Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sermon: 6 Pentecost (22 June 2008)

6 Pentecost (Proper 7): 22 June 2008
(Genesis 21:8-21/Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17/Romans 6:1b-11/Matthew 10:24-39)
We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some sermons are straightforward, and by this I mean simply that Point A leads to Point B, and so on, in a linear and clear fashion, with every point following logically and inevitably from the previous one. This sermon is not like that at all; it is much more nearly a connect-the-dots puzzle, and I think you may need a map to help you keep to the path. I will first place the dots on the paper – two of them labeled What A Man Wants and Israel – Election and Eschatology – and then show how to connect them through the Gospel text. Having done that I will point the way toward yet another dot and invite you to find and trace your own connecting path.

Point A: What A Man Wants
Where are all the men? This question vexes many evangelical protestant churches and leaders; it has received much press over the past few years and has spawned para-church organizations and has made the career of at least one Christian author, John Eldridge. A glance around many Sunday-morning sanctuaries reveals women a-plenty and children of all ages, but a noticeable lack of husbands and fathers. Where are all the men?

It seems that the Gospel fails to engage men, that church doesn’t energize them. But why? Eldridge, and others, answer that it is packaging – that the church presents the Gospel in a female-friendly form that alienates males: if the Gospel were a film, the church presents it as a chick-flick.

First, they say, the heart of the Gospel is a personal, love relationship with Jesus Christ. Men often aren’t very good with touch-feely love relationships with anybody, much less with another guy. And it doesn’t help that Jesus is called the bridegroom and the rest of us in the church the bride; that feminine imagery is a bit hard to swallow. Then there’s the whole issue of repentance: men don’t admit mistakes very readily and the words, I’m sorry, don’t trip lightly off men’s lips. And the forgiveness and mercy thing – you know, forgiving seventy times seventy, blessing those who persecute you, praying for those who despitefully use you, turning the other cheek – well, men are far more into grudges and revenge and retribution. Men may believe that vengeance belongs to the Lord, but, as Rich Mullins said, they just want to be about the Lord’s business. For men the Gospel seems passive: accept this, receive that, forego this, don’t do that. Fine, but what are men supposed to do, for Christ’s sake? Where’s the action? This really gets at the heart of who men are and what men want. In their heart of hearts most men want a sense of purpose, meaning, adventure, challenge, risk, sacrifice. By nature or nurture – or perhaps by fall – men long to hear the call to battle, the charge to rescue the damsel in distress or to defend the honor of family or clan. There’s a stirring in the breast at the hopeless yet righteous cause.

Shakespeare captures this in Henry V. King Henry of England is engaged in battle with the French at Agincourt. His troops are hopelessly outnumbered as he and his cousin Westmoreland meet before the final, decisive battle – a presumptive French victory. And then comes the speech, the address to his troops that stirs the blood of anyone who calls himself a man.


O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those men in England

That do no work to-day!


What's he that wishes so?

My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live, T

he fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

We would not die in that man's company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words-

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Men want their own Saint Crispin’s day, their own call to arms, their own challenge to lay down their lives for great purpose. Do they find this in the church and in the church’s presentation of the Gospel?

Well, frankly I don’t know how seriously to take all this gender-based critique of church. It smacks of the whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus caricature of a few years back. Yes, men and women are different in some very fundamental ways, but I think both genders may well be searching for purpose, meaning, adventure, and challenge – for a reason to get up in each morning and expend one’s life during each day. Don’t we all want to really live before we lay ourselves down to die, to know that we have given ourselves to something larger than ourselves – even larger than our families or tribes or clans or nations – to know that we have played our part in the Plan, whatever that Plan may be? In this, I don’t think we are all that different.

Point B: Israel – Election and Eschatology
The history and theology of Israel revolve about the twin themes of election and eschatology. In simple terms, Israel has been chosen by God (election) for God’s purpose – a purpose which will be fulfilled in the last days (eschatology). The grand purpose of God is the restoration of creation – in biblical terminology, the coming of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom ruled by God through David’s ancestor. Isaiah describes the Kingdom as the lifting of sin’s curse and the vindication of the righteous.

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is 11:1-9, NRSV).

During and after the Babylonia exile, the Jews developed the idea that God’s Kingdom would come at the very climax of history – in the last days – and that the climax would be preceded by a time of unprecedented tribulation. Israel would be hard-pressed on all sides by pagan nations, as sheep in the midst of wolves. There would be no peace, but a sword instead. Social institutions would falter and crumble; families would disintegrate and their members would be pitted one against the other. Corrupt and ruthless governors would persecute the righteous and the weak. Then suddenly, just in the nick of time, God’s Chosen One would appear to wage war against all the powers of evil, to cast down and cast out the pagan oppressors, to rescue and vindicate Israel, and to usher in the Kingdom of God. These were the hopes and expectations of Jesus’ contemporaries.

Connection: The Invitation
Now comes the Gospel text which connects our first two points.

The Mission of the Twelve
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.
16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
24 ‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
* 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father,and a daughter against her mother,and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:5-39, NRSV).

How does this connecting text work? Jesus calls twelve disciples and commissions them as apostles – as ones sent on mission for the Master. And what is unmistakable from Jesus’ language is the shocking implication that their mission – which is, of course, a function of Jesus’ own mission – it to bring Israel’s history to its climax, to usher in the last days, and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Take Israel’s understanding of Election and Eschatology and replace Israel with Jesus and his followers and the pagan nations with unfaithful Israel and it’s all right there.

God’s Kingdom is present and coming in the person and work of Jesus who has come to announce the very climax of Israel’s history – the last days. This climax will be preceded by a time of unprecedented tribulation. Jesus and his followers – especially the apostles now sent to announce the Kingdom – will be hard-pressed on all sides by unfaithful Israel, as sheep in the midst of wolves. There will be no peace for them, but a sword instead. (And, in fact, the sword will come to Israel, too, in forty years with Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem). Social institutions will falter and crumble; families will disintegrate and their members will be pitted one against the other over the issue of loyalty to Jesus. Corrupt and ruthless authorities—Jewish and Roman – will persecute Jesus and his righteous disciples. Then suddenly, just in the nick of time, God’s Chosen One, Jesus, will appear to wage war against all the powers of evil, to cast down and cast out the all oppressors, to rescue and vindicate his followers, and to usher in the Kingdom of God – and all this through his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Israel’s election and eschatology are now being fulfilled in and through Jesus and his disciples.

That means that the apostles – these twelve men – are being called to the ultimate life of purpose, meaning, adventure, challenge, risk, sacrifice – exactly what a man wants. Your task, Jesus says to them, is to bring Israel’s history to its climax, to usher in the last days, and to inaugurate God’s kingdom. It will be dangerous and your lives will be expended in this battle against all the forces of evil. Your families will not understand and may well disown you. Your own countrymen will not understand and will revile you and beat you and imprison you and drive you to far places. All will seem to be lost. And yet, in the end, you will be victorious, you will be vindicated, and you will reign with me.

From this day to the ending of the world,

You in it shall be remembered-

You few, you happy few, you band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in the world yet to be

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That answered the call with us amidst these last days.

Point C: Into the Future
Israel’s history – Creation’s history – reached its climax, its turning point, in the vocation of Jesus. The Kingdom of God has come and we are even now living in the last days. But the Kingdom agenda is a work in progress, already here but not yet complete; the mustard seed has been sown, but the plant has not yet fully spread its branches to provide a home for all the birds of the air. And that means the mission continues. That means the call of discipleship still goes forth to those longing for lives of purpose, meaning, adventure, challenge, risk, sacrifice – a call not for men only, but for men and women, for old and young, for rich and poor; for in Christ there are no distinctions. We all long for a reason to get up each morning and expend our lives during each day. We all want to really live before we lay ourselves down to die, to know that we have given ourselves to something larger than ourselves – even larger than our families or tribes or clans or nations – to know that we have played our part in the Plan. In this, I don’t think we are different.

No less than the Twelve we have been called to the mission: the role we play may be different but the mission is the same – building for the Kingdom of God – and the adventure, challenge, purpose and meaning are the same. Know this: the adventure we have been called to is a struggle; it is beyond our power.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:10-17, NRSV).

Every prayer uttered in faith or desperation, every kind word spoken or hate-filled word restrained, every act of love and mercy and forgiveness offered – all these are part of the adventure, part of the challenge and risk and sacrifice of mission in the Kingdom of God; they are part and parcel of the struggle. This is a lifetime of adventure and the adventure of a lifetime.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sermon: 5 Pentecost (15 June 2008)

5 Pentecost (Proper 6): 15 June 2008
(Genesis 18:1-15/Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19/Romans 5:1-8/Matthew 9:35-10:8)
Operation Enduring Freedom

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is always the risk in using an example – especially one that is either too current or too controversial – that it will become the focus of attention and distract from what it was intended to illuminate; the very thing that makes an example useful as a window can also make it opaque as a wall. Even so, I think I will run the risk in service of the Gospel lesson.

On 7 October 2001 the United States led a coalition of forces in the invasion of Afghanistan, a response to the attacks of 9/11. Afghanistan was then governed by the Taliban, an extremist Islamic faction dedicated to a strict and repressive interpretation of Shari’a law: theft was punished by amputation – more serious crimes by public execution at the local soccer field – women were virtual prisoners in their homes, and any dissent was ruthlessly suppressed. Our government was even more directly concerned about Taliban support of terrorist organizations, particularly of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. And so, with international support we launched Operation Enduring Freedom to liberate Afghanistan from Taliban rule and to root out and destroy terrorist activity.

The invasion began with a call for the Taliban to repent: relinquish control of the government, lay down all weapons, dismantle terrorist training camps and open them to international inspection, turn over Osama bin Laden and all active members of Al-Qaeda, and support the democratization of Afghanistan. The alternative was bombs in the air and boots on the ground, a devastating military campaign by the world’s major powers. The Taliban chose this alternative.

Throughout the ensuing war the coalition was insistent that the battle against the Taliban was actually a battle for Afghanistan. The goal was not to destroy Afghanistan, but to liberate the country from its real enemy – the Taliban – and to give it the space and freedom to determine a new direction toward liberty, equality, and justice – in the Western sense of these ideals, of course. This was the promise behind Operation Enduring Freedom: not just freedom of the world from terrorism, but freedom of the world for democracy.

Now, suppose you were an ordinary Afghan citizen – then or even now. The West has invaded your country while holding out the promise of liberation. What signs would you expect to see of the fulfillment of that promise? What signs of liberation?

I would expect to see the oppressors – in this case the Taliban – identified, judged, and cast out by the authority of the Coalition. I would expect to see a progressive healing of the nation: the reduction of ethnic conflict, the liberation of the disenfranchised and oppressed – women and religious minorities among them – and the emergence of true justice. I would expect to be taught the ways and means of this new philosophy of democracy and freedom. Frankly, I would expect to see the Coalition tangibly deliver on its promises; if you proclaim liberation, I would expect to see you follow through with judgment, healing, and teaching. And I would expect to see you recognize that long-term engagement is required; I would expect a plan for the future that includes another generation of Coalition personnel to carry on the work begun. Proclamation, teaching, healing, judgment, and continuity: these things I would expect to see.

Now to another invasion, to an earlier Operation Enduring Freedom:

Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.

These twelve Jesus sent out (Mt 9:35-10:1, 5a, NASB).

When Jesus comes to Israel, he comes as a one-man invasion force to liberate an oppressed people. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” he proclaims. This is good news – gospel – to a people who have waited long for God to arrive, to vindicate his people, and to establish his kingdom of justice and righteousness. Jesus begins to speak and to act very much as if God has invaded the land through him, as if vindication and liberation will come through his ministry among the people. Naturally, these people have certain expectations, certain signs they expect to see in fulfillment of Jesus’ promises – signs of liberation. Now, suppose you were an ordinary Second-Temple Jew – a contemporary of Jesus. Jesus has invaded your country while holding out the promise of liberation. What signs would you expect to see of the fulfillment of that promise? What signs of liberation?

I would expect to see the oppressors – in this case Rome and the Herodians – identified, judged, and cast out by the authority of God and thus to see God’s people vindicated, declared to be in the right. I would expect to see healing of the nation: the reduction of sectarian conflict between Pharisee and Sadducee, between Essene and Zealot; the liberation of the disenfranchised and oppressed – orphans, widows, the poor – and the emergence of God’s righteousness and justice. I would expect to be taught the ways and means of this new way of being Israel. Frankly, I would expect to see Jesus tangibly deliver on his promises; if he proclaims liberation, I would expect to see him follow through with judgment, healing, and teaching. And I would expect to see him recruit and train disciples, to endue them with his authority and power, so they might continue and expand his work. Proclamation, teaching, healing, judgment, and continuity: these things I would expect to see.

Proclamation, teaching, healing, judgment, and continuity: these things are precisely what we see in the Gospel text. Jesus proclaims the presence of the Kingdom of God. He teaches all who will listen the true nature of life in the Kingdom; think here about the Sermon on the Mount, about the parables, about the symbolic and prophetic actions of the Master. Jesus heals all manner of diseases and heals the social rifts in society by touching the lepers, dignifying the role of women, dining with the tax collectors and sinners. He confronts and judges and casts out the true oppressors when he exorcises demonic powers and assails the strongholds of Satan. And he plans for continuity by enduing his disciples with his power and authority – by filling them with his very Spirit – and by commissioning them to continue his work and expand it first to all Israel – Jerusalem and Judea – then to Samaria and finally to the uttermost parts of the earth.

None of this looked exactly like Jesus’ contemporaries expected – after all, the Romans and the Herodians continued to dominate the land and God’s righteous rule didn’t become apparent. None of this looked exactly like Jesus’ contemporaries expected because they misunderstood the true nature of their oppression and of Jesus’ liberation. The Jews expected to be vindicated – shown to be in the right by God. Instead they were called to repentance for abandoning their vocation as God’s elect – a vocation to be a light to the Gentiles and a blessing to the world. It was Jesus and his followers who were vindicated through his resurrection and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Jews expected their Roman oppressors to be cast out. Instead the true nature of their oppression was revealed – bondage to false notions of how to be God’s Israel through compromise, separation, or violent opposition and bondage to the demonic forces of Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons. The Jews expected the Kingdom of God to come suddenly with justice rushing like a river and righteousness flowing like a stream. Instead, it came as a mustard seed – small, unobtrusive – and like a long-term work in progress to be implemented by successive generations of Jesus’ disciples.

I suspect the Coalition’s invasion of Afghanistan didn’t look exactly like the Afghanis expected. Neither did Jesus’ invasion of Israel and the world look exactly like the Jews expected.

And there is the Gospel text in its historical setting. Jesus invades enemy-held territory. He comes to liberate his people by inaugurating the Kingdom of God and by proclaiming its presence, by teaching what that looks like, by healing, by casting out the powers of opposition, and by recruiting and equipping disciples to carry on his work. And all this because He felt compassion for the people, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. That’s how the text works in its historical setting – with the implied question, How will people respond?

But what of us: How does the text work now? Well, on one level it speaks to each of us individually. Jesus comes to each one of us as to enemy-held territory and proclaims the good news that he is Messiah and Lord and that he has come to liberate us from our bondage to self and to sin. He calls us to repent – to change our minds and hearts and directions. He offers to cast down and cast out all the forces of evil arrayed against us and with whom we are arrayed against him. He offers healing and restoration. He offers the Holy Spirit to teach us and to lead us into truth. He calls us by name to be his disciples and he empowers us to continue his work in the world. This is the working of the text on the level we call personal salvation. Again the implied question is, How will we respond?

But the text also works on another level, not individual this time, but corporate. The basic paradigm goes like this: As Jesus to Israel, so the church to the world, an idea I first heard voiced by N. T. Wright. Jesus came to Israel – in a one-of-a-kind, once-for-all fashion – to inaugurate the Kingdom of God by his finished death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. That was Jesus’ unique vocation and we cannot – and dare not try to – repeat that. But, he called into being a people, the Church, to implement his Kingdom work in each new generation. What Jesus was and did for Israel, the Church is to be and to do for our world. In short, we are to invade enemy-held territory with the good news that Jesus is Lord and that the Kingdom of God has arrived. We are to teach by word and symbolic action – by every aspect of our lives – what that means and what that looks like. We are to bring the healing love and power of Jesus into the midst of the pain and brokenness of the world by touching our modern “lepers” and by lifting up the poor and disenfranchised around us. We are to name, to shame, and to cast down and cast out all the spiritual powers of evil in this dark world – powers invisible and powers exercised through very visible, very human structures and systems and organizations. We are to preserve and to pass on the faith and practice we have received to the next generation so that the work of Jesus may continue until that great day of his return. That’s a part of what the paradigm means: As Jesus to Israel, so the Church to the world.

Now, if we take this a step further, what we want to know and need to know is how to implement this paradigm in our particular setting. This is a matter of much prayer, of immersion in the Scriptures and the life of the Church, and of following the leading of the Holy Spirit. At best I can offer just a few hints, a few suggestions of what this paradigm might look like.

It starts, I think, “inside” the church, with the building of a people and a society that models the Kingdom of God. As Jesus was a light to Israel, so too must the church be a light to the world by living out the Kingdom agenda in the midst of the world. If the church comes proclaiming Jesus to the world, then I think the world has a right to expect us to live like disciples of Jesus. Just a quick scan of 1 Corinthians – and I could have chosen others of Paul’s letters – gives some clear insight into the communal life of such disciples. In our churches there should be no divided loyalties, no personality cults, no exclusive denominationalism, no ethnic barriers, no economic distinctions: only a focus on Christ. Sexual immorality should be unheard of. Marriage should be held in honor – nurtured and preserved. The spiritually mature should mentor the spiritually immature and the stronger should make concessions for the sake of weaker brothers. All members should exercise their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church and should renounce envy of others’ gifts. All should seek and practice love, the greatest of the spiritual gifts. And the church should do all things in view of that great day of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead. It starts inside the church.

Though, the paradigm must start “inside” the church, it must then move out into the fields already white unto harvest; we must live as disciples in the larger world – in our communities, in our places of work and school, in our places of recreation and social interaction. We must be in our world as Jesus was in Israel. This vocation re-emphasizes the importance of the church; only that which we learn and practice in a loving, spirit-filled community can we then export to an often hostile, suspicious, and broken society. We have been formed by a different story; our vocation is to live that story. And what does the story require of us, what does our God require of us but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God? Imagine bringing God’s justice into your work place or your school or … well, wherever you go: not the world’s justice – which is often mere retribution – but God’s justice which is always restorative and redemptive, which always seeks to put broken things to rights. Imagine bringing God’s mercy into your work place or your school or … well, wherever you go: not the world’s mercy – which is often mere sentimentalism and non-transformative acceptance and which leaves people as victims in their brokenness – but God’s mercy which proclaims repentance and offers welcome, forgiveness, and transformation. Imagine walking humbly with God at your work place or your school or … well, wherever you go. Now this is where many might disagree with me, but we do not walk humbly with God when we try to force our faith upon others or try to dominate social institutions and organizations in the name of our God. We do not walk humbly with God when we exchange witness for coercion, when we use the ways of the world to accomplish the purposes of God. We walk humbly with God when we carry the cross of Christ. Justice, mercy, humility: As Jesus to Israel, so the church to the World.

Jesus has invaded Israel and the world with his proclamation of the Kingdom of God. He has inaugurated that Kingdom through his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. And now he has sent us out into the world to implement that Kingdom. This is truly Operation Enduring Freedom.


Saturday, June 7, 2008

4 Pentecost (Proper 5): 8 June 2008

4 Pentecost (Proper 5): 8 June 2008
(Genesis 12:1-9/Psalm 33:1-12/Romans 4:12-25/Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26)
Happy Birthday, Agnes!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the east Tennessee region there lives an unusual, indigenous tribe of people known as Volunteerii Fanis Fanaticus, or in the vernacular, Crazy UT Vol Fans. There are several, distinct clans. The largest and most recognizable emerges in late summer and remains active through the fall. They are easy to spot due to their distinctive, and often bizarre, behavior: dress, language, food, music, and religion. The color orange – a bright, obnoxious shade not found in nature – dominates their clothing: shirts, shorts, skirts, sweaters, caps, boxers – all orange. Their dialect is peppered with loud grunts and greetings like, “Ay…how ‘bout ‘dem VOLS?!” These fans usually have communal meals, often cooked over open fires and served on the tailgate of a Ford F-250, meals washed down with large quantities of various kinds of fermented libations. And they sing a tribal anthem: Good, old Rocky Top – Rocky Top Tennessee. But it’s the tribe’s religion that really sets it apart. Unlike the majority of folk in the East Tennessee Bible Belt, Crazy UT Vol Fans usually worship on Saturday afternoons in mass gatherings of 100,000 or more at Neyland mega-church. The priests are vested with shoulder pads and helmets; the bishop prowls the sidelines. Their sacraments are hot dogs and beer. And they’re just one step removed from human sacrifice: bad referees and losing coaches are especially at risk.

Now mix a little Gator royal blue with that UT orange or let someone in the group sing We Are The Boys From Old Florida, and you know you’ve got an imposter lurking in the tribe – not a good or a safe thing. Vols love to eat Gator.

Dress, language, food, music, religion: these are all important symbols that serve to delimit the members of a group, to define who’s in and who’s out. Symbols are badges of membership and identity. To reject or challenge or subvert a tribe’s symbols from within that tribe calls into question one’s true loyalty, membership, and identity. Wear a blue Florida Gators cap to a UT football game and no one will believe that you are truly a member of the Crazy UT Vol Fans tribe, no matter what you say as the angry crowd closes in.

All cultures have such tribal symbols and second-Temple Judaism – the Judaism of Jesus and his contemporaries – was no exception. Torah – the Law, written and, for the Pharisees, oral as well; the Sabbath; the Temple; and the purity codes – practices and people deemed cleaned or unclean: these were among the most revered and distinctive of the Jewish symbols. These identified the true members of the tribe – members of the Covenant – from the outsiders. When the Kingdom of God arrived, it would be exclusively for those marked out by these symbols. And God help any member of the tribe who rejected or challenged or subverted them. Which, of course, is exactly what Jesus did, both in word and in symbolic action.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus contrasts his view of Torah with the traditions of the elders: “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” he repeats, claiming authority over their interpretations of Torah. He heals on the Sabbath and even says of himself, “One greater than the Sabbath is here.” He dares assume the prerogative of God – and of priests and Temple – when he forgives sin by his own authority. Torah, Sabbath, Temple: one after another Jesus challenges the great tribal symbols as if he were saying, “My word is true Torah, my healing is true Sabbath, my mercy is true forgiveness.” In fact, this is exactly what he is saying.

And now he’s at it again, this time perverting the purity laws. Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector to follow him – Matthew, a member of a group so detested, so unclean, that it gets it’s own idiomatic category: tax collectors and (other) sinners. I’ve struggled to find a modern equivalent of tax collector: maybe oil company executive, home foreclosure attorney – someone who sides with the powerful to the detriment of ordinary, struggling folk; someone, in fact, who benefits from the struggle of ordinary folk; someone who has sold-out to special interest.[1] To make matters worse, Matthew hosts a banquet for the Master that evening and invites the only ones who will associate with a now former tax collector – a motley crew of the town’s other tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees, who at this point apparently dog Jesus’s steps everywhere he goes, see this disreputable gathering and ask his followers why the teacher eats with tax collectors and sinners. Now, we likely want to ask the Pharisees some questions: What business is this of yours? and Why do you care who Jesus eats with? They have every reason to care and every reason to make it their business. Jesus has made it clear through word and action that he is a prophet of the Kingdom of God, that he is redefining the Kingdom of God, that he is reforming the Kingdom of God around himself. His every word and deed has Kingdom significance. This is no private dinner in which the Pharisees would have little interest. No, this is a state dinner, a Kingdom banquet with implications for all Israel and ultimately for all creation. And Jesus has welcomed to it the impure, the outcasts, the sinners – the very ones the Pharisees exclude from social discourse, from righteous Israel, and from the Kingdom of God. This open welcome of sinners to the Kingdom banquet strikes at the heart of the purity code, the symbol of tribal righteousness and identification. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is as available to these people – the tax collectors and sinners – as it is to the Pharisees, perhaps even more available. It is the sick, and not the healthy, who know they need a doctor and seek one out. It is the spiritually starving, and not the righteous, who long for an invitation to the Kingdom banquet and respond with joy and eagerness to the welcome.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus rhetorically asks the crowds, “With what shall I compare the Kingdom of God? It is like…”. And on at least one occasion he likens it to a banquet, a banquet to which the outcasts were not only welcomed, but compelled to come because the invited, righteous guests refused the invitation.

‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” 22And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you,* none of those who were invited will taste my dinner” ’ (Luke 14:16-24, NRSV).

God intends the Kingdom banquet – a banquet in honor of and hosted by his son – to be full to overflowing. He offers welcome and hospitality to all who will come. That’s the message of Matthew’s impromptu party of tax collectors and sinners: the Kingdom of God is here and the invitation to fellowship is open to all.

Now, I understand the Pharisees’ objections to this. “You mean to say that righteousness doesn’t count for anything, that the Kingdom of God is going to be populated with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes and thieves and liars and adulterers and all the like?” But that’s a misunderstanding, a caricature of Jesus’s words and actions. Remember that Jesus’s standard, formulaic announcement of the Kingdom was “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand.” The Kingdom is for all – tax collectors, sinners, and yes, even Pharisees – who will change their minds about sin and righteousness and who will embrace Jesus and his righteousness. You are welcome to the banquet – to the foretaste of the Kingdom – as you are. Should you want to stay, to live and to work in the kingdom, well then, some changes are in order. “Go your way and sin no more,” Jesus often said on other occasions.

So what does this all look like here and now? How is the church to live confronted by this text?

A few years ago Tony [Campolo] flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.

He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, "What d'ya want?"
Well, Tony isn't so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."

As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replies, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?"

The first woman says, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"

"Yeah," he answered.

"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"

"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"

"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he says, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

His wife comes out. "That's terrific," she says. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

So they make their plans. Tony says he'll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he'll make a cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She's stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that's when she totally loses it. Now she's sobbing and crying. Harry, who's not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."

So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"

But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry doesn't know what to say so he shrugs and says, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

"Oh, could I?" she asks. Looking at Tony she says, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.

So Tony gets up on a chair and says, "What do you say that we pray together?"
And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

When he's finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that"
(, accessed 6/2/08).

This is a way – not the only way – but a way the church is to live confronted by the text, a way that extends to all the tax collectors and sinners of our day the open welcome of the Kingdom of God and a foretaste of the great banquet that awaits.

When St. Demetrios opens its doors for worship on Sunday evening and the poor and homeless and addicted walk in as if home and mingle with those who feed them during the week, when the table is spread following the service and the “tax collectors and sinners” feast with the “righteous,” that is a way the church is to live confronted by the text.

Shane Claiborne has found a way to live confronted by the text, and Paul Farmer. And I think we, too, have found some small ways in our sponsorship of children and pastors, in our work with the nursing home and the women’s shelter, in our support of Second Harvest and Food for the Poor and other agencies who feed and clothe and shelter Christ in the disguise of the poor. The continuing challenge for us and for all churches is to find ever more effective ways to subvert the symbols of our culture to extend the welcome of the Kingdom to the tax collectors and sinners around us. I long for the Harrys of the world to look at us and say, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that.”

[1] This is not to impugn the integrity of oil company executives or home foreclosure attorneys, but simply to say that in our present economic condition these occupations are looked at with a great deal of suspicion and even hostility.