columbus, that produced the Renaissance and reshaped science, education, manufacturing, communications, politics, and geopolitics, were highly disruptive. Today the technological change is the web and smartphones. Then Gutenberg’s printing press was the technological driver of change. In the Renaissance, as today, key anchors in people’s lives; like the workplace and community; were being fundamentally dislocated. Then as now, the pace of technological change was outstripping the average person’s ability to adapt (Friedman).

Actually, we have been here even before then. Chapter nine in Luke is a story of transition. It is the beginning of the travel narrative when Jesus resolutely heads towards Jerusalem (Parsons). We are so used to scripture, and so unused to the traditions of 1st century Palestine we don’t see the radical social change Jesus is creating. Any other Jew would have gone around Samaria. Was Jesus saving time? Not really, he goes through Samaria because his purpose includes those folks (Hoezee). Insulted by the Samaritans’ rejection James and John want to follow in Elijah’s tradition and call down divine fire to consume them (2 Kings 1:9) (Parsons). Jesus rebuffs reprisals for rejection.

If we take his encounter with would-be followers the other way around, we hear Jesus overturn expected family behavior to say goodbye, discard the social obligation to bury your family member, tell a would-be follower expect to be homeless. These are not the expectations of a faithful Jew or a want-to-be wandering rabbi. Everything in this story is highly disruptive.

It is important to hear clearly that this is not a story of worshipping Jesus, rather it is a story about following Jesus. Two thousand years later, we habitually worship Jesus and talk about belonging to Jesus and believing in Jesus. We are not so used to following Jesus and being transformed along the way. It has been a while since the norm for following Jesus, was to walk humbly, love mercy, and do justice (Bates).

Following Jesus is hard. It requires change and none of us like change. All my working life I’ve been something of a change agent. You don’t install a new computer system and not change things. And all my ministry has been in the midst of congregations in change; and truth be told, the whole of the church has been in the midst of change for the last half century – depending on how you count. And even I don’t like change; ~ well I don’t like the change I don’t like.

In order to change, to be vulnerable to transition, we have to be honest with ourselves as we ponder two simple questions:

  1. Are we looking beyond our own self or family interest?
  2. Do we see God’s way of life in our way of life (Epperly)?

 

An example: Years ago the churches where we lived had a Christmas party for the kids who lived in the projects. One year someone noticed that as Santa walked in the front door, the parents walked out the back. One of the volunteers, not a minister, a volunteer, realized that we are doing this for us. The next year the churches still collected toys; however, they opened a Christmas Shop where parents could buy toys at .25 on the dollar, and if needed, they could work to earn what they needed. The moment of revelation was realized as kids started sharing their excitement that their parents were “going to get Christmas for us.”

Paul provides additional clarity in the letter to the Galatians. He writes do not use your freedom for self-indulgence; love one another (Gal. 5:13) For Paul Christian freedom, is freedom from the confines of legalistic traditions, guilt, and shame, ego and individualism and freedom for life transforming behaviors, that inspire us to bring greater unity and create a healthier community here and throughout the world (Epperly). Jesus and Paul point us to a freedom that reveals the Kingdom

which really does contain the cosmic power for salvation [for] all people and all creatures (Hoezee).

 

Karoline Lewis writes

What are you waiting for? For someone else to speak justice? To call for righteousness? Or will you embrace the moment and proclaim the promise of God’s favor (Lewis)?

Embracing the moment is risk on risk. Friedman cites Goldin:

More risk taking is required when things change more rapidly, both for workers who have to change jobs and for businesses who have to constantly innovate to stay ahead.

He concludes:

when the world gets this tightly woven, America “needs to be more, not less, engaged, with the rest of the world,” because “the threats posed by climate change, pandemics, cyber attacks or terror will not be reduced by America withdrawing.” … [from 1450 to 1550] as now, walls stop working … make you poorer, dumber, [and] more insecure (Friedman).

In our own way, Blytheville and Mississippi County have known this for – well, a long time. In the last 14 years, including the projects in process, economic development investment has added some 1750 to 2500 jobs and something like $110 million in annual payroll. Still, all is not as it should be. Nearly 6,000 of our neighbors are neither employed or on any type of government assistance. That is a lot of people. That is a lot of unused human potential. That is a lot of despair that could be transformed into a mountain of hope and renewal (Chitwood).

We could, as some do, simply say it’s the result of some sinful things they have done, it’s a form of divine punishment. This has a ring of tradition, and some see scripture behind such thinking. It’s not following the way Jesus walks, it’s not the love of neighbor Paul proclaims, and it is not ~ what is happening here.

The cooperative arrangement between ANC, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Mississippi County Economic Development called WORK, is helping all the people it can reach, walk the path from no job, no hope – to a good job with life expectations. It’s a journey that is as simple, and as difficult, as showing up (Chitwood).

This effort has great potential; to the extent, we have been honest with ourselves. Are we looking beyond our own self-interest? Are we walking God’s way of life in our way of life? I know some of the folks involved and believe many are choosing to walk the disruptive road through Samaria towards Jerusalem. I know that just as life begets life, so transitions beget transitions. Jesus’ desire is to invite the Samaritans to journey with him into the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ desire is for them and all his followers to be transformed and know the freedom of God’s Kingdom. I believe I see our desire to invite everyone in Mississippi county to be transformed together as jointly we journey to the Kingdom of God that is right here, right now.

 

 

References

Bates, J. Barrington. “Enigmatic Jesus, Sermon Proper 8 (C) – 2016.” 26 6 2016. Sermons that Work.

Chitwood, Clif. “Opinion Column: Where are we, and what’s next?” Blytheville Courier (2016). <www.blythevillecourier.com>.

Ellingsen, Mark. 26 6 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 6 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Another Age of Discovery.” The New York Times (2016).

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 9:51-62. 26 6 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Every Moment Counts. 26 6 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Parsons, Mikeal C. Commentary on Luke 9:5162. 26 6 20016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

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So you think you are a god

A sermon for Proper 4: 1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24), Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

If you watch any TV at all, you know about reality TV. There seems to be a contest for almost everything. There is a “So you think you are a …” contest for singers dancers, cooks, stage and movie makeup artists, and home makeovers. This morning we seem to have a “So you think you are a god” contest.

Elijah is in the northern Kingdom Israel. Israel’s’ kings have gotten progressively more sinful and Ahab worst of the worst. He is married to Jezebel and actively worships Baal; he builds an altar to Baal. God tells Elijah to announce there will be a drought. This is a direct challenge to Baal, who is the Canaanite god of rain and fertility (Hoezee, Harrelson, Sakenfeld). By a roundabout way, Elijah ends up at the gates of Zarephath, a Phoenician city and center of Baal worship (Harrelson). And although Baal must periodically submit to Mot, the Canaanite god death, which causes drought, it is clear the God of Israel is the cause of this drought in the very heartland of Baal home territory (Gaventa and Petersen).

Remember last week we heard the story of Elijah versus the prophets of Baal in which Elijah’s sacrifice is accepted in the blazing all-consuming fire after Baal’s prophets were unable to get a response to their appeals. I don’t think we got to the verses that immediately follow where God brings the drought to an end. The “So you think you are a god” contest is leaning in God’s favor. However, there is more to the story than drought.

Elijah meets a widow at the gates of Zarephath and offers her a source of unending bread and oil, an amazing abundance in the face of dire scarcity (Chan). She shares with him the last of her and her son’s food, and sure enough, there is grain and oil to last. We don’t know how long it takes, but the widow’s son gets sick and dies. She blames Elijah because he brought her, and her sins, to God’s attention. Elijah takes the child to his room, enacts some ritual, and asks God to restore his life. In the heart of Baal’s territory; in the heart of Mot’s territory, once again God brings life from despair and death revealing that God is sovereign (Harrelson).

The widow’s son is brought to life. The widow professes belief in Elijah as a man of God, and in that belief, faith in God. At this point, the contest is over, neither Baal nor Mot prevails; the Lord, the God of Israel, is God of all (Gaventa and Petersen).

Widow Zarephath’s story is not new; she is in the same crisis Naomi is in in the Book of Ruth. Despite the many laws and statutes designed to give widows extra consideration, in reality, widows continued to be an exploited group, invisible to most (Hoezee).

As Jesus approaches the Gate of Nain, he sees a funeral procession of a widow’s only son. The mother’s grief is deep and bitter. It’s less than a day since his death, and she has no idea what the evening will bring, never mind what will become of her from here on. She is shrouded in despair (Hogan). Uninvited, Jesus goes to the bier and stops the procession and just tells the man to get up. No ritual, no touching the body, just simply “I say to you rise.” And he does. Jesus brings life from despair and death.

A couple of observations about these stories’ context. Elijah could not be in a more hostile place, yet it is here, in the heart of hostile territory, in the heart of another belief system, that God calls him to bear witness to the presence and power of God. I’ll acknowledge a bit of cultural projection; however, uninvited, Jesus intercedes in a profoundly personal time and acts. One commentator asks:

What would be your reaction if a stranger walked in during the funeral of one of your [family] and stopped the proceedings (Hogan)?

The opportunity to be Jesus’ witness “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8) is more often than not in unexpected, inhospitable, intrusive circumstances (Chan).

Widow Zarephath and the Widow Nain have been cut off from their communities by the deaths of their husbands and their sons. They have no prospects of providing for themselves. And yes, God and Jesus restore life to the dead sons; but they also restore life to the mothers (Hoezee). It is a common feature of healing miracles, that not only is life restored to the object of the miracle, but also to others, as community connections are also restored to life. A sign that our service in Jesus’ ministry is bearing fruit is that all sorts of things adjacent to the focus of our work begin showing signs of renewed hope, and budding life (Hoezee).

Bible stories like Widow Zarephath and Widow Nain are at one level comforting. At the same time, they can leave us uneasy, because we continue to live in a world that knows all sorts of death; from the death of loved ones, the loss of an opportunity, a job, a dream, or whatever. We are left not knowing how to respond, afraid of creeping doubt, fretful about the lack of our own faith. So how are we to respond? I have just read a book for my upcoming D.Min. class titled Leading Causes of Life. One observation is how much time and energy we tend to put into those things that cause death in an effort to stop death. These efforts are not wrong; however, the author observes how little resources we put into causes of life (Gunderson and Page). Perhaps ministry lies in nurturing life not simply fighting death. What Elijah’s and Jesus’ actions did that we can do is to nurture life. What we can do that is similar to their action is to sustain and nurture the potential that is right next to what is suffering, as the professional healers minister to the suffering. In both stories, it is the widowed grieving mothers who are at risk. In both stories, the act of ministry is not directed at them but at specifically their sons, or more generally some portion of life that is tangential to them which when nourished to flourishing will spill life all over them.

We all know Reality TV is not what it seems. Nonetheless, the reality is that the opportunity for service to Jesus ministry is not right in front of us, but perhaps in one of the surrounding communal relations. The reality is that with a touch of brazen uninvited interruption, or seemingly unrelated action, we can witness to the life-giving presence of God in Jesus by the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 5CCenter for Excellence in Preaching. 5 6 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Chan, Michael J. “Commentary on 1 Kings 17:816.” 6 9 2015. Working Preacher.

Ferguson, Shannon. “Green and Growing, Proper 5 (C) – 2016.” 5 6 2016. Sermons that Work.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Gunderson, Gary and Larry Page. Leading Causes of Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 7:11-17. 5 6 2016.

Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on Luke 7:11-17. 5 6 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. When Jesus Shows Up. 5 6 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.