We’re in a series of readings from the Gospel of Luke right now where Jesus tells some of his most challenging parables, trying to wake us up and force us to question our assumptions, and today’s is certainly one of them. It’s always tempting to a preacher to kind of try and solve the problems and smooth things over. But that’s a temptation. A preacher’s job is not to helpfully explain stuff; a preacher’s job is to proclaim the Word of God. So as a way of resisting temptation, I am going to preach, instead, on the epistle reading.
Today’s epistle from I Timothy says: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions.” Pray in all kinds of ways, it says, not just for leaders, but for everyone. Pray in all kinds of ways.
If you look through the rest of this reading on the back of your insert, you see all sorts of evidence of how God desires to do his people good. It mentions how he wants everyone to be saved, how he wants everyone to enter into the truth. It mentions how God came in Jesus Christ as a mediator, a go-between, to bridge the gap between us and God, and to offer himself as a ransom to set us free. It notes how what Jesus did has been attested – i.e. there were witnesses. How it all happened just at the right time. And how God even chose someone, the author himself, to make sure that us Gentiles got in on the new way of knowing and living in God that Jesus offers.
Just a quick word as I begin this morning. As you may have read in the bulletin, due to a clergy scheduling constraint I am preaching today on last week’s Second Reading, Philemon, which is what you just heard. You do not have the lesson in front of you right now so hear this verse and as I speak try to keep it in mind.
Paul said, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Have you ever wondered how others might know that someone is a Christian without asking? Perhaps in an earlier time a clue might be the wearing of a cross or keeping a Bible on one’s desk or coffee table. Even with those types of physical clues, might someone have an idea because of the behavior of another? To make it personal, how might others know that you are a Christian? Is there a difference in how you act or how you speak that would let others know you are a believer in Jesus Christ?
I will share one brief personal example. It has to do with driving. I admit to you that I can get very annoyed with other drivers, especially when they have done something I believe to be unsafe. And, a time or two, I admit, I have let the other driver know my displeasure, either by something I have yelled or gestured, or honked. Now on a day when I was in collar I realized that I could not, or should not, or would not respond to poor driving in a way that might reflect poorly on being a follower of Christ. There is a responsibility that comes with wearing the collar and with conscious thought, when in collar, my actions and words changed. After that realization I decided I would remember that I wore an invisible collar all the time. My actions and words reflected poorly on all Christians if I did not watch myself. Others notice what we do, what we say and how we say it. Our sharing of our faith begins with how we treat others.
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 disciple.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christianity demands that those who wish to follow Jesus get acquainted with extremes.
Not necessarily comfortable, but at least acquainted. The Gospel is after all one where
the light shines in the darkness and the first are the last; where Christ is dead and
descends into hell but also where Christ is risen and sits at the right hand of the Father
in heaven; where those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their
life for the sake of Christ will save it. Like I said, extremes.
And this morning’s passage from Luke is no exception. Here we find three extreme and
uncompromising conditions, set by Christ himself, for anyone who would wish to
become one of his disciples. They deal with three loves: the love of family, the love of
life, and the love of possessions. But apparently, these three loves are utterly
incompatible with the way of Jesus and must be renounced entirely. The bar has been
set; the line drawn. Who among us would ever presume to cross it? Who among us
could dare consider themselves to be disciples of Christ?
Jesus got himself in trouble for a lot of things. Claiming to be God was probably the biggest. The religious leaders of his day thought that was the most blasphemous thing they had ever heard, for a man whose birthplace and family they knew to say things like "Before Abraham was, I am." Jesus also gave offense by breaking official religious laws, like the one we heard about last week, when he healed a woman on the Sabbath day. We can see why those things upset people, but for us it takes a little more imagination to grasp why one other thing Jesus did was so offensive. This is clearly something that created a huge stir, and that the Gospel writers felt they needed to record many stories about to document that yes, Jesus actually did do this and he had a good reason for it.
That other offensive thing that got Jesus in so much trouble was, in the words of the Bible, eating with tax collectors and sinners -- violating the society's customs about meals. The fancy name for it is "table fellowship," and the Gospels make clear over and over again that Jesus broke all the rules of table fellowship in order to help people experience what the Kingdom is like. Table fellowship basically means: who eats with whom? Who has supper at one table together? This question was immensely important in Jesus' day, and he used it to make immensely important points.
So let's look at this meal story we have today. Jesus has been invited over by a key Pharisee, and Luke gives a sense of the atmosphere by noting that everyone was “watching him closely.” Where our reading begins, Jesus is saying that instead of grabbing places of honor, guests at meals ought to take the least desirable seats, and then maybe the host will move them up. That’s simply a paraphrase of the 2 verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that we just heard (world's shortest lectionary reading!), so maybe the Pharisees breathe a little easier and think at least tonight perhaps Jesus is going to be non-controversial and just quote the Bible.
And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long
years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus heals sick people throughout the New Testament -- it’s one of his most recorded
acts of ministry. Today, it’s a woman who has suffered from a crippled back for
eighteen years, but wherever Jesus goes, he is often to be found healing the sick, making
the lame to walk, restoring sight to the blind, and casting out demons. It is a central part
of his mission on earth, and the fact that Jesus spends so much of his time and effort
healing the sick reveals to us the kind of problem that sickness represents. And as
Christians, it is therefore our task to understand sickness as Scripture understands it, as
Jesus understood it; to identify it as the right kind of problem. Only then will we
understand the kind of solution that Jesus’ power of healing is.
There are several places in the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that recount the life and ministry of Jesus, where Jesus tells us in his own words why he came. Every Sunday in the Creed, we stand up and confess that the eternal Son of God took flesh in one human being, Jesus Christ, “for us and for our salvation,” and say that “he came down from heaven.” We bow at those words, in reverence before this central mystery of the Christian faith: God himself came to us as one of us.
So why did he come? If you had to answer that question, what would you say? Two of Jesus’ answers are in today’s Gospel reading, but I thought it might be interesting to look them all up. And it did turn out to be interesting, but for a reason very different than what I expected. So let’s hear from him. (As I read this list, by the way, it’ll have some examples of Jesus’ habit of talking about himself in the third person as the Son of Man, which is both an ordinary Hebrew way of calling himself a human being, and a quotation from the Old Testament that cleverly functions as a claim that he is the predicted Savior of the world.) Here is a list of the most direct statements Jesus makes in Scripture addressing specifically why he came.
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (Matt 5:17)
The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. (John 9:39)
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt 20:28)
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. (John 18:37)
I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38)
I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
And finally from today’s Gospel reading: I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!... Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It has been quite a week, hasn’t it? Acts of violence, multiple acts of violence in multiple places. We know from the news that even in Champaign-Urbana we are not without such evil. It is easy to see that there is much to fear in the world around us: terrorism threats, the economy, changing weather patterns, unemployment, hunger, poverty, homelessness, drug and other addictions, disease and death and on and on. It has seemed impossible to escape the knowledge of evil acts all week. And with our awareness of that evil often the effect is fear. We may question, where are we safe? Where are we able to get away from the chance of violence touching us or our loved ones. If we have not been afraid before, we fear now. This week, if you are like many, you may feel that the world has tipped a bit; things aren’t quite right. Even if we are not outright afraid, there is a sense of heightened uneasiness.
So, what is a Christian to do in the middle of this uneasiness? How do we, who are believers in Jesus Christ, deal with this fear?
In a 2011 essay in the New York Times, young mother Emily Rapp described some of the pressures she felt to be the best parent she could possibly be.
During my pregnancy, I devoured every parenting guide I could find. My husband and I thought about a lot of questions they raised: will breast-feeding enhance his brain function? Will music class improve his cognitive skills? Will the right preschool help him get into the right college? I made lists. I planned and plotted and hoped. Future, future, future. …All parents want their children to prosper, to matter. We enroll our children in music [lessons] or take them to Mommy and Me swim class because we hope they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart.
I discovered Emily Rapp’s essay in a new book called Seculosity. It’s by Episcopal layman David Zahl, and reviews and interviews about it have showed up a lot of places: the LA Review of Books, The Guardian, the Associated Press and seemingly every podcast in the world. The title, Seculosity, is a word that Zahl coined: secular plus religiosity. The book is based on the empirical observation –which to me seems inarguably true, though of course you are free to argue with it – that now that very few Americans shape their lives around any historic religion, the human instincts and needs to which the historic religions respond have not disappeared – far from it. They’ve just attached themselves to other things.
“As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
You see the sequence there in our Colossians reading? Paul writes about Receiving Christ – then continuing to live in Christ. Rooted in Christ – then built up in Christ and established in him.
And again, just a few sentences later: “When you were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.”
You see the same sequence coming back? First you’re buried with Christ in Baptism – then you’re filled with his resurrection life as you live by his power after Baptism. First you are dead, spiritually, until God makes you alive in Christ – then you are living in freedom as the record that stood against you is completely erased. In all these cases the second is a result of the first -- it only happens as we take in and process what God has done.
Something like 2100 BC is the date of the events we’re hearing about today in our first reading. Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and today’s reading comes from fairly early on in that book, though of course scholars argue over exact dates. Something like 4000 years ago, at any rate. Given that, you might think that what a text like this records would be something so distant from the things that matter to us now that it would just be a kind of curiosity, that we might find little more to say than “How different people were then! What quaint ideas they had!”
But in fact, in this brief story we find God acting just the way he acts today, and we find Abraham responding in just the way we have the chance to respond today. God has not changed, and human nature has not changed. We are still in the same story now as we were then. After all, the Bible’s not a history textbook or a rule book or a book of ideas about spirituality. It’s a coherent narrative across time, spanning centuries but generously given to us by God so we can better understand both him and our own nature – which we never will, unless we come to fit into that narrative ourselves.