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Posts Tagged ‘Kingdom of God’

 This is more of a confession than a sermon.  Earlier this week I received an email from a good friend whom I met in seminary.  He’s a pastor in Maryland.  He was writing to catch up a little and ask about some theological resources.  I tried to address his needs, but then in the end, I too realized that I needed a little help.  Here’s what I wrote:

“I’m really struggling in my preaching (did you know that I’m supplying a little church here?).  When I read the gospel, it just seems so radical to me.  The way I read it, only people like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, etc. are really true to what is being said.  I’m not really ready to respond in full obedience and I don’t think the people of my church are either.  Really, I think most of us are neither as desperate as the Galileans were, nor as corrupt as the Herodians and Temple Priests were.  We need a gospel for the people in between.  But I’m not sure what that looks like – especially when we read this radical gospel every Sunday.  Any suggestions?”

Now you may be wondering why I had this crisis this week.  We’ve wrestled with some fairly tough texts over the last six months.  Why did this familiar text about Jesus calling his first disciples throw me into a tizzy?  Well, the fact is that I’ve been having this struggle all along, so it’s not really new.  But the other part of it is that this text is not nearly as benign as it appears at first blush.  Let me share with you just three features of this passage that make it extremely radical.

First, the setting:  The story takes place after John the Baptist was arrested.  Pause there a second.  John, the great prophet, a hopeful figure of a new day and new way, has been arrested.  And he’s not just going to spend a few days in jail.  Like so many before him, before long he will be killed by the people in power for the truth that he spoke.  So the time is after John is arrested and the place is the Galilee.  Now in many ways to say that the story takes place in the Galilee is to say that the story takes place in Nowheresville.  Nobody important lives in the Galilee and nothing important ever happens there.  It’s far from Jerusalem.  It’s even farther from Rome.  It’s not important geographically, economically, religiously or otherwise.

But in another way to say that Jesus came to the Galilee is to say that Jesus went straight to the heart of the heartache.  The Galileans were sorely oppressed.  They’re economic and social lives were being upended by Roman imperialism and local rule.  Herod Antipas who ruled the Galilee for Rome was a horrible ruler and drunk on taxes.  In addition to the Roman taxes, Galileans were paying taxes to Herod so that he could build two cities from the ground up.  They were attempts to impress the Roman occupiers, so they included Roman style buildings and stadia and other things that the Galileans simply could not afford.  The poor economy and high taxes were driving Galileans out of their villages and off their farms to take part in the imperial economy in the cities and by the Sea of Galilee.

This leads us to the second feature of this passage that is more difficult than we usually think.  Often we have romantic notions about these scenes of fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  This is no doubt due to the beautiful bucolic paintings that we’ve seen in illustrated Bibles or on Sunday School walls.  And the truth is that not long before Jesus’ time, fishing may have been a rather wholesome, communal endeavor.  It probably was the case that before Roman rule, fishing was done predominantly by farmers who would band together and fish for a season to augment the food supplied by the fields.  But by the time that Jesus called out to his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, the imperial economy had changed all of that.

Bible scholars, Horsley and Silberman, explain that recent archaeological evidence shows that fishing had become a huge production.  The Roman occupiers brought with them techniques for salting and pickling fish.  They established salting and packing plants near the Sea of Galilee so that large quantities of sardines and carp could be processed into sauces called garum and chopped pieces called salsamentum.  These were then shipped all over the Roman Empire.  Horsley and Silberman write, “And anyone who thinks that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus were just picturesque peasants in rowboats does not appreciate the sheer weight of fish flesh that had to be hauled in ever day and transported to [the] processing centers to be salted, pressed, fermented, and refined to produce even a modest output of garum and salsamentum.”[1]

So when Jesus asks Simon and Andrew and then James and John to drop their nets and follow him, he is not only asking them to leave behind their livelihood and home, but also to stop participating in the imperial economy.  Their rejection of the job is a rejection of Roman occupation and therefore a prophetic political act.

And this leads me to the third and final point I want to make about the radical nature of this text.  The line, “I will make you fishers of men,” or “I will make you fish for people” as the NRSV has it, has always been a favorite of American Evangelical Christianity.  It’s been something of a motto for our evangelizing efforts and we’ve even made it into a catchy children’s song.  But we may have missed its full meaning by quite a bit.  The phrase really can’t be reduced to telling people about Jesus or inviting them to church.  The phrase has prophetic overtones and the original Jewish hearers of the phrase may well have thought of a text like Jeremiah 16:16 ff:

I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Holy One, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.  For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.  And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.

 

So when Jesus calls the disciples to follow him and become fishers for people, he is calling them to a prophetic vocation.  Like John the Baptist, they will leave everything behind and risk everything in order to speak truth to power.  Yes, they will share good news with the Galileans, but the Galileans’ good news will be a threat to the Romans and the Herodians and the Judean religious elite.  Jesus’ call to be fishers for people is a call to leave everything and take up the cross.

So, do you see now, why I was troubled by this text?  As I said in my note to my friend, the problem is that we are neither in the situation of the oppressed Galileans nor condemnable as their oppressors.  We’re somewhere in between.  Now perhaps we do contribute in some ways to the poverty of others or the oppression of others in as much as we participate in a materialistic and militaristic culture.  But are we, you and me, really called to drop our nets, drop everything and take up the prophetic way of the cross?  Well, I don’t know about you, but even if I’m called to do so, I’m far from ready.

So what do we do?  What is the gospel for the people in between?  Well, I’m thinking that perhaps we can take just a little license with Jesus’ proclamation in verse 15.  Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”  The kingdom of God has come near.  What does the “near” mean?  Well even Bible scholars are divided on the issue.  Some say it means that the kingdom of God has come in Jesus but is not yet wholly fulfilled.  Others say it would be better to read it as “the kingdom of God is at hand” suggesting that the word is about the kingdom’s immanence – it’s right here, near at hand.

I’d like to suggest that maybe the “near” gives us a little latitude.  Maybe we don’t have to drop everything and live completely in the kingdom.  Maybe we can allow the kingdom to come near.  If nothing else, perhaps coming nearer to the kingdom will allow us to be better prepared to eventually answer the kingdom call more fully.  In any case, for my part, I think I might be ready to draw a little nearer, even if I’m not ready to drop my nets completely.

So, I’ve thought this week about what I’m willing to do and what I might be able to invite you to do with me.  And I’ve come up with three suggestions.  We’ll keep the list short and simple so that we actually have a chance of accomplishing it.

First, I suggest that we try not to smooth over the radical nature of the Gospel.  I will commit to conveying to you what I think is the best Biblical scholarship and trying to tell you what the text really says – radical or not.  You will have to commit to listen with patient ears and an open mind.  We may often find that the text doesn’t speak to us as directly as we had hoped or that the text offers more challenge than inspiration.  I will still try to be hopeful and inspiring in my sermons, but let’s not smooth over the rough nature of these texts merely to satisfy our own comfort.  When the Gospel is radical, let it be radical.  And we will work together to figure out what we do with that radical Gospel, even if we’re not fully ready to heed it.

Second, let’s get our hands dirty.  I was glad to hear that you were thinking similarly when I mentioned this at our recent congregational meeting.  Let’s do some things together.  If we’re not poor and oppressed like the Galileans, maybe we can understand the Gospel a little better if we get to know some folks who are.  Maybe we’re not ready to drop our nets and become prophets, but we can at least do some more to serve the least and to ease suffering and pain.

So, I will commit to organizing a couple of opportunities for volunteer work over the next couple of months.  We’ll go to the Jameson Center or to the Armory and help out a little.  I also think that Linda’s idea of a garden to grow vegetables for people who can’t easily afford them is fantastic.  When the weather breaks, let’s get to it.  That’s getting your hands dirty.

Finally, let’s put our money where our mouth is.  Now I know that whenever the preacher starts talking about money, some people get very nervous.  But, rest assured, I am not necessarily asking you to give more to the church.  From what I’ve seen, our church finances are pretty well in order and if folks continue to give as they have been we should be just fine.  What I’m asking of you and committing myself to do, is to look at your spending and giving and consider if you might be able to make some changes that would allow you to reallocate your money to better promote justice and peace.

Actually, in some ways I think we could learn something from our Muslim sisters and brothers when it comes to stewardship.  One of the five pillars of Islam is zakat or almsgiving.  But zakat is different from offerings and tithes in the Christian tradition.  Zakat is a requirement that every Muslim give 2.5% of their total worth to the poor each year.  They give it to the poor – not to the mosque.  The mosque is run like any other non-profit organization.  The mosque does fund drives and the like to pay for its building, staff, etc., but this has nothing to do with zakat.  Alms are given to the poor and oppressed.

Now of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give money to the church, nor am I discouraging you from giving more money to the church.  But I am encouraging to think again about your finances and see if there’s a little more that can be put to better use.  Maybe you give a little more to the church.  Maybe you give a little more on mission Sunday.  Maybe you give to the Presbyterian peacemaking program or hunger program.  Maybe you give directly to a local agency or some other benevolent society.  Maybe I’m preaching just to myself and you’re doing all you can.

What I’ve tried to do with these three suggestions, though, is to think about how we can let the Gospel be the Gospel and let the kingdom of God come near – at least near.  Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  What will we, the people in between, do with this good news?


[1] Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1997), p. 25.

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Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  What follows is the sermon from the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God”

Luke 14: 1, 7-15

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 29th, 2010

A good dinner party is difficult to pull off.  The host bears most of the burden.  He or she needs to make sure the food is good and the drinks don’t run low.  He or she also has the responsibility of keeping the conversation going among the guests who may or may not know each other.  You don’t want the conversation to run dry because quiet moments are deathly moments at a dinner party.  So a good host will keep things lively and keep things going.  But the guests also bear responsibility for the party’s success.  A good guest will mingle, engage others in polite conversation, and avoid topics that might get heavy or too controversial.  A good guest knows the unspoken rules, knows what he or she is supposed to do and not do, and follows those rules to a tee.

So keeping in mind how difficult a dinner party is to pull off, and keeping in mind that the guest bears a lot of the responsibility, why on earth would anyone ever invite Jesus over for dinner?  Jesus, of all dinner guests, really had a knack for creating awkward social moments.  In this week’s text, for instance, Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee whom I imagine had no idea what he was in for.  Jesus sat back and observed for a while as the guests did what guests do at a party in 1st century Palestine, they jockeyed for the best, most honorable seats (that’s where the good wine was served, after all).  And the host did what hosts do, he welcomed all the elite whom he hoped would reciprocate with invitations and introductions.  So Jesus observed all of this for a while…until he decided it was time for a “parable” or a much-needed lesson on what he believed was good party etiquette.  I imagine the room got very quiet as Jesus broke all the unspoken rules and began to speak.

When you are invited to a wedding banquet, Jesus said, do not sit down at the place of honor.  Sit down at the lowest place, so your host may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’  And when you give a dinner, do not invite your friends, or your family, or your well-to-do neighbors.  Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Who invited this guy?  I imagine the guests mumbling under their breath as their host busied himself in shame.  Words of truth don’t go over very well when all you’re trying to do is have a good time.

Did Jesus ever relax?  Did he ever go off-duty and just have a good time?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I imagine it was hard for this Messiah-in-the-making to ever really cut loose knowing that his every word, his every action would be so timeless.  And Jesus’ words here, in the Gospel of Luke, are timeless.  They were not just meant for those Pharisees and dinner guests on that one unfortunate Sabbath evening.  They were meant for all of us and for all of those who are in search of the Kingdom of God.

Through Luke’s storytelling, Jesus’ goal here was not to create an awkward social moment, but a timeless vision of what God’s banquet, God’s feast, God’s Kingdom is to be like.  It’s a place where the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled.  It’s a place where you and your friends and your family members rub shoulders with the poor, and the sick, and the lame.  It’s a place where seats of honor are not reserved nor highly sought because all are equally held in the love and grace that extends from the table.

We need to be reminded of this vision.  We need someone willing to stand up and make a scene about this Good News-God ordained-party-for-all.  We need Jesus to tell us this story again.  So that’s what Jesus does.  Time after time after time in our scriptures he reminds us of what God’s Kingdom is like.  Apparently he thinks we might forget; that we might lose the vision; that we might miss the point.  And our human history affirms that Jesus is right.

Flannery O’Connor was a native of Georgia, a devout Roman Catholic, and a genius writer.  Her stories frequently shed light on the fears and prejudices we human beings hold as she artfully contrasted such human sins with the mystery of divine grace.  This is what she accomplished in her short story entitled, “Revelation.”

“Revelation” opens in a doctor’s waiting room where Ruby Turpin is waiting with her husband, Claud. As she often does, Mrs. Turpin passes the time by categorizing the other waiting-room inhabitants by class—there were “white trash” people, middle class people (like herself), and so forth. The story takes place in the segregated South, so there are no black people in this doctor’s waiting room, but Mrs. Turpin is happy to judge them, too.

She identifies a pleasant-looking woman as one of her own class, and they begin an idle conversation that centers first on their possessions and eventually on their disapproval of civil rights demonstrators. They conclude that it would be a good idea to send all black people back to Africa. During this conversation, the other woman’s daughter, Mary Grace, an obese college student with severe acne, has been making faces directly at Mrs. Turpin. At last Mary Grace cracks entirely, throws her book on Human Development at Mrs. Turpin, and then physically attacks her. When Mary Grace has been subdued, Mrs. Turpin begins to think that the crazy girl has a message for her, and when she moves closer, Mary Grace calls her a warthog and tells her to go back to hell where she came from. [1]

Well, Mrs. Turpin is deeply shaken by this attack and by the message her attacker had for her. Later on, at home, while hosing down the hogs, she grows indignant, and then furious, as she questions God about why God sent her such a message when there was plenty of “trash” in the room to receive it. ‘Go on,” she yells at God, “call me a hog!  Call me a wart hog from hell.  Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and a bottom!”  Mrs. Turpin’s fury shook her and she continued to roar in anger at God.

Then…the color of Mrs. Turpin’s world suddenly began to change.  “A red glow settled all around the hogs and she lifted her gaze to the horizon.  There was a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of highway, into the descending dusk.  A visionary light settled in her eyes and she saw a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon this bridge to heaven was a vast horde of souls.  There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black people in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom Mrs. Turpin recognized at once as those who, like herself, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.  She leaned forward to observe them closer.  These people like her were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that their virtues were being burned away.  Mrs. Turpin lowered her head and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead.  In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.”[2]

The vision of God’s Kingdom as a place for all, a place where the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled, a place where seats of honor are not reserved nor highly sought because all are equally held in the love and grace that extends from the table, is an immobilizing vision.  It is a vision that stops us in our tracks, a vision that calls us to account, a vision that challenges us to see ourselves and those who are different from us as equally held and equally loved in the Kingdom of God.  This vision is invaluable.  We are in need of this vision.  We are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when we are currently debating how to be sensitive to the families and victims of September 11th while also honoring the dignity, the religious freedom, and the rights of Muslims living in that community who are in need of a place to pray, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when our politicians are wrestling with the complexities of our immigration laws, and in a day when the state of Arizona has made it illegal for Christians in that state to love and serve their neighbor, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when ageism, and classism, and racism, and sexism, and xenophobia, and homophobia still determine the contours of our life, our culture, our world, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when we are careful to follow all the unspoken rules, and to host a good party, and to be good and polite guests at the table, we are need of.…Jesus…to bring things to a halt, to speak words of truth, to break up that which needs to be broken up, and to replace it with a new and better ideal, with a new and better table, with a new and better party meant for all of God’s children.

I imagine Jesus created a really awkward social moment over dinner at the Pharisee’s house.  I imagine a lot of the guests and perhaps even the host didn’t appreciate the way Jesus ruined their fun.  But, interestingly enough, one of the guests didn’t seem to mind at all.  One of the guests really seemed to get Jesus and get what he was trying to tell them.  One of the guests caught Jesus’ vision for himself and said aloud for all to hear, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”

As we gather around our Lord’s Table today, may we be such a guest.  May we be the ones to catch Jesus’ vision and celebrate it aloud saying for all to hear, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”

Now to the God who offers us this bread, and this Kingdom, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

.


[1] Ann D. Garbett. “Revelation.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition. Salem Press, 2007. eNotes.com. 2006. 27 Aug, 2010 <http://www.enotes.com/revelation-salem/
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[2] Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge: Revelation” in O’Connor: Collected Works, The Library of America, New York, NY, 1988, pgs. 653-654.

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