Friday, March 12, 2010

Sermon: 4 Lent (14 March 2010)

Regular readers of this blog -- if there be any such among you! -- may have noticed that throughout Lent I have been posting reprints of sermons from 2007. No, I am not getting lazy and falling back on "old" sermons. These are not, in fact, the sermons I am using in our gatherings at Trinity Church; those are entirely new. It is simply this: during Lent, I have determined to write no sermons, but instead -- as a wise saint and brother once directed me -- to prepare not a sermon, but rather to prepare myself for the sermon.

Lent 4: 18 March 2007
(Joshua 5:9-12/Psalm 32/2 Corinthians 5:16-21/Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
Let the Ones With Ears Hear

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

To his contemporaries Jesus was the prophet from Galilee. “Who do men say that I am?” he once asked his disciples. The answer was unanimous: a prophet. The people couldn’t agree on which one – John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, or some other – but they recognized a prophet when they saw one, and Jesus fit the bill.

The Hebrew prophets were masters of symbolic action and apocalyptic speech, revealing God’s message by deed and word. Jeremiah used a linen belt to symbolize his people’s pride and ruin, and a broken pot to pronounce destruction upon Judah. Ezekiel drew the city of Jerusalem on a clay tablet and then laid siege to it, building ramps and battering rams – playing in the dirt with army men to show the impending fall of Jerusalem. John the Baptist symbolized repentance with water, and perhaps the end of exile and the coming of the Lord with his appearance out of the wilderness. And of course they talked, these prophets. They explained – sometimes in very cryptic and apocalyptic language – the meaning behind their bizarre behavior.

Now comes Jesus, cut from the same cloth. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he proclaims, and that becomes the primary theme of his prophetic ministry. Jesus is the prophet of God’s kingdom. What does this mean to his Jewish followers? Simply that God is now acting in history to fulfill the covenant he made with their fathers, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: a covenant to vindicate Israel, to declare them in the right as his people; a covenant to deal with sin – to establish purity, not least by executing judgment upon the pagan nations oppressing Israel, but also by renewal of the people and the land; a covenant to end the continuing exile of his people and to return them to sovereignty in the land.

But if Jesus was a prophet, he was a confusing one. He looked like a prophet and acted like a prophet and talked like a prophet, but the message…the message was just a bit off. And the way he used the symbols – not quite right. Take his healings, for example: a clear symbol of God’s renewal of Israel, of the reversal of the curse of breaking the law. Heal Jairus’ daughter? Fine. The woman with the issue of blood? Certainly. But the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter – a gentile? And the centurion’s son – a Roman? That is not the renewal of Israel. That is not what kingdom-come should look like. As for dealing with sin and establishing purity, take the cleansing of the temple. Almost right, but he drove out the wrong people, Jews – merchants – and pronounced judgment on the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests. It was Rome he should have cast out, Rome he should have judged. And Jesus did play a bit fast and loose with the other symbols of Israel, especially the Sabbath which he and his followers routinely violated with healings and other works, and the purity laws which he disregarded by ignoring ceremonial washings and by talking with outcasts. As for the established religious system, Jesus soundly trounced the priesthood – as well as the Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes – at every opportunity. He claimed the kingdom of God was near and in the same breath commanded his followers to forgive the Roman occupiers, to turn the other check when oppressed, to carry the soldiers’ packs and to pay taxes to Caesar.

And his words – well, baffling is an understatement. He spoke in parables, which seemed to conceal as often as to reveal.

He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you [the disciples], but to others I speak in parables, so that,

‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand’”
(Luke 8:10, NIV).

Parables are often misunderstood – not just the meaning of specific parables, but the nature and purpose of the literary form. Parables are not simple stories designed to illustrate complex spiritual truths – earthly stories with heavenly meanings as the Sunday School definition goes; if they are, they are abject failures. Nor are they primarily specific examples of timeless, universal principles that Jesus’ followers should embody. No. As Jesus used them, the parables were sharp social and religious critique meant to challenge and provoke his listeners to change. The parables were not intended to inform, but to transform. In story form they were the equivalent of Jesus’ signature proclamation, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The parable we call the Prodigal Son is a case in point. Most often it’s taught as an illustration of God’s unconditional and costly love for undeserving sinners. There’s no denying the prodigal nature of God’s love for us and, at some secondary level, that point may be present in the parable. But the parable was an answer to a specific charge against Jesus and a critique of the false piety of the Pharisees. It was also, of course, a call to repent.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable (Luke 15:1-3, NIV).

Actually, Jesus told them a series of parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (the Prodigal Son). This text shows how symbolic action and parables worked together in Jesus’ prophetic ministry. Jesus acted in a way that expressed the coming of God’s kingdom, but in a way that also challenged common understandings of that kingdom, in a way that provoked and scandalized. And he in turn was challenged by the religious establishment. Why do you violate the traditions of the fathers? What do these actions mean? By what authority do you act in this way? And, as often as not, Jesus responded with a parable.

The theme of the Prodigal Son is not just the undeserved love of God, but the coming of the kingdom of God. It is a return from exile story, a story of Israel: the younger son is given a great treasure by his father; he leaves for a foreign land where he squanders his treasure and ends up in servitude to a pagan master; he comes to his senses, remembers his father, repents, and heads for home; he is welcomed by his loving father but ostracized by his elder brother. Good Jews chaffing under the yoke of Rome could hardly miss the parallels. Israel was the beloved son of God who had the treasures of election, law, and land. But they squandered these treasures and ended up in servitude in pagan lands or oppressed by pagan masters in their own land: first Egypt, then Syria, Babylonia, and now Rome. “Come to your senses,” Jesus calls to them. “Return to your father who will run to meet you and welcome you with open arms and with feasting. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This is the way kingdom-come works in Jesus’ story. And some got his stories; some heeded the call to repent – generally the poor and dispossessed, the sinners and the tax collectors. “He welcomes sinners and tax collectors and even eats with them,” the Pharisees complain. “Yes,” replies Jesus in this parable, “because the kingdom of God is near and this is what it looks like.”

In this parable we typically cast the sinners and tax collectors as the younger brother, the scribes and Pharisees as the elder brother, and Jesus as the father, trying to hold the family – both brothers – together. I suspect everyone was happy with his role. The sinners and tax collectors were under no false illusions; they knew they were social outcasts – a scandal to society – and were ready to grasp at any hope of restoration. The scribes and Pharisees knew they were the faithful, long-suffering, and neglected people of God, rightfully incensed at the decadence of sinners. Could they fail to see how badly the elder brother fared in the parable – what a jerk he was, as disrespectful to the father as was the younger brother? Or did they see, but not see, and hear but not understand?

I wonder if Jesus wanted them to try on a new role, if that might have been one purpose of the parable. You see yourself as the elder brother, but can you also see yourself as the younger? Can you see that there is really little difference in the two, that in one way or another, at one time or another, both are estranged from the father, both guilty of dishonoring and opposing the father? Can you see that you, too, are in exile, and need to repent and return? This recognition lies at the heart of Jesus’ prophetic message: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. And the kingdom is open for all who will come. The fatted calf has been prepared, the table is spread, the banquet is under way. Will you, too, repent and return, will you stay outside and sulk, or will you join the feast? This is the challenge the parable presents the scribes and Pharisees.

Only Luke records this parable, and it is an important one for him. It lies just barely under the surface of his account of the early church in Acts, an account of the church as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The Samaritans hear the gospel and believe. The gentiles embrace the gospel and repent. The younger brother returns from exile. But the Jewish Christians…well, still they are the elder brother, sulking at the presence of these new converts, refusing to eat at table with them – literally refusing to eat with them, insisting they become circumcised and keep Torah first. So Luke records the parable: let the ones with ears hear.

What are we to do with this parable? First we must understand it rightly in its context – what we’ve tried to do – because it never was intended for us, unless we foolishly insist upon casting ourselves as one of the brothers. I suppose we could fall back on the parable as an illustration of the love God or the need for repentance. Some, quite wrongly, see it as an exhortation to a radical inclusion that rejects the need for transformation, lest we become the elder brother. But that won’t do. Let’s take a different approach all together – one based on the nature and role of parables. Let’s ask, How are we so radically to live the kingdom of God that we are forced to resort to parables to explain ourselves? What parables would we tell? We are called to live prophetically in our culture as Jesus lived in his, to act in such countercultural kingdom ways that people are compelled to ask: Why do you act this way? By what authority do you act and speak as you do?

What could we do that might call forth these questions? What if, as the disciples of Christ, we took his words to heart and rejected coercion and violence and force and retribution? What if we actually turned the other cheek, loved our enemies as ourselves, and prayed for those who persecuted us? What if we refused to fight the world’s wars? Might this not compel them to ask: Why do you act this way? By what authority do you act and speak as you do? And what could we say?

A master guitarist had two young protégés – both exceptional musicians, both intensely competitive, each jealous of the other. As much as each loved the master, so did they hate each other. Throughout their musical careers they vied for prominence. Disparaging remarks were made by each and countered by the other as the young men grew older and farther apart. The master continued to write each and plead with them to reconcile, but to no avail. Eventually he died and was greatly mourned by the musical community. On the first anniversary of his death a televised tribute concert was planned. Each of his two protégés received a telegram inviting him to perform and each telegram contained the same strange stipulation. Immediately before his death the master had composed a piece for each of them that had been held secret by his estate. Each piece was to be opened and played by sight on the night of the concert, with both men on stage at the same time. In this way the world would finally see which of the two protégés was superior and which would become the master’s true heir. Each man agreed, looking forward to the chance to vanquish his enemy in this musical duel.

The night of the concert arrived and, for the finale, each of the guitarists gathered on stage sitting opposite one another. Each was given a large envelope containing the master’s last composition. A signal was given and the envelopes were opened. Each guitarist paused stunned as he read the title: Pax et Bonum – Peace and Good, a Duet for Two Guitars. Let the one with ears hear.

What if, as the disciples of Christ, we took his words to heart and refused to lay up treasure on earth? What if we gave freely to those who asked us and did not worry about what we would eat or drink or wear? What if we truly put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and trusted him to give us all that we need for life and health? Might this not compel the world to ask: Why do you act this way? By what authority do you act and speak as you do? And what could we say?

There was a certain businessman, or Three partners conceived of a plan. Or how about this? A young Maryville High School student moved to Philadelphia to go to school; there he met the Jesus who ruined his life. Now he’s poor – with little more than the handmade clothes on his back and the food for one more meal in his pantry and more blessings than he could ever have imagined. There’s a parable for you. Let the one with ears hear.

What if, as the disciples of Christ, we took his words to heart, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”? What if we lived so radically, so counterculturally that only parables had any chance of explaining us? And what if the parables we told weren’t just stories, but songs and art and professions and relationships and lives lived out in the image of Christ before the watching and wondering world? What if we became the living and loving parables of our living and loving God? Let the one with ears hear.


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