Go and Be

A sermon for Easter Sunday: Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10,

Many years ago, some decades ago, I joined a Christian formation class; I forget its exact name. but I will always remember the principle bible study method. You read a gospel story, and as you are reading it you listen for what character in the story is you? It does not have to be a character that is named in the story; it can be one you see, hear, for yourself, or you just imagine is there. The reflections are how are you this character in the gospel story? and how is this character you in your story? You share all this with your group. The group cannot challenge the character. They can ask for clarity. They are to share with you, their react to you and your character both in the gospel story and in your life. It takes some practice and some time; however, but it is an excellent way to study the bible; it is an even better way to learn about yourself.

Occasionally, I’ve used this method in sermon preparation. Occasionally, I have preached from that character’s perspective. Today is a new experience, because, I see a character I have never before seen, in the Gospel but, I know, has been in the Easter story from the beginning. This morning my character is the tomb, a place of death, darkness, and chaos. I do not see myself as the tomb. I hope you do not see me as the tomb. But the tomb is a very present in the world today; as it has been for all time.

The tomb is manifest in the many ways death, darkness and chaos are present in our world. There is chaotic political leadership here and abroad. There are threats from and toward N. Korea. There is the confusion and fear that brought on and are caused by Brexit. There are the threats emerging from Arkansas’ plan to execute 7 prisoners in 11 days, just because a drug is about to expire. It is supposed to be the initial anesthetic; however, the drug not designed to be an anesthetic. The State is forced to try to use it because no manufacturer of anesthetics will sell anesthetics to any state prison system that executes prisoners (Arkansas Online). All of this is on hold because Saturday morning, both a state and federal court injunction suspended all this and there was another injunction this morning. But the underlying concern of the State of Arkansas’ behavior is still a threat, still a source of confusion and fear. There is fear for our community; there is fear and concern for our schools, our churches, and maybe even for St Stephen’s. And I am sure all of us have individual concerns and fears as life goes on. The tomb is a very real, a very powerful presence in all our lives.

So, today, when we celebrate the empty tomb, does the continuing existence of the tomb, death, darkness and chaos. diminish Jesus’ resurrection or the promise God and Jesus make to us for eternal life? No, because the truth is that the empty tomb fuels the new-found Easter hope. Yes, the tomb, death, darkness, and chaos do continue; but they are not the end of the story. This morning I experience the empty tomb that provides us two little all-empowering verbs: do and be.

The first verb: ‘do’ is an inspiration from Martin Marty’s column about Reinhold Niebuhr and his theologian siblings. Marty explores the Niebuhrs as “public theologians,” and reflects on the growing number writers who are wondering Where are today’s Niebuhrs? He suggests we would learn much more if we were interested in what Reinhold did. Marty grounds his observation in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Borrowing from Martin Heinecken, he asks

Did the Samaritan take that poor victim, strapped to his ass like a captive audience, and hand him a tract or preach a sermon? No, he did what the situation demanded, and that was good (Marty).

Everyone is seeking to find their way through the midst of our current chaos and anarchy. Marty suggests that we should assess what the situation demands, and then address it by doing what the situation demands. He puts to very practical use Reinhold’s (Niebuhr) Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference

It is an awesomely powerful call to do (Marty).

The second verb is ‘be’ and it is an inspiration from Stephanie Paulsell’s article Life together as an empire collapses. Paulsell draws from David’s Brooks models of resisting the Trump administration. If this is an authoritarian threat, then we should follow Bonhoeffer and hit the streets. If this is an incompetence threat, then we should follow Gerald Ford and restore public norms. Paulsell thinks we are in the third possibility a corruption moment and that we should follow St. Benedict and create new forms of community (Paulsell).

Benedict lived as the Roman Empire was collapsing. One response to that collapse was the proliferation of monastic communities, walled enclaves that provided safety from the gathering storm and cultivate humility, mercy, and forgiveness. But a key factor in Benedict’s rule is the insistence on welcoming every guest that comes to the door with honor and respect. For Benedict, the monastery was not a refuge, but a community that bears witness to the sacredness of our common humanity.

Knowing that [w]hen your open space for people to encounter the mystery of their creation in the image of God, they become more finely attuned to the dignity of others.

The continuing threats of the tomb, death, and chaos are very real; they diminish the humanity dignity of all people. Benedict offers a path of resistance, to see and welcome the stranger as Christ (Paulsell).

I hear Benedict calling us to be a monastery, a walled safe community with an open door – welcoming everyone. I hear Niebuhr calling us to use the power of the empty tomb as courage to change the things that we can. Yes, I am suggesting it is time for you, time for us, to go into the darkness of this world in the face of the dehumanizing power of death and chaos, and be the open door welcoming all who are drawn to you, and who are drawn to us.

What better Easter surprise than the empty tomb being the power that defeats the tomb, death, darkness, and chaos in our lives.


 

References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

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

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

Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 1A Matthew 3:13-17 . 8 1 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Marty, Martin E. “Niebuhr and the situation.” 5 4 2017. religionnews.com /2017/04/05/niebuhr-and-the-situation/. <religionnews.com /2017/04/05/niebuhr-and-the-situation/>.

Paulsell, Stephanie. “Life together as an empire collapses.” 12 4 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/life-together-empire-collapses>.

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

 

 

It’s Not Knowing It’s Knowing

A sermon for Lent 5: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Vincent Gray was a child with problems seeing things; he saw ghosts. His therapist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is not successful in helping him. Years later Gray shoots Dr. Crowe before killing himself. Crowe recovers and later that year begins seeing Cole, another child with a similar problem. He is completely dedicated to helping Cole, inspired in part by his perceived failure with Vincent. He rarely interacts with his wife anymore. And in fact, there is no conversation at all anymore.

Crowe becomes convinced that Cole has a gift to help the dead, complete their unfinished business. He is successful in helping Cole understand and accept his gift, and Cole saves the life of one ghost’s younger sister. He is also able to help his mother reconcile with her dead mother.

One evening when Dr. Crowe retunes home, he begins to notice subtle differences. His wedding ring is on the on the bed; he recalls that he has not had it on since he began seeing Cole. His wife is laying on the bed watching the video of their wedding. He hears his wife ask him why he left her. And then Crowe remembers Cole’s talking about the effects of a ghost’s unfinished business and realizes that Vincent had killed him and that with Cole’s help he has finally come to accept his failure to understand and help Vincent. Released of this burden Crowe is able to tell his wife she was never second, that he has always loved her and is able to move on.

The audience, I being one, is shocked by the reversal of perspective. As had Dr. Crowe we had all completely misunderstand the world of the story. M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense spins around Crowe’s misunderstanding of the critical moments of his life (Wikipedia). Crowe is not alone in misunderstanding, critical moments of life.

Today is the next to last Sunday in Lent. The Gospel story is about Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead. But I am no longer sure that Lazarus’ death is the point of the story, though it is an important element. The last four weeks the Gospel readings have had a central element of misunderstanding. In the wilderness, the Devil tries to trick Jesus into misunderstanding who he is. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus saying “being born again” as literal and not the transformative “being born from above.” The woman at the well misunderstands Jesus offering “living water” as something that will deliver her from having to come to the village well to get water thus avoiding the scorn of her neighbors. Driven by confusion, fear, and attachment to tradition the neighbors, parents, and authorities of the man born blind’s life misunderstand the relationship between life’s hardships and sin and the deepest meaning of Sabbath. All of Lent is a misunderstanding. They continue this morning.

The disciples misunderstand Jesus saying Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death, but God’s glory; and later when he says Lazarus has fallen asleep, they miss its customary reference to death (Harrelson, O’Day). When Jesus arrives, Martha misunderstands Jesus’ reference to resurrection as the classic Pharisee reference, drawn from Daniel (12:2), to the end of time, and that keeps her from hearing Jesus revelation of himself (Ellingsen, Harrelson, O’Day). When Mary hears of Jesus arrival, she goes to meet him, and so do all the mourners from Jerusalem. When they meet, Jesus is moved by her weeping and that of her friends. The misunderstanding here is at least as old as the King James’ Bible in which we first read “Jesus wept” (11:35). The original words express anger or indignation and agitated or troubled; they are not any way an expression of sentiment which we typically draw from ‘wept.’ (Harrelson, O’Day). The friends misunderstand Jesus’ tears leading them to wonder Could he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying (John 11:37)? Martha’s misunderstanding of Jesus continues when she objects to removing the stone that seals Lazarus’ tomb because of her fear of obnoxious odors, and the tradition that after 3 days the soul has left for good, and there is no longer any hope of revival (O’Day).

Our own encounters with death, in all its manifestations, lead to confusion. When we die, we do not go to heaven to be angels. According to the bible, angles are their namesakes – messengers of God. When we die, there is a time of waiting, which is not revealed scripture, and when we face Jesus as the prosecutor, and Judge and oh, by the way, the defense attorney we face judgment. And by grace life in God’s presence is our future. Death, like barrenness, blindness, or any another illness or misfortune is not a consequence of sin; it is just life.

Any other popular conception of death is like attributing illness to sin; it is a misunderstanding. It seems if all the world is full of misunderstanding. Which leads on the wonder, what to do about all these misunderstandings?

One of the statements I think is more profound than first appears is

There are known knowns.
There are known unknowns.
There are also unknown unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld, Brainyquote).

When we hear the word ‘known,’ we generally associated that with knowledge. If you know something, it is a piece of information, maybe even a fact. But you can know somebody, and to know someone implies a relationship, and a relationship infers some sort of experience. So, Lent is not about knowing Jesus it is about knowing Jesus. All these stories reveal that it is not what information we know or what understanding we don’t know about Jesus that dispels misinformation. It is what we don’t know, that we have not experienced with Jesus that matters.

All the misunderstandings in these Lenten stories precede encounters with Jesus. With Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind, misunderstandings are transformed by their experience with Jesus (Lewis). Lent 1 is not a vicarious wilderness experience with Jesus. It is an invitation to take a wilderness experience of our won, with the assurance Jesus will be with you. For the last four weeks, we’ve heard various wilderness experiences, and in all of them, some folks have an experience with Jesus that leads them or other people to believe in Jesus, even if it takes some time. We should also acknowledge that not everybody will venture into the wilderness, and not every encounter with Jesus leads to knowing Jesus because things like tradition, existing belief or some other rules can get in our way.

As for each you, I believe each of you: knows your life with Jesus and knows your lack of life with Jesus; it is what you don’t know of your lack of life with Jesus that is the Lenten challenge.

Dr. Crowe faces misunderstandings around his death and is able to move on. Martha, Mary and a few of their friends face misunderstandings, around Lazarus’ death, and share in Jesus’ experiences that bring them to belief in him.

The question this morning is what misunderstanding, born of some shrouded death, will lead you to share in Jesus’ experiences that brings you to belief and life in him?

 

References

Brainyquote. “donaldrums.” n.d. http://www.brainyquote.com. 2 4 2017. <https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/donaldrums148142.html&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 2 4 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 2 4 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

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

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection Now. 2 4 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

Liggett, James. “In Trust and Hope, Lent 5(A).” 2 4 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lose, David. Lent 5A: Heartache, Miracle, Invitation. 2 4 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 11:145. 2 4 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Wikipedia. “The_Sixth_Sense.” n.d. wikipedia.org. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sixth_Sense&gt;.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Email to Instagram

It has continued to be overly busy since our return from the beach to a massive tree in our back yard. The plumbing repairs are done, most of the tree is still on the ground and the massive mud hole is now the dominate feature

click here:   https://www.dropbox.com/s/8t19k5kiy750foq/20140618_134744-a.jpg

It’s a far different view than round about Easter

click here:    https://www.dropbox.com/s/4w57560fs1scn9a/20140426_103630%20a.jpg

AFMT and I are very grateful no one was injured, that our home remains secure, that the plumbing was really on an inconvenience; and that the rest of the cleaning up is in the hands of very competent caring folks.

We have done our best to keep on schedule, including moving MEM into a new abode, AFMT’s reception for her art show and Brewing Faith, the effort to create space place in space and time to share a brew and explore being spiritual.

Last night’s intimate conversation affirmed my belief there are folks who are seeking a deeper walk with God. I also learned just out of touch I am with social media technology; email (my preference) is not the primary means of communication, Face-Book (on which I have an account and STS has a page) is getting some attention, Twitter (STS has an account) is fading in some places though growing here, and I can’t get my head around Instagram, thought I expect I will have to. A fear is I’ll spend so much time with social media other aspects of my service in Christ’s ministry will suffer. It’s a very tiny example of losing life to find life.  I’ve realizing I’ve got to let die what is comfortable for me so my service in Christ ministry can find life.

I know most of us do not face the threat of death for being Christian (not true in all the world) however, in ways far for significant i.e. basic values. Is wealth, political orientation, ideological persuasion, or the in breaking of the Kingdom of God the foundation on which you stand? And when you discover it is not Kingdom life are you willing to let die other values so the Kingdom life can find life?

I know this is the challenge Christianity faces today. I suspect it a past of being spiritual but not religious, just not sure which part.

Parting hopes: when Hagar and Ishmael are driven into the wilderness to dies, God hears their cry and responds; and jumping ahead in Matthew’s to last week’s reading we hear Jesus assure us he is with us to the end of the ages. This may get me through moving to Twitter, it will continue to move me deeper into standing on the firm foundation of Kingdom life.

 

 

 

 

Dry or Wet Still Dead?

Dry Bones is one of my favorite scripture readings. I suspect because long ago I heard it read by a skilled Lector who brought the story amazing alive. I can still sense the evocation of winds, rattling bones, and emerging layers of flesh, and rush of breath.

Rush forward some decades and I drew a connection between the valley of dry bones, and the dead marshes in Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers.  It is the site of the Battle of Dagorlad at the end of the Second Age. Only here the bodies of the dead are preserved by the cold waters of encroaching swamps. As they traverse the dismal place Frodo and Samwise are warned not to touch the bodies else they risk falling to their own death.

The landscapes could not be more different: one dessert, arid, and desiccating, the other swap, cold, and sullen waters. Neither could they be more alike: both the scenes of long forgotten battles, where myriads fell and lie forgotten, given over to the ravages of time.

It is the stories that capture the imagination. The bodies forsake in the dead marshes are forever forsaken. There is no hope. While the bones of the valley, are not. There is hope for them for I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

That ruah (breath, wind, spirit) came and desiccated, detached bones ḥāyâ (revive) is improbable in its day. Today it is all the more improbable. But no more improbable than Creator God expending inconceivable force of love by which dust assembles and ruah brings ḥāyâ (life) for the first time. Therein lies hope beyond all understanding, for I, the Lord, have spoken and will act – actually has and continues to act.

5th in Lent, Dry Bones, Lord of Rings, death, life, hope, ruah,

Greater light of deeper darkness.

Since Thanksgiving my small parish has experienced one anticipated death, though earlier than expected, an arrest for armed assault, an emotionally crush absolutely unexpected death, and a sever ATV accident. One only involves us liturgically, a burial rite. All of the them require a lot of emotional and spiritual energy at any time. But at this time of year, they seem to be over the top.

Arland J. Hultgren raises this over the top emotionally, spiritually draining aspect of Matthew’s story of John sending a question to Jesus Are you the Messiah or not? I’ve always preached on Jesus’ answer. Hultgren jerks my attention to John’s question. [i]

Brett Younger in a commentary for last week draws our attention to a story from Matthew we will likely never hear. It is selected for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, and it is the 3rd option for a Gospel reading. It’s the story of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents. [ii] And yes they have their Holy Day, how many churches will observe it?

In this season of silver bells and choral swells, life goes on, all of life goes on, including the very messy, the very ugly, the very unfair parts of life. I do not want to dampen your Advent and growing Christmas joy. I just want to remind us all the God’s transforming presence is in the darkest corners of live as well as the moment of incredible light we are preparing for; both the birth of old, and the return to come. And we know the fuller grace of both when we know God’s presence in the dark. We know the greater light when we dare to walk in to deeper darkness.  


[i] Arland J. Hultgren, Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11, December 15

[ii] Brett Younger , Keep Herod in Christmas, November 30th, 2013, Ministry Matters

A sermon for Advent 2

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

The stump, the brood of vipers, unity, and repentance.

Isaiah opens with the image of a stump. Until today I’ve always seen the stump from the illustration in The Giving Tree, cleanly cut. No longer, the stump is what’s left after the tree has fallen because it rotted from the inside out, and could no longer stand. It’s fallen so long ago, the stump is all that’s left. It’s desolate. It’s an image of death. And yet, for Isaiah, for Judah there is more, there is hope, there is a shoot, tiny, fragile, but green, full of new life, full of hope [i] for a future as grand as a perfect image of its predecessor.

For John the Baptist, it’s a brood of vipers. Until today, it’s been a like the scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusades with all the snakes slithering around all over the floor of the hidden chamber. Now it’s a vision of the common room of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, whose members put all their trust in “pure blood heritage.” [ii] It’s ego centric, exclusive, it could not see what may be for its focus on what was.

For Paul it’s unity. Until today it has been a utopian image, of all kinds of folks, who all agree on everything, who walk in perfect harmony, enjoying a magnificent banquet, where one eats all the fatty salty food imaginable, with no health consequences. Now, it’s a group of very different people, where no one is quite comfortable, where everyone is at risk, while everyone shares a diverse but common faith in Jesus’ promise of life in the glory, the presence of God. [iii] 

For the Psalmist, well it’s a psalm, perhaps a poem, perhaps a song, perhaps a liturgical setting. Until today it’s been a crucible expressing the values of days past. Psalm 72 enthrones a king; not very relevant to democracy, we elect leaders; not very relevant to Christians, Christ is King. Now it’s repentance, it’s a change in how we envision political, elected leadership, and what we expect of them. Now we ask God to deliver justice and righteousness to the world through our secular elected representative leaders. [iv] 

What might all this look like? Think back to the early 1990’s, recall South Africa, ruled by an oppressive minority by the principles of apartheid. Apartheid is Afrikaans meaning being apart. It is a corrupt racist political philosophy. It was a stump, morally deficient, it was dead. It had its supporters, a brood of vipers, pure bread of Slytherin house, in South Africa, and in the United States. But from that rotted stump there was a shoot, actually many, one we remember today is Nelson Mandela. Born in 1918 to a royal tribal family, he actively fought Apartheid, until his arrest, conviction and sentence to life in prison in 1962. He was granted release in 1990, elected President of South Africa in 1994, and unlike other  African revolutionary leaders served only one term. [v] Think back to the 1990’s to the brood of vipers, dedicated to true blood heritage. There were voices from around the world crying in the wilderness for repentance, for a change of behavior; naming South Africa’s leaders for what they were, ego centric, exclusive, oppressive leaders of a stump. All heard, some listened, at least one caught a vision of what can be nothing less than Christ centered unity, at least one repented, truly repented, changed his ways, and lead his people to justice and righteousness in rejecting apartheid and accepting a more democratic system of governance. F.W. de Klerk was president of South Africa when Mandela was released. He engaged with Mandela in negotiations for peaceful transition to freely democratic elections. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. [vi] 

A stump, a brood of vipers, a vision of unity, true repentance.

We live in a world of stumps; in a world full of institutions that because of their own actions, or inaction, that because of rapidly changing context are rotting away, are failing are dead. It’s easy to be depressed. Today’s scripture readings call us, to see and name the stump, and then, to see and nurture the shoot, the possibility for new life.

 

We are surrounded by broods of vipers, with Slytherin House commitment to pure blood, to true ideology, of all stripes. They are cleaver, speaking in language of security, and prosperity; in truth, they are egotistic, self-centered oppressive thinkers. And we to one degree or another are in their midst. We hear the prophetic voice, and we cringe at its biting truth. Today’s scripture readings offer us the hope they offer the invitation to repent, to change; and we know, the one who calls us, will walk with us through all the challenges that journey will bring.

 

We are surrounded by clusters of common identity, racial, political, economic philosophy, religious, you name it there’s a group claiming to be the [quote] true believers. They all promise acceptance, security, and a whole host of worldly values, if we look like, think like, worship like, act like, the group’s definitions. Today’s scripture calls us to unity in Christ, while feely acknowledging that to truly invite others in, or to accept another’s invitation into requires us to risk, because we will be changed. That is the truth with our now very different neighbor; it’s the truth with Jesus.

It is Advent; we are surrounded with the language of repentance. We’d shake our heads in agreement, and leave church headed to the nearest special sale, so we can check off one more box on our pre-Christmas to do list. It is Advent, we are surrounded with the invitation to change, how we see the world, shoots not stumps, neighbors not others hope not despair, a divine presence here and now not out there some day. It’s a vision that can change the world, that begins with one new shoot that begins with one transformed person, that begins in our common bond in the incarnate God, whose dynamic presence is continually emerging.

 


[vi] ibid

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Center for Excellence in Preaching cep.calvinseminary.edu http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php
New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, 2010
Walter Harrison, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 2003